On Urban Futures: Colonial Space Today Introduction to Palfest 2019



For its 10th occurrence, the Palestine Festival of Literature curated conversations that were resolutely spatial. This introduction by PalFest 2019 co-curator Mahdi Sabbagh describes the reasons behind this theme, as well as the itinerary accomplished by the festival in March 2019.

PalFest’s founding idea was to create an international literary event to undermine the cultural siege imposed on Palestine. Over its first decade, Palfest brought some 200 Palestinian and international artists together to stage free and public events across historic Palestine. Over that same time not only has Israel’s colonial project further expanded and entrenched itself, but we have seen its techniques and technologies exported around the world.

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PalFest 2019 in front of one the H2 Israeli settlement in the center of Hebron-Al Khaleel’s old city. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso for PalFest 2019.

Our theme for the 2019 festival was Urban Futures: Colonial Space Today. For those living in Palestine there is no doubt that they live under various levels of colonial rule: from the expansionist settler-colonial occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; to the refugee camps housing families displaced 71 years ago; to the Palestinians living as second-class citizens of Israel. Yet the colonial reality remains difficult to grasp (obfuscated) to many on the outside. Palestine continues to be narrated as a conflict, a place of division or, most commonly, not discussed at all.

The cultural siege is bi-directional: it isolates Palestinians from the rest of the world while muddying outsiders’ understanding. The idea of solidarity is often demoted to secondary importance behind urgent questions of humanitarianism. We reject this elision and work to create connections of mutual solidarity, of intellectual exchange, of committed artistic production. We work to highlight not only what is happening in Palestine, but how it intersects with anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles around the world.

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PalFest 2019 visiting Jerusalem-Al Quds’ old city . / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

What does colonial rule look like?
What is its architecture?

Discussing the future of cities through the lens of Palestine can shed light on the ways in which the Palestinian urban is a laboratory for techniques of population control, surveillance, manufactured disparities, resource monopolies, and social pacification — techniques 
that have propelled Israel to become the world’s eighth largest weapons exporter. Per capita, no country comes close to the density of surveillance companies in Israel’s economy.


Studying Palestinian urbanism also reveals the incredible attempts and successes at forming healthy cohesive societies and alternative modes of governance and resistance conceived of in Palestine, by Palestinians. This is something that our PalFest 2019 guests, from Turtle Island, South Asia, or Europe, were able to relate to. Palestinian social mobilization, local governance and subtle resistance were at times similar to what our guests had already witnessed and commented on elsewhere.

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PalFest 2019 visiting Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem Al Quds. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

Jerusalem, where the festival began, is the quintessential testing ground for the Israeli government’s bureaucracy of residency, imminent loss of legal status (and hence rights), and the incremental erosion of space that, in a “healthy” urban environment, would otherwise serve the communities that reside in it. Jerusalem’s chronic home demolitions — the literal reduction of Palestinian space — are coupled with a slower form of violence where funding and amenities (schools, hospitals, public space, and places of leisure) are purposefully made scarcer in Palestinian neighborhoods whose communities are only growing in population and density. What Jerusalem also exhibits is the increasingly sophisticated steadfastness of its Palestinian residents, who tirelessly work to maintain their status and their right to their ancestral city. Recent social mobilization to protect religious and social space around the Noble Sanctuary has succeeded in canceling several Israeli attempts to further subjugate Palestinian bodies.

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PalFest 2019 visiting Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

Bethlehem, a city confined to its built environment since Israel began constructing the separation wall in 2002, continues to lose land. The theft of the majority of its own open lands by the encroachment of Israeli settlements is coupled with an eight-meter wall surrounding it, a visual and psychological assertion by those who control the land and the air to those who do not. Regular armed incursions into the Aida refugee camp serve as another reminder that it is perhaps pointless to apply binary thinking, or logic, to constructed apartheid environments: you will not be safe on either side of the wall, so long as you are Palestinian. Bethlehem can best be described as a ghetto, perhaps what the rest of Palestinian cities might look like if Israeli land-grabs continue at the current rate.

