Amahl A. Bishara, Crossing a Line: Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression (Stanford University Press, 2022).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Amahl Bishara (AB): Crossing a Line analyzes the politics of expression of Palestinian citizens of Israel (‘48 Palestinians) and Palestinians subject to military occupation in the West Bank to tell part of a story of how Palestinians are prevented from speaking to each other and as a collective today. I was inspired to write this book both by my life experiences and through a sense of intellectual and political urgency. My father’s side of my family are ‘48 Palestinians, and I have close ties to the West Bank through my partner and past fieldwork. As a Palestinian American navigating these distinct geographies of settler colonialism, I came to realize that even Palestinians who have shared political values and beliefs often have different lived experiences of the political and thus distinct ingrained ways of approaching political expression and action. Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and those who live as subjects of military occupation in the West Bank are differently ostracized and endangered by Israeli military, policy, and society. For example, a bilingual English-Arabic t-shirt that attracted no attention at all in the West Bank made Palestinian friends uncomfortable during wartime in Jaffa inside Israel’s 1948 territories, causing them anxiety about street violence that could be directed at them. Meanwhile, on a street in the West Bank, people could feel perfectly comfortable expressing their Palestinian identities, but had to worry about soldiers arriving at their doors in the middle of the night.
Beyond the experiential level, recent decades have clarified how a politics of fragmentation has been a central mechanism of the Zionist project. The Oslo process rendered official Palestinian leadership complicit. As an ethnographer, I knew I could not investigate all dimensions of this dynamic, from Gaza to Lebanon to the Naqab and beyond, but I could look at the politics of expression in two neighboring locations.
More broadly, I wanted this book to speak to how settler colonialism often operates through fragmentation, and also to how popular politics and creative ways of constituting collectivities can challenge that fragmentation. In the United States, scholarship about the relationships among people of a variety of subjects positions in relation to US colonialism—Indigenous people, Black descendants of people who were enslaved, refugees, immigrants, citizens, temporary residents, undocumented people, etc.—has also suggested how colonialism creates categories of exclusion that amplify each other. My book is in dialogue with these themes.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
AB: After an introduction and a chapter about the shifting meanings of the placename “Palestine” across time and space, each chapter looks at a different set of expressive practices across the Green Line. By analyzing expressive practices, I focus attention not just on the texts or meanings of political speech, but also on the process and craft of communicating in particular contexts. I write about protests against Israel’s ferocious 2014 war on Gaza in Al-Lydd and Bethlehem; Nakba Day commemorations in multiple locations on two sides of the Green Line; how people express grief on Facebook for Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers or police; a photography exchange that I organized between Jaffa and Aida Refugee Camp; and the politics of prison on either side of the Green Line. Each of these practices is set in a particular environment of expression shaped by legal structures, restrictions on mobility, and the possibility of outright violence. These environments are in turn connected to one another. The book is not comparative, but instead shows how distinct threats to expression in different parts of Palestine compound limits on expression for all Palestinians.
Throughout my research, I was moved by the eloquence, bravery, and persistence of Palestinians organizing on two sides of the Green Line. Even though Palestinians cannot gather in one place, they carry out similar forms of protest and commemoration. They engage with some of the same concepts, like the idea of the “ongoing Nakba” (al-nakba al-mustamirra). They find ways of connecting with and expressing care to Palestinians living across the Green Line as well. After over seventy years of having different identities imposed upon them, this is remarkable.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
AB: Fieldwork for my first project on journalistic production during the Second Intifada centered in the West Bank. That was clearly where the headline international news was for Palestinians then. And yet I knew that Palestinian politics, experiences, and struggles were hardly limited to the West Bank. As I completed that project, I wanted to get beyond standard geographies of where “news” was happening and what counted as news at all. In my current book, I build on this question of the geography of news by looking at what is categorized as “local” news for Palestinian news websites on two sides of the Green Line.
During the Second Intifada, I also noticed that there were some brilliant journalists (often women!) who carried Israeli citizenship but had been determined to work in the West Bank. As I discuss in my first book, Back Stories, being a journalist in those years especially involved witnessing Israeli military violence up close and listening to those suffering from that violence. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, this meant creating meaningful connections with people that challenged the Green Line. Crossing the Green Line itself can be an important political practice, and I wanted to explore that dimension more.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AB: This book is quite grounded in ethnography. I hope it will be read by students, activists, scholars, and others who are concerned with Palestinian struggles and popular politics more generally. Crossing a Line stresses the importance of the embodied and everyday dimensions of politics—and argues for play and creativity as crucial practices of imagining new paths toward justice. This book also works with the idea that expression is individual, collective, and collaborative. How, as Palestinians are threatened by racism, legal barriers, and military violence, can they speak together but not in unison, to lift up the variety of experiences of Palestinian life today that must be the seeds for more liberatory futures? Fragmentation makes attention to diverse voices even more vital.
