No. 3

Palestinians Illuminate the Colonial Nature of the Rest of the World

Fighting for a world where the land doesn’t belong to us but we belong to the land.

Noura Erakat

Nicki Kattoura

A man carrying the Palestinian flag, Gaza City, Oct. 20, 2022. Photograph by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Getty Images.

This conversation was conducted on Nov. 14, 2023. A portion of this interview was initially published in GQ Middle East.

Noura Erakat is many things: a professor, the author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine, a human rights lawyer, a mother, an organizer, and a Palestinian. Since Oct. 7, she has participated in teach-ins and protests, written extensively on Palestine, helped draft a petition to the International Criminal Court arguing that Israel’s actions amount to genocide, supported student organizers on campus, and has spoken to major media outlets, giving an urgent voice to those who have been silenced.

Her participation as the sole Palestinian in a summer language program at Hebrew University in 2000, before a formal analysis of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) existed, coincided with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, which killed her neighbor in Abu Dis (a village not too far from my grandmother’s, Beit Hanina). She cites this as a constitutive moment for her politicization and activism. Upon her return to the U.S. she helped to lead efforts to launch the first university divestment campaign at the University of California-Berkeley on Feb. 6, 2001, which included taking over buildings and blocking the freeway. That movement has grown exponentially since.

I visited her home on a brisk Tuesday night. With typical Arab hospitality, she offered tea and snacks with periodic reminders that I eat. Behind her, on the wall above her couch, was a beautiful wooden cutout of Palestine adorned with the Arabic calligraphy of a line from a Mahmoud Darwish poem, “We have on this land that which makes life worth living.”

Over a few hours we discussed Israel’s assault on Gaza and reflected about what it means to be Palestinian, our resistance, the incredible show of international solidarity, and the unforgivable inaction from our political and legal institutions.

Have your experiences being interviewed on mainstream news outlets changed since Oct. 7?

Absolutely. We’ve seen several different changes. There was a discourse on day one that understood Oct. 7 as a prison break or the Tet Offensive; people were distressed, but there was an understanding of the logic. The countering discourse was a framework that subsumed Hamas squarely within the War on Terror and Islamophobia and synonymized Hamas with ISIS and an awful, false, inaccurate understanding that drew a line from Nazi genocide to Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack. This discourse erected Hamas as a bogeyman with no context and no history, no mention of its formation in 1987 as a national liberation party, the assassination of its leadership, or its electoral victory in 2006.

We’ve seen yet another discourse shift about Israel’s military onslaught. I don’t credit that solely to movement work but more to the viciousness of Israel’s attack. The world was being told that Israel was protecting them from another terrorist threat that can attack everybody. And now, as some of the emotion has finally started to come down and the ground offensive is just beginning, people want to know: What are Israel’s red lines? The limit has long been reached for a lot of people. We see that it has been reached by France’s Emmanuel Macron, we see it in the disruption of the State Department memos that are coming out, we see it in the public letters from the U.S. administration protesting Biden’s policies. There is a growing consensus that the Israeli military operation cannot be for unfettered vengeance. It’s important to note, however, that it is still not about Palestinian genocide. It is still not about us or our dead.

How has that discourse shift affected your interviews?

Yesterday was the first interview I did in almost six weeks where the journalist just asked me questions. I honestly thought it was a setup, but she just gave me the floor to teach. All of the other interviews I’ve done have been with journalists who regurgitated IDF talking points. These were journalists! Not actors reading a script. They have a job to verify facts and to question state propaganda. I will say I’ve had a lot of conversations with producers, who are completely different from the anchors and executives. There’s an entire core of producers who are critical in fighting for space and fighting for us to have that space.

In these instances of acute, extraordinary violence, we, as diasporic Palestinians, are forced to helplessly watch the slaughter of people that look like us and our family. We consume images that seemingly force us to synonymize being Palestinian with suffering. I reject that reading, and I’m sure you do, too. So what defines being Palestinian for you?

