“The war that is changing us”: How Al Aqsa Flood reshaped our view of ourselves and the world
“I swear I never saw things more clearly than I do now”. This simple, powerful and clear sentence is part of a long answer written by the anonymous narrator of “A paper from Gaza”, a short story that Ghassan Kanafani wrote over 60 years ago. It is a letter from the narrator to his friend, Mostafa, a student living in Sacramento, California. It tells the story of two friends who promised each other to leave “the Gaza inferno” following the Nakba.
The narrator goes back to Gaza to visit his family before joining his friend in the United States, but pops in on his niece in the hospital, bringing toys and gifts and red pants, but “when she reached out with his palm and lifted the white cover with her fingers, she unveiled a leg amputated at the upper thigh, after she threw herself over her little brothers to protect them from the bombs and the flames. Nadia could have saved herself, she could have run and saved her leg, but she did not”. And at that moment his world view is turned upside down. He writes his cry at the end of the letter: “I will not join you. You come back to us. Come back and learn from Nadia’s leg that is amputated at the thigh. Come and learn the essence of life, the value of existence”.
This short story shook me when I first read it, led by an early passion for Kanafani. This was during the second Intifada, at the turn of this century. Its ending was epic, where one stands on the verge of the precipice of existence, but then regains his balance towards the choice of necessity by describing the “we”, not the selfish, individualistic “I” which is looking for its salvation. It shook me again with the same strength when I reread it a few days ago, but the difference is being aware of Ghassan’s genius and his vision, as if he was looking through a lens of the future, which finds its roots in the artist’s instinct and the vastness of the horizon of the politician.
During a month of the unrelenting genocide taking place in Gaza, I heard from a lot of friends, comrades and people I do not know, words that resemble “I swear I never saw things more clearly than I do now”. Many decided to review their ideas and their way of thinking, many broke established friendships and founded new ones, many looked beyond themselves and their personal interests and gains and reconnected themselves with a wider vision of existence.
We are facing an unprecedented cosmic moment, not just in our Arab world but in the entire world. This war’s impact is not insignificant, it is changing us in an unprecedented way. It may not change much when it comes to the geography of the conflict, but it is changing souls and the outlook on the organization of things and on others. This war may have been necessary so we can start to think. This kind of impact has always been linked to shocks or discoveries that we cannot even express verbally: Dissociation, a violet scene, a sudden realization of the monotony of time.
This may have happened in the opposite direction following the defeat of 1967. The Naksa was a shock that had a radical and transformative impact on souls. Palestine was lost, Egypt was defeated, we lost the Golan Heights. In exchange, national isolationism became an official Arab policy, as opposed to the defeat of the unification project, while wide popular and elite sectors embraced islamism as an alternative. But the defeat, as a psychological shock, pushed another sector of the Arab populations and elites toward a radical transformation in their view of the world and of existence, and Edward Said might be the most famous example of the latter model.
Another model might enlighten this fog-wrapped area for us, and that is Palestinian historian Hisham Sharabi. Sharabi belonged to the wealthy Palestinian elite who were able to manage things for themselves after the Nakba, by immigrating to the United States and joining academic fields that are unrelated to the cause of the occupied nation. His life was stable for twenty years, without looking back, until June 1967 came and shook the liberal intellectual to his core. History came back suddenly, at once, the past opened its doors in front of me.
“I never thought, in all of these years, about Yafa, my hometown. Faces I haven’t seen since the exode appeared in front of me. The string of the past, which I thought was broken, takes me back to my childhood, to my people and my country, to Palestine. The strength of the shock made our consciousness stronger. To abandon ourselves to despair was equivalent to surrendering to the enemy. This is the origin of the strength that pushed a large sector of the intellectual bourgeoisie, which I was part of, toward revolutionary consciousness”.
Hisham Sharabi, “Introductions to studying Arab society”, page 12, the Arab United editions, Beirut, 1974.
