Free Palestine/Free Israel (V)

We share a short text by Gilles Deleuze on Palestine written at the time of the First Intifada (1987-1997) and an interview, by him, with the Palestinian writer Elias Sanbar from 1982.


Europe owes its Jews an infinite debt that Europe has not even begun to pay. Instead, an innocent people are being made to pay – the Palestinians.

The Zionists have constructed the state of Israel out of the recent past of their genocide, that unforgettable European horror, but also out of the suffering of this other people, using the stones of this other people. lrgun was labelled a terrorist organization not only because they bombed English neighbourhoods but also because they destroyed villages, killing innocent people.

The Americans have made a multi-billion dollar Western out of the whole affair. We are to believe that the State of Israel has been established in an empty land which has been awaiting the return of the ancient Hebrews for centuries. The ghosts of a few Arabs that are around, keeping watch over the sleepy stones, came from somewhere else. The Palestinians – tossed aside, forgotten – have been called on to recognize the right of Israel to exist while the Israelis have continued to deny the fact of the existence of a Palestinian people.

From the beginning, the Palestinian people have carried out, on their own, a war which continues to this day in defence of their land, their stones, their way of life. No one mentions this first war since it is so crucial to have people believe that the Palestinians are Arabs from

Somewhere else, and who can go back. Who will disentangle all these Jordans? Who will speak up and say that the ties between a Palestinian and another Arab may be strong, but no stronger than those between two nations of Europe?  And what Palestinian can forget what they have suffered at the hands of their Arab neighbours, not to mention those of the Israelis? What is the crux of this new debt? The Palestinians, chased from their land, have settled where they can at least keep this land in sight, preserving their vision of it as the last contact with their hallucinatory being. The Israelis never could chase them away, never completely erase them, cover them in the oblivion of night.

The destruction of villages, houses dynamited, expulsions, assassinations – a history of horrors has started anew, once again on the backs of the innocent. They say the Israeli secret service is the envy of the world. Bur what sort of a democracy is it whose politics are indistinguishable from the actions of its secret service? “They’re all named Abu,” declares an Israeli official after the assassination of Abu Jihad.’ Does he recall the hideous sound of those voices thar said: “They’re all named Levy…”?

How will Israel succeed – with its annexed lands, its occupied territories, with its settlers and its settlements, with its lunatic rabbis? Through occupation, infinite occupation: the stones raining down on them come from within, they come from the Palestinian people, to remind us that there is a place in the world, no matter how confined, where the debt has been reversed. The stones thrown from the hands of the Palestinians are their stones, the living stones of their country. A debt cannot be paid with one, two, three, seven, ten murders a day and it cannot be paid with third-party agreements. The third-party is ultimately nowhere to be found, every death calls out to the living, and the Palestinians have become part of the soul of Israel. The Palestinians sound the depths of that soul and torment it with their piercing stones.

(The text dates from June 1988. It appeared in Arab, in the journal Al-Karmel, nº 29, 1988, pp. 27-28. The text was written at the request of the directors of the journal soon after the beginning of the First Intifada, in December 1987. We publish the translation of the text, as it appears in the collection of essays by Deleuze, Two Regimes of Madness, published in English by the Semiotext(e)/Foreign Agents series of the MIT Press.)

The Indians of Palestine

We have waited a long time for an Arab journal in French, but instead of coming from North Africa it’s being done by the Palestinians. La Revue d’Études Palestiniennes has two characteristics obviously centered on Palestinian problems which also concern the entire Arab world. On the one hand it presents very profound socio-political analyses in a masterful yet calm tone. On the other hand, it mobilizes a specifically Arab literary, historical and sociological “corpus” which is very rich and little known.

Gilles Deleuze

Gilles Deleuze: Something seems to have ripened on the Palestinian side. A new tone, as if they have overcome the first state of their crisis, as if they have attained a region of certainty and serenity, of “right” (droit), which bears witness to a new consciousness. A state which allows them to speak in a new way, neither aggressively nor defensively, but “equal to equal” with everyone. How do you explain this since the Palestinians have not yet achieved their objectives?

Sanbar: We have felt this reaction since the appearance of the first issue. There are the actors who said to themselves, “look, the Palestinians are also doing journals like this,” and that has shaken a well-established image in their heads. Don’t forget that for many people the image of the Palestinian combatant for which we claim responsibility has remained very abstract. Let me explain. Before we established the reality of our presence, we were perceived as refugees. When our resistance movement established that our struggle was one to be reckoned with, we were trapped once again in a reductive image.

