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Walid Mustafa, interview about sumud

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 10.12.2011:


Dr Walid Mustafa is associate professor in the department of humanities at Bethlehem University and its former Dean of Arts and Dean of Students. Dr Mustafa received his Ph.D. from Kiev State University in the Ukraine and has authored numerous publications about history, society, demographics and politics in the region. He is board member of the Arab Educational Institute (AEI-Open Windows) in Bethlehem and a project coordinator of AEI’s Living in the Holy Land: Respecting Differences project, for inter-religious learning.

Sumud is a word that expresses the situation of the Palestinian people, its commitment to the land and its position towards the Israeli occupation. There is a very great unbalance in force between Israel and Palestine. Israel is a highly armed country with the latest weapons, the Palestinians are poorly armed. You cannot compare the Palestinians with Israel. What does remain for the Palestinians to resist this very strong occupation and army? We should commit ourselves to staying on the land, the land of our fathers and grandfathers. We should stay put vis-à-vis the plans of the Israeli occupation to take more lands, to force more people to emigrate from our country. The occupation is the cause of the very difficult political, economic, social and security situation of the Palestinian people. What remains to the Palestinian people is only sumud, to stay and resist the plans of the Israelis.

Sumud is a kind of peaceful resistance. This resistance aims to keep the historical, cultural and psychological connection of the Palestinian people with their homeland. This resistance will not give the Israeli occupation the opportunity to take advantage of their military superiority. That’s what happened during the first Intifadah and during the invasion in Gaza when people allover the world saw that Israel is using its military force against unarmed or poorly armed people. In my opinion, if you use arms against the Israelis, you give the Israelis the right to use arms. The Palestinians will then be the losers. As I understand the concept, sumud is part of a civil or peaceful resistance movement that does not give the Israelis the justification to make use of their security argument.

Sumud is a way for Palestinians to face the difficulties in their homeland and homes. It is a way for Palestinians to affirm their rights as citizens. There are lots of examples of sumud. There are many houses near the settlements built up during the occupation. The Palestinians living in these houses daily suffer from their neighbors, the settlers. Those Palestinians have been offered large amounts of money to sell their properties. However, they insist to stay there. Why should these people leave their houses? These are their own houses, although they suffer from the settlers. This is also the case in certain Palestinian neighborhoods as in the old city of Hebron or the old city of Jerusalem, or, during these last days, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in Jerusalem. The Palestinians are samadin [people who are steadfast] by struggling to stay in their houses. You can say the same about the people living near the Wall in Bethlehem, Abu Dis, or Qalqilia. Sumud means that you insist upon living in your own house and living on your own land.

Sumud means that you refuse all what they promise or give you. If you sell, they will promise you a visa, a place where you can emigrate to, a much easier life in Canada or Australia. But people don’t do that. Maybe they would agree selling their house in a normal situation, if there is no conflict. Selling a house is a normal practice allover the world. But the choice which you have in a free country is not available here because our land is occupied. When somebody is trying to uproot me from my land, I insist to stay. This is here the land of my fathers, forefathers; this is the land of my children and grandchildren.

Not a choice

Yes, there is a risk that sumud becomes a rhetorical slogan. But this is true for certain people, not for common people. For some people it may become a slogan without meaning. Not all people have the same ability to continue struggling or to stay sumud. Not all have the same character. Individual differences between people are everywhere in the world. But sumud is not just the choice of the individual but of the community. When you talk about the people as a whole, they will never leave. Palestinians are now 3,5 million people living in the West Bank and Gaza. In 1967 it was less than one million.

Incidentally, that’s why we hear sometimes racial demographics, as when in Israel they say there is a problem of demography as when in the year so and so there will be a majority of Arabs here. But the issue of family size is related to a certain way of life. Each Palestinian now knows that having a large family is related to a culture and a certain period, and that families 40 years ago were much larger than today.

It is true that there is emigration. Maybe we can feel it here in Bethlehem more than in other places. But it is not the main tendency among the Palestinians. Every person wants to live a free and better life and wants his or her children to live a better life. But as a community do we really have the choice, and even if we have the choice, are we leaving? I think that it is not a matter of a choice for Palestinians to leave or to stay. Yes, some, they do leave. But for the people as a whole, they do not have that choice. Sumud is in the end a question of survival, of continuing to live on this land as there is no other place to go to. This is our homeland, we do not have another homeland.

Sumud is a lesson that Palestinians learned in 1948, when more than 750.000 people were forced to leave their homeland, villages and cities. More than 500 Palestinian villages were demolished so that people could not go back to their homeland and practice their right of return. Now Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza learned the lesson, knowing that when you leave you will lose the possibility to live in this country, you will be a refugee the rest of your life. That is what happened to the refugees of 1948. So in 1967, during the June war, they remained on the land. The Palestinians learned from their experience and stayed. What will become of the West Bank and Gaza when people leave, or when they are uprooted as happened in 1948? It will be much easier for Israeli expansion plans to succeed. They will build more settlements, and have more lands confiscated.

The homeland starts from the bench

Practicing sumud means that you continue to protect and keep your joint heritage and rich culture. You cannot really practice your heritage in the United States. You are an immigrant there. You can only see the rich heritage and practice it from within the homeland. We have a very relevant proverb in our history which says: “Homeland is not a suitcase which you can take with you while traveling.” When you leave your homeland you are not anymore in your homeland. Your homeland is connected to land, borders, people, culture, joy of life.

Remaining in your homeland is not only sacrifice and suffering. Sumud is a lifestyle, for people living now and for generations to come. You are practicing the joy of living, in this environment, on this land, with these people. I like here to quote a Russian poem. It says that “for me, the homeland starts from the bench in front of our house, in front of the street where my grandmother and my mother, together with other ladies, sat and talked about the issues of life.” Sumud is about the beauty of daily life. When you remember your homeland, the beauty comes to you, it is part of you. So when you practice sumud you are not suffering all the time, on the contrary, you practice the love for the land. By practicing sumud we show how much we want to continue living in it as previous generations did. This homeland gave you, your fathers and forefathers the gift of life and the gift of living. You should be thankful to this homeland, you should be loyal to it [wafa’].

Sumud needs conditions to be practiced. The authorities should create better conditions for sumud. This applies to each authority, municipality, local authority, school, community. That will help people to continue going on. What will also help people is that they see the fruits of their sumud. Throughout the history of this region occupiers came and left and people remained. But for people it is difficult to keep this long term view. Maybe people compare their conditions of life with those say 15 years ago. Possibly it was better at the time. They therefore need to feel somehow the effects of sumud. They need to see the light at the end of the tunnel, or to know that the light is coming. Palestinians are eager to live independently. When they see this light, they will be more samid, and be able to resist more.

Sumud is not an invention of the Palestinians. It is not unique or exceptional, except perhaps for the Arabic word. Sumud means that you are committed to your homeland, like other peoples. We do what people did in their histories everywhere in the world. History shows that people are ready to sacrifice for the sake of protecting their homeland. Sumud is the price people pay to own the right to continue living in their land.

Bethlehem, 13/8/2009

Interviewer: Toine van Teeffelen

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