‘An Unyielding Will to Continue’: An Interview with Abdaljawad Omar on October 7th and the Palestinian Resistance

Abdaljawad Omar and Louis Allday, Orinoco Tribune, November 20, 2023 —

Louis Allday: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, Abdaljawad. I was blown away by your recent article in Mondoweiss, ‘Hopeful pathologies in the war for Palestine: a reply to Adam Shatz’, so I am very happy to be speaking to you.

Your article, as the title says, is a response to Adam Shatz’s article ‘Vengeful Pathologies’ that was published in the London Review of Books, but it’s actually about so much more than that and is honestly the best thing that I’ve read so far about October 7th. Could you explain your motivations in responding to Shatz’s piece and why you thought it was important to do so?

Abdeljawad Omar: In Adam Schatz’s piece, the element I find unforgivable is not his moral aversion to Palestinian violence – nor his condemnation of Palestinian resistance, nor even his adoption of what can only be described as a highly curated Israeli narrative shaped through military censorship and misinformation/disinformation to project a specific image of events in the Gaza envelope. The most critical issue is his reductionist view of resistance itself, equating it to ‘primordial instincts’ and unchecked passions while dismissing any other possibilities. Although I did not mention this in my critique, this is the revealing aspect – not necessarily of Shatz himself, but of an entire liberal analytical stream. This perspective not only morally dismisses resistance, as Judith Butler does, for instance, but also overlooks its political potential. Unlike Butler’s essay on the compass of mourning, Shatz at least attempts to delve into the political and military logic and possibilities. However, he ultimately dismisses them with dystopian, dark undertones, portraying the widespread increase of fascism as an inevitable outcome. He only offers us the nightmare. I think when thinkers offer only nightmares, they are consciously or unconsciously invested in the status-quo. They offer us the monsters so we remain committed to existing structures, to hinge our political wager on sustaining a reality, even if this reality means, as Ghassan Kanafani explicated, that Palestinians live in a world that is not theirs. For Shatz, the nightmare is on the horizon but for us Palestinians we live in the nightmare and have for at least 75 years.

This is a political sin par excellence, because if anything Palestinian resistance operates on a highly tangled architecture of emotions and passions – chief among them to employ its potencies and whatever meagre power to widen the horizon of political possibilities – to crack history open and yes, the nightmare is a possibility and yes, Palestinian resistance is imperfect, but the nightmare is not the only thing one on offer. For some of our so-called allies to foreclose those possibilities is to me ‘unforgivable’. I am less interested in aversions to violence or even to moral condemnations of Palestinian actions, and resistance like any other institution should be criticised. I remain however adamant, as history will show, that what happened in the Gaza envelope is profoundly different to how it was presented. Again this does not mean that Palestinian fighters did not kill any civilians, but the image presented to us is incomplete at best and a more complicated narrative will emerge when the battle subsides.

What this informs us, or tells us, is that many thinkers are capable of a stance that at its heart is anti-intellectual, and to me rejecting thinking is what you expect from fascists, not leftist or progressive allies. Zizek is another example; he speaks of Palestinian actions and resistance as a sign of Palestinian deprivation and desperateness. Indeed, accomplished philosophers and writers all of a sudden become reductionists and ideologues. When Palestinians are desperate [and] they do not turn to resistance, instead they become what Mahmoud Abbas has become – collaborators in their own slow but steady unmaking and erasure. Resistance is and always was a hopeful pathology, even if it ultimately fails to snatch a victory.

LA: Your words remind me of Mahdi Amel’s famous maxim, ‘you’re not defeated so long as you’re resisting’. Related to that and what you have just described regarding anti-intellectual reactions to Palestinian resistance, something that was very striking to me in the aftermath of October 7th was how few people – even those ostensibly supportive of the Palestinian cause – were either unwilling or unable to consider what the strategic aims and intentions behind launching such an operation actually were. Many people portrayed it simplistically, as some kind of inevitable or spontaneous explosion of anger and violence brought about by the long-term siege of Gaza and the suffering it inflicts. In your article you make clear why this is such a misleading and patronising position to adopt, notably as the Israeli narrative of events has collapsed so dramatically. Could you briefly explain your argument here?

