How do you break a siege? How do you escape from prison? How do you get back your land? Palestinians have faced these questions, like most colonized people, for generations. From the 1950s onwards, meetings of those countries called Afro-Asian or Non-Aligned announced their support for the decolonization of Southeast Asia, of “French” African colonies, and then “Portuguese” African colonies, of one colonized nation or another. Yet the resolutions for a free Palestine have stubbornly remained unfulfilled.
Moments of decolonization, in relation to the recalcitrant Palestinian case, have been occasions for jubilation. We may recall the scenes from southern Lebanon in May 2000, when the Israeli military finally withdrew from the region. Israel had been in Lebanon, with the help of its right-wing Lebanese adjuncts, since 1982, when it invaded to evict the Palestine Liberation Organization from their Beirut headquarters. That summer, the Israeli military laid siege to Beirut for more than two months, bombing the densely populated city and killing thousands. While many Lebanese died, Palestinians were the principal targets of the Israeli campaign.
Among those huddled beneath the bombs were Muin Bseiso and Mahmoud Darwish, two of Palestine’s most prominent poets. They would both later produce book-length accounts of the siege, but over the course of one evening that summer, they wrote a poem as one.
A letter to an Israeli soldier, is what they named their poem. In one stanza, the two poets address the “inhabitant of the tank.”
We write to you
Before a shell ignites us or ignites you
Here is a message of the last besieged to the last besieged
We write from a fragment you sent … to carry you
From the darkness of the “ghetto” to our bodies …
We write to you
Bseiso and Darwish ask:
Can one piss in a tank?
Can he read in the tank?
Can a person fly pigeons in a tank?
Can one fuck in a tank?
Or plant trees in the tank?
How long have you been in the claws of the tank?
How long have you been safe?1
The poem enacts an incredible reversal: the poets, themselves confined to an apartment at the mercy of missiles and mortars, taunt the soldier besieging them. The Israeli soldier is confined by the steel that is meant to protect him. They write in their letter, “You are in a dungeon, behind bars.” Many of the poem’s stanza’s end simply with the refrain Hal anta fi aman?—meaning, Are you safe?
Meanwhile, the poets have their own refrain: our siege is long.
Our siege is long
We shall bake the stone
We shall knead the moon
We shall finish our journey
Upon this beautiful day
Our siege is long
Today, the original pages on which Darwish and Bseiso wrote this poem, their scripts competing in red and blue across the page, are precariously preserved at the home of Bseiso’s son in Gaza. As in previous rounds of the Israeli air war, he has carefully, if hurriedly, packed up his father’s papers, including his drafts, notes, letters, and his books and pens. He has wrapped in blankets the paintings of and for Muin that usually reside proudly upon the walls of his Gazan apartment. He has deposited this archive of one of Palestine’s great writers in a handful of suitcases at his front door. He wonders how he’ll get it all down the dozen or so floors between him and the street. His wife and children evacuated a few days ago to stay with family in the southern part of Gaza. And so he remains steadfast in the apartment alone, in the densely populated northern half of the Strip that the Israelis have condemned to destruction. Our siege is long.
That Muin Bseiso’s papers have survived successive sieges across generations is a feat due to the efforts of the Palestinian organizer and teacher, Sahbaa Al-Barbari, Bseiso’s wife. “When we left Lebanon,” Al-Barbari recounted in an interview with Ghada Ageel, “we weren’t able to take our belongings. People were only allowed one bag, and I tried to take as much as I could of Muin’s articles, publications, and things he had handwritten, as well as literature and belongings.”
She goes on: “I only took a very small number of photographs, ones that I was afraid would fall into Israeli hands, because it could be dangerous for the people in them. Later, our building porter who witnessed it told me that after we had left, Israeli soldiers burst into the house and took a large photo of Muin, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, and Yasser Arafat which hung in the entrance of the house, and shot at it.”2
On Friday, October 6, of this year more than 2 million Palestinians resided in a strip of land 25 miles long and six miles wide. The walls and fences surrounding the Strip were more than 20 feet tall. The Mediterranean Sea, grave and portal to the world for many on the Middle Sea’s southern coasts, was under a perennial blockade. Of those 2 million domiciled on the Strip, almost half of them were under 18 years old, which is to say they’ve lived their entire lives under siege by the Israeli army, navy, and air force.
