Palestine is not a quagmire; it is a collective responsibility

  • April 16, 2021

Land & Liberation

The metaphors that attempt to render Palestine complicated obscure the simple brutality of Zionist colonization.

This essay was first published at the author’s website and is republished here with permission.

Photo: Great March of Return protests at the Israel-Gaza border. June 6, 2018. Ali A Suliman /

Palestine is not a minefield. Palestine is not complicated. Palestine is not a morass. Palestine is not tricky. Palestine is not a quagmire.

Palestine is not almost impossible to navigate.

Israel systematically abuses millions of Palestinians simply because they are not what the state defines as Jewish. Israel came into existence through a massive program of ethnic cleansing that continues into the present. Israel prevents millions of Palestinians from returning to their ancestral cities and villages. Israel does not allow those who remain the right of free movement. Israel is central to an ongoing project of Western imperialism. Appraise Israel’s position in the world and you will always find it aligned with forces of plunder and accumulation. Israel is a fundamentally racist entity — an ethnosupremacist settler colony, if you prefer — ruthlessly devoted to conquest and domination.

The notion of Palestine as doggedly complicated is a spectacular deceit.

Palestine is a living nation with a discrete history. Its people struggle for a future liberated of the misery imposed for decades by an insatiable colonizer. Palestinians need freedom. The conditions in which that freedom can exist are clear and tangible: dismantling a system of juridical inequality enforced at the barrel of a gun and replacing it with a polity invested in the well-being of all citizens. That polity would honor the right of return for refugees and eliminate strictures on movement and participation based on religious and/or ethnic identity. There is nothing complicated about it.

Describing Palestine as perplexing or troublesome offers no benefit to the discourse. It obfuscates a clear distinction between victim and aggressor. It imagines the audience as incapable of comprehending straightforward concepts of justice and restitution. It is an act of cruelty to people often maimed, imprisoned and murdered in a vigorous struggle for freedom.

More than anything, it manifests a kind of exegetic cowardice. To what end does a speaker describe Palestine as complicated, as a quagmire? To implicate Palestinians in their own suffering. And to absolve Israel of demonstrable barbarity. The absolution need not happen explicitly. It need not be intentional. But absolution is the effect of this cryptic diction.

We see it whenever a star politician boasting socialist credentials suddenly transforms into a dissembling clod (or an outright dick) when the subject of Israel arises. The criticism comes, quickly followed, as always, by the rationalizations.

“There’s no simple answer.”

“That’s the best response we can hope for.”

“To be fair, the issue is really difficult.”

Being fair requires more than an affinity for cliché. Deeming condemnation of Israel — or, better yet, of Zionism — difficult or intimidating exonerates the politician of cowardice. Palestine’s freedom is a momentous moral issue that deserves nothing less than decisive support. We are inclined to view the politician’s mousiness as pragmatic: they have to worry about elections; they are obliged to pander. This not only absolves the politician of cowardice, but of intellectual agency: they are talking nonsense, but they cannot possibly believe it. Their own rhetoric is unreliable.

If we insist on being fair to the politician, then it seems important to extend the same grace to other demographics. What about the politician’s constituents or the general audience? Do they not deserve any of the honesty they have been promised? Must their finite energy be taken up haggling with their own heroes? Begging for recognition from the luminaries who claim to represent them?

Or what about the Palestinian people themselves? Is it not unfair that they continue to suffer a military occupation lavishly funded by the dissembling politician? Is it not doubly unfair that the politician derived power by pretending to care about them, only to retreat into the usual business of forgetting?

Let us abandon this language of being fair to politicians. When it comes to maintaining the dignity of Palestine’s national liberation movement, antagonism is the only viable sensibility.

I do not mean antagonism of an oratorical variety, but as a subject position — a relentless focus on prioritizing the downtrodden above the bourgeois ambitions of social climbers in the West. “You can’t get elected in the United States without sucking up to Israel!” screams the advocate of realism. It is long past time for this bit of common wisdom to disappear. Aspiring politicians may oblige themselves to systemic norms, but we suffer no such obligation. Even where true, though, it is not our problem.  I do not give a single damn if my advocacy for the colonized disrupts somebody’s political aspirations. The goal is to liberate Palestine, not to seat more charlatans and chickenshits in Congress.

On this note, let us also drop the pretense, exceedingly popular among bluecheck radicals on social media, that these ersatz socialists — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, especially — have betrayed their leftist supporters (Sanders by campaigning vigorously for Joe Biden and ingratiating himself to party bosses, and Ocasio-Cortez by transforming from a socialist dynamo into a bumbling liberal Zionist). They betrayed nothing but the ahistorical delusions of a pundit class trying to cash in on fantasies of influence. Sanders never pretended he would do anything but champion the party and Ocasio-Cortez began dissimulating about Palestine before even winning her first election.

I know because I criticized both of them from the outset for their weak politics, which were fully visible for anyone who cared to see them, and got dragged all over the internet. It is unpleasant to see self-identified radicals boost every new savior appended to the Democratic Party, only to pull a sanctimonious, self-congratulatory switcharoo after dissent has become legible (i.e., behave as liberal disciplinarians when it is beneficial and then as principled critics when liberal discipline is out of favor). The tardiness, like the naivete preceding it, is calibrated to the accumulation of clout — politics not as virtue, but self-indulgence. The only thing anyone gets out of being correct from the outset is an undeserved reputation for crankiness.

The savior always capitulates by design. The savior is a creation of the very culture he purports to transcend. A sincere commitment to Palestinian liberation precludes upward mobility in the US political system. Upward mobility always prevails. Calling Palestine a quagmire facilitates the upward mobility. Palestine is complicated only insofar as it inconveniences devotees of American exceptionalism. On its own, detached from the logic of electoralism, Palestine is a collective responsibility, coherent and unbounded. We cannot make Palestine intelligible to people obliged by political convention to abandon it.

Before they became political metaphors, “morass” and “quagmire” were strictly geographical terms, denoting swampland hostile to development and most forms of agriculture. The notion of Palestine as a quagmire provided an important dimension to early Zionism, which conceptualized the Holy Land as marshy and barren.

“Drain the swamp” is now associated with Donald Trump, but for centuries it served as a colonial rallying cry, first in North America and then in Palestine. Transforming these promised lands into something productive would be a difficult task, an undertaking nothing less than divine, and could not be left to unindustrious natives. The settlers on both continents built roads and cities — planted new flora and extracted resources from the ground — and in the process destroyed the natural environment.

And now Palestine has again become a swampy trope in the colonialist lexicon. Palestine is not complicated, though. The quagmire comes into existence precisely where the fantasy of American salvation begins.

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