AO: There is a rich genealogy and history of resistance, a consistent thread that has been largely ignored by both Western intellectuals and many Palestinians. Palestinian universities do not offer academic programs in resistance studies, this is a significant omission. Even detailed academic analyses, like those of Yezid Sayigh, which accurately depict the decline of the Palestinian revolution, are not exhaustive and at times are unsympathetic to the ability of Palestinians to dent the international system. The trope of the profane Palestinian fighter remains a figure misunderstood on their own terms, and it remains an orientalist trope. It celebrates, for instance, figures like Mahmoud Abbas for his collaboration and torture of Palestinians and even provides such figures with political and moral legitimacy, but places the Palestinian fighter outside the realm of comprehension or intellectual engagement. The space for Palestinians to articulate their struggle is confined within legal constructs and liberal narratives of victimhood, which offer only a superficial treatment of agency, civil resistance, and nonviolence, ignoring the harsh realities Palestinians face and the conditions that breed Palestinian liberation organisations. Paradoxically, and perhaps disgracefully, it is often scholar-soldiers, those most immersed in comprehending the Palestinian fighter and their military logic, who seek to understand this resistance only to undermine and defeat it.

Regarding the events in the Gaza envelope, the Palestinian military strategy was to target military and security installations with ambitions of taking over settlements and penetrating deeply into the territory. This guerrilla tactic aimed not just to thwart Israeli efforts to retake land but also to hold areas for negotiation, complicating and impeding an easy Israeli counterattack. This approach implicitly reveals that the Israeli counteroffensive was conducted with little regard for Israeli lives.

It is important here to note that Palestinian resistance operates as a ‘weaker’ force that is generally invested in finding cracks at opportune moments, to snatch an opening. With 2,000-3,000 fighters involved, and both sides taken by surprise by the offensive, much confusion occurs for those doing the penetration and those defending it. It stands to reason that if the outright intention had been to indiscriminately kill, the number of Israeli casualties in the initial days would probably have been significantly higher. The number of forces, the replenishment of these forces and their relative dominion over entire areas suggests as much. Thousands of fighters with hours in civilian space would have simply caused larger casualties.

The other aspect to consider is how deeply militarism is ingrained in Israeli society, evidenced by the widespread possession and knowledge of weaponry use. Observations from Israeli Twitter in the early days revealed journalists and residents discussing how they repelled and killed Palestinian fighters – not military or police, but civilians. This suggests that the confrontations involved not just the Israeli military and special units, but also civilian-soldiers and military-trained police officers. Again, these are only small parts of the larger picture but it remains important because Israel used and employed moral injury to declare its genocidal intent in the open against the Palestinians in Gaza.

LA: It is already plain to see to any informed observer that Israel has suffered a tremendous blow as a result of Operation al-Aqsa Flood, given the centrality of the military to its identity and the sense of security that it is supposed to provide to the population in a settler colony such as Israel. In your opinion, is this a psychological blow that Israel can recover from and what are its broader implications? Especially in light of the losses the Israeli military is currently suffering, both in Gaza and in the north due to attacks by Hizbullah that are growing in intensity and scope.

AO: Zionist supremacy has been shaped by a paranoiac view of the world, coupled with a military doctrine that revolves around the concept of an Iron Wall as articulated by one of Zionism’s founding fathers, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Israelis are known for their ‘existential anxiety’ – a profound fear concerning the survival of the ‘Jewish state.’ Examination of their think tanks, newspapers, and military journals reveals an obsession with perceived threats: the growth of the Palestinian population, Palestinian resistance, the potential of an Iranian nuclear program, and even the capabilities of Arab militaries. Israel is perpetually vigilant, scanning the globe for any conceivable threat whether immediate or distant, hypothetical, or real.

However, paradoxically, this constant vigilance and the drive to transform the unknown into the known, to feel that everything is under control through a paranoiac lens – combined with advanced surveillance technologies, intelligence, cyber capabilities, AI, and both offensive and defensive military strategies – led Israel to believe in the invincibility of its Iron Wall. This belief was a pitfall. On the 7th of October, Israel’s perceived security was challenged; the nation had convinced itself of its safety, despite regularly articulating threats and acknowledging vulnerabilities. This public discussion of vulnerability paradoxically engendered a false sense of invincibility, further bolstered by recent Arab normalisation efforts.

