We Only Survive If We All Survive

A view of Gaza City in 2017 with the smokestacks of Ashkelon in southern Israel looming in the background. Ashkelon was a main target of rocket fire launched by Hamas from the Gaza Strip on October 7, 2023. Photos by the author.

Reflections on Gaza, Genocide, and Co-Liberation

The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters. —Antonio Gramsci

I visited Gaza in May 2014. I walked with other folks from American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), where I worked at the time, through the long, wire-enclosed checkpoint and past the border fence with remote-controlled machine guns perched on top. I learned that if people go into the no man’s land near the wall, they will be shot without hesitation. I learned that farmers who farm nearby can only visit their crops during certain hours; if they are caught after dusk, they will be shot.

Soon after we arrived, we met with around 20 young people, part of AFSC’s Palestinian Youth Together for Change program, and they told us stories. They talked about how they have electricity for only a few hours a day and how fresh water is scarce. A student talked about getting up at 4:00 a.m. when the electricity was working to iron her clothes for school and to take a taxi early enough so she could get to class. She said that she did all that in order to resist the blockade, the occupation: to continue despite the horrible obstructions to life.

One woman, Ayah, talked about the last war at that time, lasting 22 days from late 2008 to early 2009, known as the Gaza War or Operation Cast Lead. She would cover her young brother’s ears during the bombing and tell him when it had stopped. She talked about how she dreamed one day of driving from Gaza City to Haifa, the city from which her family was expelled in 1948. She said, “We have been living in a kingdom of illusions for 20 years,” referring to the brutality of the blockade, a reality that gets hidden from Israelis behind the fence. She said, “We are the victims of the victims.”

We visited AFSC offices and on the wall was a huge banner: “Let us live as we desire.” It seemed such a simple demand, and yet so remote.

On the last night of the trip, we had dinner together at a restaurant near the ocean. We laughed, told stories and jokes, and enjoyed one another’s company. That evening felt to me to be closer to communion than any meal before or since: to break bread together in the shadow of oppression, to share joy and fellowship and a little bit of peace. The next day we journeyed back through the checkpoint; through the long enclosed tunnel; through four metal sliding doors that buzzed slowly to let us through, like a cattle chute; and had our luggage searched while an Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldier stood by with a machine gun. Many of us cried: we didn’t know when or if we would see our new friends again.

Two months later, on July 8, Israel launched the 2014 Gaza War. It was the first time I had known people who were being bombed. I would wake up every morning and look on social media to find out whether my friends were still alive. One of the young men that we met on that trip was killed. For 51 days, I felt like I couldn’t take a breath.

About a month into the bombardment, on August 9, Mike Brown was wrongfully shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. As people rose up to protest, my new friends in Gaza offered solidarity through social media to the protestors in Ferguson. They posted messages with protest signs on Instagram and shared tips on how to deal with tear gas.

Left: A Palestinian man in Gaza holds a sign in support of protestors in Ferguson, Mo., following the killing of Mike Brown in August 2014. The sign reads: #PalestiniansSupportFergusonBecause “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” —Martin Luther King Jr. Right (top): A donkey rests in Gaza City, May 2014. Right (bottom): Palestinian children react to visitors in Gaza City, May 2014.

That summer provoked a deep political shift in me. I understood that the oppression in Gaza–Palestine and the oppression in Ferguson arose from the same root: settler colonialism, White supremacy, and the lie of separation. The segregation of Jim Crow is parallel to the apartheid in Israel, and the severe racial discrimination and injustice in Ferguson and the United States today arises from that apartheid past. This distinction is important: In Gaza and the West Bank, Palestinians are formally non-citizens without rights. In Ferguson, people have citizens’ rights that are often ignored. I believe that one reason the United States supports the apartheid in Israel is that we have not dealt with our own apartheid past.

That understanding and the legacy of being a descendant of enslavers has led me in my work to undo that legacy here, and ultimately led me to explore using reparations as a tool to offer healing and repair for chattel slavery and colonial violence. Healing and repair is not only for victims of this violence; it is for perpetrators, too. The lie of superiority and the belief that we are our wealth/privilege is a psychic wound in White people. Reparation is a tool to mend that wound and to help us remember that we are deeply connected; we are one.

I didn’t know much about Palestine 12 years ago. When my coworker Ilona first mentioned the Palestinian right of return to me, my whole body and nervous system clenched. I thought of the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust and the acceptance of the Zionist narrative that Palestinian right of return would result in the genocide of Jewish people. My Israeli and Palestinian coworkers were patient, teaching me history that included the Nakba, Arabic for “Catastrophe” (the massacre and mass displacement of Palestinians in 1948 at the founding of Israel), and the truth of the apartheid system maintained by Israel and supported by our U.S. tax dollars.

