“Gaza is a Bantustan”: author Samah Sabawi interviewed

Samah Sabawi

Nahedh Elrayes Wikipedia Commons

Gaza as an “Israeli-controlled Bantustan,” likening the besieged territory to the supposedly autonomous areas for black people established by the apartheid regime in South Africa.

In an article for Al Jazeera English, Sabawi states, “The currency used here is the new Israeli shekel, the IDs all the residents carry are issued by the Israeli interior ministry, all births go through the Israeli national registry, the essential products are all Israeli in this captive market” (“Israel’s Gaza Bantustan,” 5 January 2013).

A Palestinian-Australian with Canadian citizenship, Sabawi is the author of three plays — Cries from the Land, Three Wishes and Tales of a City by the Sea. She has also co-written the book The Journey to Peace in Palestine: From the Song of Deborah to the Simpsons.

As well as being a vocal campaigner on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, Sabawi is a policy advisor for the Palestinian “think tank” Al-Shabaka.

Joe Catron interviewed Sabawi during her trip to Gaza.

Joe Catron: Israel forced your family into exile in 1967, the year you were born, after occupying the Gaza Strip. How many times have you returned since then, and what is it like coming home?

Samah Sabawi: I returned to Gaza the first time when I was six years old. It was a huge deal. We needed to get permits from Israel. We got strip-searched, all of us, including myself, coming in. The visit was very emotional for my dad. I remember tears would just stream down his face.

We came back again eight years later, just before we emigrated to Australia, to say goodbye to my grandfather. I’d only seen him twice before he died. Again, it was a big deal: lots of paperwork, lots of waiting, and so on.

The third visit was in 1994, just after Oslo, and it was the most glorious homecoming. I would call Oslo the best lie ever. People really wanted to believe in the illusion, and although they could see the writing was on the wall, nobody wanted to read it. That was the first and only time that our entire family was united together.

And then things started to go wrong, and it became more difficult to enter. So difficult, in fact, that this is my first time back in 17 years. My brain is on overdrive. Everything around me is just amazing.

JC: In Gaza, you presented a reading of your third play, Tales of a City by the Sea, at the Qattan Centre for the Child. How was it?

SS: It was a profound experience. The play tells the story of an American-Palestinian doctor who comes to Gaza on the first Free Gaza boats in 2008 and falls in love with a Palestinian woman from Shati camp named Jomana. Their love faces many challenges and together they experience Israel’s 2008-2009 bombardment of Gaza. So to have it read and discussed with Palestinians who have lived and breathed the events and experiences in the play was a very important step for me to ensure its accuracy and its authenticity. The reading in Gaza exceeded my expectations with lots of tears and smiles in the audience, great feedback, fantastic interest from theater-makers and many wonderful memories.

JC: Shortly after you arrived, you wrote about “Israel’s Gaza Bantustan.” How do you see this “one state reality” shaping the future of both the Israeli apartheid system and the struggle against it?

SS: It is a one-state reality. And I get very frustrated with discussion around the possibility of a one-state solution or a two-state solution. A lot of the time, these discussions don’t start from this basic reality: we have one state right now.

Since 1967, there’s been one state that has ruled over two peoples differently. It’s put them in different categories. You’ve got the Israeli Jews, who are favored; Israeli citizens who are not Jews; Palestinians, who are second-class citizens; stateless Palestinians in refugee camps; and Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Only one real authority rules over all of them: Israel. I knew this before, but it was different to coming here to Gaza and experiencing it. When you go to the supermarket, there’s Hebrew writing on everything. The money in my pocket is Israeli shekels. To come in, I needed an Israeli-issued ID that I cannot have, because Israel will not issue me the number needed to get it.

Even the ID itself, a lot of people tell me, “No, don’t do that. You don’t want an ID, because if you get a Gaza ID, you’ll never be allowed to go to the West Bank and Jerusalem.” And people who have a West Bank or Jerusalem ID cannot come to Gaza.

So it’s like [a game]; I want to visit Gaza, to do that I need a Gaza ID, but that means I’ll never be able to see the rest of Palestine. But if I don’t have an ID, then I can’t even come to see Gaza, not without a great amount of difficulty. It’s ridiculous that we have to go through all of this. And there’s really only one state that’s responsible for this this fragmentation, and for all these layers of control, bureaucracy and discrimination.

This is apartheid, and we are in a Bantustan. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of thousands of Hamas flags you see [while] walking the street in Gaza. It is Israel that is in control.

That’s got to change. And I think the only way to change it is if we change the way we talk about it, to speak about reality.

JC: You’ve previously advocated a rights-based discourse that disregards political solutions. Is that still your perspective?

SS: It is a rights issue. And we get lost in the political discourse sometimes. We over-complicate something that is quite simple. Really, we shift responsibility away from those who are responsible for the situation.

