Confronting the Abject: What Gaza Can Teach Us About the Struggles That Shape Our World

“What is abject… is radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning collapses… And yet, from its place of banishment, the abject does not cease challenging its master… On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.”
–Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

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We each carry within us a degree of self-loathing. A true self that is, knowingly or otherwise, hidden from the world in shame. In fear, also, that it might elicit judgement, or disrupt the norms around us that we are socialized into and come to abide by. Within every Self, there is an Other that is trampled on, marginalized, and suppressed in the anxious belief that its acknowledgement might destabilize the Self and bring it to ruin. That is to say, we are all, on some intimate level, familiar with abjection, with the wretchedness we feel at confronting the Other within or around us. The abject being, of course, all that is disgusting, repulsive, ugly, unfit to be in proper society, exceptional, subhuman.

Gaza is the abject of our time. It is a miserable stretch of land, overpopulated and dirty, drowning in its own shit and decrepit infrastructure, beaten and abused, on the brink of death refusing the dignity of passing, of letting go. In the Israeli collective psyche (but not just), Gaza is a dark place, full of terrorists, of angry hordes, a place where—in the words of a minister of justice no less—Palestinian mothers give birth to snakes, not babies. Gaza is a nuisance that persistently clings to Israel, demanding attention, disrupting the lives of Israelis, seeking recognition. None will be forthcoming because deep within, in some shrouded corner, is a resounding truth that can never be fully banished even as it remains unspoken: The Gaza Strip is Israel’s creation. In its present abject manifestation, Gaza is a colonial construct, territorially and demographically engineered to enable the emergence of a Zionist entity in Palestine.

The most effective weapon our colonizers wield over us is to make us believe, on some fundamental level, that we are not worthy of better.

For Gaza is a microcosm of Palestine. Most of its inhabitants were ethnically cleansed from their nearby homes in Lydd, Jaffa, Bir Saba’, Falouja, Jabalia, and other villages and towns in southern Palestine and beyond. Their confinement, and the settlement of the territories surrounding the strip with Jewish-only communities, are the logical endpoint of Zionist settler colonialism.

From the early days of their movement at the turn of the last century, in a historical milieu where the great powers were steeped in colonialist thinking, Zionists have looked to Palestine as a homeland for the world’s Jewish population, a geography that can pave the way for their self-determination. The natives of the land were either irrelevant in this thinking or placated as people who, with no political aspirations of their own, would welcome the imposition of European modernity. Systems of territorial consolidation and demographic engineering followed, and arranged into a regime of apartheid with Israel’s creation in 1948.

What came about is a system, also, from which Palestinians were made abject. Gaza is the blueprint of how settler colonies build ostensible democracies—that is, democracies that are rooted in and emerge from apartheid—in this instance, a democracy solely for Jews that presides over a population of non-Jews.

For Israel, such facts cannot be denied, nor can they be acknowledged, without the disintegration of an intricately constructed myth. This is what the abject does; it demands a fundamental reformulation of the Self. It is a revolutionary demand that requires structural transformation for it to be accommodated. There can be no confrontation of what Gaza is, from an Israeli perspective, without a parallel concession that Zionist settler colonialism needs to come wholly undone for actual democracy to prevail. Hence, the power of the abject to annihilate.

Ostensible democracies that form the bedrock of contemporary Western civilization—be they French, American, or British—are rooted in histories of apartheid, slavery, and colonialism, and in presents of exploitative and racialized capitalism. American democracy, for instance, is rooted in white supremacy domestically and imperial violence globally. Countries that proclaim Western civilizational values at home elide the unwanted populations they have brutalized in pursuit of their superiority. There is a Gaza—an unwanted and dominated population—behind most stories of democratic rule, which is why the truth that Gaza embodies has the potential to dismantle our world order. It is no coincidence that Gaza has become a stand-in, a shorthand, for the major travails that plague our times, be they refugees, barricaded populations, overpopulation, police and military brutality, or ecological disasters.

