- Interview by
- Jaclynn Ashly
In 2009, when he was only eleven years old, Mohammed el-Kurd’s life in Sheikh Jarrah changed forever. A group of settlers forcibly took over half of el-Kurd’s family’s home, throwing their possessions onto the streets and setting fire to his three-year-old sister’s bed. He watched the same thing happen to his neighbors, as Israeli forces forcibly evicted dozens into the streets to be replaced with Israeli settlers. The front section of his family’s home is still occupied by settlers, some of whom hail from the United States.
Kurd, who has returned to New York for graduate studies, grew up with constant reminders of the violence of Israeli settler colonialism all around him. From the large Star of David graffitied on the entrance of his home to the Israeli settlers who march confidently down Sheikh Jarrah’s streets — always strapped with M16s — and into the homes of his now expelled neighbors, Kurd has lived with the ever present awareness that he and his family could be targeted next.
It was no surprise when the twenty-three-year-old, along with his twin sister Muna, rose to international prominence over the summer — since Kurd was a child, he has been a vocal spokesperson for his community. He has always ferociously defended his family’s and neighbor’s homes from Israeli settlers — settlers who have been attempting for years to transform Sheikh Jarrah, along with other Palestinian areas in Jerusalem, into a Jewish neighborhood.
All told, seven families — made up of at least 150 adults and children— in Sheikh Jarrah received eviction orders. All these families are refugees, or descendants of refugees, who fled their villages and homes during the creation of the Israeli state in 1948 – known among Palestinians as the Nakba, or “catastrophe.” At least 500 other Palestinians in the neighborhood are also facing displacement.
Back in April, the protests against these expulsions were relatively small, consisting of not more than a few dozen people. Jacobin interviewed el-Kurd a few days before these small protests erupted into what is now being dubbed the “Unity Intifada.” The feelings of powerlessness that Kurd and the community experienced were palpable.
But that all changed when fierce protests erupted throughout all of historic Palestine and hundreds of thousands of people around the world took to the streets to voice their support for the Palestinian struggle. Israel’s Supreme Court has postponed its ruling on the matter. But families in Sheikh Jarrah continue to face imminent displacement.
Mohammed and Muna el-Kurd became the faces of this recent uprising, spearheading social media campaigns and unapologetically confronting harmful media portrayals of ethnic cleansing in their neighborhood. The twins were recently named to Time magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Jacobin spoke with Mohammed el-Kurd again in a recent interview to discuss his rise to international prominence, the significance of the latest uprising, his poetry and writing, and his feelings about returning to New York.
After the uprising that erupted around Sheikh Jarrah, we saw protesters in occupied East Jerusalem, the rest of the occupied West Bank, inside Israel, and from Gaza all unify in a collective act of protest against Israel’s assaults on al-Aqsa and the impending expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah. What are your thoughts on this, and why was this a significant moment for Palestinians on the ground?
It was a very significant moment. It was unprecedented because so much of the Zionist project has been to dismantle and fragment Palestinian unity, to overthrow the fabric of Palestinian societies, and to create these disparate realities.
I have a radically different experience than a Palestinian who lives in Haifa or a Palestinian who lives in the Gaza Strip. What we saw this past summer, in the uprising, was Palestinians overcoming and overthrowing all of these colonial barriers that the Israeli occupation has created for us, be it the barriers that exist physically on the ground — the cement barriers, the checkpoints, the wall; or the barriers within the mind — the delusions that they have created for us.
The other unprecedented aspect was that we have dominated the conversation and kicked our feet onto the table, smashed the door, and broken the glass ceiling. We have abandoned respectability politics, which is the approach that Palestinians used for decades. We’ve abandoned it this time around. We’re not muffled. We’re not in a corner constantly defending ourselves. We’re not making a million disclaimers before we get to the point. The point is that we deserve to be liberated and we deserve to live in our homeland.
Sheikh Jarrah is a microcosm of Israeli settler colonialism in historic Palestine. And it’s really hard to negate it, no matter how loud Israel’s counternarrative is. It is so clearly the case that you have foreign settlers walking into people’s homes, utilizing the power of the state and military to brutalize people. They do it in a way that is unabashed and in full view of the camera. There’s no denying this.
