Vivien Sansour is excited about wheat. More than 10,000 years ago, she explains, visionaries in the fertile crescent domesticated it and began to transform it into the croissants, pitas, and baguettes that feed the world today. Sansour studies seeds as a way to “design new things the way that [her] ancestors did.” In 2014 she founded the Heirloom Seed Library and then spent the next four years searching for heirloom varieties for preservation and propagation. Many of these seeds, all indigenous to Palestine, are threatened because of colonial regulation of Palestinian lands and lives. Israel has forced other species onto Palestinian farmers for the sake of efficiency and scale, though it maintains one of the largest heirloom seed libraries at the Arava Institute. While the institute maintains an experimental orchard, the seeds themselves are off-limits to farmers. Sansour insists that while the settler sovereign “took our seeds away from us, they don’t have the story and the system of knowledge associated with the seed.”
Sansour’s attention to heirloom seed varieties began when a friend commented on the all-consuming nature of Israeli violence: the razing of homes, kidnapping of children for military detention, suffocating surveillance, checkpoints between Palestinian cities, settler takeovers, home demolitions, and casual assassinations of Palestinian icons. Seeing her in the maddening depth of her pain, Sansour’s friend posed a question and challenge: “Vivien, where is your power?” Her search for that power, for “a balm for the pain,” led her to the stories of her Palestinian ancestors and the seeds with which they lived. Seeds, Sansour says, “talk about the co-evolution of people with land.” Her effort has included a six-year search for a Jadu’ watermelon seed, which she ultimately found in the knickknack drawer of a Palestinian farmer. She and twenty other farmers later planted the Jadu’ seed along with three other threatened species, bringing them back into cultivation.
Sansour’s trek has also led her through the social history of a unique wheat plant with “beautiful black whiskers,” el hiteyeh el soda, known endearingly by Palestinians as Abu Samra (the dark and handsome one). Israel has forcibly replaced Abu Samra, which grows without irrigation and can thrive in deserts, with a generic seed variety. Unlike the generic crop, Abu Samra did more than merely feed Palestinians, it also shaped their social lives and their ties to one another. Palestinians described it to Sansour as “a long-lost love” and gushed about its distinct flavor in a particular biscuit. In her desire to uplift her people’s connection to the land, Sansour worked with a young Palestinian musician, Zaid Hilal, to write and produce a ballad about a “love story with our wheat heritage.” That song, Abu Samra, is on YouTube and has compelled young people, otherwise fascinated with fast-food chains, to ask “to taste our [Palestinian] history.”
Sansour had a culturally diverse upbringing, and her lifestyle sometimes makes her an anomaly in the traditional rural societies that she visits. Initially afraid “of being rejected,” she now arrives with faith that she, constituted of norms cultivated in the crucible of a global diaspora, belongs. In tilling the land with heirloom seeds, Sansour is trying “to create tenderness on the land where people can see that something else is possible.” So that when Palestinian children visit, “they can find this beautiful Palestine.” This is a Palestine as lush and rich as the land itself, one that has room for all Palestinians, diverse linguistically, culturally, and socially. Sansour describes this social diversity as “bio-mimicry.” It is reflective of a society for which she is willing to fight.
Sansour’s search for her people’s history in the land is, in fact, a search for the building blocks suitable for a new future. It is one possible pathway toward Palestinian sovereignty, away from the brutal bargain with the Israeli state, which trades native compliance with settler dominance for incremental privileges that never amount to freedom. While the escape from this sovereignty trap is not obvious, clues for a way forward lie in both the past and the present.
Sansour’s efforts reflect a recent turn among Palestinians, exhausted by the persistent fixation on the state, toward one another. In so doing, they are moving in tandem with other Indigenous communities increasingly engaged in Indigenous resurgence. This is a phenomenon, explains Cherokee political scientist Jeff Corntasssel, that reframes decolonization by turning away from the state to “focus more fully on the complex interrelationships between Indigenous nationhood, place-based relationships, and community centered practices that reinvigorate everyday acts of renewal and regeneration.” This shift does not reject state-centric diplomacy or abandon the struggle against the settler sovereign. A full pivot away from such engagement would be short-sighted and counterproductive, especially for Palestinians who remain forcibly exiled from their lands and barricaded within militarized ghettoes. Rather, Indigenous resurgence centers Indigenous life and governance alongside other approaches. It seeks to undo the alienating force of colonization by reconnecting “homelands, cultures, and communities.” In particular regard to Palestinians, scholars Nour Joudah, Tareq Radi, Dina Omar, and Randa Wahbe explain, resurgence facilitates a “self-recognition” that transforms “fragmentation into a strength” and “variegated experiences of loss” into “a politics of care.”
