As we write this piece, an unprecedented boycott campaign is in full swing. At the time of writing, over one third of the festival’s programmed artists have withdrawn from the Sydney Festival in solidarity with Palestine. Our call for a boycott of the Festival came about when we were made aware that they had sought and accepted $20,000 in sponsorship from the state of Israel, celebrating the apartheid state as a ‘Star Partner’.
This boycott campaign represents a paradigm shift in the conversation on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, and a step towards freedom and justice for Palestinians, who have faced unspeakable forms of dispossession. After more than seventy-three years of anti-colonial rebellion, successful campaigns like this provide us with hope that we will see a liberated Palestine within our lifetimes.
Months ago, we spoke to Fatima Zaghmout in Beddawi refugee camp in Lebanon. Fatima’s is a story of one woman from one Palestinian village. But her personal testimony is the story of so many across the now occupied lands or in forced exile.
Fatima was born in 1931, in a small village in the Galilee surrounded by hills. Upon many of these hills grow weeping willows (Safsaf)—the tree that gives the village its name. Her village community lived off the land, as they had done for generations.
Fatima spent most of her time farming and making dairy products. On weekends, she would walk to the nearest town, Safad, to sell figs and produce, stopping at the kharrar river on their way. ‘One of my fig trees alone has seven different varieties’, she tells us. ‘Bburati, eghzali, hmari, byadi. from a variety of figs’.
Palestine was composed of sixteen regions, each with a town centre surrounded by a cluster of villages. Every village was connected relationally to the world around it. For the villagers of Safsaf, this included Jarmaq mountain, the threshing field, their orchards, nearby rivers, neighbouring villages and Safad town.
This is how the majority of Palestinians were living seventy-three years ago, their land-based culture embedded in everyday life. Perhaps they even took this for granted; there appeared to be no threat of erasure, nor a possibility that their forms of creative expression would be robbed from them. Fatima wasn’t to know that Zionism, a movement that was established by European Jews in the late 1800s, had set its sights on colonising Palestine, and that her entire world was targeted for destruction. In fact, plans to take over her land had begun before she was even born.
The Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund were two of the institutional instruments employed by the Zionist settler colonial project. Yosef Weitz, a Ukrainian, worked for both of these organisations. His job was to acquire as much Palestinian land as possible through purchases. This strategy of land acquisition was unsuccessful as the native population would not give up on their villages. Fatima certainly wasn’t ready to leave her trees and land. Weitz made an assessment that the native Palestinian population would have to be driven out through violence.
The Zionist movement developed plans to fabricate a ‘homeland’ for the Jewish people on the lands of Safsaf and villages throughout Palestine. This plan had a name: Plan Dalet. The following is an entry from the plan quoted by Ilan Pappe in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine:
These operations can be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in their debris) and especially of those population centers which are difficult to control continuously; or by mounting combing and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the villages, conducting a search inside them. In case of resistance, the armed forces must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.
While Fatima and farmers all over Palestine were tending to their lands, information about their villages was being gathered in order to strategically and systematically carry out their ethnic cleansing. Under the influence of Yosef Weitz, the ‘Village Files’ were compiled. Aerial and ground photographs of every Palestinian village were collected, including topographical maps and detailed information of their inhabitants, such as the quality of village land and the water sources. All of this information was used to attack the villages when Plan Dalet was implemented. Fatima recalled having her photograph taken on Jarmaq mountain by members of a Jewish militia while she was collecting firewood one day. She innocently believed their disguise as scouts on a field trip.
Plan Dalet would not have been possible without the active complicity of the British. The British had imposed administrative colonial control over Palestine since 1916. In 1917 they promised Palestine (a land that didn’t belong to them) to the Zionist movement in what is known as the Balfour Declaration. When Palestinians found out about this, riots and anti-colonial rebellion broke out. The Palestinians waged courageous resistance against the British between 1936 and 1939. Several people from Safsaf took part in this Uprising, including neighbours and relatives of Fatima.