But I think the spark beyond al-Aqsa, beyond Sheikh Jarrah, has lit up on a global scale. I don’t think the movement would have looked the same if it had not been for the George Floyd uprising in the United States — if it had not been for other uprisings all around the world. Oppressed people, regardless of geography, took it upon themselves this summer to revolt. Within these small movements, we recognized that the vehicles that oppress us often intersect and often benefit from one another.
It is beneficial for me, for lack of a better word, to be in solidarity with other oppressed groups. For example, in the United States, the Israeli police trains US police in some states, and those trainings have direct effects on the lives of Americans, especially black and brown Americans. I think there was something that was developing globally, and when we coupled it with a media and advocacy campaign, we called things out as they are and were clear about naming the villain. Hundreds of thousands of people throughout the world had clarity and were given the tools and language to join this fight for Palestinian liberation and decolonization.
It was also interesting to see this collective act of resistance on the ground then develop into an international social media movement, which was very reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and #EndSARS in Nigeria. Being such a prominent figure now, what do you believe to be the strengths and shortcomings of this kind of movement? How can a movement like this progress into making real changes to people’s material realities?
Our goal in this movement was to shift the narrative. Part of the narrative is formulated around Palestinians, which frames everything around Palestinian resistance as terrorism and forces Palestinians into this corner of defensiveness — having to constantly disclaim or condemn this or that. The movement today is about shifting the narrative.
I think the first step in achieving reparations or changing material realities is getting everyone on board with the correct narrative and on the “right side of history.” Of course, this certainly comes with its own limitations. Like the Black Lives Matter movement, I’m wary of our movement becoming co-opted by Palestinian elites or by Palestinians who have ties to various institutions — US, Israeli, or Palestinian Authority — who may deter or co-opt our movement. Co-optation accounts for whatever shortcomings the movement may be exhibiting.
There’s also a power disparity. We’re just a grassroots movement — a community of refugees growing up in one of the world’s most lethal regimes. And we must contend with all the internal dynamics that stem from that fact. Furthermore, we’re a society that is being globally represented — not by its grassroots movements, or its street culture — but by a very corrupt institution: the Palestinian Authority, which is a copilot of the Israeli occupation. It’s a collaborator with the Israeli occupation.
There are all kinds of challenges our movement faces. We were aiming to shift the narrative and have people use the right vocabularies. If you have the right vocabularies, then you have the right response. Now the next step is to make sure this status quo — which was disrupted and challenged — is not revived by Palestinian organizations or international organizations, which are chained to the wishes and desires of their funders.
The liberty of my speech owed to the fact that I’m not tied to any organization or receiving any funding. This has offered me a liberty that many Palestinian organizations do not have because they have to compromise their beliefs to get the check at the end of the month.
In an unpublished interview I did with you right before the uprising broke out and before you rose to international prominence, you had spoken to me about feelings of being gaslit by the media. You explained how Israeli authorities and most media coverage of Palestine work to normalize settler domination. A few days after our discussion, you were invited on to every single major international media outlet, where you were able to directly and publicly confront these harmful narratives.
In one interview that went viral, a CNN anchor asked you whether you supported the “violent protests” in support of Sheikh Jarrah, to which you now famously responded: “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?”
I’m aware of how much adoration Palestinians throughout historic Palestine — from Haifa to Gaza — feel for you and your sister because of the ways you have unapologetically described their realities. I’m curious to know what it feels like, on a personal and community level, to be able to directly confront these media narratives that have so long misrepresented your family, community, and people.
I’m using the “I” pronoun here, but I believe this is the sentiment of the Palestinian street at large. “I don’t take shit. I really don’t take shit.” That’s the sentiment that grows when you lack representation for your entire life.
When you get zero screen time, you start to think that any screen time is good screen time and any framing is good framing; when in fact a lot of the mainstream framing is completely dehumanizing.
My community and I are literally facing homelessness, and this highly paid CNN interviewer is setting me up by asking me an inciting question. When I was presented with that question, I thought, “No, I have dignity as a human being. I deserve to be treated with respect, and this is a fucked-up question.” At a certain point, you cannot accept these kinds of accusations and this kind of cornering anymore.
