The following is an essay published as part of +972’s New Futures project. In this series, writers, thinkers, and activists share how they visualize Israel-Palestine the day after the pandemic, as a way of transforming this dystopian moment into an exercise in radical imagination of rethinking through the past, present, and future of this region, and envisioning a different reality for all those living between the river and the sea.
The rumor spread like wildfire across the exhausted news pages and tabloids of the tail-end of 2020: the United States, it was reported, operates an underground base on Mars. A fitting tale with which to finish the year, courtesy of one Haim Eshed, former chief of Israel’s space directorate. According to him, Israel and the United States have been in contact with aliens and have been busy researching “the fabric of the universe” for some time. Somewhere out there, the retired general told us, a galactic federation capable of traveling from star to star found nothing better to do than cooperate with — of all countries — the United States and Israel.
Curious as to the nature of the “space security” that Eshed headed, and imagining an Iron Dome deployed against the outer space equivalent of Palestinians, I looked up its definition online only to find out it was equally pedestrian and horrifying. In a 2015 paper published in “The Handbook of Space Security,” researchers explain that Israel’s space program was stimulated by the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, “and the perceived need to protect Israel, including through the need to verify Egypt’s compliance with the treaty.” Israel, ever the victim, needed to boldly fly all the way to space to check that the Egyptians were keeping their part of the deal. I assume that as Israel signs more and more deals with Arab countries, a whole fleet of satellites will be commissioned to surveil every single one of them.
Up there, far beyond the night sky, spaceships carrying earthling crews are landing on Mars. Their flight creates patterns of lights; an intricate ballet of technology. Meanwhile, here below in the darkness, the air space in the occupied West Bank and Gaza doesn’t belong to us, Palestinians, while politicians sign deals that further destroy whatever is left of us. Our kites, toy helicopters, and camera drones are all equally dangerous. Forget about launching into outer space — try driving from Bethlehem to Ramallah on any given day.
Many lights have been extinguished this year in Palestine. Some names, such as Ali Abu Aliya and Iyad al-Hallaq, made it to the news and to our ears and, somehow, to posterity. Many others did not. According to B’Tselem, in 2020, Israeli security forces killed 27 Palestinians, seven of them minors. That same year, and despite the raging pandemic, Israel destroyed 273 homes. By the end of September 2020, there were also 157 Palestinian children held in Israeli prisons. Under such circumstances, the light of the living can be extinguished, too; you are forced, day in and day out, to compromise with a system of colonization that gives you nothing yet requires that you sacrifice everything.
Although no one in polite society will acknowledge it, there is a controversy over the humanity of Palestinians, much like that of the “replicants” — the bioengineered beings, virtually indistinguishable from humans, that form the core of the universe in the sci-fi classic “Blade Runner.” The Israeli stance on this debate is, at best, murky. Sometimes, it seems we are too human for their taste, teeming around them, taking up too much space; other times, we’re not human enough, barking up their trees, not deserving of vaccines or safety. I wonder what they think about that in the Mars underground base. Do they discuss it, the Moroccan and the Israeli, around a shared plate of hummus?
When you are so relentlessly compared to a parasite or a threat, or even to a nonexistent fantasy — when you are forcefully situated somewhere on a spectrum between the infra-human and the barbaric — you start to believe it. Growing up with Israeli soldiers and civilians who stare at you glassy-eyed, trying to discern whether you’re a person or not, does irreversible damage; on most days, you suppose you’re just really good at pretending to be human.
On some days, perhaps if you’re tired or a bit overwhelmed or in a state of panic, this belief rears its head again. Looking in the mirror, you see an unreal creature living in an unreal place; someone else’s nightmare; a disaster about to fall upon others. You figure this is why you feel such affinity with replicants.
In “Blade Runner,” the fictional Voight-Kampff test is used to identify replicants. The test triggers emotional responses, and a replicant’s nonverbal reactions are distinguishable from those of a human. On the intimate level, replicants — unbeknownst even to themselves — can mimic and replicate emotions they neither understand nor truly feel. Politically, identifying their inhumanity makes it acceptable to “retire” them — the euphemism for the murder of those barely-human machines. It reminds me of the usage of “neutralize” whenever a Palestinian is killed by Israeli forces. We are robots, unplugged. 2021 started with a bang, already as out of joint as its predecessor, and it seems less implausible than ever before that Palestinians will undergo a campaign of “retirement” at the hands of Israeli hunters. After all, we are only false humans living on a makeshift land.
I write this as I wait in Paris to celebrate a rather lonely Christmas, far from my hometown of Bethlehem, where my family has celebrated the nativity of Jesus for generations. Every year, the buoyant feast of Saint Barbara inaugurates the Christmas season, whose pagan poetry is tempered by a forbidding, Semitic severity. I am an agnostic by habit — too lazy and attached to tradition to be lapsed. I nevertheless find myself becoming devoutly Christian again in December: an ardent disciple of breathing, living light. And so, every year, after a long agnostic summer, I light candles, put on garlands, and pray to the flame that leads the way to solstice.