During their last years in Palestine, the British were tightening their control over the Palestinians. Many were arrested for something as simple as carrying a knife—the type you would use to open a sweet orange from Yaffa with. At the same time, the British were preparing the Zionist militias for a violent takeover of the land, a fundamental ingredient for the settler colonial project. The British were handing over warplanes and facilitating mass migration of Zionist Jews from Europe into Palestine—a practice that continues to this day known as ‘aliyah’.
Fatima was seventeen years old in 1948, her last year in her beloved Safsaf. At the start of that year, her community were hearing of events that were affecting villages and towns throughout Palestine; that Zionist militias had bombed a building in Haifa killing one of her relatives; that people were being forced from their villages to escape brutal attack; that tens of massacres were being committed. But still, the idea that they would be wholly dispossessed from their lands was unimaginable to her.
For the people of Safsaf, leaving their land was out of the question. Even if it cost them their lives, they would resist. All the families chipped in some money and a small group of men travelled to Damascus in early 1948 to purchase rifles to protect their land should the European militias try to invade. A liberation front was created in a meadow to the east of the village and the men of Safsaf guarded there day and night for months on end. However, the old rifles of the villagers were no match against warplanes and artillery shelling.
Although Plan Dalet began in late 1947, it took some time for the Zionist militias to reach the Galilee in the north. On 28 October 1948 at precisely 6:13 pm, two warplanes raided the village, each dropping sixteen bombs. The people of Safsaf, a small farming community, had never seen anything like it before. The survivors described to us that as they ran it felt like the bombs were coming from all directions. Most of them made it to the fig grove and hid among the trees.
Fatima was already in the olive groves when the shelling started. It was olive harvest time after all. Her cousin, Muhammad Zaghmout, a singer, was sitting at the foot of one of the olive trees leaning up against its trunk. One of the shells killed Muhammad and the tree, tearing them both to pieces. As Pappe writes,
Their arrival had been preceded by heavy bombardment that had killed, among others, one of Galilee’s best known singers, Muhammad Mahmnud Nasir Zaghmout. He died when a shell hit a group of villagers working in the vineyards to the west of the village …
When the planes left, the villagers, including Fatima, gathered in two large stone homes. But the artillery shelling continued throughout the night from a base that the Zionist militia had set up in occupied Safad which had fallen only weeks before. Fatima told us that this bombardment was so relentless that the entire area was illuminated. The trees on Jarmaq mountain were visible as though it were day.
After running out of bullets, many of the men at the front made their way to the two homes where the rest of the people were gathered. Inside the two homes chaos took over. People were torn between escaping under the shelling or remaining in the house. But news of massacres in other villages caused terror among villagers who no longer had the means to resist.
Most of the villagers escaped that night. Strategically, according to the dictates of Plan Dalet the northern part of the village was left unaffected. This was an essential ingredient in the plan, driving the villagers to the north of their village, ultimately forcing them over the border into Lebanon.
On the morning of the 29th of October, Zionist militias invaded the village from the west.
By midday, roughly 120 of the boys and men that remained in the village were lined up and executed. Fifteen members of Fatima’s family were among them. There were also at least four rapes and the killing of eight women. One woman, Azizia, was killed along with one of her sons and her husband. As documented by historian Adel Manna in Haaretz:
The soldiers entered the family’s house and tried to rape Aziza Sharaida in front of her husband and children. She resisted. The soldiers threatened to kill her 17-year-old, firstborn son if she went on resisting. She resisted with force and they shot her son. The soldiers threatened to shoot her husband, too, but she refused to give in, and they shot and killed him. The two younger sons, who witnessed the atrocity, went into exile in Lebanon…As I write in the book, even though Haim Laskov [later a chief of staff] was put in charge of the interrogation of the perpetrators of the horrors in Safsaf, none of them paid the price for war crimes, which included shooting prisoners and acts of abuse and rape.