I’m the oppressed person here, yet I’m being interrogated about my views. You have Israeli politicians who are literally bombarding the Gaza Strip and yet go on CNN to speak all their little talking points and spread propaganda, and not once are they challenged or asked a difficult question. Yet you have the people on the receiving end of these bombs having to disclaim; be cornered; defend themselves; condemn this and apologize for that. It’s racist.
There is also a form of power play here. I was refusing to be misrepresented by this racist TV pundit, but through that little battle between the Palestinian and the mainstream media, this correction creates a scene for the audience that is unforgettable. When I, or anyone, tells the TV reporter that you are misleading the audience, the audience’s ears perk up. They tune in, and the event becomes a learning experience.
It was completely shocking to me to see my words on protest posters all over the world, because I didn’t think that statement on its own had that much merit. But I recognize now that the moment in which that statement was born had a lot of symbolic power; it represented the end of an era where Palestinians will accept racism and misrepresentation on TV. Sheikh Jarrah shifted the equation completely.
In our discussion before the uprising broke out, you spoke about the ethnic cleansing in Jerusalem — of seeing your neighbors evicted around you during prior expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah, when you were just a child. You said, “Oppression is not just losing your property and becoming homeless, which is a tragedy on its own. It is also about losing a sense of dignity.”
Can you talk about the resistance in Sheikh Jarrah, especially as it pertains to the reclamation of Palestinian dignity in the community? Can you try and explain what the local reaction has been to this process of having Sheikh Jarrah’s struggle seen by millions around the world?
This is a new era. We have reentered the world stage on our own terms. There was a slip in the power dynamics. It’s absolutely empowering and dignifying. It gives people real material hope to hear their own articulations and narrations. It gives people material hope to see themselves in a position of power, in which they can exercise their agency. Today, the Palestinian people are not bowing their heads. We are not waiting for international organizations to make their statements in our favor. We are giving international organizations the torch and vocabulary to make their statements. Today, we are audible in our demands.
But despite winning the media battle and the fact we have ushered in a new era, we are still the victims of a lethal regime — with nukes — that executes laws that are meant to displace and dispossess people. And the price of our advocacy and defense of our homes has been high. My neighbor, Murad Attieh, a twenty-five-year-old schoolteacher, is now being charged with terrorism for simply protesting ethnic cleansing.
I was summoned to be interrogated by the Shabak (the Israeli internal intelligence agency), and I had to leave the country abruptly because of it. There are also dozens of people who have supported Sheikh Jarrah who are now being persecuted and prosecuted. We are seeing a huge crackdown and retaliation by the Israeli authorities. There’s this significant reintroduction of the Palestinian narrative into the mainstream, and that is a victory. But the price for that victory has been high, so we need this international advocacy to continue.
There is worry that people will move on from Sheikh Jarrah. We know what happens when the cameras aren’t there. We can see it in the disparity in reception between my sister and my arrests and Murad’s arrest. The fact that my sister and I are hyper-visible and we’re constantly on center stage and we’re articulate gave us an international reaction that Murad was deprived of. As a result, we are seeing him potentially lose his youth to Zionist prison. And that’s incredibly terrifying. It’s hard to even think about or reckon with.
It’s important to reconcile with the politics of icon-making. I understand why it was necessary for my sister and me to be put on center stage and why each movement needs a face, but how do you do that while maintaining the protection of the community, which these faces echo? The articulations that my sister and I make are not our inventions; they are the articulations of our community. What is the fate of our homes when the cameras are not there? And, most importantly, what is the fate of our community members who are currently facing the consequences of this uprising when the cameras are not there?
In our previous discussion, you mentioned burnout among Palestinians.
That was right before the whole of historic Palestine erupted in protest and Sheikh Jarrah became known throughout the world. Do you still feel the same way? Has this process and movement reinvigorated your advocacy?
I remember when we first got the occupation court ruling that our homes, among others, would be stolen from us. I was in New York in my first or second semester of graduate school, and I sat with this news for about three days. I didn’t know what to do with this news. It took a lot to convince myself that I had the energy for advocacy against the ruling. At that time, I was thinking, ok, they want to take our home, but they have taken the entire country. They want to take our home, but there are people who get killed every day. They want to take our home, but there are thousands of Palestinians in prison. They want to take our home, but Palestinians in Gaza are under siege. They want to take our home, but, but, but . . . I had to challenge and battle this hierarchy of oppression that the Israeli occupation created for us, which makes it seem like one thing is less severe than another, or one thing is more acceptable than the other.
