Sara Roy, Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance (London: Pluto Press, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sara Roy (SR): Gaza has been and continues to be invisible. Gaza becomes visible only when Israel attacks it, when Hamas fires rockets into Israel, or when the United Nations declares Gaza unlivable. Consequently, Gaza remains largely unknown and deeply misunderstood. As with all my writings, this book argues that Gaza is so much more than what it is portrayed to be. Its small size belies its profound significance, and it is this significance that I try to reveal in my book.
Despite the considerable literature that now exists on the Israeli–Palestinian crisis generally, and the occupation more specifically, the human dimensions of the occupation still deserve deeper examination. The resulting gap is often filled by essentializing conceptualizations of Palestinians, by a belief—sometimes stated, sometimes not—that Palestinians belong where Israeli Jews have put them, making the occupation—the unbroken site of Arab suffering—acceptable, even legitimate. Unsilencing Gaza is a refutation of this argument. It analyzes Gaza’s imposed and rapid decline over the last decade in particular and some critically missed opportunities that might have initiated a meaningful response. One understanding that emerges from the book is the ways in which Israeli policies have further and more dangerously constrained and delimited life in Gaza and the ruinous impact of these policies politically, economically, and socially. Yet this book also shows that Gaza’s people have continually resisted and have found creative ways of doing so, rejecting any notion that what they must endure is the result of what they have done.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SR: The book opens by examining US foreign policy towards the Palestinians, starting with the two Obama administrations. Consequently, what becomes clear is not only the failure of the United States (and the international community more broadly) to resolve the crisis when it could have, but also its complicity—through omission and commission—in the oppression of Palestinians.
The core of the book analyzes the trajectory of Israeli policy toward Gaza (with the assistance of the United States, European Union, and certain Arab states) from 2007 to the present, which deliberately undermined Gaza’s economy, transforming Palestinians from a people with political rights into a humanitarian problem. The book analyzes the dissolution of Israeli policy toward Gaza, arguing that it was replaced over time by a series of punitive approaches meant to destabilize yet contain Gazans and the Hamas regime and marginalize them from the larger Palestinian collective and body politic. This in turn positioned Palestinians in Gaza as exceptional to Palestine and its future.
The result are some new and altogether unprecedented political and socioeconomic dynamics, which include: the elimination of occupation as an analytical or legal concept in favor of annexation and imposed sovereignty; the transformation of Palestinians into intruders and perpetrators; the ruination of a functional economy and dispensing with the concept of an economy altogether; and the provision of aid outside an economic context and its use as a punitive measure. These dynamics, among others discussed, have since altered Gazan society and the very nature of the crisis and its possible resolution.
I also address life in Gaza before and during the first Intifada based on my personal experiences living and working in Gaza during these historical periods. I argue there are lessons from the past—long forgotten or unknown by the majority of Palestinians in Gaza today—that are crucial to and deeply relevant for the present.
I further reflect on Gaza’s ruination from a Jewish perspective and discuss the connections between Gaza’s history and my own as a child of Holocaust survivors. Over the last decade, more of my writing has turned to the impact of my Judaism and family history on my research and thinking. Here I reflect on Israel’s assault on Lebanon in 2006, the continuing repression and dispossession of Palestinians, the last three wars on Gaza, over a half-century of occupation, and the abuse and weaponization of anti-Semitism.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SR: Unsilencing Gaza is a book of my selected works over the last fourteen years, in addition to some new writings appearing for the first time. It continues where my first book with the Pluto Press, Failing Peace: Gaza and Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (2007) left off. Together these two books span over three decades of my research and writing and complement my other writings and books on Gaza.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SR: I would like the book to be read by academics, students, policymakers, Middle East specialists, and a wider audience of educated non-specialists. I hope it will dispel the many distortions and myths that persistently plague Gaza and provide a more in-depth portrayal of Gaza, her people, and the policies that have affected them.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SR: I am currently working on a new book that is informed by my nearly four decades of work on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Specifically, this book will examine the intersection of my Holocaust background, family history, Judaism, Zionism, and Palestinian human rights. I see this book as a reflection on what I have learned as a scholar and as a Jew in my long engagement with Palestinians and Israelis.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 14, “I wish they would just disappear,” pp. 108-111)
Imperial debris and ruination: Anesthetizing the “other”
The concept of “imperial debris” and the “ruination” it reflects — an important theme in Duress — is one of the most perceptible and tangible effects of Israeli occupation as seen in Palestine’s disabled economy and poisoned environment, most notably in Gaza. Another is ambiguity through which occupation is managed and enforced. And, as Stoler argues, “There is nothing ‘over’ about this form of ruination.” Yet, in the context of Israel’s colonial relationship with the Palestinians, debris and ruination assume a meaning that goes beyond decimation and its physical manifestations, where “acts of ruination” arguably reflect something far more resolute and injurious than they may in other colonial contexts.