If decolonization typically pits native against settler in a struggle for the land, Indigenous resurgence focuses on how to belong most ethically in relationship to one another and to the land. The preservation and propagation of seeds is about learning how to do that. This daunting task, not Israel, now consumes Sansour. “I want to know who I am,” she explains, “I want to know it so well so that we overshadow them. We existed before, we exist now, and we will exist later.”
Indigenous resurgent practices may not be endemic across Palestinian society, but they are percolating on the land and among intergenerational groups of Palestinians. These individuals and organizations draw on Palestinian traditions across a precolonial history to imagine new forms of culture, politics, and leadership befitting a decolonial future. Like Sansour, none are yearning for a lost past or idly waiting for the promise of freedom. These actors include women in the Palestinian Feminist Collective (PFC), who are embedding gender liberation within a national liberation framework, as well as architects and urban planners redesigning demolished Palestinian villages suitable for a returning diaspora. The PFC and these designers demonstrate how resurgent practices are both visionary and grounded, modeling what Palestinian liberation can look like beyond national independence.
The Palestinian struggle for liberation has always been decolonial and revolutionary. Fixation on state sovereignty as a national project—as opposed to revolutionary nationalism—is relatively recent. When armed Palestinian factions took over the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from Arab nationalist elites in 1968, they amended the PLO Charter to assert that “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine. It is the overall strategy, not merely a tactical phase.” The goal was the “right to normal life in Palestine and to exercise their right to self-determination and sovereignty over it.” The PLO sought to restore Indigenous sovereignty over the land, but its anti-imperialist commitments exceeded a nationalist framework. Its Charter condemned Zionism and identified Israel as a “geographical base for world imperialism . . . [that] is a constant source of threat vis-a-vis peace in the Middle East and the whole world.” The liberation movement saw itself as a vanguard against imperialism on behalf of all peoples of the world seeking to upend that system of domination.
This anti-imperial consensus began to fray soon after Israel’s victory in the October 1973 War. The war revealed a new status quo comprised of two factors. The first was that Egypt and Syria desired diplomatic means to recuperate their occupied lands, meaning that no significant Arab army would wage a conventional war of liberation against Israel. The second, despite losing the war, was that Arab armies had inflicted considerable military losses on Israel and established a reconfigured balance of power in their favor. These factors catalyzed deep introspection among Palestinian revolutionary forces and ultimately produced a schism in their political thought.
A 1974 panel at the American University of Beirut, featuring leaders from the most significant Palestinian political parties, captured this tension. On the one hand, the idea that Palestinians were engaged in an armed war of liberation against Zionism that sought to free the land remained dominant. On the other, several political parties indicated the conditional acceptability of a phased struggle—one that would incrementally liberate the land. While tactically plausible as a route to liberation, some Palestinian leaders had by then accepted that incremental liberation could also constitute the final solution: the establishment of a truncated Palestinian state.
In 1974 the Palestinian statelet was a minority position, an anathema to the revolutionary fervor that animated the liberation struggle and connected it to anti-imperial revolt across the world. But, within a decade-and-a-half, the Palestinian National Council (PNC) adopted the truncated Palestinian state as a model for liberation. The decision reversed the PLO’s decades-long condemnation of UNGA Resolution 181 for partition and Security Council Resolution 242 establishing a land-for-peace framework that consecrated Israel as a political fact. Indeed, when the PNC endorsed Palestinian statehood, scholar, activist, and diplomat, Walid Khalidi, who had publicly endorsed the statist approach since the late 1970s, described the reversal as revolutionary in Palestinian thought.
The fate of Palestinian statehood is now widely known. If it was not dead on arrival, then Israel has certainly demolished it in the nearly three decades since the signing of the Oslo Accords. Against a backdrop of farcical photo ops and diplomatic fanfare, Israel’s highest officials—beginning with Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Accords on Israel’s behalf—have successively pledged that there will never be a Palestinian state. More recently, just ahead of his summer 2021 visit to the United States, former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stated plainly, “This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state. . . . Israel will continue the standard policy of natural growth.” In other words, incremental and steady settler colonial expansion will continue under the legal fictions of military necessity and with the support of the international community.
