From the River to the Sea is a 2021 painting by Sliman Mansour [Courtesy of Sliman Mansour]

Cultural Resistance in Palestine: An Analysis of the Ongoing Conflict through the Lens of Resistance Literature

By Raiyan Shaik, Spring 2024 Barbara Harlow Intern in Human Rights and Social Justice

In the midst of the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict, the struggle of the Palestinian people has once again been thrust into the global spotlight. Amidst the violence and turmoil, one aspect of Palestinian resistance stands out: cultural expression. From poetry to visual art, cultural resistance serves not only as a means of defiance but also as a powerful tool for preserving Palestinian identity in the face of colonial oppression. In this commentary, we will explore the importance of cultural resistance in Palestine, drawing on insights from Barbara Harlow’s concept of Resistance Literature (Harlow, 1987), as well as the broader context of colonial modernity and its impact on Palestinian liberation.

Art has long served as a vital element of Palestinian resistance, providing a platform for the expression of national identity, collective memory, and political struggle. With the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1964, Palestinian art became intricately intertwined with the nationalist resistance movement, serving as a tool for articulating the aspirations and struggles of the Palestinian people (Fulmer, 2024). However, the term “resistance” is only first seen as applied to Palestinian literature by writer Ghassan Kanafaaani in his 1966 study Literature of Resistance in Occupied Palestine: 1948-1966 (Harlow, 1987). He makes distinctions within the umbrella of literature, highlighting the involvement of an occupying power that exiles or subjugates a given population. Thus, the occupying power “significantly [intervenes] in the literary and cultural development of the people it has dispossessed and whose land it has occupied” meaning literature then becomes “an arena of struggle” (Harlow, 1987, p. 2). During this period, artists such as Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, and Sliman Mansour emerged as prominent voices within the Palestinian artistic landscape and this “arena of struggle”, using their literary and visual creations to convey the trauma of refugeehood, exile, and the longing for homeland (Al Jazeera, 2024). Through their works, they not only captured the harsh realities of Palestinian life under occupation but also asserted the resilience and determination of a people striving for liberation and self-determination. As such, Palestinian art during this period played a crucial role in shaping and amplifying the narrative of the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom on both national and international stages.

Now, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is widely recognized as a clear violation of international humanitarian law, with numerous United Nations resolutions condemning its actions. Palestine’s right to resist this occupation is grounded in international law, including UNGA Resolution 37/43, which affirms the legitimacy of struggles for independence, territorial integrity, and liberation from foreign domination and occupation by all available means, including armed struggle (Law for Palestine, 2023). This resolution explicitly recognizes the right to use force against illegal occupation, citing Palestine as a case in point. Moreover, the Declaration on Friendly Relations (Res. 2625 of 1970) acknowledges the right to resist foreign forcible actions that deprive people of their right to self-determination, a right that the UN has recognized for the Palestinian people (United Nations, 1970). In light of these legal precedents, it is Israel that is obligated to refrain from suppressing resistance, rather than the opposite. Even though armed resistance is deemed acceptable under international humanitarian law, the significance of cultural resistance remains paramount. Cultural resistance serves as a powerful tool for asserting Palestinian identity, preserving heritage, and mobilizing international solidarity in the struggle for liberation, an idea this paper aims to dissect.

One form of cultural resistance revolves around poetry and literature as resistance. Palestinian art serves as a mirror reflecting the political history and struggle of Palestine. Barbara Harlow’s work, Resistance Literature, challenges conventional notions of literature and criticism by emphasizing the inherently political nature of writings from liberation movements. Harlow argues that these texts are not merely literary artifacts but active agents of resistance, challenging dominant power structures and demanding recognition of marginalized voices (Harlow, 1987).

Harlow tells us that resistance literature is inherently political because it emerges from the struggle for national liberation and independence, particularly in regions dominated by colonial powers. It serves as a form of defiance against colonialism by amplifying the voices and experiences of marginalized communities and challenging the dominant narratives perpetuated by colonial regimes. She writes, “The theory of resistance literature is in its politics” (Harlow, 1987, p. 30). Through literature, writers from colonized nations assert their agency and assert their right to self-determination, reclaiming their histories and identities from the distortions of colonial discourse. Moreover, resistance literature is not merely a reflection of political realities but actively contributes to the resistance movement by inspiring solidarity, mobilizing support, and fostering a sense of collective consciousness among oppressed peoples. By documenting and critiquing the injustices of colonial rule, resistance literature exposes the violence and exploitation inherent in colonial systems, laying out the contradictions between colonial rhetoric and lived experiences. In this way, resistance literature becomes an important tool for dismantling colonial hegemony and envisioning alternative futures rooted in justice, equality, and liberation.