The success of hegemony is predicated on dehumanization, and the role Gaza plays in the Israeli psyche is exactly the role other unwanted and undesirable communities play in the popular imagination of the powerful. It is a mirror unto the Self, and through its very existence, Gaza showcases state-of-the-art ways the powers of our time can deploy for dealing with that unwanted reflection. Confinement, surveillance, mass torture, de-development, de-ecologizing, imprisonment, starvation, bombardment; through such tactics and others, Gaza offers a road map for confronting and managing populations that must be forgotten so that the civilized of the world can claim their humanity and superiority.

Palestinians in Gaza joke, morbidly, about their welcoming of a quick death from an F16 spewing fire over the slow suffocation of the blockade. They understand that the strangulation they live with, day in and day out, is the intended purpose—not their ultimate death. For the very unsustainability of Gaza, highlighted intermittently as if some urgent endpoint needs to be avoided, is precisely what sustains it: Unsustainability in this instance is a structure, a process with its own logic, persisting in perpetuity. Unsustainability is what allows the oppressors to pacify while also claiming a civilized status.

Unsustainability, then, is a structure that can, and is, being replicated elsewhere. Gaza is a prototype for stemming the flow of asylum seekers through the Mediterranean. Their containment in internment camps, whether in France or Libya, is an amateurish replica compared to the isolation and immobility Israel imposes on Gaza’s inhabitants. Structurally, Gaza resembles America’s prison-industrial complex, which primarily incarcerates America’s unwanted Black populations, as well as China’s internment of Uighurs. Temporally, Gaza can be historically compared to apartheid South Africa’s Bantustans and futuristically to the West Bank’s Area A. Technologically, Gaza elaborates how mass surveillance, artificial intelligence, and spy software can immobilize, pacify, torture, and break populations.

Having been firmly conceptualized as the abject by its oppressors, it is no coincidence that Gaza is also burdened with the corollary of inspiration for those oppressed, in terms of Palestinian steadfastness and sumud. From the early days of Israel’s creation, Palestinians in Gaza have consistently attempted to return to their homes. From this strip, the leading fedayeen were birthed and politicized in the late 1940s, the PLO executive committee was formed in 1964, the first Intifada erupted in 1987, and Hamas emerged, officially, a year later. In popular parlance, Gaza is known as umm al-muqawamma, mother of resistance, affirming feminist revolutionary power in the struggle for justice. Gamal Nasser invited Che Guevara in 1959 and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1960 to visit the Gaza Strip, to showcase the power of this piece of land to mobilize the anticolonial movements of the Global South.

This is precisely why Zionism has expended much effort and endless maneuverings to pacify the strip, most recently through the use of live sniper fire to kill and maim Palestinian protesters in the Great March of Return. This has built on decades of drip-feeding Gaza’s economy and controlling the flow of goods, down to the caloric value of food items, to ensure Palestinians there are maintained just above the level of official starvation, and managing the passage of people in and out, like cattle into a pen. From extrajudicial assassinations to economic pacification, from bombardment to occupation, and twelve full-fledged wars since 1948, the Zionist regime has over-extended itself to break this strip of land. To no avail.

The abject is persistent, ever-present, unerasable. And for colonial thinking and rationale, the construction of the abject is central. Gaza exists as an abject not only because Israel has failed to eliminate it, but because Israel as a collective needs an abject to sustain itself. Through and against its very survival, Israel has fashioned itself as an Other that is better, more refined, that values life rather than death, unlike the wretched inhabitants of Gaza. Israel and Gaza exist in a dialectic whereby the existence of the Israeli collective is predicated on the abjection of Palestinians generally, and Gaza to a particular extreme.

It follows from this logic that Gaza will have a disproportionate role to play in the future liberation of Palestine. What a burden to place on the abject. Already denied, fatigued, humiliated, dismissed, taken to and kept on the brink of death, the abject is then called upon to liberate. A burden made more immense because, it must be said, Zionism is not a standalone ideology. As a settler-colonial movement, Zionism emerged alongside other colonial movements, and persists today by the continued support of the world’s most affluent and powerful settler colony—the United States.

The structures of oppression spanning our globe, institutionalizing racialized capitalism and colonialist inequalities, are interconnected and interdependent. Gaza might be immediately confronting Zionism, but understanding its abjection helps us grapple with the mechanics of oppression and degradation elsewhere. In that sense, while Gaza is the laboratory for the powerful, seeking to subjugate and hone their skills of oppression, it is also the laboratory for emancipation, for resistance, for asymmetric warfare.