It also normalizes all of these oppressions and makes them part of our day to day. Evictions, demolitions. . . . Fine, at least it’s not a bombing. At least it’s not a revoking of our [Jerusalem] residency. Today, this has completely changed in my mind. Today I understand why this hierarchy of oppression exists in the first place; it’s to stifle any kind of community organizing or activism. The fact that I was muzzled by this system, this regime; the fact that I was gaslit by this regime for my entire life — gaslit into thinking that losing my home to settlers is not significant . . . it was a moment of understanding the psychological warfare that we go through as Palestinians.
For me, that was a big turning point — to understand that I am worthy at the very basic level of housing. And I’m worthy of dignity and rebellion, of advocacy. Burnout and exhaustion continue, of course. But at the same time, we’re realizing that Palestinians — no matter where we are and regardless of the language that disguises the oppression we face — no matter the formality or the legality through which our oppression can seem acceptable, all of us deserve liberation, and all of us can and must resist in order to protect ourselves.
People refer to this as the Unity Intifada. And the word unity is accurate. It’s a level of unity we haven’t seen since 1936, during the Buraq Revolution. The fabric of Palestinian society, which has been fragmented and torn apart for seven decades, has been restitched. And that’s one of the biggest accomplishments of this uprising, to politicize and awaken a new generation of people all over the world who will engage in society with a belief and commitment to Palestinian liberation.
But it’s also hard because it’s too much at once. The day Murad was arrested, I was going to meet with him and our lawyer, and on the way to Sheikh Jarrah, I saw news of this Israeli journalist fabricating a stabbing attack, saying that a woman who was shot by the occupation forces was stabbing a soldier and using a picture from 2018 as corroborating evidence. Immediately after that, there was a settler attack on a village in the South Hebron Hills. I wanted to tweet about it, but then, immediately after that, there was a demolition order in Silwan. This all happened during the commute time between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
I’m trying to write about these issues, but I then see Murad getting arrested, and I have to write about that. I get to the court — I’m waiting for Murad — when I have Shabak agents handing me an interrogation summons. There is just so much happening at once — in the span of two or three hours. And this has been our life. This constant violence forces you to become numb and normalize it to a certain degree.
There are dozens of consulates and diplomats in Sheikh Jarrah whose balconies overlook our street and who stood on their balconies watching the tear gas, the skunk water, and the stun grenades; watching the military horses storming through the crowds; watching the rubber bullets shooting at our windows and our bodies. They saw all of this, and they need to do something.
While this movement, which has thrown a wrench, at least temporarily, into Israel’s ethnic cleansing policies in Sheikh Jarrah has been inspiring, I also want to talk about the negatives and the real failures, or potential failures, of this situation. While everyone is holding out hope that Sheikh Jarrah will be saved, this ethnic cleansing is quite literally written into the Israeli legal system and props up the foundations of the state.
Even if you and your family do manage to get the Israeli courts to rule in your favor, which is very unlikely, it would be one small battle among thousands of other battles.
Can you discuss this reality and try to describe the overwhelming situation you are up against?
To be completely real, we don’t think the Israeli court will ever rule in our favor. That would quite literally go against the anatomy of the Israeli judicial system that was built by and for settlers to displace Palestinians. A ruling in our favor would set a precedent for thousands of other Palestinian people. So, we don’t think this will happen.
This regime is a beast. We are constantly being crushed by its fangs. Palestinians are dealing with a system of settler colonialism that employs so many different branches for the end goal of displacing us and making us leave our homes. Every corner of your life as a Palestinian is filled with challenges and obstacles. These structures are designed to oppress you, to make you want to leave, or to force you to leave.
Grassroots Jerusalem highlights how something as innocent seeming as a park can be a tool of displacement. For example, Issawiya [a Palestinian neighborhood in Jerusalem] is surrounded by national parks. Although people’s homes do get demolished inside the village of Issawiya, it is also surrounded by these so-called national parks, state-owned lands. This not only isolates and fragments this Palestinian neighborhood from all of the surrounding Palestinian communities — shattering its social and economic ties — but it also prevents natural community growth. Issawiya is limited to the borders Israel picks and chooses. These things that are seemingly innocent are also techniques of colonization.
