Crossing a Line
Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression
Amahl Bishara



ON ONE SUMMER EVENING IN HAIFA, in 2011, a small group of Palestinian citizens of Israel protested in solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners who were on a hunger strike for better living conditions. Protesters held framed photos of political prisoners whom the vast majority of Israeli society viewed as terrorists. Most of us had never met any of these striking prisoners in person. We had no easy way to capture or communicate the experiences of those prisoners who had not eaten for days, who lived in the prison of those who regarded them not just as criminals but as enemies. Some protesters blindfolded themselves and held their hands behind their backs as they kneeled in the cobblestone median of the main street. It was a different kind of vulnerability than that of hunger: visible solidarity with hated figures, bringing bodies low and close to traffic, denying themselves sight. The protest had wound down smoothly. It was dusk, that time in the demonstration when things can either turn more dangerous or more intimate, or they can dissipate entirely. A few people were still gathered near the treasured Palestinian cafes of Haifa’s downtown.

How illuminating it can be to listen to what happens at the margins of events, off stage, as the crowd is half dispersing. In that twilight state, Walaa Sbeit, a locally loved musician and drama teacher, took to the center of the circle of protesters with a riff about Handala, a famous Palestinian character. Handala is a child refugee with a patched shirt, bare feet, and spiky hair created by Palestinian refugee Naji Al-Ali in 1969. Drawn in outline, he is usually depicted from behind. One explanation of this stance is that he is looking back to his homeland, longing for and looking to the land from which he was dispossessed in 1948 upon Israel’s establishment. In this way he is a symbol of the right of millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their home villages and cities. Another interpretation of his turned back is that he is rejecting corrupt and ineffective Palestinian leadership. That night, Sbeit called out across time and geography and the very lines of imagination to exhort Handala to show his face, as Sbeit spun around with a dancer’s grace:

Handala, turn your back

Handala, show your face.

The time has come to say, Enough.1

As a child, Naji Al-Ali and his family had been pushed out of their Galilee village of Al-Shajara by Israeli forces in May 1948 and lived then in Ayn Al-Hilwe Refugee Camp in Lebanon, where 180,000 Palestinian refugees still live in some of the worst circumstances faced by Palestinian refugees.2 We were a fifty- or sixty-kilometer drive from the ruins of Al-Shajara and perhaps a hundred kilometers from Ayn Al-Hilwe. Lebanon felt at once utterly inaccessible—the border has been entirely closed to legal civilian crossing since Israel’s establishment—and just out of reach of the Galilee, like the breeze might really carry a message from this dancer in Haifa to a cartoon character dreamed up by an assassinated cartoonist in the last century. Like Handala could just maybe turn his head and answer Sbeit.

The prisons where the hungry prisoners waited were closer: Damoun, Al-Jalama, and Mejiddo were all within thirty-five kilometers, all former British Mandate detention facilities. They and the prisoners there, most of whom come from the militarily occupied West Bank, were out of reach in a different way. You could drive by them, but Israeli authorities tightly regulated visitors.

Sbeit soon turned to a meditation on the poetics of the name Handala itself. “Handala,” he said, and let the word hang in the night air.

Handala. Be kind to those who remained and those who did not remain.

I’ll remain here.

Here I’ll remain.

We’ll be kind to those who remained and those who did not remain.

Ḥanẓala. Ḥinn ʿalli ẓall wʿalli mā ẓall.

Ḥanẓalni hōn.

Hōn hanẓall.

Ḥanḥinn ʿalli ẓall wa ʿalli mā ẓall.

And his words accelerated as he repeated them over and over until applause erupted around him and he settled again on the name Handala, suspended softly in the night.

All of the sounds of his riff came from the name Handala, and they are markedly Arabic sounds, like the hard ḥ that starts Handala, the hard ẓ sound in the middle, even the soft h sound of the end of his name. These sounds themselves signify Palestinian alterity, grace, and toughness for Palestinian citizens of Israel, especially because dominant forms of modern Hebrew tend to use fewer of the throat-based and “hard” sounds that make Arabic distinct. Indeed, Arabic is sometimes known as “the language of d. ād” evidence of how Arabic speakers can feel attached to the very distinctiveness of the sound of their language. To paraphrase the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s famous poem, Palestinians might have felt listening to Sbeit, we have in this word, Handala, what we need to express ourselves.3 In its formal economy, the line of Sbeit’s solo voice even bears some similarity to the Handala cartoon, that simple line drawing.