The whole idea of the Palestinian Authority, and everything it has wrought, is a diversion from who is really responsible for the situation Palestinians are in today. Not just where the settlements are being built, not just on Israel’s side of the 1948 borders, where Palestinians are being discriminated against, but even here in Gaza. This strip of land is under Israeli control. It is no less of a Bantustan than the West Bank.

JC: Some Palestinian and solidarity activists have argued that the aspirations expressed, for example, in the boycott, divestment and sanctions call, are compatible only with one state. How do you respond to that analysis? Does it really differ from yours?

SS: I don’t think the three demands correspond only with one state. The call doesn’t talk about a political system. It talks about what rights people need to have. It doesn’t [go] this extra mile, saying what the solution should be.

The only reason a lot of people say it doesn’t work with two states is not because of the demands themselves, but because of the environment we have around us as we call for these demands. The environment clearly reflects the one-state reality.

Our issue is with Israel. Israeli theft of Palestinian land in the West Bank, its theft of resources, its oppression of the Palestinians means we have to take our demands directly to them. We cannot take them to Fatah, Hamas, or the PA, asking for some kind of political program that will always be sabotaged at the end by the greater colonial occupying power.

Political programs come after liberation. They present themselves based on the needs of the people. We’re not there yet. We can’t have a functioning political system or governmental infrastructures under occupation.

The conversation around this is scary. People are very passionate about politics. Obviously, Palestinians are very involved. But the conversation for the most part is governed by which faction has made fewer mistakes and which of the two we can choose so they can bring us our rights.

The conversation most often doesn’t even get to the deep political questions. We’re talking about who can provide more electricity, or who gave us more salaries. So the Palestinian ambition, in Gaza, at least, has been reduced to: who can give me a meal every day? How am I going to get food? This shows how brilliant and evil the oppressors’ mindset is, that they’ve brought us to this point and have managed to lower our expectations to this level.

Palestinians need to understand that there are other options beyond factional politics, and we need to expand our horizons. It’s fine if people want to have loyalties to one faction or another; that’s not a problem. But we have to work within these factions to fulfill our national ambitions, not just our immediate economic needs.

JC: You have written about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee (BNC) as “a unified Palestinian resistance against Israel [that has] put the liberation movement back on track” (“Looking for a leadership with a strategy,” Al-Shabaka, 20 March 2012). How does the BDS movement relate to both Palestinian and solidarity activism?

SS: I think our liberation movement went off track when we signed Oslo. I would call the nearly 20 years since we signed Oslo being off track. We are still off track, as far as political leaderships — official, I wouldn’t call them legitimate, but official leaderships — go.

When BDS came, it reminded us that we have a unified vision. There are three points on which all Palestinians can agree: an end to occupation, equality for Palestinian citizens of Israel and the right of Palestinian refugees to return. So rather than us being lost in the post-Oslo small asks — “if you’ll just freeze the settlements, we can continue to negotiate?”, “you have 500 checkpoints, do you think you can remove one or two?”, “can you release our tax moneys, so we can pay our salaries?” — suddenly there was another conversation taking place. It was simple: “Let’s not invest in or normalize with our oppressors until our demands are met.”

Personally, the BDS call gave me hope. In 2009, after Cast Lead, I felt a tremendous amount of despair over the force and destruction used against Gaza. As an individual living in diaspora, not having a tool to use to express my solidarity with my people, or even a vision to believe in, would have been unbearable.

The BDS call was something I needed then, as I still do now. And more and more people are waking up to the fact that it really is simple. These are our demands. This is what we want. And until that day when they’re fulfilled, we’re boycotting.

JC: The past year has seen a rise in different Palestinian initiatives: hunger strikes, new BDS activities, resistance to Israel’s attacks on Gaza, the UN bid, and most recently, the protest village Bab al-Shams and similar actions. How do you think these are related? And what do they indicate for the future?

SS: I think people inspire each other to do different sorts of actions. Facebook’s been incredible for people to communicate and see one another’s actions. Bab al-Shams was incredible. It really inspired people. And it had an artistic flavor to it. This shows how the arts can give power to our ideas. I wouldn’t be surprised if they come back stronger. Of course, we always have to come up with new ideas. If we have Bab al-Shams again tomorrow in the same location, the media might come. The day after, they won’t. So we need to continue to be creative in our actions.

I like the way activists are always thinking outside the box and creating these opportunities. In that way, I think it is related, because it inspires further actions.

JC: Where do we go from here?

SS: Educate. Inspire. And lead by example.

Joe Catron is a US activist in Gaza, Palestine. He works with the Centre for Political and Development Studies and other Palestinian groups and international solidarity networks, particularly in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions and prisoners’ movements. He blogs at joecatron.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter: @jncatron.