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PalFest 2019 visiting Hebron-Al Khaleel’s old city. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

Hebron is easily one of the most disturbing examples of the violently visible spatially-implemented violent apartheid. In the central area of Hebron known as “H2,” 700 Jewish Israeli settlers supported by a considerable number of Israeli soldiers hold 34,000 Palestinian residents hostage to an archaic, arbitrary rule of law. Hebron is where (what is referred to as) Israeli democracy goes to die. While one could argue that this power dynamic exists in historic Palestine as a whole, witnessing it within the confines of a dense city sheds light on the raw violence programmed into the software of the Israeli occupation and its militarily upheld urban inequality. It also makes painfully clear the lengths to which Israel is willing, and planning, to go to construct a hierarchy where the rule of law only applies if you are Jewish and Zionist.

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PalFest 2019 visiting Hebron-Al Khaleel’s old city. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

Ramallah is a middle-class enclave of relative normalcy that can change at the whim of one Israeli general. It is an operational bantustan where ideas of hopeful possibility as well as complicity, accountability, and soaring debt somehow coexist. It is no surprise that in any landscape of military occupation, some Palestinians will find ways to accumulate wealth, or even benefit from the status quo. Ramallah’s constantly booming construction industry, and lack of cohesive urban planning, is no coincidence. One could almost see it as intentional, coupled with Israel’s tightening grip on East Jerusalem, maybe in the hopes that its Palestinians will relocate to Ramallah. At the same time is one not to strive for a sense of much-needed normalcy? Are Palestinians allowed to pause in an everlasting occupation, or is leisure only appropriate after liberation?

Instead of returning to Haifa as the Festival usually does, we also chose to visit Lydd in historic Palestine for the first time, a city that was reduced from its own center of gravity prior to 1948 to its current reincarnation as an impoverished community in the periphery of Tel Aviv. Lydd was the site of a massacre in the Dahmash Mosque, and the Lydd death march, orchestrated by the Palmach in July of 1948. Dahmash Mosque remained closed until the community decided to re-open it in the early 2000s. How can remaining Palestinians continue to use a mosque that was the site of such pain, all while the city and state strictly disallow Palestinians from publicly memorializing these events?

Today’s Palestinian Haifa, a city within a city, also grew out of the chaos that followed the expulsion of the majority of Haifa’s population during the Nakba. The Israeli narrative tends to portray Haifa as a city of Jewish-Arab coexistence, aiming to mask its painful past and current, segregated condition, an attempt that has been anything but successful. In Haifa in fact, colonial space continues to expand, now through the subtle, soft power of gentrification in the Palestinian enclaves of Wadi Nisnas and Wadi Salib. Haifa exhibits both incredible initiatives by Palestinians who seek to cement their city’s Arab identity and an often self-imposed preoccupation with policing Arabness in order to maintain a sense of belonging to Israeli society: a place where Palestinians are simply a docile, pacified minority.

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Mural by Ricardo Cavolo at the Aida refugee camp commissioned during PalFest 2019. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

What is perhaps the most apparent, clear, and consistent characteristic of colonial space, in all the cities we visited, is that it is ever-expanding. Colonial space is a space in which one society is disposed to the benefit of another, and where attempts at co-solidarity and equitable sharing of resources are rendered impossible. It does not rest or stop at a specific border or hill or house. Instead it consumes what it can, then reconfigures the rule of law that it itself established in the first place in order to continue expanding. To begin to understand how one operates within this constantly shifting field we must learn from the Palestinian people: from municipal players, from civil society, from specific community organizations and leaders, camps, villages and individuals, who, with ingenuity, invent ways to resist and live, despite the ravaging of their bodies and their land.

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Ashish George, Natalie Diaz, Mabel O. Wilson, and Omar Robert Hamilton sharing their impressions on PalFest 2019 in Ramallah. / Photo by Nadia Bseiso.

Zionism survives on exclusionary dogma. It is an ideal that, in practice, fundamentally differentiates based on religion, and on invented ethno-racial lines, in order to fuel colonial expansionist policies. One of the strengths of the Palestinian cause lies in its universality. You do not have to be Palestinian or of a specific religion, 
ethnicity, or race, or adhere to a specific ideology, to relate to it. It is both a local indigenous struggle and a global liberation movement. It inherently ties into other indigenous struggles and weaves into liberation movements from across the Global South. This universality became apparent in the work and words of Palfest’s guests, who seamlessly tied such global movements together. It was as if they had already seen what they witnessed in Palestine, but in their respective political geographies’ pasts, presents, and futures.

This issue of The Funambulist is an exemplary case for what can be accomplished when solidarity becomes a force multiplier. Palfest is honored by the opportunity for this collaboration and the possibilities for future partnerships around Palestine we hope it will lead to. ■