There are a thousand and one ways that the Israeli occupation authorities are displacing Palestinians — it happens under our noses. Talk of ethnic cleansing is not a metaphor — it’s actually egregiously understated. It’s hard to reckon with this reality and accept that every system and institution of this regime is out to get you, quite literally. We first need to challenge the official language of the institutions to call things what they are. Second, we need international recognition of this situation as settler colonialism and not just as a system of apartheid or military occupation. To do otherwise is to ignore reality.
You had a very fascinating conversation with Indya Moore, the actor and model, on Instagram Live, in which you discussed the inability of much of the Western world to come to terms with the realities of colonization in Palestine. As you said, in doing so, they would be forced to confront their own role in historical and current processes of colonization. I thought this was a very powerful and significant conversation, and I was hoping you could discuss it more here.
The world, especially the West, tends to think about colonialism in the past tense. Colonization is this thing we learned about in history books and that we’re ashamed of and we’re repenting for. But Israel is not an individual or independent actor. It is part of a global force of many regimes that are propagating colonialism all around the world.
We are slowly but surely realizing that we are one in an increasingly progressive world. There is no way Palestinians, or anyone else, can continue to be subjugated while other people are making noise about their own subjugation. Indigenous people and black people here in the United States, whatever positive change they fight for is going to ultimately and inevitably impact the Palestinian cause. I really don’t think there’s a world where Palestine is free and the rest of the world isn’t free.
Indya Moore and I talked about how Israel is in many ways a settler outpost that is very similar and familiar to the United States. It is similar in both the ethnic cleansing that its establishment necessitated and in the sanitization of its history. Of course, now the ethnic cleansing in the United States is more muted and invisible, whereas the Israeli occupation authorities are explicit in their intentions. But [Israel] still utilizes legal frameworks and bureaucracy to continue with its ethnic cleansing in increments — to make it seem like it hasn’t enforced mass expulsion.
Colonization is like a virus. It mutates, progresses, and advances. Colonization is now learning to adapt to this increasingly progressive world and co-opt these progressive languages we have been producing in the past ten to twenty years. Even these progressive frameworks can be exploited by the empires that produce the Israeli occupation and US imperialism.
Whenever an international solidarity activist would come visit us [in Sheikh Jarrah], my grandmother would ask them, “Where are you from?” And they would say, “England.” And she would say, “Well, you’re the reason why we’re here today.” She would say the same things to the Americans. Obviously, the Zionist project is to blame for the displacement, subjugation, and statelessness of the Palestinian people. But the Zionist project would not have been sustained without the political, diplomatic, and economic support from many nations.
Dareen Tatour is a Palestinian poet who was imprisoned by Israel in 2015 over a poem she wrote. Discussing art and protest in an interview, she said:
Before the arrest, I wondered whether words can alter reality. Words are the only means to convey a certain culture to others. Poets are those who convey moments from one place to another and expose truths.
You are a talented poet, and your first book, which consists of a collection of your poems, is titled Rifqa, the name of your late grandmother, a Nakba survivor. Can you speak on this forthcoming book and the role that words play in Palestinian resistance?
I am trying to engage, develop, and contribute to the existing [Palestinian] resistance literature that is so potent and explicit in Arabic, but is often censored and timid in English. My goal is to convey that unabashed fury, that natural human response of resisting, into English. When somebody’s hand is around your neck, your natural reaction is not going to be to sit by and wait until it ends, you’re going to resist. And you have the right to have that resistance be whatever you want it to be.
But because of smear campaigns, misrepresentation, demonization of Palestinians, racism, the “war on terror,” 9/11 – among many other things — our resistance and literature have been largely defamed. Mainstream literature now has to adhere to these guidelines set first by international actors and second by international funders who want to uphold a certain status quo. That’s what accounts for the language of things like “two states” or “nonviolent” or “peaceful resistance” — as if resistance could ever be peaceful in a technical sense. That’s the genre to which I want to contribute. Palestinians haven’t written The Wretched of the Earth for Palestine. We haven’t written such a book that describes the Palestinian struggle from the perspective of the Palestinian street.