The Israeli state is built on the trauma of the Jewish Holocaust: a recently dispossessed people dispossessing another people. It was Europe that did not want to repatriate and instead offered refuge in a land already inhabited by Jews and Palestinians. Israel is built from the belief that if the Jews held military power, they would be safe. Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to this point recently at an event in New York City where he recounted his experience visiting the occupied territories:

I understood how pain, oppression, genocide, how you can take the wrong lesson from it: you can take the lesson that the real problem is that I did not have power, that I did not have the guns. . . . And what we do with that power really doesn’t matter as long as we safeguard ourselves.

When I first heard of the October 7 Hamas attack, I felt deep sadness and shock. The reports of the slaughter of residents near the border fence and at the music festival were horrifying. While deeply understanding the context in which this attack arose—the blockade, the economic exclusion, the way Gaza is an open-air prison—I also felt deep frustration at Hamas for providing what would be used as fodder and justification for retaliation by Israel. I recognize the attack also exists within a context of a persistent lack of response by the international community to powerful nonviolent efforts such as the Great March of Return protests that began in 2018. A number of Israeli peace activists who were allies to Palestinians were murdered in the attacks. I felt all this; then I felt dread and horror at the brutal retaliation I knew was coming. The attack activated a deep fear among Israelis, the shattering of an illusion: the apartheid and the walls could not keep Israelis safe. Though there is clear differential power, apartheid inevitably results in casualties on both sides of the separation wall.

And so since October 7, I have woken up each day to see if people I care about are still alive. My former coworkers are still living, but one of them has lost 30 members of his family, and the other had his house bombed. They are alive for now but not okay. I can’t imagine the interminable horror they are experiencing. For me, it’s hard to breathe.

The Nakba began in 1948; that catastrophe destroyed about 530 Palestinian villages and displaced more than 750,000 Palestinians, but it is an ongoing, slow-moving catastrophe. The recent photos of bombed buildings and people stuck under the rubble depict a haunting new stage of the Nakba. Children are writing their names on their wrists for identification if they are killed. To see these images and to witness the fierce refusal of President Biden and the U.S. Congress to hear and to respond to the screams is terrifying. To watch as Israel does not prioritize the safe return of the Israeli hostages also terrifies and infuriates me. I believe the brutal bombardment of Gaza is ironically fueled by Western guilt for not doing more to stop the Jewish Holocaust. The unhealed and unaddressed trauma of the Jewish Holocaust thus becomes the justification for another.

Our 2014 AFSC delegation also visited Bil’in, a Palestinian farming village in the West Bank. The village is distinct in that in 2007 they won an Israeli Supreme Court case and had the separation wall moved back so that they could reclaim their land and plant olive trees. Iyad Burnat, our host and the head of the Popular Committee Against the Wall in Bil’in, gave us a tour. We walked in the olive grove, and he showed us a memorial of a close friend who had recently been murdered by the Israeli Defense Forces. That night he included us in a gathering with Bassem Tamimi, the head of the popular committee in Nabi Salih village; and Emad Burnat, Iyad’s brother who along with Israeli Guy Davidi codirected 5 Broken Cameras, a 2011 award-winning film that documents the weekly nonviolent protests in Bil’in and the experience of night raids and other conditions of living under occupation.

Tamimi and the others told us stories of family members being tortured or murdered by the IDF, long imprisonments in the military detention system that has no due process, and the regular night raids they face in the villages. Tamimi told us why they had chosen nonviolence as their approach to resist the occupation: that it demonstrated that they would not submit to the occupation—neither practically nor spiritually—in the face of one of the most powerful militaries in the world. He spoke about the weekly demonstrations, which included Palestinians, Israelis, and international visitors. He said, “We are practicing the one-state solution.” The one-state solution he spoke of is one country for both peoples with equal civil rights, reparations, and the right of return for both Jews and Palestinians. On October 29, Bassem Tamimi was arrested by the Israeli military while traveling to Jordan; and his daughter, Ahed, was arrested on November 6 in a night raid, part of the escalated oppression that extends beyond Gaza to the West Bank and to Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Watching the bombing in Gaza, I felt that not only were children and civilians in Gaza being murdered, decimated by the onslaught, but also that this political imagining was a casualty. Each bomb felt as though it were rendering this political vision so much more remote.

In many ways what is happening now is predictable. The colonial pattern resides in a White-arranged, collective pattern of being. As Richard Rohr has observed, pain that is not transformed will be transmitted. The trauma transmitted will keep on moving through us unless we bring a level of tenderness and grieving to transmute the pain. Can we summon the spiritual courage to break through this moment and move toward healing?