Sbeit articulates a determination to remain committed to this land. The reorientation of this Palestinian revolutionary symbol reveals its fertility. If Handala has been a symbol of refugees, here Handala helps Sbeit to articulate a message of tenderness for all Palestinians, those who were pushed out and those who remain. By using the sounds of Handala’s name to talk about these different relationships, he suggests that these experiences are deeply related. This tender love is kinder than nationalism; it is a graceful challenge to the fragmentation, dispossession, and shame that trouble so many Palestinians at this long nadir of their liberation movement. With reggae style vocalizations, Sbeit gestures out to another geography of liberation.4

Palestinian nationalist political culture has tended to sideline Palestinian citizens of Israel, but they have found ways to engage, reframe, and stay connected to other Palestinians. Sbeit is a powerful messenger for this linking of refugee narratives and narratives of Palestinians in Haifa, since his family is internally displaced from the destroyed village of Iqrit in the far northern Galilee. He is like a refugee in his family’s dispossession from land, but not defined as a refugee because his family did not cross international boundaries,5 and he carries Israeli citizenship. In his performance, we see a symbol of Palestinian refugees’ right to return (Handala) transposed, seamlessly, into an affirmation of the experience of staying. Handala is an iconic figure in Palestinian symbolism, evoked in everything from graffiti to jewelry, but that evening Sbeit added a new layer of significance to the little cartoon child.

It was moving for me as an ethnographer with experience living and working in a West Bank community with high rates of incarceration to witness the brave Haifa standouts for prisoners. While there were a few cherished political prisoners who were citizens of Israel, most were from the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. During these same hunger strikes in the West Bank, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and friends of prisoners and many former prisoners would come to the marches and solidarity tents set up in each city. They would cradle photographs of people they wanted to hold in person. They sat in those tents for hours, mirroring the endurance of the striking prisoners, their presence an emblem of the stamina it indeed took family members to care for prisoners from afar, sometimes over many years. Being in these protest tents in the West Bank was intimate and painful, but it was also less politically (and perhaps physically) risky than to kneel in the street in Haifa. In the West Bank, Palestinians regarded prisoners as heroic men and women, or as vulnerable children, and they were beloved family members and friends. The Palestinian Authority (PA), an administering institution in the West Bank that operates within the Israeli occupation, paid prisoners small salaries, recognizing what they saw as their service to the nation and many of their families’ dire need. Solidarity tents in Bethlehem would often be set up in the middle of town, where there were no Israeli soldiers. To stand with prisoners in the West Bank was not controversial. At these solemn events, there was rarely creative performance of song and dance. This is to say that the act of standing in solidarity with prisoners had a very different feel for Palestinian citizens of Israel than it did for Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank. The dangers and discomforts and the very weight of loss were distinct even if the photos of the prisoners they carried might have been the same.

This book is about the distinct environments for political expression and action of Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and Palestinians subject to Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, two Palestinian societies differently ostracized and endangered by Israeli settler colonialism and militarism and differently impacted by displacement and empire. It embarks from the idea that expression is always grounded in place and body, and that recognizing this is especially crucial under conditions of militarized settler colonialism.6 Palestinians make up approximately one-fifth of Israeli citizens, while Palestinians in the West Bank are subjects of military occupation and make up about four-fifths of the population of the West Bank, with the remainder being Jewish Israeli settlers. This is to say that Palestinians live with Jewish Israelis on either side of the Green Line, the armistice line that separates Israel’s 1948 territories from the territory it occupied in 1967, albeit on very different terms.7 Palestinian citizens of Israel, who almost always live in the territory Israel claimed in 1948, can vote and receive Israeli social services, though they are systematically discriminated against. Palestinians in the West Bank, some of whom were dispossessed of their homes and lands in 1948, are subjects of Israel’s military occupation that began in 1967. They are unable to vote or access those social services. Yet they are at the center of the dominant manifestation of the Palestinian national project. That project is most obviously institutionalized in the PA, a state-like assemblage that is itself over twenty-five years old and was meant to be a bridge to Palestinian statehood, but lacks anything resembling full sovereignty as the term is generally employed. These two Palestinian groups are separated from each other by harsh Israeli movement restrictions and because they live under different sets of laws. As a result, their forms of appeal and resistance have diverged, and subtle tensions have arisen between these groups. Nevertheless, Palestinians in these two locations—which are of course themselves made up of many other places with their own internal variations—manage to articulate similar messages against Israeli oppression and for Palestinian liberation, and recent years have seen a growing convergence in the forms of protest. Finally, empire is a backdrop to this story both because of US support for Israel and because US power tends to establish norms for various kinds of sovereignty and forms of dissent.