Multiplied and isolated to infinity, it was an image of us as pure militarists, and we were perceived as doing only that. It’s in order to leave that behind that we prefer our image of combatants to that of militiamen in the strict sense.

I believe that the astonishment which the appearance of this journal has provoked also comes from the fact that certain people must now begin to admit to themselves that the Palestinians exist and that simply recalling abstract principles does not suffice. If this journal comes from Palestine, it nonetheless constitutes a terrain on which multiple pre-occupations are expressed, a place where not only Palestinians take the floor but also Arabs, Europeans, Jews, etc.

Above all, certain people must begin to realize that if there is such a labour as this, such a diversity of horizons, it probably must also include, at other levels of Palestine, painters, sculptors, workers, peasants, novelists, bankers, actors, business people, professors . . . in short, a real society, of whose existence this journal gives an account.

Palestine is not only a people but also a land. It is the between this people and their despoiled land, it is the place where an absence and an immense desire to return are enacted. And this place is unique, it’s made up of all the expulsions that our people have lived through since 1948. When one has Palestine in one’s eyes, one studies it, scrutinizes it, follows the least of its movements, one notes each change which awaits it, one adds up all its old images, in short, one never loses sight of it.

Deleuze: Many articles in the Revue d’Etudes Palestiniennes recall and analyze in a new way the procedures by which the Palestinians have been driven out of their territories. This is very important because the Palestinians are not in the situation of colonized peoples but of evacuees, of people driven out. You insist, in the book you are writing, on the comparison with the American Indians. There are two very different movements within capitalism. Now it is a matter of taking a people on their own territory and making them work, exploiting them, in order to accumulate a surplus: that’s what is ordinarily called a colony. Now, on the contrary, it is a matter of emptying a territory of its people in order to make a leap forward, even if it means making them into a workforce elsewhere. The history of Zionism and Israel, like that of America, happened that second way: how to make an empty space, how to throw out a people?

In an interview, Yasser Arafat marks the limit of this comparison, and this limit also forms the horizon of the Revue d’Études Palestiniennes: there is an Arab world, while the American Indians had at their disposal no base or force outside of the territory from which they were expelled.

Sanbar: We are unique deportees because we haven’t been displaced to foreign lands but to the continuation of our “own place”. We have been displaced onto Arab land where not only does no-one want to break us up but where this idea is itself an aberration. Here I’m thinking of the immense hypocrisy of certain Israeli assertions which reproach the other Arabs with not having “integrated” us, which in Israeli language means “made us disappear” …. Those who expelled us have suddenly become concerned about alleged Arab racism with respect to us. Does this mean that we have not confronted contradictions in certain Arab countries? Certainly not, but still these confrontations were not the results of the fact that we were Arabs; they were sometimes inevitable because we were and are an armed revolution. We are also the American Indians of the Jewish settlers in Palestine. In their eyes our one and only role consisted in disappearing. In this it is certain that the history of the establishment of Israel reproduces the process which gave birth to the United States of America.

This is probably one of the essential elements for understanding those nations’ reciprocal solidarity. There are also elements which signify that during the period of the Mandate affair we did not have the customary “classical” colonization, the cohabitation of settlers and colonized. The French, the English, etc. . . . wished to settle spaces in which the presence of the natives was the condition of existence of these spaces. It was quite necessary that the dominated be there for domination to be practiced. This created common spaces whether one wanted them or not, that is to say networks, sectors, levels of social life where this “encounter” between the settlers and the colonized happened. The fact that it was intolerable, crushing, exploitative, dominating does not alter the fact that in order to dominate the “local,” the “foreigner” had to begin by being “in contact” with that “local.”

Then comes Zionism, which begins on the contrary from the necessity of our absence and which, more than the specificity of its members (their membership in Jewish communities), formed the cornerstone of our rejection, of our displacement, of the “transference” and substitution which Ilan Halevi has so well described. Thus for us were born those who it seems to me must be called “unknown settlers,” who arrived in the same stride as those whom I called “foreign settlers.” The “unknown settlers” whose entire approach was to make their own characteristics the basis of a total rejection of the Other.

Moreover, I think that in 1948 our country was not merely occupied but was somehow “disappeared”. That’s certainly the way that the Jewish settlers, who at that moment became “Israelis”, had to live the thing.