Between June 1967 and October 2023, defeat changed camps. This is the essence of what this war is doing to the Arab psyche, it is expelling the chronic defeat that took hold of it and pushing it to realize that liberation is not just a wish but a concrete possibility that only the distance of will and work separates us from. It is also changing us by pulling us from the space of the individualistic, selfish and isolationist self toward the horizon of “we”, where all are a unified collective opposed to the fragmentation that defeat had deepened in ways that favored isolationism, the price of which we pay dearly each morning.
Liberating the Arab street
I ask a simple man, jokingly, about the use of his boycott of international brands, adding “do you think that not buying some product once a month will make this company or another stop supporting the entity?”. He earnestly answered with a simplicity that blew me away: “I boycott so when I go to bed at night I don’t feel that I let down those souls that are needlessly killed everyday in Gaza. This feeling is enough for me”. Contrary to all previous rounds in this conflict, there is an unprecedented impact to this war. This might be because of the strong links that social media platforms permit, as we are now able to see massacres live and unfiltered without media outlets and their commentators. We also see victories, fresh and without the blabbering of military experts. We expect the smiles of the injured under the rubble on the screens of mobiles, and we know that the active youth of Gaza that are documenting the war by name, they became like family and we worry about them when they don’t post for a day or more.
On the ground, the Alqsa Flood operation succeeded from its first moment in liberating the Arab street from its shackles. The streets of Egypt, which did not witness a protest in years, became crowded with marches which reached the forbidden Tahrir square, breaking the monopoly of military authoritarianism over public space. In Bahrain, protesters broke the marches’ red lines, which were put in place by the regime following the defeat of the 2011 uprising. In Morocco, large protests broke out in the early days of the war, strongly expressing the position of the Moroccan people, not just supporting Palestine but also implicitly refusing the Moroccan regime’s normalization with “Israel”. Other marches broke out in other Arab states, unprecedented in terms of numbers as well as of unity as they included political adversaries who were busy during the last decade with political and ideological local conflicts, as is the case in Tunis, but the Palestinian event broke all these secondary polarizations.
The minds that changed, and the popular uprising that liberated the streets which were monopolized by authoritarian regimes, underline a long term defeat of the isolationist project that is opposed to unity. This project, which took root following the 1967 defeat, was pushed by political parties and elites with isolationist roots and capitalizing on the defeat of Abd El Nasser’s unification project. Egypt’s shrinkage into a “nationalistic pharaonic” narrow narrative represented a painful blow to the dreams and projects of unity. Since then, slogans like “Tunisia first” or “Egypt first” started appearing, and similar ones came up in other Arab countries. Amid this isolationist climate, new narratives on the national security of states based on the narrow national interest emerged, and they resulted in the emergence of normalization models in the end. This is based on the premise that any normalization needs as a prerequisite the isolation of a state from its larger Arab ecosystem. What this war is doing these days is dismantling this narrative, despite the official Arab attempts to hold on to it. The image of the broken fence on the morning of October 7, the one separating Gaza and occupied Palestine, is a heavy one, not just as a symbol of a cohesion with the occupied nation, but also of rebuilding the connections between the fragmented Arab region. Because the mere mental acceptance of liberation as a possibility is an implicit acceptance of the possibility of unity. This inseparability is the simple idea upon which the Palestinian liberation movement was founded in the sixties, and later repudiated it.
Rebuilding solidarity between nations
On the other side of this picture, a new wave of popular and international support with Palestine is emerging. Capitals and cities in Europe, North America and Asia witnessed protests, unprecedented in numbers and in kind, to show solidarity with the Palestinian people and to condemn Israeli massacres, in contrast with the official stance of Western governments of supporting the entity.
In the aftermath of October 7, which Western media tried to suspend and isolate from its context to mobilize public opinion against the resistance, a large sector of these societies, thanks to alternative media and social platforms, and thanks to the excellence of the active youth inside the Gaza strip to report on the ongoing massacre, discovered how fake the Israeli narrative is. We saw since the bombing of the Anglican Al Ahly hospital a radical shift in how normal people view the events. This became clear through dozens of videos on social media supporting Gaza and its people, and dozens others asking questions that may seem simple and naive about the equal value of human lives and the impudence of Western bias in favor of Israel. Dozens of YouTube programs, hosted by young men and women from Europe and America, revisited the roots of the cause to talk about the Nakba and its aftermath. What’s interesting is that the common motive of these people is not ideological but an instinctive moral one, which clearly shows in the tears of some and their facial expressions.