While most mainstream organizations have only recently realized Israel’s territorial ambitions and singular jurisdiction between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, Palestinians have contended with the de facto existence of a single repressive state since the peace process collapsed in the early 2000s. It took nearly two decades—when Israel passed the 2018 Nation State Law, which enshrined Jewish supremacy as a constitutional principle and reserved self-determination as an exclusive right for Jews—for several legacy human rights organizations to concede the point Palestinians had been making. Between 2020 and 2021, Yesh Din, B’tselem, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International all issued reports concluding that Israel oversees a de jure apartheid regime. And though they all urge for constitutional reform to achieve meaningful equality, today more than 90 percent of Israeli Jews believe that Israel should be a Jewish state. According to the Jewish National Fund, “the non-Jewish minority” must “understand that the struggle for equal rights does not entail abrogating the definition of Israel as a Jewish state.”
This essay is featured in Imagining Global Futures.
Yet, while Israelis are withholding citizenship, Palestinians are also recognizing that it would do them little good. Citizenship, writes scholar Raef Zreik, only has the potential to end “the monopoly of the settler project over the law,” but the project can still continue to thrive. As anthropologist Areej Sabbagh-Khoury has pointed out, internally displaced Palestinians, like those from the demolished Palestinian cities Ikrit and Bir’im in the north are already citizens of the state, yet remain dispossessed and denied the right to return to their original lands.
This current impasse has begun a new conversation about decolonization, a process that supersedes both state sovereignty and human rights. At its heart this project represents an analytical return to understanding the ideology of Zionism, rather than the state of Israel, as the problem. During the May 2021 Unity Intifada, Palestinians across all fragmented geographies captured this idea in the Manifesto of Dignity and Hope, which declares:
Zionism has sought to control us, that is how they worked to fragment our political will, and to prevent a united struggle in the face of racist settler colonialism in all of Palestine. . . . In these days, we write a new chapter, a chapter of a united Intifada that seeks our one and only goal: reuniting Palestinian society in all of its different parts; reuniting our political will, and our means of struggle to confront Zionism throughout Palestine.
The question is how to confront Zionism beyond the juridical approaches offered by constitutional reform. In a so-called post-colonial world where Palestine is a remnant, rather than an exemplar, of imperial domination, Palestinians hold a unique perspective. They were left behind in the waves of decolonization that ushered in the independence of colonized peoples globally in the twentieth century, but this also allows them to witness decolonization’s incompleteness. Nearly all post-colonial states today successfully supplanted colonial domination with native rule, yet domination persists. Even in South Africa, a Black majority assuming power has not undone the harms of colonialism: severe economic stratification, gender-based violence, and xenophobia. As Adom Getachew reminds us, national independence was only the predicate element of decolonization. The ultimate goal was to topple imperialism and create alternative societies, economies, and political forms of governance. It remains unfinished business.
Histories of national liberation demand that we ask whether settler expulsion and the restoration of Indigenous sovereignty are in fact the apex of decolonial struggle. And for Palestinians, at a moment when neither an independent state nor full enfranchisement appear promising, we must ask what can be achieved.
Palestinian women are among those trying to answer these questions today. They believe any decolonial vision should begin at home. Retrieving a pre-1988 liberatory vision, emerging Palestinian feminist formations are employing the past to nurture a robust liberation struggle. They are equally concerned with resisting the settler sovereign and reshaping Palestinian society outside of its oppressive shadow.
In late August 2019, Israa Ghrayeb, a twenty-one-year-old make-up artist from outside Bethlehem died at the Al Hussein hospital from wounds she sustained from her family. Her spine was fractured; her face and body, bruised. Her brother-in-law told the hospital and local media that she suffered from mental illness and had jumped from their home’s balcony. However, friends, social media posts, and audio recordings of Israa’s screams reveal she was severely beaten by her brothers and brother-in-law for stepping out in public with a suitor intended to be her fiancé.
Israa’s murder occurred among at least twenty-four similar cases across the West Bank and Gaza that year, documented by the Palestinian Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling. Well before Israa’s murder, though, the rise of Palestinian femicide had impelled Palestinian women to organize more aggressively. In 2019 advocates began to form informal networks across Palestine and the diaspora to tackle the stigmatization of feminism within Palestinian society.
At the time, feminism was associated with Western colonial violence owing to legacies of French, British, and U.S. war-making in the name of gender justice. Moreover, among Palestinian citizens of Israel, women’s advocacy efforts were concentrated within Israeli NGOs. Removing feminist efforts from community-based approaches bifurcated gender and political justice by normalizing Zionism as it advanced women’s safety.