On October 7, General Ghassan Alian, the Israeli military’s chief administrator of Gaza and the West Bank—known as “the territories” in the colonial locution—announced that “Hamas opened the gates of hell on the Gaza Strip.” General Alian, of course, meant the hell the Israeli military would soon unleash once again upon the Strip, including Lockheed Martin’s AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, readily supplied by the United States. But General Alian’s imagery is apt from another angle. For the Palestinians who crossed the threshold between their prison and the land beyond, they were exiting hell. If partisans of Hamas and other Palestinians in Gaza “opened the gates of hell” at dawn on October 7, they did so to leave the hell that Israel made for them and which the world tacitly approved.
Conditions of siege are not limited to Gaza. During the first and second Intifadas—and in the interim between and the period since—whole Palestinian cities and towns were restricted in their movement. In fact, the history of siege goes back to even before the establishment of the state of Israel, to the promulgation of the Defence (Emergency) Regulations by the British mandate authorities in 1945 which were thereafter incorporated into Israeli law, providing the legal infrastructure for Israeli colonialism today. The widely documented, even well known, system of checkpoints and passes, of walls and fences, of segregated roads and mass incarceration, of widespread torture and abuse, of maiming and daily—daily—murder by the Israeli state and its ancillaries, has never thrown Israel’s “legitimacy” into question. An endless stream of UN General Assembly Resolutions; libraries of humanitarian reports; commissions, committees, and tribunals convened regularly for decades; the indictment of Israeli officials in European courts; the collection of thousands of hours of testimony, the most detailed, comprehensive, account of dispossession, degradation, and death ever produced in world history, has achieved for Palestinians essentially, fundamentally, nothing.
To know Palestinian history is to experience endless déjà vu. Every testament to the Palestinian condition speaks indelibly to the present. This is not only because their opponents persist in seeking their dispossession and death, but also because those opponents shamelessly maintain the same idioms of justification. Bseiso was not a historian by trade—he studied literature at the American University in Cairo, printing in the underground, and poetry in prison—but Gaza is a place with a paucity of history; and his memoirs, which accounted for the Gaza he knew, are some of the best histories of the place we have. His Gaza Diaries (1971) and Palestinian Notebooks (1978) are indispensable accounts of modern Palestinian history. Born in Gaza’s Shujaiyya neighborhood in 1926, Bseiso knew the city from the inside out. His was Palestinian history on its own terms.
In their joint poem, Bseiso and Darwish write that our history is rain, tarikhina matar, eroding stone. In countless articles throughout his life—and indeed much of his writing is occasional and uncollected, short editorials, and reviews scattered among Beirut’s and Cairo’s Arab weeklies and dailies—Bseiso would criticize Western writing on Gaza. He would liken, as in a 1979 article3 for Beirut’s al-Usbu al-’Arabi, journalists in Gaza to tourists, eager for blood and merely repeating the same old story, never seriously considering Gaza’s past.
