In Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance, Sara Roy reflects on Gaza’s ruination from a Jewish perspective and discusses the connections between Gaza’s history and her own as a child of Holocaust survivors.
This chapter, When a Loaf of Bread Was Not Enough, describes Roy’s research in Gaza during the first Intifada (1987-93). Her reflections recall the enduring struggle of Palestine, its people and historical memory in the face of Israeli persecution.
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How terrible it would have been … to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated. – V.S. Naipaul, A House for Mr Biswas
I last traveled to Gaza in September 2016, two years after the horrific assault on the territory known as Operation Protective Edge. The destruction of Gaza’s infrastructure was still evident in some places but much of it had already been cleared away. The mountains of rubble—formerly homes, schools and hospitals—were gone but what remained was an ineliminable emptiness that echoed the destruction it had replaced.
Many things struck me on that trip but one, perhaps more than all the others, was particularly distressing (see Sara Roy, If Israel were Smart, London Review of Books). In many conversations I had with young and well-educated adults, I learned that they knew little if anything about the first Palestinian uprising or Intifada, which was a formative and watershed event in Palestinian history. Their lack of knowledge was profoundly disturbing, a form of privation both tragic and self-defeating. As I observed in 2016: “I was … struck by how little the young but well-educated adults I met knew of the first Intifada and the Oslo years, absorbed as they were by the present day. In other words, not only do they feel disconnected from a possible future, they are also cut off from their very recent past—and the many important lessons contained in it” (Roy, If Israel were Smart). Of course, many young adults in Gaza today were toddlers or not yet born during the first Intifada. Perhaps they never learned about the Intifada because it did not end the occupation or achieve an independent Palestinian state. Yet embedded in these defeats were certain remarkable achievements that forever changed Gaza.
This piece draws on nearly 300 pages of field notes I wrote while living and working in Gaza during the second year of the first Intifada (1988–89). It took me some time to read through my field notes, which were comprised of interviews, observations, commentary, statistics, relevant newspaper articles and excerpts from books and journals,and what I found astounded me. I found in those notes a meticulously recorded history of a truly remarkable yet deeply painful and brutal period—long since erased—that I was fortunate to experience. What leapt out from those pages were the voices of people who, through their hard work and self-sacrifice, changed how Palestinians defined themselves (and how others defined them including Israel), rejecting any notion of their inconsequence, insisting on possibility and on their rightful place in the world. Many of those Palestinians I recorded, both known and unknown, have died or have receded into history. Yet, what they were able to accomplish, both permanent and ephemeral, deserves to be acknowledged and applied but, tragically, remains lost or unknown to young Palestinians.
Rereading my notes thirty years after they were written, certain themes were dominant: the Intifada as unstoppable; the changing role of women and children; generational conflict and convergence; the empowerment of youth; the strength and limitations of strategic thinking and vision; increasing external and internal lawlessness, and, ultimately, the Intifada’s breakdown. Yet, the three most unyielding and persistent aspects of my observations were these: the masterly and efficient reorganization and mobilization of Palestinian society—which was indigenous to Gaza and the West Bank—in order to achieve clear and deeply held political goals; the commitment to unified action, which widened allegiance beyond the family to the larger collective of society, and the articulation and solidification of dynamics that have since defined—or played a significant role in defining—Israel’s increasingly destructive relationship with Palestinians, especially with Gaza. In what follows I revisit that time and examine some of the Intifada’s most important successes (and failures) and the lessons contained within them. I conclude by reflecting on how the uprising changed the Palestinian struggle and how it was crucial for shaping where Gaza and Palestinians find themselves today.
After more than three decades of continual involvement, my aim in revisiting this period is not to read history backwards as it were, but to better understand the present through the convulsions and achievements of the past. Looking back, it is clear that Palestinians were writing a history—a context of significance—that has long since been silenced but still insists on being heard.
A Final Thought –
Gaza is a scandal that has persisted long past its disclosure (this is a paraphrase borrowed from writer, Mark Danner). That Gaza’s misery continues, with the knowledge and consent of others, speaks to the ruin in all nations. Not long ago a colleague interviewed an official in the French government who asked her: “When will it be visible that Gaza’s economy is dead?” The lack of empathy and tranquil sense of cruelty evinced by this question is also part of our disgrace.
Gaza has long been characterized as a symbol of wreckage, particularly since the Intifada. Yet embedded in this characterization, which Gazans have always resisted, are certain truths rooted in the Intifada that continue to shape the Palestinian struggle, albeit silently and, for many, unknowingly. One is that the Palestinian struggle will never again recede into an unquestioned, unexamined narrative. The narrative may be disputed but it will not be muted. Similarly, although the Intifada failed to address meaningfully the gross disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians, it succeeded in briefly challenging it, demonstrating that Palestinians would never again be the disempowered and voiceless subjects of occupation. The Intifada confronted the anonymity of Palestinian death, ensuring that the deaths—and lives—of Palestinians would no longer remain shrouded or unknown. The Intifada also succeeded in questioning the idea of Israel as a symbol or a cause, unveiling a state that occupies another people and does so brutally.
My decades of work among Palestinians, especially during the Intifada, has allowed me to bear witness to their inner life and spiritual resources, which have not been defeated. As such, I have come to understand that Israel’s repression of Gaza not only represents an attack by an occupier against an occupied but also an unending attack against a society, largely composed of children and young adults, seeking freedom and dignity, and the right to live an ordinary life. By insisting that Gaza and the Palestinian struggle be understood in these terms, perhaps most of all the Intifada created a politically and morally audible testimony capable of facing Israeli memory, and that may be its greatest and most inextinguishable legacy.
Sara Roy is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. A distinguished political economist, she has written extensively on the Palestinian economy and has documented its decline over the last three decades. She is the author of Failing Peace: Gaza and the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict (Pluto, 2006).