In Arabic, the term sumud means roughly steadfastness or steadfast perseverance. It is a term that has become a cultural rallying point and a liberatory social practice for a people locked in a daily fight for survival on their own land. For this people, right now facing a deadly onslaught from an increasingly dangerous right-wing government, sumud is solidarity, mutual aid, and determined resistance to an apartheid system. The Western story about what we are witnessing in Palestine has omitted the accounts of Palestinians themselves. It has left out their story of sumud, which takes shape through a shared fight for freedom and equality. Sumud is a practice that “creates a continuous world” in which Palestinians can “live in resistance and refusal together,” and as a struggle in recognition of the material reality that is Palestine as a people, place, and culture.
Last March, the UN Special Rapporteur charged with assessing the situation in Palestinian issued a disturbing report detailing “a deeply discriminatory dual legal and political system” and calling the international community to action. Less than two months before the UN report, Amnesty International had issued a report detailing the crimes of Israel’s apartheid regime and calling it a “cruel system of domination and crime against humanity,” founded upon key components of “territorial fragmentation; segregation and control; dispossession of land and property; and denial of economic and social rights.” Not long after the release of these reports, the Israeli government launched a campaign of terror called Operation Breakwater (or “Break the Wave”), a focused torrent of violence that made 2022 one of the deadliest years on record in the West Bank. According to a report from the nonprofit Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, more than 200 Palestinians were killed in 2022, about 1 in 5 of whom were children. Most of these lost lives belonged to “civilians killed by Israel’s army in unjustified operations and contexts where they presented no imminent threat or danger to the lives of Israeli soldiers or settlers.”The new year is still young, but already it has seen levels of violence and death that, if sustained, will make 2023 even bloodier than 2022. January alone witnessed 35 Palestinian deaths, 8 of which belonged to children. The Palestinian people are in a desperate fight.
At this juncture, it bears repeating that there is an undeniable consensus within the international community: Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory violates international legal provisions prohibiting its practice of violently displacing Palestinians and expropriating their land and natural resources. The Israeli government has a long-established pattern of unlawfully targeting civilians and their property, prosecuting a relentless terror campaign that includes sophisticated surveillance, and imposing “draconian movement restrictions.” Palestinians’ movements and activities are carefully monitored and controlled, the ever-present threat of deadly force looming over the people of the occupied territories. Their very existence is criminalized. The government of Israel has made itself one of the most lawless and unaccountable state actors on the planet, flouting international legal standards and unilaterally rejecting any mechanism of accountability. Under even the most demanding tests for an apartheid regime, Israel’s brutal subjection of millions of Palestinians to second-tier social, political, and economic status meets the test.
Settler-colonial projects like the one that led to the creation of Israel are predicated on the assumption that the colonists are superior people from a higher culture, endowed with a right to take, hold, and govern the land. The suppression of Palestinians as a people and the erasure of Palestine as a concept and a living culture have been central goals of the Israelis since well before there was a State of Israel. The moral legitimacy of their colonial project depended and depends still on the idea that there is no such thing as Palestine. Just last month, Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s authoritarian Minister of National Security, ordered a new escalation in the continuous war on Palestinian culture and identity by banning display of the Palestinian flag. The West Bank is dotted with hundreds of military checkpoints and roadway barriers, where Palestinians face daily threats and abuse for the smallest perceived infraction. It is a system of discipline and fear designed to cow and erase an occupied population. But reality persists, and there is a Palestinian people. They can’t be imagined away, and they deserve freedom from the persistent cruelty and oppression that come with their second-class status. If we say anything else, or if we say nothing at all, then we are disavowing this group of people. The conversation about Palestine in the West can no longer tolerate the facially absurd and offensive equation of the Jewish community at large with the State of Israel. The former is a diverse, multi-ethnic, global community defined by a family of cultural and religious traditions that go back thousands of years. The latter is a colonial government entity founded in the middle of the last century and characterized by its explicit exclusion of non-Jewish and non-white people, its dual legal system, and its brutality toward an ethnic minority indigenous to the land. Palestinians have lived for generations under the constant threat of forced expulsions and violent efforts to obliterate Palestinian identity and culture.
It would be difficult to overstate “the vast asymmetry of power” in the relationship between Israel and Palestine. Though famously cagey about its nuclear weapons programs and capacities, Israel is a nuclear state and routinely ranks among the most powerful governments on earth. Structural asymmetry has been evident in the relationship since a century ago, when the Post-World War I British Mandate period began, instituting a system that recognized the nationhood of the territory’s Jews and protected their rights and place in the region, without extending the same legal recognition and protection to Arabs. Today, Israel’s unique relationship with the United States protects it from accountability to the broader international community. A global outlier in its own frequent violations of international law, the United States government is also an outlier in its refusal to undersign a UN resolution stating that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is illegal. Indeed, the elite Washington stance on the human rights crisis in Palestine is among today’s clearest current examples of doublethink, the U.S. faintly condemning the settlements while giving unwavering support to the Israeli government’s oppressive dual system. Here, too, Cold War strategic considerations have had their place, as Israel’s wars and conquests at the expense of Soviet-aligned states made it a powerful partner in the fight against the Soviet Union.
The world’s states must be held to a higher standard than the one to which Israel has been held. If they are not, then state actors will be no more than gangs of criminals, whose only ethical standard is might makes right, who can steal and kill with total impunity. Any path away from the horror and loss to which the Palestinian people have been subjected must involve an honest confrontation with crimes both past and present. Such an honest confrontation requires that we continue to call this brutal and oppressive system what it is, apartheid, the relegation of Palestinians to life sentences of second-class status. There is no time to wait. The humanitarian emergency in Palestine demands that we stand together with Palestinians in sumud, in a commitment to reject “the technologies of asphyxiation.”