Thus, the events of the 7th of October shattered this illusion of invulnerability. There is a stark difference between holding a threat or vulnerability as an abstract possibility and confronting it in reality as a traumatic actuality. Almost instantly, vulnerability shifted from a potential risk to a devastating reality – a ‘shattering experience.’ It was as if a ‘God’ suddenly realised their mortality or, in other words, a god discovered they were, after all, human. This is why in that moment we saw the transformation of Israel’s liberal and even supposedly leftist streams into fascist undertones. Ben Gvir emerged as a collective Israeli voice, with very small exceptions.

To me, the extent and depth of this experience depends on the current battle in Gaza, West Bank, and Lebanon. It hinges on the ability of Israel to fail in its offensive, denying Israelis an ability to stitch together a narrative of triumph after a drastic failure. But no matter the results of the ongoing campaign, the extent of trust and confidence in Israel’s security and military apparatus has been undermined.

Israel’s immediate response evokes the spectre of the Nakba and ethnic cleansing, along with the real possibility of driving Gazans to Sinai, before attempting the same with Palestinians in the West Bank. This should tell us that if Israel finds enough international willingness to turn a blind eye it will attempt to commit in this century another Nakba.

LA: The barbaric violence that Israel has unleashed on Gaza over the last five weeks has led to worldwide condemnation and outrage on a popular level, with repeated large-scale protests, marches, and other types of direct action happening all around the world in solidarity with Palestine. How important do you think this is? Do you think international solidarity can prove a significant factor in this struggle?

AO: Many think that solidarity with Palestine is a unidirectional action meant to provide Palestinians with support, a sense of psychological relief that our struggle does not meet deaf ears. I am more interested in the other side of the equation, on what the Palestinian struggle uncovers about the institutional, economic, and structural realities for those in the global north, the Arab world, and global south. To me the Palestinian struggle exposes truths, reveals fascisms, and emboldens trajectories of change, radical political, and economic change in these societies – or at least it should do so. Palestine is not a nationalist, nor a religious, nor a feel-good cause. It is not simply a ceasefire movement. Our gift to the world [was] given through our blood, especially for those interested in a more just, more economically equal, decolonial, deracialized world. The struggle we lead reveals hidden discourses of imperialisms and forces centres of power to reveal their schizophrenic stances and hypocritical posturing. This is why Palestine is a universal struggle, a place for the condensation of truth in a post-truth historical conjecture. It is also a place from which the imperial metropole, and those within it suffering from racialized inequalities, can see in Palestine and its struggle a natural and political affinity. Historically the Palestinian struggle galvanised the left, and helped construct new modes of political engagements. This is precisely the reason why pro-Israel networks are attempting to shut down the discussion through fear and intimidation tactics.

Having said that, from a purely political perspective, the lack of consensus on a long war in Palestine, the energies of mobilisation across the globe, the reinvigoration of anti-war movements, are all central to pressures on political power and to reduce the temporal space given for the offensive Israeli action in the Gaza Strip.

LA: For understandable reasons, much of the world’s eyes have mainly been focused on Gaza the last month but in that time Israel’s violence has also increased in the West Bank where you are. Could you tell us a bit about what has been happening there since October 7th, and how this links into the broader struggle against Zionist settler colonialism in Palestine?

AO: In the West Bank, there are two distinct but intertwined struggles. The first is an armed resistance that incorporates popular actions against Israeli settlers and the military. The second is a political battle directed against the Palestinian Authority (PA). While these conflicts are related, they also operate simultaneously and separately. The political unbinding from the PA is most evident among the working-class Palestinians in refugee camps, rural areas, and the old cities and is embodied in the creation of armed groups in some of these areas. This armed movement is often met with scepticism by the more dependent and politically disengaged upper and middle classes. Nonetheless, the PA is facing significant challenges. It is under pressure from these internal uprisings and a covert desire within the Israeli political spectrum – outspokenly represented by Ben Gvir and his settler movement – which suggests that even reliance on the PA and its security cooperation is a dependency that the Zionist movement ought to sever. This suggests a shift towards a more decisive military stance, aiming to displace Palestinians from their land. A third form of pressure arises from the indifference of American, European, and Arab stakeholders. The PA, adopting a wait and see strategy, could find itself at a disadvantage if the resistance in the Gaza Strip manages to endure and gain momentum.

