Susie Day's Blog

The Palestinian Youth Movement in a Time of War: An Interview with Kaleem Hawa

By Susie Day

“If this isn’t enough for you to adopt solidarity with Palestine, nothing ever was going to be”: Kaleem Hawa and the Palestinian Youth Movement

Kaleem Hawa is a young Palestinian writer who has contributed eloquent pieces on art and film to such publications as The New York Review of Books and Artforum. But he has no time for this now. He and his comrades in the Palestinian Youth Movement [PYM] are, to put it bluntly, in a war – war that might seem to have begun recently, but has actually been waged for decades against Palestinians.

The Palestinian Youth Movement, Kaleem tells me, “is an organization committed to the total liberation of Palestine and the return of the Palestinian people, which means confronting Zionism, imperialism, and Arab reaction; to raise consciousness for Arabs in the diaspora. I believe deeply in the work PYM is doing.” He shows me “The Second Week,” an article written by PYM, describing Gaza as the Israeli bombing continues:

If anything captures the work of the second week, it is this. More than a quarter of the homes in Gaza have been leveled by the genocidal Zionist regime and its imperial backers. Schools and mosques, hospitals and bakeries – all have been targeted …. Gaza’s entire health system has collapsed. Their intention is to break a spirit of resistance that cannot be broken; six wars have not been object lesson enough for them. At the time of writing, the Zionists have murdered 2,055 Palestinian children …

 I need to ask Kaleem more…

sd:      On a panel last week, you said, “Palestinians are not victims; they are agents of revolutionary history. There’s a great need to understand armed resistance.” Do you stand by that now?

Kaleem Hawa:        Certainly. That’s not to efface the immense suffering and grief of the Palestinian people, who’ve lived under genocidal violence for the last 75 years. But I do think that an overemphasis on that “victim” framework leads to a contingent solidarity – because ultimately, Palestinian people are not asking for Western recognition. They’re demanding a liberation of their lands and their homes from a settler-colonial project backed by the West. That liberation necessarily engenders resistance in all forms.

I think some in the solidarity movement have had to confront the practical realities of what Palestinian liberation means, and what the Palestinian people believe, vis-à-vis resistance. Ultimately, it’s been healthy for a lot of people in solidarity with us to be confronted with this.

sd:What’s the “this” that we’re confronted with?

Kaleem Hawa:        That an oppressed people, thinking through strategies to achieve freedom and liberation amid world-destroying conditions of settler colonialism and military occupation, must contend with an array of strategies – and some of these will include armed resistance. The American public’s thoughts on the propriety of armed resistance are nowhere near as relevant or important as the actions they take to end that settler-colonial project.

sd:      What do you think of the global reaction to the October 7 attack, and to Palestine, itself?

Kaleem Hawa:        The response by Western governments, the military contractors, intelligence services, business communities, the media that serve as propaganda arms for these governments is totally expected – a rational calculus to preserve Western imperial interests at all costs. This strategy includes a total dehumanization of Palestinian and Arab life, to manufacture consent for the violence waged against the Palestinian people now.

That being said, it’s been really encouraging to see, in the last two weeks, a surge of people taking to the streets, demanding an end to the seizure of Gaza and the attempts at genocide. We’ve seen student mobilizations on campuses; walkouts; calls for solidarity; work stoppage from labor unions; people leading direct actions and getting arrested. Across the world, including in the Arab world, in the Global South, we’ve seen an upswelling of popular support for Palestine, with hundreds of thousands in the streets. I think we’re realizing very quickly that the Palestinian struggle is emblematic of a larger struggle against dispossession and imperial capitalism.

sd:      Usually, news media frame this as “Israel versus Hamas,” not “Israel versus Palestine.” What do you think of this?

Kaleem Hawa:        I think that this strategy uses an incredible amount of media propaganda and misinformation to vilify and use [Hamas as] as a political cudgel against the broader Palestinian liberation movement. Palestinian liberation is not the project of any one institution. Setting aside that Hamas itself is a complex institution that includes political and military and social formations, it’s important to understand that the broad Palestinian and Arab resistance is comprised of people of various ideologies and tactics – armed resistance is one of those. So we’re seeing the Western playbook enshrining an enemy that can be portrayed as evil, then used to manufacture support for total violence against an entire people. I think that’s what’s at play here with the emphasis on Hamas.

sd:      It also creates a scenario of the “bad Palestinians,” who are making the good ones suffer.

Kaleem Hawa:        Right. The double standard is unsurprising, but it’s incredibly offensive, as well, to consider that the Israeli Defense Force [IDF], which is one of the world’s most genocidal institutions, basically whitewashes the nature of its violence against Palestinians. The IDF created this language of the “most moral fighting force in the world,” to create a discursive frame in the West of good-versus-evil, which helps to flatten any understanding of the collective punishment being waged against the Palestinian people – and to undermine their right, morally and legally, to resist that violence as an occupied people.

sd:      I heard on NPR this morning an interview with a woman in the West Bank, where killings of Palestinians are escalating. She was totally disgusted with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority; I got the impression that there are, or will be, other Palestinian groups at play.

Kaleem Hawa:        It’s important to understand that every major political formation in Palestine is engaged in an armed resistance project. This aspect is not the entirety of Palestinian resistance, but it’s something that Palestinians and Arabs fundamentally agree on. It’s also important to understand our analysis of the Palestinian Authority [PA], which is an administrator on behalf of Zionism, to tamp down Palestinian resistance. I think the current resistance we’re seeing in Palestine has struck a blow against the PA, because people understand it doesn’t represent the Palestinian people in any meaningful sense.

sd:      How important is it for us in the West to know who’s fighting for Palestine, besides Hamas?