For Palestinians, this elaborately planned ethnic cleansing operation also has a name—The Nakba (catastrophe). The Nakba saw historic Palestine’s sixteen regions dismembered. 78 per cent of the land was occupied and became the settler colonial state of ‘Israel’. Over 400 Palestinian villages, like Safsaf, were erased. It is known to this day that the villages most violently targeted for erasure were the ones that resisted most powerfully. This catastrophe saw the vast majority of the Indigenous population of Palestine dispossessed, massacred and forced across borders. Up to this day, seventy-three years on, roughly seven out of every ten Palestinains live in forced exile where they are denied the simple right of connecting with their ancestral lands or eating the fruit from trees that were planted for them by their grandparents.
Fatima was only one of these Palestinians. Along with other survivors of the attack on Safsaf, she escaped eighteen kilometres north of the border into Lebanon. Every day, from a refugee camp in Lebanon, she dreamt about returning. Every day, she thought about Safsaf and her fig tree. Every Eid, she would put on her best clothes and go to the South Lebanese border and take a photo, with Jarmaq mountain behind her. This annual pilgrimage was the closest she ever got to returning home. Year after year, from her concrete camp dwelling, she watched the televised genocide of her own people, triggering flashbacks of the pain of the massacre she witnessed on the threshing field of Safsaf years ago. She also lived with the pain that she may never touch Safsaf again, a hope that was denied by brutal military force.
The colonisers that replaced the people who were violently driven out in 1948 now live on their lands and in some cases in their homes. Many Palestinian survivors and their descendants still hold the actual keys to the homes they were forced to flee.
The Palestinians that remained in historic Palestine now face a long list of human rights abuses, including military attack, occupation, land theft, second-class citizenship and arbitrary incarceration. The world has seen the relentlessness of the Israeli war machine. Rarely has a year passed without massacres committed in Gaza. This impunity cannot continue.
As we write this article, land is being stolen in the village of Kafr Al-Dik. Attempts to steal more land in Beita are meeting fierce and creative resistance, a contemporary iteration of Safsaf’s defensive efforts in 1948. After seven decades, Israel’s expansionist settler colonialism continues, as does its relentless brutality. Continuous, too, is Palestinian resistance. Although the term Nakba is often used to refer to the events of 1948, it is important to recognise that the Nakba is ongoing. Year after year, exiled Palestinains watch in horror as families are ripped from their homes, and are reminded of their own violent dispossession.
For Palestinians who remain in Palestine, the occupation state of Israel has introduced racist laws that erase Palestinain language, culture and identity. These laws recognise Jewish ‘settlement’ (a euphemism for colonisation) as a national value.
In May 2021, Israel was using its civil registry of every building and family in Gaza to murder entire families with pinpoint accuracy, while escalating its ethnic cleansing of occupied East Jerusalem and repeatedly assaulting worshippers at Al Aqsa mosque. As the world witnessed this brutality, the Sydney Festival board was in conversation with the Israeli Embassy, offering to platform them as a ‘Star Partner’ in exchange for $20,000 in funding from the apartheid state.
Israel’s colonial violence, of course, extends to the arts. The state of Israel prevents Palestinians from pursuing their right to artistic and cultural expression on both an individual and organisational level. The occupation state continues to dispossess, persecute and punish artists and performers like Dareen Tatour and Hafez Omar for daring to speak out against its violence. Israeli forces often attack cultural and artistic institutions, disrupt events, destroy archives or deny Palestinian artists access to their own archives. For example, the entire Palestinian national film and archive was stolen from Beirut by Israeli forces in 1982. Palestinians are prevented from accessing their own visual history—documents created by their own people.
Palestinians have no freedom to practice art, much less to travel to expand their practice, perform, exhibit and collaborate or participate in arts festivals abroad. The establishment of a dance group in Gaza would be near impossible, precisely because Gaza is besieged, and because arts initiatives are relentlessly targeted by Israel. Apartheid is not a theoretical concept, nor do we use the word lightly. It is a horrifying lived experience.
Self-expression through the arts is a right that Palestinians are not afforded. While suppressing and abusing all Palestinains, the Israeli state regularly inserts itself into creative spaces, such as the Sydney Festival, in an attempt to launder its atrocities and fabricate legitimacy on the world stage.
