Susan Abulhawa's first novel, Mornings in Jenin, was translated into 30 languages and remains one the best-selling books on Palestine. The human rights activist is a passionate critic of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and its campaign to influence international opinion. “Israel is literally spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put out fake content,’’ she says. “On social media, we are all either being suspended or being shadow-banned.” She lives in 'Pennsylvania and spoke to THE WEEK over Zoom. Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q/ You have talked about being destined to go home. When Gaza is being razed and Palestinians are being forced to flee, how difficult is it to keep that idea alive?
A/ When Indians were massacred in Jallianwala Bagh, did you say, ‘We are just going to leave this area, we will never mourn it, will never have hope’? Was that the reaction you had? Human reaction to things like that is not just to give up and go away. It is honouring those people and remembering them. We are not going to forget this. Everything that we are comes from this land. The idea that we will just go live somewhere else and just forget is impossible. This is our struggle. It is for liberation. This is the point of writing. This is the point of celebrating our culture. We refuse erasure.
Q/ Mornings in Jenin was written after you witnessed a massacre.
A/ I was there in the immediate aftermath. We dug bodies out of the rubble. It was horrific. It was completely unlike the sanitised version that was carried by the western media.
Q/ You have always talked about being part of your land. Your stories come from the land.
A/ Israel is a settler colonial project. It is not unique in that they use the Bible, for instance. That is how they say the United States was formed, through manifest destiny. A lot of settler colonies were formed invoking God, but Israel is unique in that they are now claiming indigeneity (the state of being indigenous). Palestinians, through various forms of resistance, made their presence known. When our presence could no longer be hidden, new narratives emerged. One was a continued attempt to deny that we exist. Golda Meier said Palestine and Palestinians did not exist. Ironically, she said that while occupying the home of a wealthy Palestinian. Simultaneous with that was a narrative that we are all terrorists, anti-Semites and we just want to kill Jews after they just survived the Holocaust.
There is this new stunning narrative of Jewish indigeneity, this fairytale that they were gone for 3,000 years and now they have come back. Suddenly, Palestinian food and other regional food are Israeli food, they are appropriating our clothes, they are appropriating everything about us, like they want to be us. But they want to kill us.
They want not just our land and our homes. They want our story. Part of this endeavour also included destruction of archaeological sites that do not support this narrative, like the destruction of our cemeteries. The most notorious incident was the destruction of Mamilla Cemetery, where famous Palestinian and other Arab scholars and rulers and warriors are buried. It was over 1,300 years old. They completely razed that and built a so-called tolerance museum. I mean, the irony of ironies is just so painful.
Q/ This is not the first time Gaza has been bombed. But this time there is more support on the streets for Palestine.
A/ We have seen masses come out and support Palestine in the past, especially when Israel was particularly gruesome in their assaults. Everything they do is gruesome, but it usually flies under the radar for most western media because our death and suffering is normalised. It is only when Israelis are threatened that it becomes something or when their attacks are so horrific that the world cannot ignore it. Each time Israel gets more brutal. And they get more savvy with media blackouts and they know how to control the narrative. But it is backfiring. Although people are still duped, it is not the case with so many young people. I think young people are a lot more savvy now.
Q/ In the past few weeks Palestinians have forced the western media to reframe their questions and have exposed their hypocrisy. With collective punishment being reported in real time, do you think this is going to be a turning point?
A/ The only thing standing between us and our complete annihilation has been our armed resistance. Period. Nothing we have done has ever made the world look our way. When Israel first expelled our people through massacres and terror into refugee camps and exile, there was zero attention. It was only when leftist guerrilla fighters started hijacking planes to make a political point that the world would even acknowledge that we existed. It is only when Palestinians fight back in a way that makes Israelis feel insecure that anybody pays us any attention.
I need to make this point because there is no Palestinian at this hour who will not support the resistance because we see how the world is watching Israel slaughter our people en masse in their sleep, dropping bombs on families. The world is not only turning a blind eye, but they are cheering it on. They are empowering Israel and are arming them even more. We are principally unarmed, defenceless, indigenous people. We have the most well equipped and trained militaries in the world lined up against us. Yet, Hamas is still keeping them out. They are still afraid to come in through land invasion. I am sick of people calling us terrorists and parroting this Israeli narrative that all those people, those millions who are utterly devastated and traumatised, are human shields.
Q/ Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion said Israel should do everything to ensure that the Palestinians would never return. “The old will die and the young will forget,” he said. But a lot of resistance that is coming now are from young Palestinians.
A/ This is the miscalculation that all colonisers do. They underestimate the agency and the will of the people they are colonising. They believe that we are like insects and that if you take us from one place and put us in another, we will be okay with that. They don't regard us as human beings with attachments, identities, memories, hopes, dreams, aspirations and rootedness. They cannot fathom our humanity. This is why Frantz Fanon said the settler would always refer to the native in zoological terms. This is why they call us 'human animals', 'beasts on two legs', 'cockroaches' and 'snakes'. These are some of the things Israelis holding the highest offices have said about us.
I don't know, honestly, how much Indians remember their history, I wonder, seeing all the support for Israel in India. It is shocking to me.