This idea of resistance literature as a tool for documentation becomes key because colonialism seeks to obliterate the history and cultural identity of oppressed peoples, erasing their narratives and imposing a homogenized version of history that serves the interests of the colonizers. However, resistance literature emerges as a force against this erasure, striving to protect the history, right to self-determination, and identity of the oppressed. In fact, in her book, Harlow cites Frantz Fanon who stated, “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s head of all form and content…it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it” (Harlow, 1987, p. 18).

At its core, the Israeli occupation seeks to “distort, disfigure, and destroy” Palestinian culture and identity, viewing them as inherent threats to its settler-colonial project. Through violence, displacement, and censorship, the occupation aims to silence Palestinian voices and erase their history from the land they inhabit. Cultural resistance disrupts this narrative of erasure, asserting the presence and resilience of Palestinian culture in the face of systemic oppression. By documenting and creating art, music, literature, and historical archives, Palestinians reclaim ownership of their narrative and assert their right to exist on their ancestral land.

Moreover, the concepts from Barbara Harlow’s resistance literature extend beyond traditional literary forms like poetry and novels to encompass a wide range of cultural resistance, including the symbolic power of nature itself. As Irus Braverman explores, even the simple act of painting a picture of trees can carry profound political significance (Amit, 2023). In the context of settler colonialism, the tree becomes a contested symbol, representing conflicting narratives of land ownership, displacement, and resilience.

For Palestinians, the olive tree embodies generations of heritage and connection to the land, while for Israelis, the pine tree symbolizes the establishment and expansion of the state. Replacing the olive tree with the pine tree once again exemplifies the colonial goal to erase Palestinian history, but maintaining the olive tree does the exact opposite by preserving Palestinian identity and history, as well as symbolically occupying land as the oppressed party. It also acts, just like any other form of cultural resistance, as a source of inspiration for the suffering people. In this way, cultural resistance is not only a form of defiance but also crucial in continuing the fight for Palestinian liberation.

The preservation of Palestinian identity remains at the forefront of most cultural resistance and shows up in many ways that one might not expect. For example, Jennifer Kelly’s book Invited to Witness discusses the importance of solidarity tourism, where researchers and scholars are extended invitations by Palestinian organizers to observe their way of life. The purpose is typically to “challenge Israeli state- sanctioned narratives and popularize Palestinian accounts of Israeli occupation” as well as “confront the racialized asymmetries in their profession that privilege tourists’ accounts of what they witness over Palestinian narratives of their own displacement” (Kelly, 2023, p. 4). Organizers explicitly involve the annual planting of the olive tree in their solidarity tours, and as they bus tourists “from house demolitions to sprawling terraced vineyards, the past, the present,and the alternative futures of a decolonized Palestine are laid bare” (Kelly, 2023, p. 88). In doing so, they clearly demonstrate the erasure taking place in Palestine in context of the much longer timeline of colonization while simultaneously ensuring their identity escapes attempts of erasure by sharing it with the outsider perspective of the tourists.

However, the struggle for cultural expression is not without its challenges. Colonial powers have recognized the power of cultural resistance and have often attempted to suppress it through various means, including the arrest or persecution of artists, poets, and cultural figures. This suppression is rooted in the understanding that cultural expression has the ability to mobilize communities, challenge dominant narratives, and spark resistance movements. In the case of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, similar tactics have been employed to silence Palestinian voices and stifle cultural resistance. Palestinian artists, poets, and intellectuals have been subjected to harassment, censorship, and even imprisonment for their creative expressions of resistance (Farah, 2024). Israeli authorities have frequently targeted cultural institutions and events, imposing restrictions on artistic freedom and attempting to control the narrative surrounding the Palestinian struggle for liberation (Mansour, 2023). By suppressing Palestinian cultural resistance, the Israeli government seeks to maintain its dominance and control over the Palestinian people, denying them the opportunity to assert their identity, reclaim their narrative, and mobilize against oppression.