Writing this book kept me off balance, in a generative way, and reminded me to question where the center of a project—political or scholarly—should be. This is an important practice for working toward democratic and inclusive politics, for Palestinians and others. I hope this book will help people to challenge assumptions on how states and nations define space and people—and to recognize when researchers inadvertently reinforce those assumptions through a kind of methodological nationalism.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AB: I am looking forward to returning to some longstanding research about Palestinian politics in Aida Refugee Camp that not only resists the Israeli occupation but also contests the repression of the Palestinian Authority and the pressures of UNRWA. Inspired by the chapter in my book that addresses how kin-making and care work challenge the isolation of prison, I plan to look at the forms of social solidarity and love that help people to resist and survive in a place that faces high rates of incarceration, intense Israeli military violence, and environmental threats, all after decades of dispossession from ancestral lands. This work follows on from my enduring concern with place and politics, but on a different scale.
J: One fascinating element of your book are the interludes. What made you write them?
AB: In between chapters of the book, I include passages that chart specific journeys crossing the Green Line that I have taken over almost twenty years of fieldwork. The checkpoint system—so often written about as a limit on economic activity or personal freedom of movement—is also a limit on collective political expression, both because it means that Palestinians cannot gather in one place, and also because it creates anxieties, fears, and outright penalties for being together at all. Moving across the Green Line is a way of gaining a detailed understanding of Israeli power, as Palestinians notice where one is stopped and by whom, or which roads feel smooth and which are dangerous. In a car or a bus, passengers become a temporary collective, forced to decide how to manage a flying checkpoint, for example. But traveling on the road in land one loves with people one cares about is also pleasurable. That’s important too.
I wrote about these journeys because they give a feel of the texture of fieldwork; sometimes getting to the event was as telling as being at the event. These passages also illuminate my position in the field as a person with privilege to move. The passages have a momentum of their own, both in that they sometimes describe my journey to the destination for the following chapter and also because the overall arc of the passages suggests different kinds of movement that may be necessary to challenge Israeli apartheid.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-4)
Crossing a Line
On one summer evening in Haifa, in 2011, a small group of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners who were on a hunger strike for better living conditions. Protesters held framed photos of political prisoners whom the vast majority of Israeli society viewed as terrorists. Most of us had never met any of these striking prisoners in person. We had no easy way to capture or communicate the experiences of those prisoners who had not eaten for days, who lived in the prison of those who regarded them not just as criminals but as enemies. Some protesters blindfolded themselves and held their hands behind their backs as they kneeled in the cobblestone median of the main street. It was a different kind of vulnerability than that of hunger: visible solidarity with hated figures, bringing bodies low and close to traffic, denying themselves sight. The protest had wound down smoothly. It was dusk, that time in the demonstration when things can either turn more dangerous or more intimate, or they can dissipate entirely. A few people were still gathered near the treasured Palestinian cafes of Haifa’s downtown.
How illuminating it can be to listen to what happens at the margins of events, off stage, as the crowd is half dispersing. In that twilight state, Walaa Sbeit, a locally loved musician and drama teacher, took to the center of the circle of protesters with a riff about Handala, a famous Palestinian character. Handala is a child refugee with a patched shirt, bare feet, and spiky hair created by Palestinian refugee Naji Al-Ali in 1969. Drawn in outline, he is usually depicted from behind. One explanation of this stance is that he is looking back to his homeland, longing for and looking to the land from which he was dispossessed in 1948 upon Israel’s establishment. In this way he is a symbol of the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their home villages and cities. Another interpretation of his turned back is that he is rejecting corrupt and ineffective Palestinian leadership. That night, Sbeit called out across time and geography and the very lines of imagination to exhort Handala to show his face, as Sbeit spun around with a dancer’s grace:
Handala, turn your back
Handala, show your face.
The time has come to say, Enough.
As a child, Naji Al-Ali and his family had been pushed out of their Galilee village of Al-Shajara by Israeli forces in May 1948 and lived then in Ayn Al-Hilwe Refugee Camp in Lebanon, where 180,000 Palestinian refugees still live in some of the worst circumstances faced by Palestinian refugees. We were a fifty- or sixty-kilometer drive from the ruins of Al-Shajara and perhaps a hundred kilometers from Ayn Al-Hilwe. Lebanon felt at once utterly inaccessible—the border has been entirely closed to legal civilian crossing since Israel’s establishment—and just out of reach of the Galilee, like the breeze might really carry a message from this dancer in Haifa to a cartoon character dreamed up by an assassinated cartoonist in the last century. Like Handala could just maybe turn his head and answer Sbeit.