Walaa Sbeit’s performance exhibits a logic of juxtaposition, of resignification, and of bricolage that we will encounter throughout the book.8 If the ethnographer is one kind of bricoleur,9 working in a science of the concrete to make a collage of media, statements, and impressions that bring forward a larger truth, I see not only myself but also many of those I write about as bricoleurs, making politics out of the available lines of poetry, trees, stones, paths, homes, etc.—working in a world not of their own making in a struggle for liberation and life. Perhaps this is true of all political activism, in that activists inherit a set of symbols and a material world from those that came before them, but it is especially true for Palestinians. Out of necessity and creativity, Palestinians work with what they have, often lacking the power to pave roads or protect archives. The concreteness of these processes is part of why it is difficult to draw a clear line between speech and action for liberation, and why I look at a wide variety of sites and practices related to expression as action in this book: not only media, but protests, commemorations, and more.

After a first chapter that contemplates the shifting and layered meanings of the placename Palestine for Palestinians, each chapter of this book addresses a different kind of political and expressive practice across at least two Palestinian places: protests against Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza in Al-Lidd / Lod, Israel, and Bethlehem, the West Bank; commemorations of the Nakba in several locations on either side of the Green Line; a photographic exchange that I organized between Palestinian photographers in Jaffa, Israel, and Aida Refugee Camp, the West Bank; social media practices of offering condolences and memorials for Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers or police; and practices surrounding Palestinian political prison. In each case the expressive is only one dimension of these practices: They also yield other results, such as drawing Palestinian communities together, physically challenging the Israeli army, enjoying the outdoors, or reckoning with the threat of state violence. Across the book, I trace three factors: First, I look at how Israeli laws, policies, and cultural norms restrict Palestinians differently within Israel’s 1948 borders as opposed to in the West Bank. Second, I attend to how the Palestinians about whom I write are affected by these laws, policies, and norms, and how this shapes what I think of as their political habitus, or embodied sense of how to undertake political practice, as well as their structures of feelings, affective orientations to the political world that are in the process of taking shape.10 Finally, I write about what these moments say about Palestinians’ relationships to each other across settler colonial boundaries, whether the relationships are hinted at or imagined, whether they are comfortable or awkward, whether they are driven primarily by political ideology or they are rooted in chosen forms of kinship or love.

These chapters draw upon participant-observation in public spaces as well as in the photography exchange that I organized, media analysis, and interviews with activists, former prisoners, and others. They also draw on my own experiences in particular Palestinian places on either side of the Green Line and on the road between those places. This is emplaced knowledge, and it is also knowledge made in motion. I have not sought to find “equivalent” or “representative” places for comparison across the Green Line, as this would be impossible. Palestinian places are fractally “intra-connected, like in a kaleidoscope” with relationships “not external but integral to their parts.”11 So, I draw upon several locations on either side of the Green Line, recognizing their diversity and specificity. In the West Bank, I was based around Bethlehem, conducting research primarily in that city, in Aida Refugee Camp, and in Al-Walaja village, while inside Israel’s 1948 territories, I spent time in Jaffa, the northern Galilee village of Tarshiha, and other places where relevant protests and commemorations occurred. Rather than a claim of comprehensiveness, I offer this volume as an invitation to others to continue to do research and activism that brings Palestinian places into relation in new ways.