A prominent symbol of resistance that has become synonymous with Palestine in the modern day is the use of the watermelon on social media and in protest. However, the initial emergence of the watermelon in this use aligns with the principles and history surrounding cultural resistance. In 1967, after Israel seized control of the West Bank and Gaza, the government made public displays of the Palestinian flag a criminal offense in those areas (Syed, 2023). Additionally, in 1980, Israeli officials shut down an exhibition featuring artists Sliman Mansour, Nabil Anani, and Issam Badrl’s works because of their use of the colors from the Palestinian flag in their artwork (Hilden, 2024). The policing of both the flag and art is another example of cultural decimation by an occupying force; what emerged in response is the use of the watermelon as a persisting symbol of resistance, a demonstration by the Palestinian people of their determination in the face of oppression. The Israeli government eventually lifted the ban on the Palestinian flag in 1993, but the fight is ongoing. Even just last January, Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir gave police the power to confiscate Palestinian flags (Syed, 2023). In response, Zazim, a grassroots Arab-Israeli peace organization created a campaign placing watermelons on Tel Aviv service taxis. Such is the purpose of cultural resistance; to keep the fight ongoing while protecting the culture that occupying forces seek to eradicate. In the words of Amal Saad, a Zazim campaign organizer, “If you want to stop us, we’ll find another way to express ourselves.”

Saad’s saying remains true into the modern age. In 2023 and 2024, as a genocide wages on in Palestine, Palestinians from across the world have continued to share in culture as a form of resistance. Palestinian poet Hiba Abu Nada wrote one of her last pieces “I Grant You Refuge” just ten days before her death by an Israeli airstrike on October 20, 2023. In her piece, she portrays the pain of living under attack while also hoping for a better future in which she “[grants] you and the little ones refuge, the little ones who change the rocket’s course before it lands with their smiles” (Nada, 2023). Across the world, in Bryant Park, NYC, New York theater and art community joined together this past January in a cultural resistance march, using their own art to advocate for the end of cultural genocide in Israel. The collective Artists Against Apartheid have compiled thousands of posters in solidarity for Palestine, as well as guides for street theater, public art, banner drops, DJs, and social media graphics for the ongoing fight. Thousands of activists across countries and college campuses have also engaged in various forms of cultural resistance ranging from spoken poetry at protests to essays in magazines to performances to sharing Arab and Palestinian food with students at encampments. These forms of resistance, through art, literature, music, and culture, are not unique to the Palestinian movement. Rather they have been present through many liberation struggles throughout recent history, like South Africa and Myanmar, because “culture is the weapon of struggle” (Serote & Chak, 2024). Liberation movements seldom take place without cultural resistance in tow, and as a collective society, we witness this firsthand across the world because of the Palestinian struggle.

However, this story of resistance and oppression does not exist solely between Israel and Palestine. Rather, the West plays a role as well. Barbara touches on this in her book through the use of various scholars’ theories about how Western criticism plays a role in the politics of resistance. The nature of resistance literature presupposes that any criticism of the literature, even if the critic claims and believes their criticism to be based solely on literary factors, is inevitably political. Because resistance literature is created entirely within the context of oppression, any criticism against any kind of resistance literature is then subsequently taking a stand on the issue of the literature. Such a thought process can be applied to broader Western coverage today as well. Even in journalistic articles which are meant to be unbiased and simply convey the factual news, and in that sense can be compared to literary criticism which also aims to simply criticize literary features, end up taking a political stance because of the current cultural context we live in with a very real and ongoing conflict. For example, a recent analysis revealed that major news outlets were heavily skewed toward pro-Israel narratives and pro-Israel figures over their pro-Palestinian counterparts, ranging from use of language in describing acts or deaths, coverage of hate in the U.S., or generally disproportionate coverage (Johnson, 2024).

Ultimately, the enduring struggle of the Palestinian people for liberation and self-determination amidst the Israel-Gaza conflict underscores the significance of cultural resistance as a potent force in preserving identity, challenging oppression, and mobilizing solidarity. Cultural resistance serves as a beacon of hope in the darkness of occupation, reminding Palestinians of their resilience and agency in the struggle for liberation. As explored through Barbara Harlow’s concept of Resistance Literature, cultural expression serves not only as a means of defiance against colonialism but also as a tool for documenting history, reclaiming narratives, and envisioning alternative futures rooted in justice and equality. Despite concerted efforts by colonial powers to suppress cultural resistance, Palestinians persist in asserting their identity and resilience through various forms of artistic expression. Furthermore, the global solidarity demonstrated by activists, artists, and scholars reflects a broader recognition of the universal struggle against oppression and the transformative power of culture in advancing social justice movements. While the pervasive influence of Western media bias underscores the ongoing challenges faced in amplifying Palestinian voices and narratives on the international stage, it makes the engagement and acknowledgement of cultural resistance by broader society all the more important. The Palestinian fight for cultural expression serves as a poignant reminder that in the face of adversity, culture remains a potent weapon of resistance and a testament to the enduring spirit of a people determined to reclaim their dignity and freedom.




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