Since the early signs of a popular solidarity movement with Palestine, in the middle of the sixties, this solidarity was based on ideology. With the emergence of the Palestinian liberation movement, in a climate that saw the rise of decolonization movements and the new left, pushed by the cultural revolution in China and the Vietnam war, the new left in Europe, America and Japan formed the main component of the global popular solidarity with the Palestinian people. This support went as far as joining the armed struggle, as elements or even entire organizations joined the Palestinian revolution, from Japan to Sweden, Venezuela, Kurdistan and Armenia, especially in the ranks of the popular and democratic fronts, in addition to leftist international institutions and leagues that supported the Palestinian cause through popular and civil work by protesting, boycotting, writing and publishing.
But this kind of ideological popular solidarity, as brave and costly as it was for those who showed it, remained elitist and mobilized a minority; it did not influence its western environment. On the contrary, Western security apparatus used it as a tool to qualify Palestinian resistance as terrorism, and it was used by the zionist movement to mobilize Western societies against Palestine. Then this type of solidarity soon declined, with the decline of the Palestinian revolution until it ended with the signing of the Oslo Accords. But after the second Palestinian Intifada, a growing and developed global movement began to form, strongly pushed by the movement against the war on Iraq, and it seems that the fruits of its work have appeared strongly these days. Therefore, re-establishing this solidarity on non-ideological foundations, and with more stable moral motives, may be one of the fruits of this sustainable and influential war in the future.
Reaffirming the “Global South”
The third and important observation revealed by this war, about our view of ourselves and the war, is the appearance of clearer rifts between the West and the rest of the world, and the clearer confirmation of the “Global South” idea, which is the Western reductionist and condescending description of the billions of humans who live in the south of this world. This south which Alfred Lopez describes as not a place, nor an alignment between places, but a state. Or maybe another direction that, firstly, became more and more aware of the hypocrisy of the Western narrative about the world, which globalization tried to consolidate since the end of the Cold War as part of the end of history package: Western civilization as a hegemony, neoliberalism for exploitation and the excess of military force to subjugate. And secondly, it became aware of its own strength in facing this hegemony. The war in Ukraine may have been the start of the revelation of these rifts, but the war in Palestine today clearly exposes this new partition: The West against the rest of the world.
The map of these positions and biases clearly shows a concentration of bias in favor of “Israel” in the West, while positions expressed in the rest of the world were either biased toward Palestine or at least called for an end to the war, except India’s position which sided with “Israel” due to internal motivations related to its struggle in Kashmir against islamist groups, which it tried to put in the same bag as the Palestinian resistance. But the position of the Indian people was clearly in the opposite direction with million-strong protests in support of Palestine. As for Africa, and despite the intense Israeli diplomatic activity on the continent for two decades, and the significant decline of the Arab and Palestinian presence, the war revealed an Israeli failure to win the support of African countries, as well as a clear African popular solidarity with the Palestinian people. Since 2017, the majority of African countries voted against the US decision to open an embassy in Jerusalem, during an emergency UN meeting. Netanyahu’s policy in Africa was also defeated after he failed to obtain observer state status there thanks to the opposition of both South Africa and Algeria, to the point that in February 2023, an Israeli diplomat was expelled from an African Union summit session.
What this war is reestablishing or even founding on a stronger basis is the unity of the causes of the global south in the face of Western hegemony. It is also rebutting the delusion of the end of history and its globalizing doctrine. Because this rift between the south of the world and its north is not just a gap in development, it is the impact of the domination relationship that has taken place for far too long. This is why the Arab’s view of himself, beyond the shackles of isolationism, must extend further and espouse the causes of those who resemble him among the southern nations, as a necessary condition of liberation and development.
This article by Tunisian researcher Ahmed Nadhif was published on the Jordanian website 7iber. We are publishing a translated version here, with the friendly approval of the website. You can read the original article in Arabic here.