Currently the Israeli army is conducting extensive operations in the West Bank. It is using its relative freedom of movement there to arrest and conduct special operations in self-defence zones in the North of the West Bank, such as Tul-Karem and Jenin. This is coupled with mass demonstrations and clashes by Palestinians in the West Bank. It has also engaged in a wide arrest campaign targeting political and social activists; since October 7th it has arrested over 2,000 Palestinians across the West Bank. Almost 200 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli army and settlers in that time. More worryingly, the Israelis have also issued a wide arming campaign of settlers in the West Bank – officially inaugurating an active armed militia operating alongside the Israeli army in the West Bank.

LA: We recently published an article by Ameed Faleh in which he argues October 7th marks the ‘permanent death’ of the Oslo Accords. Would you share that sentiment? And if so, what do you think that means both for the West Bank specifically but also the future of the Palestinian Liberation movement generally?

AO: I align with the general direction of the analysis but reserve certainty, as I believe both relative victory and defeat are possible outcomes. It’s conceivable that we may emerge from this conflict with the PA and the neoliberal political paradigm strengthened. There could be a collective shock on the Palestinian side that facilitates the replication of Dayton’s security doctrine in the Gaza Strip. War is a transient moment, frozen in time. Although I am hopeful for a different outcome, we must recognize that Palestinians are a vulnerable people striving for survival. Their cooperation with, as well as resistance to, Israel are both anchored in the fundamental need to endure against forces that seek their eradication. These approaches are politically divergent but, at their core, are strategies for survival. The ongoing conflict in Gaza may compel Palestinians to commit more firmly to one form of survival strategy over the other.

LA: The extent to which Israel remains dependent on US military aid and support has been revealed very starkly over the last month, and it is clear that without it Israel is not a sustainable venture. There is clearly the risk of a large-scale regional war because of that, but do you think it’s conceivable that Israel could eventually be perceived as a liability to US interests by a significant enough portion of the US ruling class that their relationship could be fundamentally reconsidered? And if so, what would the implications of that be?

AO: I doubt that America’s ruling class will immediately acknowledge Israel as a strategic burden. Over the past two decades, we have heard scepticism about Israel’s strategic value from voices close to the establishment – these include military and foreign policy experts from prestigious institutions, as well as professors and academics in the foreign policy worlds. Yet, it’s crucial to recognize that the Israel lobby remains potent and influential and that the US for various historical, cultural, and electoral reasons will remain committed to Israel for the foreseeable future. A key argument of the lobby, and a component of America’s stance in the region, has been the erroneous belief that the Palestinian issue is a foregone conclusion and irrelevant to global affairs. This perspective was challenged and could be further undermined if Israel fails to achieve its goals in the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and the West Bank.

But perhaps what is also highly significant is that Israel required America’s military power to deter Hizbullah and Iran. Its self-proclaimed independence was exposed as a farce in front of its own society, but also within the domain of Zionist confidence that Israel is an embodiment of ‘Jewish’ independent power. Politically it also means that the US will be able to exercise more leverage on Israeli politics, on its long-term trajectories and on some of its internal policies and politics. It is not necessarily good news for Palestinians, but it shows the extent of Israel’s dependency on American military industries, financial prowess, diplomatic clout and system of alliances in the region. It also indicates who has the upper hand in the relationship, reversing the notion that the road to Washington moves through Tel-Aviv or Jerusalem. In fact, it shows that Tel Aviv is an outpost for American power – one that remains fragile.

However, it is important to point out that despite what I have just laid out, the Israelis are using the events of 7th of October to leverage American and European power, to settle scores and attempt to redefine political and strategic realities.

LA: In spite of the horror of what we have witnessed over the last month and the ongoing human suffering in Gaza and elsewhere, I am convinced that what we are witnessing is the beginning of the end of the Zionist colonial project in Palestine. Do you think that is an overly optimistic or unrealistic assessment on my behalf or is that something you feel could be the case too?