I think of the mediocre middlemen, the provincial elite, who hunted Jesus when he was born and managed to have him sentenced to death 33 years later. Who are their equivalents in today’s Palestine? Who, thus, fears children?
Christmas, a feast of miraculous births, shapes how I approach the landscape of my country. Palestine is a hesitation: a stuttering of being, a pause on the threshold, a land always on the verge of existence or disappearance; a light not yet born. As the velvet nights of Bethlehem, with their distinctive blue — a color from the farther reaches of outer space — become colder and darker, so too the light within us grows warmer and brighter.
At Christmas, my country materializes into something so true and so real that it cannot be ignored. And for once, it is seen by the world. For me, Christmas always meant the excitement of recognition, the elation that comes with watching journalists flock to my town, and watching television broadcasts of Bethlehem when in Bethlehem. A hypnotic feedback loop that brought, every year, the hope that this would somehow change things. And Palestine becomes, during this season, a coalescence of light and repair, all aglow with its own possibilities.
But there was something poignant to the lighting of the Christmas tree in Bethlehem this year. As I watched the broadcast, Manger Square was empty. This year, the ceremony was subdued; a tree lighting with barely any humans around, as if we had become extinct.
Whenever I am away from Bethlehem — and most of my life is away — everything seems unreal and temporary. This makeshift territory, pockmarked and uprooted, feels more real to me than anything else. My ongoing anxiety surrounding the imminent disappearance of Bethlehem and Palestine — like a vanishing of the light — is contradicted by my conviction that my bones will someday end up buried there, for the earth to eat me in the outer space blue of a night so distinctive that no colonial power, no Martian visitor, could erase its color.
What regime of reality does Palestine exist in? This season, it seems to be realer, more solid, than the world itself. As if it were the only place on the planet — the rest merely tired chunks of earth orbiting around the light from the stable. Even if Bethlehem disappears, if it becomes an impossibility, anything outside of it will remain flimsy. That the territory somehow lives on, in every constricted breath and syncopated heartbeat, is ultimately a miracle. Palestine is astonishing, made of vivid dawns and pulsating nights. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, especially, feel unbelievable, as if they were the first night and first daybreak of history. And we know this intimately, for the landscape itself courses through our bones.
The days after Christmas are melancholy; the sad afterglow of a party in a fallen world. What can we hope for in the future? It feels disingenuous, at best, to wish for good things when truly awful things destroy the lives of the many on a daily basis.
The old year has flickered out, and the new one has dawned: we are tempted to believe that the slates will be wiped clean; that the months to come will be new, ahistorical, unheard of. That somehow an opportunity for change will present itself. Yet, a worrisome thought nags: what if, despite what all the memes and jokes would have us believe, the problem isn’t with 2020, annus horribilis, but with us, with this system horribilis of ours? We know this to be true, but somehow, we carry hope for a better future here below, far away from Mars.
Palestine, like much of the world, was hit hard last year. Even without the ongoing pandemic, which has wreaked havoc on Palestinian society, 2020 saw a ramping up of the policies of apartheid and oppression. They include punitive measures, house demolitions, settlement expansion, extrajudicial murders, and imprisonments, to say nothing of the crackdown on any attempts by Palestinians and their allies to resist their erasure. Reactionary powers, regionally and globally, seem to have become mightier and more villainous than ever before, and have managed to ingrain themselves into every aspect of our lives, making themselves necessary to our very survival. Optimism feels like a tall tale for our longest nights.
Not much has essentially changed; only the rhythm, the scope, and the arrogance of colonial powers has expanded, as Emirati interests meet Israeli appetites under the high patronage of the United States. This is perhaps a great development for our alien friends — they must be anxiously preparing to welcome the God-fearing Emiratis and Moroccans, who refashioned themselves as patrons of the arts and sciences, in that underground Mars base. One wonders what these comically fiendish alliances could mean for 2021 and beyond.
Poetry in all its iterations — whether in literature, in art, or in sound — feels like a hopeless endeavor, barely able to make a dent in the armor of empires. And believing that some good can emerge from darkness is a difficult, often thankless, exercise. Yet, the hope lingers — that 2021 will perhaps afford us time to repair the world, paving the way for radicalities that were, and radicalities to come. Our imaginations need to be both rooted in the work of others, and be unprecedented, for such futures to become possible.
We have been given, last year, examples of utopian work, through protests and abolition. We’ve been offered glimpses of what time-shattering, revolutionary realities can be. We have possible horizons, lights at the far edges of the sky.
That the airspace, like water, doesn’t belong to us means that the oxygen we breathe every day is something we steal from them. In and out, every breath is a revenge, a replicant taking over the space whence she was once excluded. Let them control outer space, and let us breathe vengefully, with blissful bitterness. In every purloined breath and heartbeat — loot from those who control the air and conquer space — lies the work of a lifetime and the hope for liberation. Let them look to the stars: ultimately, we will get to dictate here below how liberation unfolds, and what it will be.