To segue into the quote by Dareen Tatour, I probably wouldn’t entirely agree with her — although I think it’s a powerful quote. I go back and forth on this . . . the power of words. Throughout most of my life, my words have added nothing to my helplessness and have added nothing to my powerlessness.
I don’t know what a word does in the face of a rifle. But I also understand that words are incredibly powerful, because we are up against this project of colonization and ethnic cleansing that also utilizes the vocabulary of our oppressors — setting a global narrative that dehumanizes an entire population and erases them from history.
When I’m writing an article about, for example, the Palestinian village of Beita, and I’m going into the archives and going back in 1988, looking for testimonies, I see the stark difference between English and Arabic in the documentation and reporting of what happened in Beita. For instance, I’m reporting on an incident in Beita, which was during the [First] Intifada. A group of Israelis marched down to Beita to provoke and confront Palestinians. All of international media reported it as a hike. What settlers go on a hike during the Intifada? What settlers go on a hike with M16s? And this is the true power of language. And I saw the power of language firsthand this summer — to be able to change something so fundamentally intrinsic to the global lexicon — like “eviction.”
For many, many years we have called what is happening to us an “eviction” and ignored or deflected from the fact that it’s a violation of international law. It’s literally a war crime — a continuous action of ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people that started even before 1948. We have continued to call it an “eviction” and refused to make the connection that it’s a microcosm of Israeli settler colonialism. It’s no different than the massacre in Deir Yassin or the gentrification in Yaffa or everything else that continues to happen all around Palestine.
We’re not calling it an “eviction” anymore. We call it ethnic cleansing, forced ethnic displacement, and dispossession. Language really matters because it flipped the script and the international reaction. And that’s the true merit of language. The difference between reporting on Sheikh Jarrah in 2009 and reporting on Sheikh Jarrah today is shocking; the difference in these ten years is abundant. You have reports that sanitize what happens and justify it — attempts to make it seem like its normal for settlers to steal our homes. They don’t even mention words like “steal,” “takeover,” or “force.” And today, it’s completely different.
You have entire countries and hundreds of thousands of people condemning it. And that is the work of language. That is the work of reshaping the conversations. I am hoping that all of this work could mean something in the future, when people reflect back on this literature. I hope that when there’s a young journalist or student looking to see what happened in Sheikh Jarrah, they can find records of what happened that actually reflect the reality. And this is one of the reasons I write in English.
You have always had a dedicated following who have read your poetry. Now that you have risen to international prominence, you will likely have hundreds of thousands more people reading your poetry. I’m curious about your reaction to this. Is this empowering? Intimidating? Does it affect your process of writing at all?
It’s definitely intimidating, very intimidating. I would say sometimes paralyzing. But I try my best never to write for an audience. And that helps liberate me from being shackled by the expectations of others. I also think that the first book people are going to see from me is a poetry book, which will allow for fluidity in terms of interpretation. It will allow people to interpret it in whatever way they want.
It’s also unbelievable — the idea that hundreds of thousands of people have their eyes on me and my words! I appreciate it, but it’s intimidating. Independently from the book, this shift in platform has made me realize the importance of including others from Palestinian society who have contributed to the local and global conversation for many decades and who have shaped my analysis for many decades. Whenever I have something fundamental to say, I do take advice from different sets of eyes that can offer different lenses of perspective. Different forms of investigation, such as feminist, indigenous/decolonization, or political economy lenses of analysis — these types of perspectives all matter to me more than before. I understand there’s much more heft to what I say due to the amount of people who are going to be looking at it.
My next book will be a nonfiction book that makes a concrete argument. It will allow for much more scrutiny because it won’t have the same freedom of interpretation as poetry does. But it will also be much clearer in terms of what I want to say and my political analysis.
You have started a position at the Nation as the outlet’s first ever “Palestine correspondent” — your first story in this role was about the resistance in Beita. Can you please discuss this role, its significance, and how you hope to challenge mainstream narratives on Palestine?
This is a role that I pitched to the Nation, and my main hope was that it would help set a trend among US publications to start a Palestine department. Palestinians are constantly in the news, but Palestinians themselves seldom participate in shaping the news.