As Fanon said, resistance to colonialism generates comprehensive creativity. The word that comes to mind when thinking of Gaza and resistance is “innovation.” Basic, almost childish tactics created in Gaza make regimes tremble. Balloons flying over fences leave colonizers shaking in their shelters. Kites lit aflame are met with a nuclear power citing the need for self-defense. Condoms filled with flammable liquids leave settlers frozen in their tracks or cowering on the sides of the road. Smoke from flaming tires make snipers helpless and ineffective. Tunnels dug up in various sizes and lengths undermine a sophisticated machinery of border construction. This is what asymmetric warfare is. This is what Gaza teaches us. As philosopher Julia Kristeva asserted, “In abjection, revolt is completely within being….The subject of abjection is eminently productive of culture.” And productive Gaza is. The Great March of Return, which began in Gaza in 2018, is one of the longest sustained mass mobilizations in history and through its eruption reaffirmed the centrality of the right of return to the Palestinian struggle for liberation at precisely the time that our so-called leaders had, worn down and fatigued, acquiesced to pittances.

Structures of oppression are daunting, monolithic, seemingly immovable, and Palestinians often look at the Zionist regime as invincible. This, after all, is what made our self-appointed leaders accept partition and embrace the Oslo Accords, the very bedrock of apartheid, as a concession of their defeat. How can this thriving Israeli powerhouse be forced to confront its original sin? But we have learned better. The latest Arab revolutions, for one, yielded an important lesson: the house of cards tumbles much more quickly than any young person in the region might have ever imagined. So quick, in fact, that it caught the revolutionaries unprepared, having focused the entirety of their effort on the long haul of bringing the dictator down, having failed to properly contend, also, with the possibility of their success.

What do we do with this lesson as we see the counterrevolution fortify itself, with expanding interdependencies between the region’s authoritarian regimes and its settler colonies emerging from the shadowy realm of clandestine relations? How do we take that lesson back to Gaza, specifically, and to Palestine more broadly, to further fortify their already ingenious resistance tactics? Cracks in the apartheid regime are showing—minor, to be sure, but visible—particularly after the Unity Intifada that unified Palestinians in an uprising from the river to the sea, and throughout the diaspora, in May 2021. What must be done to push these cracks wide open? How can Gaza’s liberation tactics, far from being isolated through the blockade, learn from and inspire the revolutionary tactics of the region?

And how do we take this lesson to other struggles shaping our world? The climate justice movement is similarly facing a daunting adversary, where the fossil fuel industry and the world’s leading powers pay lip service to change while remaining enslaved by their inertia. Black Lives Matter faces institutionalized white supremacy that, despite the gains of the movement in 2019–2020, still holds onto anti-Blackness. These struggles might appear distinct; they are anything but. Abjection has been forced, in different ways, onto a myriad of communities: Blacks, Arabs, Indigenous peoples, queers, Roma, women. A hierarchy of suffering has prevailed and has forced an acquiescence to subjugation.

This is perhaps the most important lesson that Gaza can teach us. Just like the abject has the power to annihilate our oppressors, it can also break our spirits, unless we embrace our abjection fully and radically. Such an embrace of our mutual marginalization, each with its own history and context, creates networks of solidarity that are fluid, decentralized, and rooted in shared values of emancipation and liberation and shared learning, networks that are powerful and grounded.

Late journalist Samir Kassir, before he was assassinated, wrote of the Arab malaise that plagues the peoples of the region. He wrote of apathy, indifference, and lack of hope. There is a stuckness that is slowly choking all of us. How can it not? After that glimmer of light from the Arab revolutions a decade ago, we have now descended into a darkness that leaves us yearning for what came before. Our elders who advocated against disruption, saying things like We have to be ruled by a strong man and We are not worthy of democracy are vindicated. We have no reason to overcome our malaise.

The most effective weapon our colonizers wield over us is to make us believe, on some fundamental level, that we are not worthy of better, of freedom and liberation, breaking our agency and forcing us to internalize our subjugation without even knowing that we have. Our oppressors have succeeded when we, in the corners of our hearts, truly believe that we are, after all, abject, the dregs of humanity, unworthy. We might not realize that we are doing so, choosing to believe instead the lies we are constructing about our modernity, progress, and stability—showcased in extravagant wealth and neoliberalism. But underneath the glitzy façade, the malaise persists.