In his Gaza Diaries, Bseiso would write critically of the new humanitarian regime inaugurated after 1948: “The program of annihilating the Palestinian Red Indians in the new concentration camps in the Gaza Strip supervised by UNRWA didn’t follow the old traditional methods of genocide.” In 1956, the Israelis occupied the Strip for the first time. Bseiso wrote that the Israeli assault on Gaza “had the aim of burning the history of Palestine, its culture, and even its topography”—eerily akin, Bseiso identified, to the Nazis aim to eliminate Jews from Europe. In describing the Israeli occupation of Gaza, Bseiso also identifies a genealogy of colonial war. The Israeli army, he recounts, used to mark condemned homes with white chalk, “to allow the occupants a few minutes to take out what they could. “In most cases,” he continued, “the inhabitants were forcibly driven out of the house and forced to witness their house collapse and transform into a heap of broken wood, stone, iron and glass. Beneath the rubble, everything they owned.”4
In his 1961 pictorial history of the nakba, or catastrophe of 1948, Arif al-Arif, himself the author of one of the first modern histories of Gaza, accounted for the many who perished during the struggle for Palestine. He narrated succinctly the generational effects of murder and dispossession. One page with two images is titled “The Children of the Martyrs of Deir Yassin.” The first is an image of dozens of young men and women marching down a road carrying a banner for their orphanage; the other image, just below, is of a dozen young children, huddled together, many of them sipping from simple mugs, some clutching stuffed animals. Al-Arif’s caption reads: “In 1948, they were young, eating whatever people would send them … when they matured they began to understand how they came to their condition and committed themselves to getting their stolen nation back.”5
For the living of Deir Yassin, the massacre was a call to action. For other Palestinians, it was, and remains, a symbol and sign. Deir Yassin was one of the many massacres that accompanied the consolidation of European Jewish colonial control over Palestine in 1948. It was not the first massacre or the last, but a flashpoint in a history of massacres that begins in 1947 and continues to October 27th, 2023. Conducted between April 9–10, 1948, by Yitzhak Shamir’s Lehi militia and Menachem Begin’s Irgun, more than 250 Palestinians were murdered. Some of the Palestinians were captured and paraded through the streets of Jerusalem, where they were spat upon and stoned before being executed. The brutality of Deir Yassin, and the explicit aim of its perpetrators to make an example of the village, ushered in the most intense period of expulsion during the nakba.
Here we witness a history of continuity, in the patent refusal of American and European politicians to even utter the word ceasefire or de-escalation even as hundreds of Palestinians are killed each day.
The metaphorical “cycle” of violence reappears before us now to obscure power and erase history. Colonial violence in Palestine was initiated by the British conquest during the First World War. The declaration by the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour that his government would facilitate the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people”—made in the midst of that war—produced the conditions for further dispossession of the Indigenous inhabitants of the land. This was done by force and met always with resistance, especially by the Palestinian peasantry. While European capital’s transformation of Ottoman lands, including Palestine, had already started in the 19th century, it was the influx of European Zionist settlers in the first four decades of the 20th century that decisively transformed the relationship between land and labor in Palestine. Existing communal agricultural land was acquired by settlers and the Palestinians who tilled that land were expelled, condemning them to penury, often in new sorts of urban slums in the coastal cities.
European Zionist settlers did not accomplish the colonization of Palestine alone. It occurred with international, imperial support. The dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and livelihoods was facilitated by the British Mandate authorities and authorized by the League of Nations. In a sense, as some anti-Zionist Jewish observers recognized as early as the 1920s and ’30s, this imperial context damned the Zionist project to success. The system established by the British permitted European Zionists settlers to break the law in the service of their ultimate goal, while Palestinians were demonized, incarcerated, and exiled. The structure of that support, in the form of the UN Security Council, the European Commission, and endless military aid from the United States, remains in place, fueling, as we speak, the motors of dispossession. Here we witness a history of continuity, in the patent refusal of American and European politicians to even utter the word ceasefire or de-escalation even as hundreds of Palestinians are killed each day.
In the years leading up to 1948, as European Jewish settlement reached its zenith, due in part to the genocide Germany was perpetrating against European Jewry, Palestinians were increasingly pushed out of their own villages, towns, and cities. For the settler colonists impatient with the British Empire, which for decades had provided the funds and space for what was called the Yishuv to take over Palestine, the 1940s was a period of protracted armed resistance against the British.
The colonization of Palestine was transformed in successive narrations by the colonists themselves, and later their supporters, into an anticolonial struggle. Leon Uris’s 1958 novel Exodus and the 1960 film by the same name starring Paul Newman infamously represented to a captive American audience the paramilitaries of the Yishuv as akin to the minutemen of New England, bravely fighting British injustice. Such heroic accounts elided the violence dispensed upon the Palestinians by transforming the colonists into the victims of imperial aggression rather than the beneficiaries of imperial patronage. In The Revolt, his 1951 biography of the Irgun, Menachem Begin would assiduously justify the tactics of his group while denying their primary victims. “We were not ‘terrorists’,” he’d insist. “We were strictly speaking anti-terrorists.” What was clearly done and sometimes plainly stated were continuously buried lies. Already in his 1938 insider account of Arab nationalism, The Arab Awakening, George Antonius had grasped the challenge faced by Palestinians: “For the historian, the study of the Palestine problem is beset with peculiar difficulties … To the ordinary tasks of a student dealing with the facts is thus added an obligation to deal with the pseudo-facts and dethrone them from their illegitimate eminence.”
