Amahl Bishara discusses her book, Crossing a Line

Interview by Sarah Ihmoud

Sarah Ihmoud: Crossing a Line offers a refreshing and indeed critical ethnographic approach to understanding Palestinian political expression across the fragmented social landscapes imposed by Israeli settler colonialism. How does bringing more than one distinct Palestinian geography into the analytical frame—in this context, Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and those subject to Israeli military occupation in the West Bank—reorient our understanding of the Palestinian present? What does this methodological approach enable us to grasp, both in terms of the performance of settler colonial violence and the performance of indigenous identities and sovereignties?

Amahl Bishara: First, Sarah, I want to say thank you for this chance to be in conversation! You’ve been a crucial interlocutor for so long. The long-dominant frame of “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict” located the Palestinian national struggle primarily in the occupied territories and saw discrimination against Palestinians in Israel as a minor issue. This view serves both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel portrays the issue as being about security, confronting an external enemy. The Palestinian Authority, nominally in charge of the occupied territories, uses this frame to claim power and legitimacy there.

Reframing the boundaries of political discussion demonstrates how Israel’s settler colonial project is and has been unified across all historic Palestine. Looking at these two Palestinian geographies together exposes how Israel’s systems of separation multiply repression for all Palestinians. More generally, the approach moves us beyond state-centered definitions of politics, challenging methodological nationalism.

Given that Israel has controlled the West Bank since 1967, its crucial to ask: what sustains the conception, even among Palestinians, that the West Bank and Israel’s 1948 territories are separate from each other? We know that a vast system of checkpoints, walls, and other forms of closure suffocates Palestinian economies, but I show also that this system limits Palestinian politics—preventing joint protests, for example. Separation is also maintained through media, including in Palestinian news. I look at what constitutes “local” or “Palestinian” news for Palestinians in different locations.  Meanwhile, in ways both mundane and spectacular, the Palestinian Authority represses dissent and ossifies the fragmentation Israel instigated. An anthropology for liberation must be ready to both confront settler colonial violence and also take on cooptation of older paths toward liberation.

Sarah Ihmoud:Another important contribution of your book is the invitation to think with what you call Palestinians’ “political habitus”, or the embodied sense of how Palestinians perform political practice, as well as their “structures of feelings, affective orientations to the political world that are in the process of taking shape” (5) in distinct yet interrelated environments. Why is it imperative that we examine the conditions of political communication among Palestinians not only through the content of their expression, but also through the affective and intimate aspects of that expression?

Amahl Bishara: Activist Palestinians on two sides of the Green Line will agree on many foundational principles of Palestinian liberation, even as they are aware that living under Israeli sovereignty in each location presents them with different challenges. Yet, without ethnography it can be difficult to appreciate the ways in which those everyday dynamics shape political action. An Arabic-English language t-shirt that called for “one vote for each Palestinian everywhere” felt ordinary to wear in Bethlehem in the West Bank but made people uncomfortable in Jaffa near Tel Aviv during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. People had different reactions to stun grenades and the threat of tear gas. Also that summer I was amazed by the bravery of Palestinian protesters on two sides of the Green Line as they refused the violence of Israel’s war—but the forms the bravery took were quite different: protesters performed chants that speak to generations of Palestinian resistance inside Israel’s 1948 territories, whereas those in the occupied territories engaged in direct confrontation, throwing stones at the Israeli army in Palestinian cities and neighborhoods.

I start the book reflecting on a post-protest riff by the wonderful singer Walaa’ Sbeit, of the band 47Soul, in which he says, basically, “let’s be kind to those who left”—that is the refugees—”and kind to those who stayed”—the citizens of Israel. This addresses tensions that have existed among Palestinian communities. Israeli citizenship gives Palestinians mobility, and a level of social services. Being in the West Bank entails vulnerability to many forms of violence, but also places Palestinians there at the forefront of the Palestinian story on the world stage. It might be tempting to talk in terms of privileges, but here every privilege is also a restraint of a sort. I hope that bringing together these embodied ways of being also helps us to be as generous as possible toward people in all of these positions, as Walaa Sbeit summons us to do.

Sarah Ihmoud: You describe movement between and across borders as an important epistemic experience. In one section of the book, you note that geopolitical fragmentation and immobility are a means of eliminating Indigenous collectives. Yet, Palestinians diagnose and contest settler colonialism in and through transit. Moving us back and forth across the Green Line, your ethnography itself performs a sort of mobility that defies the geopolitical fragmentation of Israeli settler colonialism. In reading your book, I was struck by the ethnographic “passages” between chapters that give us a sense of the embodied and affective experience of crossing militarized borders and geographies as a Palestinian researcher.  Can you talk about your decision to include these passages? How might writing from the embodied space of crossing borders enable a more ethical anthropological engagement in Palestine? 