Across both sides of the Atlantic, Palestinian women were primed to mobilize immediately when Israa was murdered. Tal’aat (women stepping out) organized mass demonstrations in Palestine against femicide, holding banners that read, “There is no honor in honor killings,” “No free homeland without free women,” and “Gender is a national liberation issue.” In North America women engaged in a year-long study aimed at locating feminism in Palestinian traditions created the PFC. The PFC and Tal’aat ask, when Palestinians speak of Palestinian freedom, who do they include? If the answer is all Palestinians, then ending sexual assault, domestic violence, restriction of public space, and killings of kin is central to the Palestinian freedom struggle.
Like Sansour, the PFC distinguished anti-colonial approaches from decolonial ones and aimed to work on both. If anti-colonial efforts seek to tear down oppressive structures, then decolonial ones aim to build alternatives. Dr. Loubna Qutami, a co-founding member of the collective, explains:
The PFC and Palestinian feminists are saying we’ve been colonized for seventy-five years and our view of liberation means creating an ethos, principles, and culture of social liberation rather than relegating it as secondary to national liberation. . . . We are disrupting the idea that we liberate ourselves politically first and then recreate our society from the ground up after.
Qutami highlights that centering women also redefines politics because it illuminates women’s often obscured leadership. “It’s not just the fighter and the political theorist who make politics possible,” she explains, “but women engaging in what is typically described as gendered labor, which is what makes it possible to be steadfast.” Steadfastness refers to the practice of sumoud, enduring hardship, being patient, and refusing removal, which is a core element of Palestinian national resistance. It is among the practices that the collective has retrieved from its matriarchal elders in an effort to bridge the past and the future. Others include resolving conflict through sulh—restorative justice models facilitated by the community rather than state institutions—as well as caring for one another, grounding family, and engaging in political activism. Younger generations are learning these practices through informal exchanges enabled by the Collective’s intergenerational nature.
Feminist approaches to Palestinian liberation also diffuse power and, in Qutami’s words, are “about our people taking power back after Oslo.” Statist approaches concentrate power among a political and economic elite, disempowering a popular base—historically Palestinians’ greatest asset. Feminist approaches invite all to lead. Qutami shares, “That’s part of how we’re envisioning our politics. We’re not competing for spaces or resources. We’re trying to get out of the scarcity model that capitalism has imposed on us which has created the idea that there is a limited space for all of us as leaders in some way.”
For the Palestinian Authority (PA)—the political elites in Palestine—this approach is threatening. In summer 2021 Palestinians without funding and a central governing structure led the Unity Intifada, the most significant Palestinian mass mobilization since the 1936 Great Revolt and the 1987 Intifada. The effort—diffuse, organic, and seemingly spontaneous—mobilized Palestinians across all fragmented geographies and caused a historic shift in the understanding of the Palestinian struggle as one for freedom. Meanwhile, the PA appeared whiplashed and irrelevant. Eager to reassert their dominance on the heels of the uprising, its security officers captured and assassinated Nizar Banat, a dissident Palestinian journalist known for his bold critiques of the official leadership. Palestinians, long aware of the entanglement of the PA (an invention of Oslo) with Israeli apartheid structures, flooded the streets in protest. PA security officers brandished their batons—bestowed by Western donors in the name of state building—onto Palestinian bodies. The message was clear: a latent Palestinian leadership may have power and potential, but the official one has guns and prisons.
Spearheading a different model of leadership, feminist organizations such as the PFC and Tal’aat signal promising possibilities for transforming Palestinian resistance and organizing. They promise the future that Palestinians need, especially for a robust and fragmented Palestinian diaspora that cannot be sufficiently threaded together by nationalism alone. Such inward looking projects are proliferating across many sectors of Palestinian life, including among networks eager to rebuild Palestine itself.
Dr. Rana Barakat is from Lifta, a destroyed village just outside of Jerusalem that has not been razed (Israel demolished some 500 villages in its conquest of Palestine and many of those remain uninhabited or in ruins). Lifta, with its natural springs, has become a destination for Israelis eager to “go native.” Thus, when the state planned to build over Lifta with modern buildings and landscaping, there was quite a bit of protest, not only from Palestinians who seek to return to their homeland, but from Israelis as well. The controversy prompted a proposal to build a museum to preserve Lifta. Barakat highlights that while this approach prevents the physical erasure of Palestinian life, it nevertheless condemns “Lifta as a symbol of a dead past rather than as a living village thriving beyond museumification and preservation.” Barakat insists that resistance to this must “steal the spring away from the world of symbols and metaphor of death and bring it back into the world of life and living.” Such capture is the work of young Palestinian architects and designers.