Being Palestinian is resistance — and maybe I should check that as well, because we’re also more than that. We’re families and communities, desire and love, fears and hopes, jealousy and pettiness. Any one way that you capture “being Palestinian” reduces us and takes away our complexity and texture. But at my core, what it means to be Palestinian is disruption. We are so disruptive. We illuminate the colonial nature of the rest of the world. If you thought you set up your home beautifully, we will be the leak in the ceiling that destroys the house. This home is still colonized.

And for me, Black/Palestinian solidarity is precisely that. Black struggle illuminates the racial nature of the Palestinian struggle, and Palestine illuminates the colonial nature of Black struggle. It disrupts this idea that somehow the Black freedom struggle is only for equality and civil rights. In America, we are in a racial settler colony built on the racial subordination of an entire class of people that can only be healed through decolonization, which requires reparations, land restitution, a new social contract. Even at this moment, humanity understands what it means to fight against colonialism because we are protesting in masses but being framed as the enemy and the threat. We’re literally asking for a cease-fire and an end to violence, but police are being sent to attack us, to surveil us, to punish us, to shut us down. Everyone is awakening to what it means to be Palestinian.

In Justice for Some, you write, “Think of the law as like the sail of a boat. The sail, or the law, guarantees motion but not direction … political mobilization, by individuals, organizations, and states, is the wind that determines direction.” We are simultaneously seeing unprecedented mobilization but also a McCarthyite crackdown from legal and political institutions alike. Where is the wind blowing?

You’re 1,000 percent right: This amount of solidarity is completely unprecedented. The popular movement is with Palestinians. But it’s also a very different world. At least nine out of 134 governments have either suspended diplomatic relations with Israel or withdrawn their ambassador, and only a minority of them are in the Middle East. At the Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summit, we also saw a blocking of economic sanctions on Israel that could have helped the push for a cease-fire. Our popular movement is absolutely necessary and is the core of change. However, unlike in the past, when national liberation movements and newly independent nations constituted an automatic majority of the United Nations, today we see little diplomatic traction at the top.

That’s why this is an existential crisis. Palestine is not just a crisis for Palestinians. It’s literally a crisis for everybody. It’s a crisis for America. I don’t care if you don’t care about Palestinians and you want to throw us all under the bus. This is about you, too. Sixty-six percent of Americans, 80 percent of registered Democrats, 56 percent of registered Republicans want a cease-fire, and only 19 out of 535 members of Congress have endorsed it while censuring the only Palestinian American representative. [Note: As of March 15, the number had risen to 78.] This is a crisis of so-called democracy.

Palestinian solidarity protesters in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Oct. 21, 2023. Photographs by Christopher Lee for Hammer & Hope.

It reminds me of the protest chant “In our millions, in our billions, we are all Palestinians.”


You were initially hesitant about doing this interview. Can you elaborate on why? I think it reveals a tension Palestinians in the diaspora are feeling. People look to us and center our voices because we are Palestinian, but the voices we are centering are Motaz, Plestia, Bisan, and those in Gaza.

There are two things at play here: survivors’ guilt and a lack of Palestinian leadership. I promise you that if we ask Motaz, Plestia, or Bisan, they would tell you they don’t feel right representing everyone and getting all the attention, because what about all the other photojournalists? What about all the other Palestinians who don’t have a camera or can’t speak English? Ahed Tamimi says this all the time, that she feels guilty about all the attention she gets: I got it because I’m fair-skinned and blond. What did I do? I’m not the only kid that suffered. I’m a kid that survived.

This is compounded by a lack of a functioning institution that represents us. I cannot believe we’re enduring a genocide and we do not have a diplomatic corps running marathons across the world insisting on sanctions. We don’t have leadership; we have opposition. So this crisis of who speaks is really difficult because we don’t have leadership. Those of us who do something well, who are effective, who resonate with people, we keep getting asked to do more and more of it, so obviously there’s guilt. There are 10 million of us! Why me? Why you?

That survivor’s guilt is partially why I have become increasingly frustrated with the current language around rest. Who are we to talk about “rest” or “compassion fatigue” when Gaza is still being bombed?