Palestinians are not in the ear of policymakers in the way that Zionists are. Palestinians are not reporting about the experiences they suffer from or struggle with. And then there are these reporters that are two, three, four, five, six degrees removed from the situation that get to be the authoritative voice in articulating and analyzing the experiences of Palestinians. I hope my role can challenge this by setting a trend for Palestinians to have a voice in how their stories are told.
I hope to also challenge mainstream narratives on Palestine simply by saying things as they are. We are living under an internationally recognized military occupation, so if I call the Israeli army the “Israeli occupation forces,” that is not melodramatic or sensational. It is simply objective. And that’s not a commonly held belief. But I want to work to make it a commonly held belief. What would you call the soldiers of the occupation that are taking over your land? They’re occupation soldiers. Thank you, next.
Another issue is framing. What does it mean to be a terrorist versus what does it mean to be a freedom fighter? How has analysis of this issue been shaped by the war on terror? If you Google, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” the first four or five pages of Google search are going to be US propaganda articles that are titled, “Is one man’s terrorist really another man’s freedom fighter?” — basically trying to refute that argument. It’s literally just propaganda.
We haven’t had much analysis that frames freedom fighters as freedom fighters — at least during the short period of my existence in which I’ve been an English speaker. They’re constantly depicted as terrorists and articles are constantly legitimizing the [Israeli] judiciary system that is internationally recognized as part of an oppressive occupation.
Rifqa, your late grandmother, has been a source of inspiration and strength for you throughout your life. You have often discussed the intergenerational trauma of the historic and continuing Nakba. Rifqa was 103-years-old — three decades older than the state of Israel — when she passed away last year. She was about thirty-one when she was forced to flee her home in Haifa, now part of northern Israel, during the Nakba.
You are in a unique situation in which you are massively popular among local Palestinians on the ground; you quite literally grew up with settlers living inside your home, giving you “street cred” among the most disadvantaged Palestinians. But you have also become famous internationally.
If she was here, what do you think she would say to you? What guidance and lessons would she give you in this unique position of leadership you are in?
I don’t think my grandmother ever sat me down and gave me advice. But I have taken so much advice from her simply by watching her exist in the world and interact with people. Our situation has always been unique, in the sense that we have been like a museum for people from all around the world. And I grew up in that, under the gazing eyes of international activists, journalists — some of them not well-meaning — curious Israelis, and soldiers. Watching her interact with all that has been formative for me. I remember so much of what she said, like, “Great Britain was beaten, and Israel, you will be beaten too.”
Whenever a police officer would give her some excuse, she would not just question or negate the excuse — she would question the very existence of police in our neighborhoods, communities, and cities. She didn’t revere anyone or fear anyone. She didn’t care about authority. She called things as they are. She was definitely not infallible. But she just did not care about who was in front of her or what kind of weaponry they had. She always spoke the truth, even in the face of a rifle. And that is empowering to me.
For the past several months, the most common advice I’ve heard from everybody — from diplomats to my father to friends — has been to try and be more diplomatic; to try and give more compliments. I think if my grandmother was alive today, she would definitely tell me not to do that. She would tell me not to be diplomatic and to not back down. I think that’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from her.
And what you said about street cred, this is also what made my grandmother such an authority figure to me. She lived through the Nakba, this thing that feels so far away — even though it’s not — she lived through it. She constantly recalled it. She’s the physical evidence of its continuity, because she also had to live through it again in ’67 and then again in 2009. If she were still alive, she would have had to live through it again today. This would have been her God-knows-what-number Nakba.
This is where my spine comes from and the idea that I can articulate history through narrating my own experiences, despite the allegations and lies of formal [Israeli] institutions like the judiciary, or international actors and diplomats. The physical, tangible reality of violence in front of my eyes is clear. And my grandmother taught me that I can articulate it, narrate it, and report it back to the world.
I’m more equipped than anyone else. My sister and I are in a position that is irrefutable — and I say this with complete confidence, and I’m not a confident person. There are literally settlers living in our house. There is nothing that anyone can say about my sister and I, or my family, or Sheikh Jarrah, or anyone living in this situation that can make us not credible or that could put our integrity in question, because there are literally settlers living in our homes. These settlers themselves oftentimes testify to the things we’ve been chanting about for years. And that’s really where street credit comes from.