2021 was a monumental year for Palestinian organising and resistance, after decades of attempts to fragment and separate the Palestinian people from each other and from their land. May 2021 saw the forced ethnic displacements in Sheikh Jarrah catalyse the events of the Unity Intifada. This saw Palestinians from across historic Palestine and the diaspora come together to organise and resist Israel’s settler colonial project. In the Australian colony, we saw crowds of people show up for Palestine like never before, and this was mirrored across the globe.
This unity represented an important shift in the Palestinian struggle against colonialism for a number of reasons. First, it reinforced the knowledge and understanding that whether we are organising against the erasure of Safsaf in 1948 or of Sheikh Jarrah in 2021, Palestinian resistance remains uncompromising and steadfast—our unified response is symbolic of our demand for a unified and free Palestine. There was also a paradigm shift in the conversation: words like apartheid, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and occupation finally became part of the mainstream vernacular on Palestine. The change in narrative enabled a praxis of unprecedented transnational solidarity to be realised. The language of settler colonialism enabled parallels to be drawn between settler colonies around the world, including so-called Australia. The term apartheid enabled people to visualise the institutionalised racial segregation that Palestinians are subjected to, not dissimilar to what was experienced by Black South Africans. Reference to ethnic cleansing drew parallels to East Turkestan, and the term occupation enabled lines of solidarity to be built with Kashmir and West Papua.
In September 2021, six Palestinian prisoners liberated themselves from Gilboa Prison in occupied Palestine, representing the long-standing demand of Palestinians to free all political prisoners. This act of resistance cemented Palestinian unity, as Palestinians everywhere chanted for the freedom of their West Bank heroes.
The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement is one way that the unification efforts we saw in 2021 can be honoured and further strengthened. Boycotts have proven to be effective across the globe and throughout history in ending oppression. BDS draws upon other grassroots movements such as the International Boycott of South African Apartheid. The BDS movement is thus grounded in unification and the understanding that, like Palestinian resistance against Israeli settler colonialism, our modes of resistance against oppressive systems globally must also be unified.
Indeed, BDS targets are rarely only complicit in Palestine. The current global BDS campaign against Elbit Systems is one example of this. Elbit is an Israeli security company that field tests its weapons on Palestinian land and on Palestinian bodies. Elbit is also complicit in West Papua, Myanmar, the Philippines and Colombia, and the campaign has actively built and strengthened connections with these communities. Similarly, our call to boycott the Sydney Festival is not limited to the settler colonial projects of Israel and Australia—it is a global movement and a global call. Only through the weight of the international community, who have long endorsed, enabled, and funded Israel’s war crimes, will the global impact of the BDS movement and Palestinian liberation movement be realised.
In an attempt to shut down the Sydney Festival boycott, Israel’s apologists often claim that art is ‘non-political’ and creates ‘dialogue’, while boycotts ‘divide us’. Such claims ignore the very structure of settler colonialism: a violent and all-pervasive asymmetry between the coloniser and the colonised. While this structure exists, any dialogue is, in the words of Ghassan Khanafani, ‘a conversation between the sword and the neck’. It is apartheid walls, not boycotts, that divide us.
Rather, art has long been used by oppressed populations to create connections around shared struggles. The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was born out of the understanding that artistic and cultural spaces have agency. Just as these spaces hold the power to launder Israel’s atrocities, so too do they hold the power to expose them.
For seventy-three years, the Israeli propaganda machine has silenced Palestinian stories—until now. The tide is turning and stories like Fatima’s in 1948 and Muna El-Kurd’s in 2021 are being platformed. Through these stories, people are embracing the power of tools like boycott, divestment and sanctions in realising Indigenous peoples right to self determination and resistance against settler colonial powers.
Fatima passed away three days ago, having never again felt the land of Safsaf beneath her feet. She was buried in a refugee camp graveyard in Beddawi—buried on foreign soil, separated from her land in both life and death. We resist through BDS so that we can return to and rebuild villages like Safsaf. We resist through BDS to stop forced ethnic displacements in villages like Sheikh Jarrah. We resist through BDS to create a unified Palestine where our rights and sovereignty are realised and respected. We resist through BDS to organise communities around the world to dismantle the systems that oppress.