On the sumoud narrative and its dangers
One of the most celebrated qualities of the people of Gaza is their sumoud, their steadfastness and capacity to endure the woes inflicted by Israeli terror. Media coverage of the tiny strip is full of soppy stories about how, regardless of the number of times Israel mows the lawn or casts lead, farmers will always sow their buffer zone farmlands and medics will never cease to improvise with what little they have.
The question is not whether the people of Gaza have given up on their professions and fell to their knees before their occupiers, but the cheap reproduction of them as an extraordinary population who will continue to endure all sufferings imposed on their lives and cling to their cause. What is more disturbing is that foreign journalists on the ground often steer the conversation to get the answers they are looking for. The people of Gaza have memorised the right answer: No matter what, we will never leave.
The truth, however, is that the “people of Gaza” are for the most part sick of this framing and, in fact, a considerable number of them are leaving. In September 2014, nearly five hundred Palestinians from Gaza drowned in the Mediterranean as they attempted to reach Europe. To risk one’s life with smugglers and brave seas in pursuit of a better life elsewhere should tell us something about people’s limited capacity to endure inhumane conditions as well as the limited truth of the sumoud narrative. This is not to say that people are abandoning their struggle for justice and their liberation ideals; many join activist groups or dedicate years of research to them. However, it is time to step back a little and reassess the sumoud narrative; it is perhaps time to understand Gaza and its people on their own terms. To do so, one should look critically at blanket narratives and long-held assumptions, as well as changes that have occurred to established concepts.
There are, to my mind, two primary dangers in trumpeting this narrative of sumoud. The first lies in transforming an ordinary population into mythical creatures able to overcome the most excruciating of circumstances. This transformation places a high, and utterly unjustified, expectation on Gaza’s Palestinians to endure Israel’s relentless aggression and to hold on to the land regardless of the level of destruction implemented. This expectation winds up minimising the power and consequences of Israel’s occupation because, no matter how filthy and bloody it becomes, the Palestinians are predisposed to endure.
For Palestinians on visas abroad, questions on whether they plan to go back to Gaza at the end of their studies are often posed by -without generalising- some Palestine supporters. To be sure, what motivates the question is a principled concern for the liberation of the land. Leaving Palestine, they would say, is exactly what Israel wants. This objection is often, and understandably, voiced by exiled Palestinians and their younger descendants. It is understandable because their varied experiences of Palestine are defined less by daily reality and more by the vision of what Palestine was and will be again. The present certainly plays a role but actual daily experience makes a lot of difference. Questions of this sort, nevertheless, place a lot of pressure on those in Gaza who already have so much to deal with or live abroad under the threat of deportation. What I am calling for is a more comprehensive understanding of the conditions in Gaza and a re-examination of what sumoud means in contemporary reality.
The second danger is that the sumoud narrative paints steadfastness as a choice rather than a forced reality. Palestinians in Gaza are not given the choice between enduring Israel’s aggression and seeking opportunities elsewhere. Palestinians, at least in part, continue to plough, sow, dig tunnels, and improvise because there is no other option. Simply put, Palestinians endure because they have to, not because they choose to. It is perhaps more worthwhile to write stories on the disgraceful visa processes and mistreatment and degradation of Palestinian asylum seekers than pretend as though we have chosen to suffer and, therefore, to endure. As though we are naïve enough to allow ourselves to hope when no signs of improvement can be glanced anywhere.
The Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza have taken this narrative of a mythical people to heart. Each feels it necessary to act as if the Palestinians are not only doing fine under their dysfunctional governments but are flourishing too. Mahmoud Abbas, for example, is still “state building” and constructing mythical cities such as Rawabi when hardly any land is left. The obscene complicity of both governments, together with the collective efforts of Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, have made it impossible for Palestinians trapped in Gaza to leave and, consequently, they are forced endure.
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