From our abjection we have the capacity to disrupt and ultimately destroy structures of oppression.

Nayrouz Qarmout, a writer from Gaza, wrote a short story about a young, veiled girl on a visit to the beach in Gaza. Called into the water by the beauty of the sun reflecting off the waves, the girl ventures away from her family and into the depths, deeper than she should have gone. Her veils weigh heavily on her and threaten to pull her down. Cloaks that she had not quite asked for, that were hung on her body for her virtue and protection, turn deadly. The girl is rescued from drowning at the last minute by a young boy, a childhood crush, with an illicit bodily contact that she fears the patriarchal society around her will judge her for, even in the throes of death. She is horrified, also, because as she finally makes it out of the near-death experience, the fabrics of her wet clothes cling to her body, revealing more than they cover.

The clothes that we wear, the way we fashion ourselves, might be the essence of what is bringing us down. And in shedding them, there is shame. The alternative, however, is to drown in black waters. Shedding our clothes means removing the layers we have wrapped around our bodies to cover up ugly truths. Confronting our abjection means coming to terms with the very real, fear-driven factors that result in our malaise: patriarchy, anti-Blackness, corruption, nationalist fervor. We must confront all those things and many others. But we must also do more. We must fundamentally believe in victory and be willing to commit wholly to the long fight for its realization. Seeing Gaza as defeated, incapable, hamstrung, breaks our spirits.

Seeing Palestinians as victims, as a dispersed people, as disposable bodies, confines us to the margins of history. The truth, in contrast, is that the site of abjection is precisely the place of life, of alternatives, of political imagination. Out of the queerest of spaces, the ugliest of beings, the most extreme forms of abjection, beauty and revolution abound. Rather than succumbing to abjection, we must reclaim it. Instead of the abject annihilating us, it can transform us, help us overcome our learned helplessness.

This is what Gaza teaches us, every day, with every balloon and kite: our weakness is a site of innovation. From our abjection we have the capacity to disrupt and ultimately destroy structures of oppression, as a precursor to rebuilding more just futures. Gaza is intimately familiar to other marginalized peoples and communities elsewhere. It is known on an intrinsic level, understood, even under the layers of misrepresentation imposed on it by dominant narratives. That truth, if harnessed, has transformative potential, even beyond the narrow confines of Palestine. There is solidarity among the abject—a collective interdependency that is as strong, as powerful, as that of the oppressors. Gaza, taken to the brink, still struggles, because it understands: the choice is not between life and death, the choice is between a life of freedom or a slow strangulation. With every balloon and every kite, it teaches us that our weakness can become our greatest strength.

What I am seeking to convey is the potential of radical honesty, a journey as collective as it is individual. In Gaza as Metaphor, the writer Selma Dabbagh writes, “There is a Gaza in all of us.” What would it mean for us to confront our abjection honestly? To overcome our fears and succumb to that internal voice of self-loathing that speaks of our possible defeat, of the errors we have acquiesced to out of fear or pride? Abjection is the primer of our culture. We have, each of us, the potential to transform out of our paralysis and into an activated and innovative being.

We can all, individually, contribute to a politics of liberation that can sustain our movement, and speak beyond it, arriving at a revolutionary politics that is rooted in our present abjection and that uses this position as a launching pad from which to bring down the immovable. Can a Palestinian war of liberation, which is rooted in a specific historical and political context, also exist as a lightning rod of radical empathy, one that can encompass other struggles? Can this most confined of locales act as an anchor to a sprawling ideology of liberation and resistance, of fundamental emancipation, of radical humanism, that spans the globe?

For our colonizers, confronting the abject entails a journey of deconstruction, one that is violent and disruptive. For us, Palestinians and allies seeking justice, confronting our abjection as a source of strength entails its own transformation, one that is ultimately cathartic. There is no choice otherwise.


From Their Borders, Our World: Building New Solidarities with Palestine, edited by Mahdi Sabbagh. Copyright © 2024. Available from Haymarket Books.

Tareq Baconi

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