Looking at commemorations, protests, comedy sketches, and cartoons, we can find elements of Palestinian political heritage that link practices across the Green Line. Ethnography also reveals what impedes these two groups of Palestinians from speaking to and acting with each other. Yet, this is not only a book about the conditions for speaking together. Just as important, I want to interrogate the model of political expression in which political speech should have one clear center. More than a century after the consolidation of modern Palestinian nationalism, and decades after the start of the Palestinian Revolution, Palestinians find themselves in a political crisis. The Oslo Accords of 1993 were meant to lead smoothly to a Palestinian state that many hoped would be the central instrument in resolving Palestinians’ claims. In the decades since, Israeli occupation has continued, its violence only accelerating, while the PA has grown corrupt, autocratic, and complicit with Israeli occupation.12 It has been unable to narrate Palestinian perspectives even in dire moments.13 Other Palestinian political institutions have faded to the background. The Oslo agreements have entrenched a neoliberal politics that sidelines poor Palestinians more than ever. Israeli society has moved further to the right. Refugees outside of historic Palestine have suffered new displacements and another generation of dispossession.

In this context, as in others where nationalist projects have failed or faltered, or major collective ideological projects have fallen short, looking for other models of political expression and communication is an urgent task. Grassroots Palestinian action can enable speaking together on key Palestinian priorities like the right of return and the right to equality, but this does not necessitate speaking in unison. We can instead think about political expression that thrives in its multivocality, that aims to enable other Palestinian expression, and that is rooted in place and community experience even as it is connected to a broader Palestinian narrative of dispossession and struggle for liberation. I found that examples of this kind of expression often occurred on the periphery of well-organized political events. They more often came to the fore in Israel than in the West Bank since the West Bank is the troubled center of Palestinian politics today. Ethnography can attend to the political experiences and perspectives of poor people instead of only to the elite,14 and looking at class and decoloniality can benefit from reflexivity.15 Modeling how to look for political expression that helps to renew collectivities or create other kinds of collectivities—ones that recognize power differences, vulnerabilities, embodied experience, and wisdom gained over time, even or especially in less than ideal circumstances—is a contribution that I hope can inform democratic movements and practice well beyond the intra-Palestinian conversation: between Palestinians and Jewish allies, among Palestinians and other people of color in the United States, and well beyond.


1. Though I heard him earlier in this year, a similar performance by Sbeit was recorded on another evening after a protest in solidarity with prisoners (Hungry4Freedom 2011).

2. UNRWA 2019. 470,000 Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA in Lebanon, and the total population is much larger.

3. Darwish wrote, “We have on this land what makes life worth living” (Darwish 2007).

4. See Karkabi 2017 for more on reggae in Walaa Sbeit’s music and its political significance, and Geographies of Liberation (Lubin 2014) for more on shared Afro-Arab political imaginaries.

5. Palestinian refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict” (UNRWA, n.d.d). In general, internally displaced people are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border” (OHCHR n.d.).

6. Palestinians and others have long recognized that Israel is a settler colonial state (Abowd 2014; Abu-Lughod 2020; Hanafi 2009; Rashid Khalidi 2020; Lustick 1993; Rouhana and Sabbagh-Khoury 2015; Salaita 2006; Salamanca et al. 2012; Said 1992; Shihade 2012; Sayegh 2012; Zureik 1979). In the 1950s and 1960s, journalists, poets, and other writers saw the Palestinian struggle as one for liberation against colonialism, drawing inspiration both from anticolonial struggles in Africa and Asia and from their own struggle against the British Mandate (Nassar 2017). Writing in the 1970s, Elia Zureik termed Israel’s rule there to be “internal colonialism” (Zureik 1979). In recent years, the settler colonial framework has (re)emerged in European and US-based scholarship as an alternative to that of an Israeli-Palestinian or Arab-Israeli conflict, though it has not consistently acknowledged the history of the idea among Palestinians (Bhandar and Ziadah 2016).

7. See Klein 2014 for another perspective on the different dynamics of copresence in different locations under Israeli sovereignty.

8. Levi-Strauss writes of the bricoleur as someone who works with the heterogenous and contingent tools at hand (Lévi-Strauss 1962, 17–18).

9. Feld 1982, 15.

10. I am drawing here on ideas of habitus developed by scholars like Pierre Bourdieu and Charles Hirschkind (Bourdieu 1977; Hirschkind 2006), and on the concept of structures of feelings developed by Raymond Williams (Williams 1977).

11. De la Cadena 2015, 32-33.

12. A. Bishara 1997; Y. Sayigh 2011.

13. Buttu 2014b.

14. Memories of Revolt is a foundational study that does this in the Palestinian context (Swedenburg 1995).

15. Harrison 1997.