The Zionist movement mobilised the Jewish community in Palestine not with the idea that the Palestinians were going to leave one day, but with the idea that the country was “empty”. Of course there were certain people who, arriving there, noticed the opposite and wrote about it! But the bulk of the community functioned vis-à-vis the people with whom it physically rubbed shoulders everyday as if those people were not there. And this blindness was not physical, no one was deceived in the slightest degree, but everyone knew that these people present today were “on the point of disappearance”, everyone also realized that in order for this disappearance to succeed, it had to function from the start as if it had already taken place, which is to say by never “seeing” the existence of the other who was indisputably present all the same. In order to succeed, the emptiness of the terrain must be based in an evacuation of the “other” from the settlers’ own heads.

In order to arrive there, the Zionist movement consistently played upon a racist vision which made Judaism the very basis of the expulsion, of the rejection of the other. This was decisively aided by the persecutions in Europe which, led by other racists, allowed them to find a confirmation of their own approach.

We think moreover that Zionism has imprisoned the Jews, it’s taking them captive with this vision I just described. I’m saying that it’s taking them captive and not that it took them captive at a given time. I say this because once the holocaust passed, the approach evolved, it was transformed into a pseudo-“eternal principle” that says the Jews are always and everywhere “the Other” of the societies in which they live.

But there is no people, no community which could claim – and happily for them – perpetually to occupy this position of the rejected and accursed “other.”

Today, the other in the Middle East is the Arab, the Palestinian. And the height of hypocrisy and cynicism is the demand, made by Western powers upon this other whose disappearance is constantly the order of the day, for guarantees. But we are the ones who need guarantees against the madness of the Israeli military leaders.

Despite this, the PLO, our one and only representative, has presented its solution to the conflict: the democratic state of Palestine, a state which would tear down the existing walls separating all the inhabitants, whoever they may be.

Deleuze: La Revue d’Études Palestiniennes has as its manifesto, which appears in the first two pages of issue #1: we are “a people like others.” It’s a cry whose meaning (sens) is multiple. In the first place, it’s a reminder or an appeal.

The Palestinians are constantly reproached for refusing to recognize Israel. Look, the Israeli’s say, they want to destroy us. But the Palestinians themselves have struggle for more than 50 years to be recognized.

In the second place, it’s in opposition to the Israeli manifesto, which is “we are not a people like others”, by reasons of our transcendence and the enormity of the persecutions we have suffered. Hence the importance, in Issue #2 of the Revue, of two texts on the Holocaust by Israeli writers, on the Zionist reactions to the Holocaust, and on the significance that the event has acquired in Israel, in relation to the Palestinians and the entire Arab world that were not involved in it. Demanding “to be treated as a people outside the norm,” the state of Israel maintains itself all the more completely in a situation of economic and financial dependence upon the West such that no other state has ever known (Boaz Evron). This is why the Palestinians hold fast to the opposite claim: to become what they are, that is, a completely “normal” people.

Against apocalyptic history, there is another sense of history that is only made with the possible, the multiplicity of the possible, the profusion of possibles at each moment. Isn’t this what the Revue wants to show, even and above all in its analyses of current events?

Sanbar: Absolutely. This question of reminding the world of our existence is certainly full of meaning, but it’s also extremely simple. It’s a sort of truth which, when truly admitted, will make the task very difficult for those who have looked forward to the disappearance of the Palestinian people. Because, finally, what it says is that all people have a kind of “right to rights” (droit au droit). This is an obvious statement, but one of such force that it very nearly represents the point of departure and the point of arrival of all political struggle. Let’s take the Zionists, what do they say on this subject? Never will you hear them say, “the Palestinian people have no right to anything,” no amount of force can support such a position and they know it very well. On the contrary you will certainly hear them affirm that “there is no Palestinian people.”

It’s for this reason that our affirmation of the existence of the Palestinian people is, why not say it, much stronger than it appeared at first glance.

Translated by Timothy S. Murphy

(This interview, with Elias Sanbar, was originally published in the French newspaper Libération, May 8-9, 1982. It subsequently appeared in translation in English, in the journal Discourse, Vol. 20, nº 3, Fall 1998.)

Elias Wadih Sanbar is a Palestinian historian, poet, essayist, translator and diplomat. He was co-founder of the Revue d’études palestiniennes [The Journal of Palestine Studies] in 1981, and was the journal’s editor-in-chief for 25 years.

From 1981 to 2008, the Revue d’études palestiniennes was the French-language periodical of reference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Distributed by the Éditions de Minuit, its 108 issues covered areas as varied as the history of the conflict, the living conditions of the Palestinian people under occupation and in the diaspora, the multifaceted social and cultural aspects of their struggle for their rights, as well as the political debates that have traversed and highlighted the Palestinian question – at the internal, Arab and international levels. The Revue’s collection has now become an invaluable documentary resource.

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