Confrontation and return

Andrew Ross, 10/10/23

One of the most striking presentations I heard at the Palestine Writes festival a couple of weeks ago was Salman Abu-Sitta’s talk about how technically feasible it is for vast numbers of Palestinians to return to their former villages. He has done decades of meticulous research on demography and geography to show that most of the areas depopulated in 1948 remain largely empty. According to him, 88% of Israeli Jews live on only 12% of Israeli land, and the vast majority of that is land that was Jewish before 1948. As for the rest, Israeli Palestinians live on some of that land, and its overall expanse could easily accommodate large numbers of refugees who want to return to their former homes. In the case of Gazans, that would only require a short bus ride, immeasurably shorter than the journeys undertaken by millions of Jewish immigrants whom Israel has managed to absorb over the decades.

For Abu-Sitta’s work, at the Palestine Land Society, see

One of the many things missing in the coverage of this past weekend’s events was the exuberance experienced by Gazans (and Palestinians elsewhere) who were able to return, either in person or by proxy, to their homelands for the first time since 1948. In some ways, the Al Aqsa Flood was no more than a projection of the Great March of Return in Gaza in 2018. And of course, the militias were also there to take hostages for exchange so that thousands of Palestinian prisoners detained without trial are able to return to their own homes. 

Another of the many casualties of the foggy and hopelessly one-sided media coverage was any explanation of the popular character of Hamas itself. However “organic” its emergence, there’s no question that the existence of Hamas as a demonizable “Islamist threat” has been indispensable to the maintenance of Israeli power, and, some would argue, no more so than right now. The counterpoint in the West Bank is the Palestinian Authority, though for quite different reasons–its corruption and proxy status have been exemplary of a colonial comprador entity.

It’s not easy to gauge how much popular support there is for Hamas (the PA itself has none left). But if free elections were to be allowed in the West Bank, Hamas might well win, as they did in 2006–only for the results to be “cancelled” once again by Washington and its clients. Why would they win? Primarily because Hamas is the only organized Palestinian force that has been able to confront colonial Israeli power, at immeasurable cost, of course, to Palestinians in terms of lives lost and infrastructure pounded to dust. Another explanation has to do with the turn to religion on the part of younger Palestinians. I myself have seen that shift, even in the eight or nine years that I have been visiting the West Bank regularly. As the hopes for national liberation have faded, more and more people have moved away from the secular, or ecumenical, goals and vehicles that drove the two intifadas. If you visit refugee camps, where the youth resistance is strongest, you will see how widely “martyrdom” (more shaheen than in the era of the fedayeen) is lionized, and normalized. Of course, this shift is apparent across the entire SWANA region over the last several decades, and Israel has played an outsized role in this development. Its armies broke the back of the largely secular Arab nationalist movement in 1967, for which the US owes Israel an enduring debt, since the unity of Arab nationalism was much more of a threat to US hegemony than the fragmented terrain of Islamic tendencies is today.

In any anti-colonial struggle, people do not make history under conditions of their choosing, but they do try to liberate themselves, by any means available to them. The alternative is the slow drip of poison into every corner of their lives, and in the last year, since the far right came to power in Israel, the drip has become a stream, as the pace of land theft, brutal military incursions, and settler belligerence has rapidly accelerated.  

Speaking of flow, here is a piece I wrote about warfare through water policy, based on research in the West Bank this summer.

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