However, it is only unique in that we have outwardly communicated it. But it’s actually not unique, because so many people are in a very similar position. If it’s not home theft, it’s land theft. And if it’s not land theft, then it’s home demolitions. If it’s not that, it’s exile or residency revocation.
We have been backed into a corner. We have to defend ourselves, defend our fury and anger, defend our hatred and disdain for the people who are causing us material violence. We’re constantly confronting this false equation between our hypothetical violence and the very material state-sanctioned violence that we deal with every day.
But what Sheikh Jarrah has done is set a precedent for other people to follow. You cannot compare anything to state-sanctioned violence, and you can’t compare anything to the fact that there’s a goddamn settler from Long Island who came all the way from there to squat in my home. There’s nothing refutable about that. And there’s nothing refutable about my grandmother’s experiences during the Nakba, because she lived it and saw it with her own eyes.
What is it like for you to be back in graduate school in New York? I imagine that it was very hard to leave Sheikh Jarrah at this moment to return to school. Can you talk about this and how you are managing returning to school while there is still so much pressure on your family, friends, and neighbors back in Palestine?
It’s definitely hard and it feels heavy to leave. It feels almost like a betrayal to leave my family. It makes it hard to focus on school or do any work. I’m doing this interview, and I’ve done more than a dozen interviews since I’ve been back. And I haven’t done even one thing for school. There’s a lot I could say about the heaviness of being away and my heart still being there. There are a lot of fears, challenges, and worries about what comes next.
My friend, who is a lawyer for Adalah, often tells me that the punishment is also in the process. It’s not just in the act of expulsion; it’s in the waiting for expulsion. It’s in the not knowing when the expulsion will happen; it’s in the financial burdens of that expulsion; it’s in the mental burdens; it’s in the commute to the court every month; it’s in your sense of time being warped. That is also the punishment. And we are living in it.
Just facing dispossession in itself is a lifelong sentence, not just the physical act of being expelled. The word “sad” doesn’t feel like enough. But sometimes, we are so sad. There were moments in my life when I wished that they would just come and finish the job, so we wouldn’t have to keep fighting — so we don’t have to keep dealing with it. The psychological toll is one of the hardest aspects of this situation. We’re such a proud and resilient people that oftentimes we don’t consider the heft of this burden.
I feel so much guilt for leaving. It’s not something I think about often, and it’s hard to talk about. But I also think it’s something that a lot of Palestinians who manage to leave feel. There were many moments when I thought I wouldn’t return to school. I even wrote a resignation letter. I constantly think about leaving school. I even thought about it today. It feels weird to want to sit down and write poems; it’s hard.
My family and neighbors all pushed me to return to school. I was actually very secretive about my studies. No one knew that I was actually in school when I came back to Sheikh Jarrah. When they found out, they spoke to me like I was crazy — like, “Why are you here? Why are you wasting your future?” Everyone wanted me to leave — not because they were bored of me, but because they didn’t want me to “waste my future” — to quote them. I don’t think I would have returned if it wasn’t for the pushing of my friends, family, and neighbors.
There’s a lot of guilt. I got the book deal way before the Sheikh Jarrah campaign blew up, and it was scheduled to be published in October — regardless of the Sheikh Jarrah campaign. But when the Sheikh Jarrah campaign blew up, I wanted to postpone the book’s release for another year because I was very worried it would sound like I was capitalizing off the situation. I cannot begin to tell you the guilt that comes along with all of this, even the guilt of possibly saying the wrong thing.
I have a job, and I go to school, and I do all these interviews, and I do the social media stuff, and I’m supposed to write and be a correspondent, and so many things slip through the cracks. And people will remind you about not talking about this prisoner or this village. And I 100 percent acknowledge that I need to be talking about all these things. But it’s really hard to keep track of everything because the occupation is relentless and constant.
But I am also incredibly lucky and privileged to be here today and to go to school when, at the same time, my neighbor Murad Attieh — who is a master’s student and elementary school teacher — is having his career and academic prospects robbed from him because he has been arrested on fabricated charges. So, even that makes me feel guilty. It’s hard, and it’s painful.