Palestinian movement finds hope in a new alternative

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Pro-Palestine protest in Chicago, May 16, 2021. Image credit: Aveedibya Dey/Unsplash

Each new round of hell in Israel-Palestine looks from here like a nightmare on a loop. Yet there's one element that makes me bristle as if for the first time: calling it a war. "This is the fourth time in 12 years Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers have gone to war." "As Israel and Hamas plunged closer to all-out war..."

This is war the way I'm Auston Matthews. The way Bill Gates is Nelson Mandela. You can find the stupidest similarities if you really struggle. But Israel is among the world's mightiest military powers, usually in the top 20 and one of only nine with a nuclear arsenal. Hamas has basically a militia who scuttle through tunnels and fire rockets that rarely hit anything, though when they do you'll be just as dead and usually an innocent civilian.

Yes, Israel has the right to defend itself, but its "self" -- in the sense of its sovereignty, its government, its survival as a coherent, organized society -- isn't remotely threatened by Hamas. War? I think not. More like Gangs of Gaza, to which you'd appropriately respond with the gang squad, not the air force.

Yet metaphorically, war resonates. The brilliant Palestinian-American Edward Said wrote 40 years ago that Western mass media -- which dominated everywhere, including among Arabs and Muslims -- had imposed an image of Arab-Muslims that reduced them all to terrorists and threats to the West (think "True Lies"). Yet some of those people "tragically" mimicked those grotesque, inflicted reflections of themselves. Why? It was better to exist, even in ugly, imposed terms, than not exist at all. (There are various academic expansions of this theory.) War, concluded Said, "seemed an extremely logical outcome."

But not for everyone, even before Al-Jazeera and social media arrived to dilute the impact of those Western mass media tropes. I happened to talk this week with Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, a Gazan-Canadian. In 2009, three of his daughters died in their bedroom from Israeli shelling in that year's "war." His response was a book called I Shall Not Hate. He now lives here with his five surviving (thriving) kids. He may be the most radical person I know. His every breath, from creating institutions to whom he invites to dinner, is about proving Israelis and Palestinians needn't hate each other. And stubborn? Don't ask.

I asked if he still supports a Palestinian state alongside Israel. "We have to be able to change," he said. Israel's expansion in the occupied areas has made that impossible. He's joined those favouring a single state with equal rights for all. (Palestinians and Israeli Jews have roughly equal numbers in the overall territory.)

This marks a transition from national liberation and independence to an inclusive society in which Palestinian Lives Matter. It's indeed inspired by the campaign around George Floyd, whose image there is widespread on murals, especially on Israel's "Separation Wall." But to demand equality, you must at a minimum not overtly hate or make war on your potential fellow citizens. This is something new in that wretched loop, the first time Palestinians focus not on political sovereignty but on a common humanity with the other side -- though there are precedents, like the Ihud movement of the 1940s, led by Martin Buber.

It stymies Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, IMO, engineered this eruption as a way to retain the power he was about to lose. He based it on an earlier provocation on the Temple Mount, which led to the second intefadeh, and it worked. He'll likely remain PM, but at the cost of helping regenerate the Palestinian movement.

It turns out that the collapse of the Palestinian dream of their own state -- which Israel used its power to obliterate -- leaves Palestinians not desolated but reinvigorated, and more united than ever. Their resistance has surfaced in Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and Israel itself, among its 20 per cent Arab population. This thing suddenly isn't over yet because there's a new alternative.

It goes beyond their stubborn refusal to fade away, which was necessary but not sufficient. When hopes collapse, what's needed is an alternate, credible version of hope. It's ironic that The Hope is also the name of Israel's national anthem -- or maybe not. Plausible hope is what every movement needs.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Aveedibya Dey/Unsplash

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