The Otherness of Martyrs

Last night I was speaking with Palestinian friend who grew up as a citizen of Israel, when I was viscerally overcome by the recognition of the gap that divides Palestinians living in Israel from green card Palestinians in the West Bank.

This friend went to a mixed university – Jews and Palestinians together. They were even friends with Jews – only left wing ones who refused to serve in the army. But in their classes would be zionists, soldiers getting their call on their cellphone to serve in the war against Gaza. Also in their classes were zionist students serving as spies on Palestinian professors, who would report things said in class to their political leaders, so that retribution could be threatened against any teacher who dared to speak against Israel.

But what was surprising to me, what was overwhelming, was not the thousand forms of regulation and oppression that Israel subjects its “Arab citizens” to, but the massive gap, the wall of silence, the effective class divide between someone growing up with the relative privilege of Israeli citizenship, and other Palestinians living not so many kilometers away, on the other side of the wall, in refugee camps and poor neighbourhoods. I was struck by the way this friend spoke about the poor Palestinian kids who got killed, even admitting they see them as “others”. And I couldn’t believe it when they told me that they didn’t know anyone who had been killed by the occupation. That they had been fairly “neutral” prior to the second intifada. That the focus growing up was on individual success and starting a family, not on any form of political activity. I was also heartened by talk that these were prejudices of the “old generation”, and that the youth are trying to shed these ideas and reach out to the “other”.

At a basic level, the whole thing to me is absurd. What is “National identity” if two Palestinians can grow up so close to each other, and yet live lives so different? The answer is of course “Israel” – these divisions between Palestinians are a colonial effect, and the apartheid wall exists to harden them. The divisions are maintained and exploited by the zionist presence – divisions between Palestinians of 48, Palestinians in the West Bank, and Palestinian refugees living outside the borders of Palestine. It’s one thing to assert these differences in text, but quite another to really feel the emotional and social gaps that are made to exist. That they are one people, and yet not one people. But at a less intellectual level, it also feels absurdly unfair, how is it that one Palestinian doesn’t know a single martyr, and another, so many of his friends growing up are killed by the occupation? Not that anyone deserves to grow up under oppression, even the more moderate oppression of Palestinian citizens of Israel. But when Palestinians speak of Revolution, of the Palestinian Revolution (although, what Palestinians speak of this revolution any longer?), how can you expect people to understand each other across such extreme gaps?

In this friend’s difficulty and struggles to understand the “other”, I see my own. In the prejudices instilled in them by the old generation, I see the prejudices of white liberal society – focus on your own business career, ignore the wretched and the downtrodden, or at best treat them with charity. And that’s not an accident, but the basic logic of colonization which is “your benefits exist and the expense of someone else, so just ignore them and enjoy your life”. And especially if you are a racialized person, this is a very understandable tactic because the “wrong” course of action could very quickly have your status reduced to the status of the lower ranked person you’re encouraged to ignore.

martyr poster - nablus

It’s in this context that I want to talk about martyrs. Martyrs remain a taboo subject, even amongst solidarity activists. We talk a lot about the crimes of the occupation, but we rarely honour the martyrs beyond at most reading their names. I feel something nefarious is going on here. For one, if an Israeli is killed by a Palestinian, immediately the whole world will know their life story, we will hear interviews with their friends and made to empathize with their loss, etc… But I’ve never ever seen so much as a single martyr’s poster put up on campus or at a Palestinian solidarity event – ever.

I think two related things going on here. The first is that we are actually all racists – the death of a person labelled “white” is of much more significance, even to people who identify as anti-racist, because of the subconscious success of the western colonial mindset. This is perhaps an overly strong way of putting it, but what I mean is that a Palestinian who is killed doesn’t enter the realm of the personal, we don’t identify with them, with their family – we see them as ‘other’. We don’t imagine it could have been us, or our family, or our friends.  The second thing is our paranoid fear of the violence of the oppressed. If we are honest, we will admit that many martyr posters of killed Palestinians show photos of young men carrying guns. This does not mean that they were killed in active service of the resistance, it just means that they had a photo taken of themselves holding a gun, and this photo was used to make the martyr poster. As a friend of mine who I was speaking with about these things said, “the world will never forgive a brown man with a gun”. Again this reenforces the gap, the safe distance between the “civilized” solidarity activists, which in many cases might include the relatively privileged Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the “uncivilized” Palestinians living under military rule, or in native-authority areas, who are much more likely to have some kind of connection to armed resistance. This paranoid fear, this absolute need to create a safe distance between the charitable activist and the dispossessed who might make unacceptable decisions, this is a big reason why we refrain from humanizing the martyrs, why we don’t even talk about them as martyrs but only as people killed by Israel.

But these are all lies. First, it is important to call martyrs what they are – martyrs. They are martyrs because they are killed by the occupation, or killed in the struggle for the liberation of their people. Their death is not only a crime but also a sacrifice, and when we reduce their deaths to Israeli criminality we take from them the agency of their sacrifice. I’m going to talk about just one martyr, Amer Nasser, who was killed at the recent funeral of Maysara Abu Hamdeya. Amer was 17 when he was shot in the head by a hollow point bullet from an Israeli soldier’s gun, causing his head to explode instantly. The reason I specifically want to write about Amer is because an article has been published on a website called Dissident Voice which includes a poem he wrote two weeks before his death:

Point your bullet where ever you like in my body
I will die today, but my homeland will live tomorrow
Be careful, Palestine is a red line.

If we take this poem seriously, we see a young man who does not fear death, who understands the sacrificial meaning of death in the struggle. We would be wrong to only mourn his death as a crime, not to recognize that his death is, to a meaningful extent, the result of his choice to stand against the occupiers. He accepted the possibility of death. This does not mean that we should welcome his death, or that we should not protest against his death as a crime (although, realistically, do we even do this? Do we even read the names of those killed at our events? No we treat everything as so abstract that there are hardly even “people” being oppressed just this idea of “the palestinians”). It means though that if we truly want to stand in solidarity with the oppressed we should not reject the oppressed’s interpretation of death as martyrdom.

The normal way we relate to martyrs is in fact a form of disavowal. We want to say that he people killed are just like us, to satisfy our universalist outlook, but because their ideas may differ from ours we don’t look at their ideas and just call them victims. So the condition of identification with them is reducing their identity to pure victimhood, empty of content.

Said simply, the solidarity movement largely sees Palestinians through the lens that Israel has created for us to see them through. Maybe this is because we are afraid there might be some truth in this story, that we of course denounce it publicly but then go along quietly with what it tells us to refrain from doing. And we go along with it – we don’t let ourselves listen to Palestinian voices that step outside our comfort zones, or to really identify with Palestinians who are killed. Thereby we are kept safe from the dangerous other. The Israeli narrative of “terrorism” is never confronted but only denied.


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