Amahl Bishara: To be on the road is to be in direct contact with the state: a road may be smooth or bumpy, safe or unsafe, direct or indirect. We encounter soldiers and police officers. To be on the road is to be in a social relationship with other passengers and even with those in other cars. To be on the road is also an affectively rich experience. The road tunes the senses, ripe with possibilities of danger, frustration, and pleasure—sometimes all at once.

If I’m interested in the kinds of fleeting collectives that might be seeds for liberation, that challenge today’s political order, what better places to explore than a bus ride for a rare children’s trip to the beach, the first time most of these young refugees have crossed the Green Line into Israel’s 1948 territories and the first time they have passed through the villages from which their families were dispossessed? Or a bus ride during which strangers have to decide how to handle soldiers’ exercise of their petty sovereignty over who will be allowed to stay on the bus?

Writing about my own mobility is a also way of recognizing the advantage with which I approach this project as a person with US and Israeli passports that give me the ability to move across the Green Line. I could go places some of my dearest friends and family members could not. Honestly, this made it very important for me to make my trips worthwhile. Likewise, in one of the passages I write about some travel that broke Israel’s apartheid laws. Maybe this is essential too.

Sarah Ihmoud: In exploring various practices on both sides of the Green Line—among them protest, commemoration, mourning and care work—you bring to the fore the paradoxical ways in which Palestinians subject to the most extreme forms of constraint are able to create space for intimacy, kinship and socialities to emerge. For example, the space of the colonial prison, while a profound site of violence, is simultaneously a space of profound connection among Palestinians across the green line. What possibilities do these emergent intimacies offer in reimagining Palestine and Palestinian liberation beyond the nation state?

Amahl Bishara: Nationalism often legitimizes state violence in the name of horizontal kinship. It can be an abstract kind of “imagined community,” as Benedict Anderson wrote those many years ago. But when people focus on concrete acts of care and nurturing, this can open them up to new dimensions of experience and help us imagine new forms of relationality. Prison confines and violates thousands today and threatens many thousands more. Yet, Palestinians have also shown that caring acts in prison and caring for prisoners can draw people together. For example, it can train attention to intrepid activists, like those on hunger strikes against administrative detention, which is Israel’s policy of imprisonment without charge, and it can create relations that challenge settler colonial policies of fragmentation.

When Palestinians make an effort to nurture creative and curious connections with each other that challenge settler colonial lines of division—not only across the walls of prison, and not only between Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the West Bank, but also among Palestinians in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Detroit, and Chile—new visions of liberation can emerge. These visions will recognize the toll of the ongoing Nakba; they will stand against violence against women, like the Tal’at movement; they will treasure the village home as well as urban spaces. At a time when the official Palestinian nationalist movement is so hollow and repressive, this is urgently needed.

Sarah Ihmoud: While Crossing a Line is deeply situated in the Palestinian experience, your analysis names the interconnection between state violence against Black and Indigenous communities in Palestine, North America, Kashmir and beyond through the connective tissue of global racism and militarism that have taken shape through distinct settler colonial formations. Beyond the Palestinian context, what is the broader invitation of your ethnography? What does the space of Palestine offer us in thinking between and across colonial and racial projects that give rise to state violence across the globe? What does it offer us in thinking generatively about solidarities and possibilities for decolonial futures?

Amahl Bishara: Throughout the process of writing this book, I have been living and working in the Boston area. Of course there are important connections between the US and Israel as two militarized settler colonies. I’ve commemorated the ongoing Nakba of Indigenous dispossession here through the National Day of Mourning. I’ve thought about how the Black Lives Matter movement faces different threats in Baltimore, Maryland than it does in Cambridge, Massachusetts, because in the former, many more protesters are Black. We can’t be responsible participants in these movements without recognizing differences in privilege afforded by social location and geography.

Settler colonialisms and militarisms create certain subject positions, but they do not define people or movements. Whether one is studying Kashmir, Sioux territory, the Uyghur homeland, or Palestine, I hope this book is an invitation to think comparatively and connectively in a way that also rigorously attends to local practices, to embodied experiences and unfolding histories of protest. I hope it is an invitation to think in ways that challenge statist definitions of place and liberation and to bring places into relation in generative and even generous ways.

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