Somdeep Sen, Decolonizing Palestine: Hamas between the Anticolonial and the Postcolonial (Cornell University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Somdeep Sen (SS): This book grew out my interest in the lifecycles of liberation struggles. Admittedly, this interest has its roots in the Palestinian liberation movement. But in Decolonizing Palestine, the Palestinian struggle is the basis for deliberating broader questions surrounding what it means to be liberated and unliberated. In part, I am concerned with the challenges and idiosyncrasies that inform a colonized people’s effort to secure a liberated identity while under settler colonial rule. This is the focus of my discussions on life and politics in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. More generally, I expand this discussion to include other liberation struggles and their lifecycles as I deliberate how the long shadow of the era of colonial rule shapes a (formerly) colonized population’s efforts to construct a liberated identity—even in the era after the withdrawal of the colonizer.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SS: There is often a tendency to treat Hamas’s conduct as particularly contemptible and place Gaza outside the scope of “normal” politics in Israel/Palestine. But in this book I normalize Hamas and Gaza. With regard to Gaza, I argue that, historically, it has been a spatial microcosm of the devastating impact of the establishment of the State of Israel, not least because it was transformed into a place where Palestinians refugees were the demographic majority. It is therefore not surprising that the anticolonial retort to Israel’s settler colonialism has been the loudest in the coastal enclave, as it has been the home to some of the most prominent Palestinian revolutionary leaders and has given birth to Intifadas. In view of works on settler colonialism in North America, southern Africa, and Australia, I argue that the Israeli-imposed siege and ritual military campaigns against Gaza are not exceptional either. On the contrary, they are the norm in terms of the way one can expect a settler colonial entity to treat an indigenous population that has been indomitable in its anticolonial fervor and insistence on the existence of the Palestinian national peoplehood and the veracity of their cause for liberation.
I also theorize Hamas’s politics using works on liberation movements and postcolonial contexts elsewhere, beyond Palestine. For instance, using the writings of Fanon, I demonstrate that the nature of Hamas’s armed resistance is no different that than the “brand” of anticolonial violence adopted by liberation and revolutionary factions globally. Similarly, through an ethnography of Hamas’s state-like conduct at the helm of the Gaza Strip, I demonstrate that here too it engages in material actions and rituals of statecraft that are no different than those of postcolonial states. In this sense, I also globalize Hamas in this book by discussing its politics in terms of the global experience of anticolonial struggles, postcolonial states, and conceptions of being liberated (and unliberated) that go beyond the particularity of Palestine.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SS: In many ways, the journey of this book began back in 2003, when I was first introduced to the Palestinian liberation movement as a first year undergraduate student. John Collins (author of Global Palestine) was my supervisor at the time and had encouraged me to explore the global implications of both Israel’s settler colonialism and the Palestinian anticolonial liberation struggle. Ever since, my research has oscillated between a deep interest in the ethnographic everyday of life and politics under settler colonial rule in Palestine and the politics of anticolonial and liberation struggles elsewhere—be it in South Asia, Latin America, or southern Africa. This was the impetus of my doctoral research. And since Decolonizing Palestine builds on my doctoral dissertation, it also tacks back and forth between Palestine and elsewhere as the book begins with an ethnographic account of the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, but ends with a discussion of indigeneity and postcolonial identity that builds on my encounters in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SS: This book, I hope, will find a readership among students and researchers interested in the politics of Israel/Palestine. But, I would argue that my discussion of Hamas and the Gaza Strip is also of relevance to those interested in the lifecycles of liberation struggles and postcolonialism more generally. In terms of the book’s contribution and impact, I hope to have introduced new ways of studying the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Additionally, I think the book is unique in the way it uses “thick” ethnographic descriptions as a way deliberating broadly about the politics of liberation struggles.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SS: John Collins and I are finalizing the proofs of an edited volume titled Globalizing Collateral Language: From 9/11 to Endless Wars (University of Georgia Press, 2021). The publication of the book is meant to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11 and the contributions explore the ways in which the discursive tropes of America’s War on Terror have now found resonance globally, and in political projects that have little to do with the fight against terrorism. I have also been engaging in discussions on the role of race, racism, and colonialism in the making of international relations as a discipline. I am currently working on a couple of articles on the possibilities of an anti-racist international relations. I am also editing a special issue that aims to formulate the framework of a decolonized field of international relations. Finally, I am in the early stages of writing a book on the politics of the spatial design and planning of Israeli settlements. This book will build on my ethnographic fieldwork in Israeli settlements in 2015 and 2016.
Excerpt from the book (from the opening chapter “Decolonizing Palestine: An Introduction)
We don’t know what will happen next. Life is unsure. We are not allowed to have a vision. People here think short-term and are concerned with their immediate needs because we don’t know what destiny looms in the future. Maybe the border will be closed, maybe we won’t get a visa. Palestinians are not allowed to dream about the future —Ahmed Yousef, Author Interview, Gaza City, May 2013
On May 16, 2013, after a six-hour journey from Cairo, I arrived at the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. I was dropped off approximately a hundred meters from the border and had to walk the rest of the way through a security cordon set up by the Egyptian army. When I reached the gate of the border crossing terminal, I gave my passport and a letter to an Egyptian soldier. This letter, issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allowed me to use the Rafah border crossing to enter Gaza within a designated time period. He examined my documents for a few seconds and then handed them to a superior officer. I waited for the next twenty minutes, still outside under the hot sun, without a passport and surrounded by the vast and desolate landscape of northern Sinai. Looking over my shoulders were Palestinian travelers, nervously waiting to be allowed to enter the border crossing terminal. There was an air of uncertainty. It was possibly a variant of the same sense of uncertainty that a prominent member of Hamas, Ahmed Yousef suggested above to me was synonymous with Palestinian life in Gaza.