Narrative obfuscation had profound political effects. The transformation of a deeply, foundationally, anti-Semitic West, from mass murderer of the Jewish people to great supporter of the Jewish state, was accomplished by permanently jettisoning the Palestinians outside of civilization, so-called. The physical removal of the Palestinians from their homes was accompanied by the removal of Palestine from the proverbial “family of nations.” Palestine’s belated colonization coincided with the transfiguration of the imperial into the international and the consolidation of North Atlantic power against anti-imperialist movements for liberation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America’s long-colonized nations. Netanyahu’s speech to Americans on October 9, with its repeated invocation of the civilized world against “barbarism” and “savages,”performed a well-known, centuries-old, script.
To speak, then, of “cycles” of violence is to ignore the clear path that brought us here. One could read utterances made and recount actions taken by the Zionist leadership from 1948 annually until those made by the Israeli government on this very day, and see again and again the desire, the plan, and the means to expel or kill the Palestinian people. Concomitantly, to read the past words of Palestinian observers of this violence is not to travel in time but to be delivered to the present. Edward Said’s 1997 essay “Deir Yassin Recalled” could have been written today not because Said was prescient and brilliant—although he was—but because the situation in Palestine since then has hardly changed, and certainly not for the better. “The entire idea,” Said wrote of Zionism, “has always therefore been to reduce the Palestinian actuality to nil, to efface Palestinians as a people with legitimate rights, to render them alien in their own land.” “And indeed,” he continued, “Israel has so far succeeded in its own mind. The Oslo peace process, the settlements, the arrogant defiance of Netanyahu: these all derive in a straight line from events like Deir Yassin and the idea that made Deir Yassin into the massacre it was.”
For the last few days, video has circulated of a 95-year-old Israeli army reservist named Ezra Yachin giving a pep talk to younger soldiers heading to the frontlines. “Be triumphant and finish them off … erase the memory of them. Erase them, their families, mothers and children,” he says. Yachin embodies the straight line from Deir Yassin to now because he himself participated in the massacre as a 20-year-old. In an interview from 2020 he recalled his role in the massacre: “It is true that women and youngsters were killed, but that was because they served as fighters.”
Last week, I spent an hour speaking with Muin’s son about his father. Shortly after we ended our call, I saw on Twitter that his building had been attacked and was in flames. When my calls wouldn’t go through, I feared the worst. On my tenth try, the phone finally rang and my shaken friend answered. The apartment next door to his had been hit. He had grabbed three of the bags with the most precious of his father’s materials and hurried down the stairs. He wasn’t sure if it was just a warning missile and if the building would be leveled soon, or if that was the end of it. He worried that the fire would spread to his family’s apartment. The apartment survived and so has the archive, once again. Our siege is long.
We know who made the hell Palestinians live in today. Who will unmake that hell? And who will watch silently or cheer as its depths are made deeper and its people burn hotter?
This article was commissioned by Charlotte E. Rosen.
- Muin Bseiso and Mahmoud Darwish, “Risala ila jundi Isra’ili” al-Safir July 24, 1982, p. 8. All translations from Arabic are by Esmat Elhalaby. ↩
- Sahbaa Al-Barbari, Light the Road of Freedom, edited by Ghada Ageel and Barbara Bill (University of Alberta Press, 2021), p. 70. ↩
- Muin Bseiso, “Bataqa ma’eda ila Ghazza,” al-Usbu al-Arabi, December 30, 1974, p. 68. ↩
- Muin Bseiso, Yawmiyyat Ghazza (Beirut: Dar al-Farabi, 2014), pp. 31–32, 101. ↩
- Arif al-Arif, al-Nakba fi Suwar (Beirut: Dar al-Ilm al-Malayin, 1961), p. 424. ↩