At the Othering and Belonging Institute conference in Berlin in October, Indy Johar said, “The reality is that if things proceed as they have been, we’re all dead. We need a radical restructuring to ensure mutually assured thriving. The truth is we only survive if we all survive.”

The one-state solution seems an articulation of this radical restructuring. And the global uprisings we are seeing in response to the genocide seem to hold the seed of this ethic in its determination and vision. The bombs must stop; the occupation of Palestine and the blockade of Gaza must end. We must awaken to how the lie of separation and apartheid policies render us all vulnerable to decimation. And it is time to work for our mutually assured thriving. May these days be the beginning of such a political vision. May we find our way to step out of the hell we see in Gaza, into a world in which we understand that we cannot survive without each other, and that our mutual care is the bridge to liberation. Freeing Palestine is a portal to freeing us all.

Update: a paragraph (“Watching the bombing…”) has been added since the original publication, per author request.

Lucy Duncan

Lucy Duncan helped to found a reparations committee at Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., that successfully inspired the community to budget $50,000 per year for ten years toward reparations. She is co-chair of the Philadelphia mayor’s Commission on Faith-based and Interfaith Affairs. She is cofounder of the think/do tank reparationWorks. Website: reparation.works.

5 thoughts on “We Only Survive If We All Survive

  1. One State is a worthy solution but cannot work without prioritizing love and forgiveness, which is not sufficiently prioritized by either religion. Alternatively, like the US did with Native Americans, Israel could (ironically) pursue near-genocide of Palestinians in Israel, but would cause regional fear, inspire nuclear pursuit, and risk Armageddon. South Africa choose the wiser solution of love and forgiveness, but shared the same religious priorities.

    The EU (bigger population and economy than US) should bear the most responsibility for creating this problem. After Germany, Britain pushed UN after WWII to create Israel on Palestinian lands without buying those lands voluntarily, deliberately creating a volatile powder keg in key oil region to exploit for selfish interests in markets and geopolitical power. The least the UN should do is pay double or quadruple compensation of best value (adjusted for inflation) to Palestinians for initial stolen lands, and Israel should also pay the same for any other lands seized and held since.

    Russia is in Ukraine also taking land without paying for it, claiming fear of NATO expansion, just as we went into Cuba during the Bay of Pigs out of fear the Soviets were expanding nukes into Cuba.

    There’s plenty of blame to go around for global messes, but prioritizing justice over love and forgiveness is misguided due to a long history of one-sided justice causing fear and making problems worse in the long run. Love your enemy is the ultimate challenge.

  2. Even in America the Jews have been reviled & hated, guilt free mind you, long before it became fashionable .
    The race for a solution to make the landscape as free from them as possible being as much an official part of American government policy as far back as the 1940’s as it is throughout the world today.

    “In May 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt met with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the White House. It was 17 months after Pearl Harbor and a little more than a year before D-Day. The two Allied leaders reviewed the war effort to date and exchanged thoughts on their plans for the postwar era. At one point in the discussion, FDR offered what he called “the best way to settle the Jewish question.”
    Vice President Henry Wallace, who noted the conversation in his diary, said Roosevelt spoke approvingly of a plan (recommended by geographer and Johns Hopkins University President Isaiah Bowman) “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.” The diary entry adds: “The president said he had tried this out in [Meriwether] County, Georgia [where Roosevelt lived in the 1920s] and at Hyde Park on the basis of adding four or five Jewish families at each place. He claimed that the local population would have no objection if there were no more than that.”

  3. Minorities of any type are usually welcome in small numbers, but above about 13% of the population is when divisive us/them problems tend to emerge…does not matter which race, culture, or creed due to a long global history of inequality. The problems get even worse as the ratio gets closer to 50/50. Fortunately, the US is gradually improving over decades, and is more welcoming than Europe, but far from perfect. The only solution is to prioritize love and forgiveness, otherwise revenge escalates. Unfortunately, neither Israel or Palestinians have a religion that prioritizes unconditional forgiveness. South Africa wisely chose forgiveness due to a shared religion. The question is whether either side would ever reform its religious priorities, or just keep spiraling down into regional war, attempting to drag in other nations that deliberately failed to find a stable solution after WWII? FDR’s solution may have worked far better for all, but Britain convinced Truman to drop a state of Israel into Palestinian lands/homes/businesses without proper compensation to ensure a powder keg to exploit for market profits and geo-politics over energy control in the region, which is now obsolete due to climate change and our need for clean energy.

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