I’m going to push back on you a little bit. Even if we are physically resting, we can’t take our minds off Gaza. It’s impossible to get a mental break. However, the less rested we are, the less sharp we are, the less effective we are, the less able you are to write, the less clarity you have to see an opportunity and seize it, the less compassion you have. We become too irritable to be able to even organize anybody because we come from a place of frustration. Rest is not selfish. Rest is necessary for effective movement work.

I just can’t grieve any more of us. I can’t see the number of martyrs continue to rise, and that manifests itself in refusing rest.

Let me give you another word: recharge. Don’t you need to recharge? I just prayed on Sunday and cried with a group of friends who wailed with me. That’s why we have funerals collectively. We need to grieve. We haven’t been given a chance to grieve everyone we have lost. Grieving is a form of rest itself.

Oct. 7 feels like the beginning of Covid in the sense that I can’t remember who I was or what life was like before.

No, it’s horrifying. We’ll never be the same. We can’t be. When else have we ever witnessed genocide in real time on social media? Never. This is horrifying for everybody but exponentially horrifying for us because these are our kin, our friends. But everybody who’s witnessing this is going through a similar experience. We’re watching the death of humanity. There is no humanity. There’s a lot of similar trauma here for Indigenous peoples, for those of African descent, for Iraqis …

We’re all Palestinian.

We’re all Palestinian.

Our martyrs are more than numbers. They are people, family, friends, neighbors. I wanted to ask you about your cousin Ahmed, who, in 2020, on his way to pick up his sister for her wedding, was killed at a checkpoint by an Israeli soldier. What do you want readers to know about who he was?

The amount of grief I had when Ahmed was killed feels obscene now given that this was my one cousin compared to entire families that are being decimated — 46 family names erased from the population registry. Part of the trauma from that came from the public spectacle of it. It happened during Covid lockdown, and it felt like we all watched his killing. There’s something about the collective witnessing of this death that made it so much harder.

The other part that was hard is that I took an interview immediately the next day at his family’s request. I was publicly grieving. There is something about the public spectacle of it that makes it so hard — a complete rupture of the public and the private. I don’t appear publicly when I’m tormented, but in truth, I spend most of my time tormented. And that’s unfortunately the high cost of doing this work, too. Israel literally shot to kill my cousin and is still holding his body hostage in a refrigerator, an act that is explicitly sanctioned by the Supreme Court. Where is the scrutiny here? In response to our intense advocacy to retrieve his body, Benny Gantz, who was the leader of the Blue and White party, made the policy harsher and said, in essence, Not only will we not return the body, but we’re going to dig up other bodies that have been buried and hold them captive as well.

Ahmed was a shy young man. He was constantly friendly and kind. He was engaged, had plans to be married, and, like most Palestinians, was inherently political. He was very sweet to his mother, very sweet to his sisters, and even on that day he wanted to decorate a car that he rented to take his sister to Bethlehem. I don’t cry anymore when I mention him, I think partly because I got to pay my condolences to his family for the first time last November.

What does a free Palestine mean and look like to you?

A free Palestine would look like a place that was a model for the rest of the world, where the land doesn’t belong to us but we belong to the land. It looks to me like a place where the sky has no horizon and people can dream and have choice. We need to dream because we have been told that the world operates in a particular kind of way, and this is the only way that it can operate. But even the nation-state is a social construction. I think that boundless imagination is something that’s taken away from most Palestinians, who either police themselves or may not even dream big enough because they don’t want to be disappointed.

What will you write about when it is free?

All the other systems that oppress us. Palestine is neither the beginning nor the end. Palestine is the place from which we fight for this new world where so much of it comes together. If I’m going to fight this hard, I want to fight this hard for all of us.

Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney and associate professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. She has served as legal counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives and as a legal advocate for Palestinian refugee rights at the United Nations. She is the author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine.

Nicki Kattoura is a Palestinian writer and editor. His writing has been featured in Mondoweiss, Palestine Studies, Middle East Eye, Them, and GQ Middle East.

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