The prisons where the hungry prisoners waited were closer: Damoun, Al-Jalama, and Mejiddo were all within thirty-five kilometers, all former British Mandate detention facilities. They and the prisoners there, most of whom come from the militarily occupied West Bank, were out of reach in a different way. You could drive by them, but Israeli authorities tightly regulated visitors.
Sbeit soon turned to a meditation on the poetics of the name Handala itself. “Handala,” he said, and let the word hang in the night air.
Handala. Be kind to those who remained and those who did not remain.
I’ll remain here.
Here I’ll remain.
We’ll be kind to those who remained and those who did not remain.
Ḥanẓala. Ḥinn ʿalli ẓall wʿalli mā ẓall.
Ḥanḥinn ʿalli ẓall wʿalli mā ẓall.
And his words accelerated as he repeated them over and over until applause erupted around him and he settled again on the name Handala, suspended softly in the night.
All of the sounds of his riff came from the name Handala, and they are markedly Arabic sounds, like the hard ḥ that starts Handala, the hard ẓ sound in the middle, even the soft h sound of the end of his name. These sounds themselves signify Palestinian alterity, grace, and toughness for Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially because dominant forms of modern Hebrew tend to use fewer of the throat-based and “hard” sounds that make Arabic distinct. Indeed, Arabic is sometimes known as “the language of ḍād” evidence of how Arabic speakers can feel attached to the very distinctiveness of the sound of their language. To paraphrase the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s famous poem, Palestinians might have felt listening to Sbeit, we have in this word, Handala, what we need to express ourselves. In its formal economy, the line of Sbeit’s solo voice even bears some similarity to the Handala cartoon, that simple line drawing.
Sbeit articulates a determination to remain committed to this land. The reorientation of this Palestinian revolutionary symbol reveals its fertility. If Handala has been a symbol of refugees, here Handala helps Sbeit to articulate a message of tenderness for all Palestinians, those who were pushed out and those who remain. By using the sounds of Handala’s name to talk about these different relationships, he suggests that these experiences are deeply related. This tender love is kinder than nationalism; it is a graceful challenge to the fragmentation, dispossession, and shame that trouble so many Palestinians at this long nadir of their liberation movement. With reggae style vocalizations, Sbeit gestures out to another geography of liberation.
Palestinian nationalist political culture has tended to sideline Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they have found ways to engage, reframe, and stay connected to other Palestinians. Sbeit is a powerful messenger for this linking of refugee narratives and narratives of Palestinians in Haifa, since his family is internally displaced from the destroyed village of Iqrit in the far northern Galilee. He is like a refugee in his family’s dispossession from land, but not defined as a refugee because his family did not cross international boundaries, and he carries Israeli citizenship. In his performance, we see a symbol of Palestinian refugees’ right to return (Handala) transposed, seamlessly, into an affirmation of the experience of staying. Handala is an iconic figure in Palestinian symbolism, evoked in everything from graffiti to jewelry, but that evening Sbeit added a new layer of significance to the little cartoon child.
It was moving for me as an ethnographer with experience living and working in a West Bank community with high rates of incarceration to witness the brave Haifa standouts for prisoners. While there were a few cherished political prisoners who were citizens of Israel, most were from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. During these same hunger strikes in the West Bank, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends of prisoners and many former prisoners would come to the marches and solidarity tents set up in each city. They would cradle photographs of people they wanted to hold in person. They sat in those tents for hours, mirroring the endurance of the striking prisoners, their presence an emblem of the stamina it indeed took family members to care for prisoners from afar, sometimes over many years. Being in these protest tents in the West Bank was intimate and painful, but it was also less politically (and perhaps physically) risky than to kneel in the street in Haifa. In the West Bank, Palestinians regarded prisoners as heroic men and women, or as vulnerable children, and they were beloved family members and friends. The Palestinian Authority (PA), an administering institution in the West Bank that operates within the Israeli occupation, paid prisoners’ small salaries, recognizing what they saw as their service to the nation and many of their families’ dire need. Solidarity tents in Bethlehem would often be set up in the middle of town, where there were no Israeli soldiers. To stand with prisoners in the West Bank was not controversial. At these solemn events, there was rarely creative performance of song and dance. This is to say that the act of standing in solidarity with prisoners had a very different feel for Palestinian citizens of Israel than it did for Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. The dangers and discomforts and the very weight of loss were distinct even if the photos of the prisoners they carried might have been the same.
This book is about the distinct environments for political expression and action of Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and Palestinians subject to Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, two Palestinian societies differently ostracized and endangered by Israeli settler colonialism and militarism and differently impacted by displacement and empire. It embarks from the idea that expression is always grounded in place and body, and that recognizing this is especially crucial under conditions of militarized settler colonialism.