AO: One crucial lesson for the world to recognise is that the Palestinian struggle is intergenerational; it persists regardless of the immediate outcomes. Palestinians will persistently seek fissures to exploit, forge new paths, establish organisations, and mobilise their cultural, social, economic, and technological resources to reclaim their land. There is an unyielding will to continue, even when the tide seems to turn against them or when defeat appears to become systemic. The only answer to this indefatigable pursuit is justice. Indeed, the current conflict is a significant and pivotal moment in this enduring endeavour, and it will be a marker of what is yet to come in the long term.

Currently, there are several indicators that support your analysis. Palestine is emerging as an urgent issue on the global stage. Additionally, the Palestinian resistance has formed an active alliance system which is strategically complicating Israel’s offensive operations in the Gaza Strip. Israel is also enduring economic, political, and psychological tolls, which are fostering an immediate willingness to sacrifice but are simultaneously forcing it to grapple with the limits of its influence and capabilities. While the outcomes will hinge on the conflict’s progression and the potential for escalation in the region, various early signs suggest that Israel could be facing setbacks which transcend the events of October 7th.

Israel’s strategic objectives in Gaza appear disoriented. Despite some tactical successes, it remains to be seen how these will translate into long-term strategic gains within the limited timeframe available for military operations. It’s important to note that the American political and military engagement in the region does not align with Israel’s operational timeline in Gaza. Israel’s approach has been cautious and slow, seemingly unable to decisively overcome Palestinian resistance, which is strategically prolonging the conflict. It is prepared for a drawn-out struggle, conserving its resources and personnel for a sustained defensive battle rather than a short-term confrontation. Claims of deterring Hizbullah and Iran are, at best, temporary; the strategic calculations in Beirut and Tehran could shift quickly if no diplomatic resolutions emerge and redlines are crossed. While American and British citizens might be indifferent to the Palestine-Israel conflict, they are concerned about domestic issues such as rising inflation, economic decline, and the prospect of their soldiers being drawn into conflicts on the behest of Israel.

This is why the US is urging Israel to intensify and expedite its military operations. However, Israel is not only concerned about the potential backlash from civilian casualties but also fears that significant military losses could adversely affect public sentiment within the country. Currently, Israel is mobilising over 360,000 reserve soldiers and is also dealing with an influx of Israelis from the Gaza envelope and the borders with Lebanon. More than 200,000 Israelis are awaiting their return home. The situation is taking a substantial economic toll, affecting sectors like tourism, agriculture, restaurants, bars, and high-tech companies, many of whose employees are now engaged in military service. The escalating pressure from Hizbullah is compelling Israel to face tough decisions about whether to expand the war and use this moment of unity and willingness to sacrifice to confront Hizbullah or to de-escalate. Not to mention the pressure placed by the families of Israelis held by Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip. Maintaining such a level of mobilisation without clear victories will prove difficult to sustain in the medium run.

These are all indications that currently Israel is looking for an image of victory, one that can give Israel and their military and intelligence apparatus some respite from the events of the 7th of October.

LA: Thank you so much for offering us your time and crucial analysis, Abdaljawad. Is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t already touched on?

AO: Thank you, Louis. An important aspect that should be mentioned is the vehement attacks on pro-Palestinian voices. The conflation of antisemitism with the rejection of ethno-nationalist fascism would be almost amusing if it weren’t so tragic. Recently, we have seen Christian Zionists, who harbour deeply antisemitic views, join forces with right-wing Zionists from the Jewish community in demonstrations in Washington DC. This alliance illustrates that the weaponization of Jewish memory of precariousness and vulnerability is alive, but that in a tragic twist that weaponization can sit comfortably with actual antisemites. Moreover, it shows that discourses of antisemitism are not only tools used to silence pro-Palestinian voices but are also aimed at undermining Jewish and progressive support for Palestinians and their struggle. The fear created by banning student organisations, going after public figures supportive of Palestinian rights, is an Orwellian moment par excellence. Today, true courage involves speaking out despite the fears, continuously engaging in critical examination, and refusing to let any subject become taboo. This includes the criticism and understanding of Palestinian resistance, its history, evolution, and political wager.

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