An image that has never left me was one described by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, a Professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She was discussing the physical barriers and restrictions on space and movement of Palestinians living in Jerusalem and described how, in an attempt to circumvent them, Palestinian children returning home from school were forced to walk through sewer pipes. What struck me about this story was the image of these children as waste flowing beneath Israeli homes, beyond sight, sound, and smell. In this way, Palestinians are not only debris-making but are themselves debris, an environmental problem requiring some form of intervention and, eventually, disposal. Here, there is no “heartfelt gaze on the ruin” or even at the “lives of those living in them.” Here there is no possibility of being affected or altered by the “other.” Rather, there is only the “wish,” as stated privately by an Israeli official, that Palestinians “would just disappear.” In the context of Israel-Palestine, the act of ruination has come to be defined by something more malevolent: it is not damaged personhood that is primary (although it is created as fundamental to colonial order and control) but the denial of personhood and the psychological eradication of the person. The critic, Northrop Frye, stated it thus: “[T]he enemy become, not people to be defeated, but embodiments of an idea to be exterminated.”
Such ruination should be seen not as a violence of representation — where the colonizer acts as a surrogate or voice for the colonized — as much as it is a violence against representation — of any kind where no surrogate or voice is required. Violence, once an “instrument of catastrophisation” as Ophir and Azoulay correctly argue, is now better understood, in my view, as an instrument of invalidation, used to disqualify and annul, eradicating all sites of encounter with the other and replacing it with Nothingness. The aim is not the death of the “Indigenous other” but his nullification, along with the counter-memories and counter-claims that otherness naturally embodies. In this way, Israel has redefined the colonial distinction between self and other, the space that Israelis and Palestinians inhabit. In this redefined space there can be no approach or nearing, let alone engagement (with whom?), reciprocity or redemption. Instead, there is only singularity (particularly as it concerns indigeneity) and repudiation, and the insistence on sameness and certainty. Palestinians are erased from Israel’s emotional and political landscape, precluding contestation and complexity, and restoring to Jewish Israelis a knowable, unambiguous, easily interpretable clarity.
This relegation to “willful unknowing” was painfully seen during Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, known as Operation Protective Edge, when Israelis in Sderot, a town bordering Gaza (and periodically attacked by rockets fired from the Strip), gathered on a hillside, sitting on folding chairs and sofas to watch the bombing of Gaza and cheer the explosions that would, by the war’s end, kill over 500 Palestinian children. (It must be said that Palestinians have also celebrated the death of Israelis.) It was known as the “Sderot Cinema,” because the Israelis gathered there ate popcorn as if they were at an outdoor movie theater.
It is not the need to distinguish between the colonizer and the colonized that is primary in Israel’s relationship with Palestinians but the need to secure the Jewish community by differentiating the animate — the living — from the inanimate — the nonliving, the former with claims that are humane, transcendental and resonant, the latter with none at all, where any attempt at intimacy or equation would be seen as abnormal and pathological. From the earliest days of the occupation, Israel never embarked on a “civilizing” project among Palestinians; on the contrary, the mission, to borrow from Kathleen Stewart, has been the decomposition of Palestinian lives, orchestrating “their movement through decay,” rendering their memory incoherent or vacant, the people incapable of recalling their own history (both recent and far), and thus disembodied, unable to locate, let alone, secure their place in the world.
The decision on Jerusalem: to outlaw and make invisible
The decision by the United States to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel needs to be understood as an expression of purpose more inimical than simple contested political binaries. While it is true that the Jerusalem decision, which was fundamentally Israel’s, was an attempt by Israel to finally rid itself of the two-state solution — a political albatross from which Israel has long tried to free itself; it is also true — and perhaps more important for purposes of this discussion — that the decision was a response to the growing momentum, especially in the United States, for a rights-based approach to resolving the conflict that demands equal rights for Palestinians alongside Israelis.
The decision on Jerusalem must therefore be understood, in part, as an attempt to maintain and enforce what Israel sees as its historical right to render Palestinians rightless. The right to demand rights, which a rights-based approach reifies, is more threatening than the right itself because the former speaks to the agency that makes Palestinians present and irreducible, something Israel has worked so long to control and void. It is the ‘inability to unthink rightlessness’ among Palestinians — the destruction of the self as Rosemary Sayigh has argued — that must be maintained as a form of control. “The ascription of rightlessness to the ‘other’ is — and must remain – uncontestable” and beyond dispute, “a clearly established rule that is not limited by justice. Declaring Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital does just that; it not only purges Palestinians from the political equation and disendows them of any claims based on justice, but also insures their continued absence in Israeli eyes.”
The real threat, therefore, lies not in acts of Palestinian violence against Israel but in understanding that those acts are a response to injustice and dehumanization. An Israeli friend explained that the threat to Israel lies “in making Palestinians intimate, in seeing the world through their eyes and in feeling the ground beneath them inside their shoes”– in rejecting any endeavor that would treat them as indeterminate and notional, or consign them to abstraction. The insistence on human dignity is a theme that has run through my decades of research among Palestinians; the words that recur, meant to affirm existence: “I am a human being. I am someone’s child. Why do they treat me this way?”