Once my documents were returned and I was allowed to enter the premises of the border crossing, Ahmed Yousef ’s words were further validated by what I saw inside the Egyptian passport control terminal. Without an adequate system of ventilation, the sweltering summer heat inside was unbearable and some of the elderly travelers had been forced to retire to the chairs in the back of the room. Most other travelers remained gathered around the passport department, waiting patiently for the Egyptian passport control officers to bark out their names on a Public Address system with only one operational speaker. The officers would then fling their passports at them. This was the stamp of approval allowing Palestinians to return home to Gaza. Those who were not “fortunate” enough to receive this stamp of approval were taken to a backroom for extra security checks. Witnessing all this, one anxious Palestinian doctor, desperate to see his family in Gaza City, said to me, “You see here. They treat Palestinians like cattle.”
Yet, despite encountering all the familiar features of a place that is besieged and colonized, at Rafah I was also confronted with another, very different image; namely, that of a place that also postures as a postcolonial state that has already risen out of the era of colonization. After spending two hours on the Egyptian side of the border crossing, I entered the Palestinian terminal. Together with a group of Palestinian travelers who had been let in at the same time as me, I was driven through a gate dominated by a sign declaring: “Welcome to Palestine”. Under it were Palestinian border security personnel wearing the uniform and statelike insignia of the Palestinian Authority. All of us traveling from Egypt to Gaza had to then stand in line at an immigration terminal and, much as at any other ordinary passport control desk, I had to present the entry permit issued to me by the appropriate immigration authorities. In my case, the permission to enter Gaza had been granted by the Residence and Foreigners Affairs General Administration of the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip. The passport control officer asked me questions like “What are you doing here?” “Who invited you?” and “How long do you plan to stay?” Having answered them sufficiently, I was then granted a Palestinian entry stamp. Momentarily, it felt as if I had indeed arrived in the State of Palestine—one that had been liberated, was now sovereign, and encompassed a distinct territory.
Of course, the presence of these two, seemingly contradictory, images is not limited to the premises of the Rafah border crossing. In fact, the Gaza Strip as a whole became a place of contradictions when Hamas adopted a dual mode of existence following its historic victory in the 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. After the unequivocal triumph of the Islamist faction, Fatah refused to be part of the Hamas government. Over the course of the 2007 Battle of Gaza, Hamas then consolidated its rule over the Gaza Strip while maintaining its commitment to the armed resistance. In doing so, Hamas oscillated between the images of the postcolonial state and an anticolonial movement. As the government in the Gaza Strip, it represented a civilian authority posturing like the future Palestinian state. However, by remaining committed to the armed struggle, Hamas also recognized the fact that Palestine is far from being liberated.
The Hamas representatives I met in the Gaza Strip often embodied this dual image in their public personas. During our meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad looked like an agent of the state. Wearing a suit, with the statelike insignia of the Palestinian Authority behind him and the Palestinian flag by his side, he was more reminiscent of a bureaucrat than the keffiyeh-clad Palestinian fedayeen (guerrilla fighter) or the masked al-Qassam fighter I had visualized while reading about Palestinian resistance. However, despite looking like the Palestinian bureaucrat, he was also quick to draw on the vocabulary of a liberation struggle. And, when I asked him to reflect on the future of Hamas as an organization, he declared, “We need to liberate the land first. Before we do anything else, we need to create a clear liberation platform and use it to acquire a Palestinian state.”
At the outset, it is this dual Hamas that I aim to explicate in this book. I ask, How should we conceptualize Hamas’s politics as it wavers between the anticolonial and the postcolonial? How does its anticolonial resistance survive and find meaning for the Palestinian struggle to dismantle what I go on to conceptualize as Israel’s settler colonial rule? How does the stateless Palestinian encounter Hamas’s postcolonial governance, which evokes the image of an era after the withdrawal of the colonizer? How does the anticolonial faction rationalize the postcoloniality of its governance, while still engaged in an anticolonial armed struggle against the colonizer? And, how does this coexistence of the anticolonial and the postcolonial complicate our understanding of what it means to be liberated (and unliberated)?
In answering these questions, I draw on my fieldwork in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Israel, and Egypt, conducted between 2013 and 2016, to present an ethnography of anticolonial violence and postcolonial statecraft in a settler colonial condition. For instance, to capture the multiple experiences of anticolonial violence, I place a Hamas member’s staunch conviction that an armed struggle is essential to the Palestinian liberation movement alongside a Palestinian restaurateur’s remembrance of being tortured in an Israeli prison and a young Gazan’s ambivalent stance on Palestinian armed resistance because of the scar on his body left from being shot by an Israeli soldier. Similarly, when providing an ethnography of Hamas’s postcolonial statecraft, I bring together a Hamas member’s insistence that governance serves a purpose for the liberation struggle, a young Palestinian’s encounter with the authoritarian nature of this governance when he was publicly beaten by the police in Gaza City, and an instance that I witnessed of a violent family dispute being defused by policemen in northern Gaza. And, I place these ethnographic accounts in the context of the settler colonial narrative I encountered in Israel. These include my reflections on the absence or derogatory presence of Palestinians in exhibits at museums in Tel Aviv celebrating the Israeli “War of Independence,” the Israeli appropriation of Palestinian cultural artifacts, and the almost casual way in which Palestinians carrying out stabbing attacks using knives and scissors were killed during my stay in Jerusalem in 2015 and 2016. In the end, much like the many Palestinian voices through which this text speaks, this book also oscillates between the euphoria and enigma of the anticolonial quest for change, and frequently breaks character to reveal the uncertainties surrounding this quest, especially when confronted with both the anticolonial and the postcolonial on the path toward liberation.