Dr. Nour Joudah is a geographer who studies Indigenous counter-mapping in Palestine and Hawai’i. She explains that the process is not about returning to the past but “a way of imagining future spatial expression . . . a form of resurgence and a challenge to the narrative of linear settler time.” While the settler sovereign has relegated Indigenous life to an irretrievable past, Indigenous communities “embrace an unconfined temporality” that lives “through and in the past and future daily” in their counter-mapping practices. Joudah highlights that under the condition of ongoing dispossession, linear time erases the legacy of elders and the potential of young children, refusing “the possibility of an indigenous future.”
Among her source materials is an annual competition administered by the Palestine Land Society (PLS). Led by scholar, activist, and refugee, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, the PLS invites Palestinian architecture and urban planning students from around the globe to reconstruct demolished Palestinian villages. The enthusiastic contestants are given 50–100 villages to choose from, each accompanied by data on the land: its inhabitants, landmarks, sacred sites, economy, and vegetation. The designs are imaginative projects that feature transportation systems, housing, parks, and public squares. Joudah has studied these entries for the past three years and interviewed dozens of the contestants. The most common features of every design are “guest houses” and “reunion hotels” for Palestinians who choose to visit but not remain, indicating an awareness of the dynamism of Indigenous futures.
To complete their projects, the designers are also encouraged to conduct their own research, often in the form of oral histories, so that they can preserve while they build. Most of the contestants are unable to visit the village sites—barred by Israel—so they take to Google Maps to study the current landscape, and to phone, Skype, and WhatsApp to connect to its surviving residents. Increasingly, as is the case in the reconstructed village of Suhmata, young architects convene with surviving and descendant residents of the village, forcibly exiled in Lebanon, and present their work via Zoom. They bridge space, time, and trauma to affirm a life worth living.
The competition itself is a generative process. Incorporating visions of return and possibility, histories and the living present, and connecting a diaspora, the competition provides a source of hope. Indigenous life is an aspiration, not a romantic longing for the past.
Palestinian national history has been non-linear and contingent, marked by analytical renewals as well as political fissures: from the national elite that sought inclusion into the world order in the interwar years to the revolutionary masses that took up arms and boycotted the British empire in the Great Revolt in 1936, from the nationalism that sought phased liberation as a final solution to those that insisted on armed struggle throughout the 1970s. Today a confrontation between the national elitist tendencies still eager to establish a state—even on a tiny hill of barricaded land—collides with the mass popular movements that have once again identified Zionism as the problem.
The Palestinian freedom struggle reveals that Palestinians came closest to freedom when they turned away from the settler sovereign and toward one another. During the Great Revolt and the First Intifada, for example, Palestinians built mutual exchange networks for food distribution, care for one another’s families, underground schools, and alternative economies. That potential remains palpable among Palestinians today: among conservationists resurrecting the social history of seeds, among women who continue to anchor generational survival, and among designers literally building the future.
Shifting the Palestinian gaze away from the oppressor and toward action centers new questions about Palestinians’ relationships to the land and one another. Such Indigenous resurgence retrieves the process of renewal, relegated to some point after national independence, and foregrounds its present significance. What does care for the land look like? How can rebuilt villages advance sustainability in the face of climate catastrophe? How can a refugee population, now ten times the size it was at exile, return and thrive? Palestinian women, who have always sustained and informally led the liberation struggle, have long recognized the limits of a nationalist framework that fails to tackle the conditions inhibiting freedom. Their emphasis on healing historic wounds, recreating models of mutual care, and using restorative justice orients Palestinians to build the world they desire, rather than beg imperial powers to bestow them with a perverted piece of their own. Far from distracting from a liberation struggle intent on ending cruel domination, this work provides answers on how to achieve freedom. Emphasizing decolonization can create the alternatives everyone desires but cannot yet fully imagine.
When, in 1994, the Zapatista movement took over seven Mexican municipal headquarters and reclaimed up to 1.7 million acres of land, its spokesperson, Subcomandante Marcos proclaimed: there is a time to ask power to change, there is a time to demand change from power, and there is a time to exercise power. Organizers in Palestine are exercising power and, as the PFC says, using love as a compass in its strides toward liberation.