Kaleem Hawa:        It’s always good to be informed. But I think the important thing, for people in the Western imperial core who want to be in in solidarity with Palestinian liberation, is two key demands. The first is a total anti-normalization of Zionism. That means Zionism out of all the political, cultural, and civic institutions of life; an end to arms transfers and intelligence-sharing. It means recognizing what Zionism is, an ethnonationalist program predicated on the elimination of Palestinian life and Palestinians’ dispossession from the land. The second is understanding Palestinian resistance as something that’s fundamentally just. That’s what principled solidarity can look like right now.

sd:      How important are a ceasefire and humanitarian aid to Gaza? Could these campaigns not, in some way, promote the image of Palestinians as victims?

Kaleem Hawa:        The violence being waged right now against Gaza is world-destroying. People are rightfully calling for a ceasefire and an end to the siege, so that they can bury their dead. So they can help the more than one million Palestinians displaced all across Gaza; so they can mourn and honor our more than 5,000 martyrs, and the hundreds of children murdered in this violence. I don’t think anyone should make the mistake of feeling that calls for a ceasefire mean in any way that Palestinians are relinquishing their commitment to resistance and to the liberation struggle for Palestine.

sd:      How important is it to determine who bombed the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City?

Kaleem Hawa:        I think part of a longstanding Zionist strategy is to reify a debate about the debate, so to speak; to conceal the Zionist project’s fundamental inhumanity. The mass media’s first line about the al-Ahli Hospital was to say, essentially: “It’s really confusing. We don’t know what to believe about this event.” Others, like Michelle Goldberg or Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, have gone further, as mouthpieces for the violence, to cite American and Zionist intelligence as saying, fairly decisively, that what happened was the result of misfired rockets by the Palestinian resistance.

Both cases are a form of genocide denialism. When you – in the context of the incredible, repeated crimes by Zionism against the people of Gaza – focus your platforms on a debate about one particular war crime, it’s ultimately an attempt to deny the structure of violence that’s operating from the river to the sea.

Understand. This is not the first time that Zionists have bombed a hospital; it will not be the last. Let’s center our analyses on a set of clear facts – which is that the majority of hospitals in Gaza have now been rendered inoperable by airstrikes and siege; that Zionism has targeted tens of hospitals and health centers and schools and places of worship and food delivery and water infrastructures; they’ve meted out total collective punishment of a refugee population of millions of people. Those are the fundamental facts, and we should not be distracted by attempts to undermine this reality with a media debate about the debate.

sd:      People here are talking about censorship, like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s book event being canceled at 92NY in Manhattan because he signed a letter criticizing Israel, or NYU Student Body President Ryna Workman losing her presidency and a job offer for her newsletter expressing “absolutely solidarity” with Palestinians. I’ll also add that CounterPunch has gotten hit; the site’s been under bot attack for several days.

Kaleem Hawa:        It probably means you’re doing good work. Pushback like this is a sign that you’re threatening the system.

sd:Do you see this “pushback” as part of the struggle?

Kaleem Hawa:        The first thing to understand is that it’s an apparatus for surveillance, imprisonment, recrimination that’s part of the rollback of protections for people across the West. The decimation of unions, the expansion of the surveillance state – many of the repressive tactics we’re seeing brought against Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims are systems that were developed to repress Black people and the Black liberation struggle.

I personally believe that we need to watch developments in repression and surveillance – not because they’re unexpected, but because they represent an overall preparation for responding to dissent by liberation struggles, by everyone fighting for a more just world. There’s a dialectical relationship between what we’re seeing here, and Palestine. Palestine is being used as the spear tip, but the fundamental base doesn’t strategically discriminate.

We’re seeing this, for example, with Stop Cop City in in Atlanta. We know police officers are training with the Zionist entity. Just last week, police in Atlanta performed a training operation where they tried to “rescue hostages from Hamas” – in Atlanta. These systems are mutually reinforcing. What we’re seeing done to Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims has been and will be done again to everyone in the West.

The repression we’re seeing now is incredibly significant, but people should not be afraid. Now is the time for courage; to fight back. This moment is clarifying, because it’s shown the Arab popular masses that Zionism is, in effect, a threat to all Arab peoples; that it’s able, for example, to launch airstrikes against three neighboring countries in the last two weeks. And that reactionary Arab governments empowered by Western monetary institutions and a global weapons trade do not fundamentally represent their people.

sd:      What is PYM doing in all this?

Kaleem Hawa:        There’s our Popular University, which helps to disseminate educational resources, to coordinate the translation of revolutionary texts. PYM recently put out a toolkit on what is happening in Palestine; a list of resources and readings in Arabic and English that includes subjects of national liberation, settler colonialism, armed resistance, Palestinian history.

More broadly, PYM is leading a national March on Washington on November 4. We encourage everyone to come, to organize buses from their community, get their institutions and organizations involved, to endorse and support.

sd:      Can I ask how you personally are handling this right now? Most of us are deeply upset – don’t you think acknowledging real emotion ultimately brings more intelligence to a movement?

Kaleem Hawa:        One hundred percent. Here, in New York, we held a vigil the night of the Al-Ahli Hospital massacre, in Washington Square Park. Hundreds and hundreds of people came. So we have this vigil; we want to read the names of our martyrs; and we can’t do it. Because, at this point, a list doesn’t exist, due to the sheer scale and immensity of the violence.*

Yet we have a moment where the crowd sings together and mourns together and is furious together and joyful, and this is interwoven with political education about settler colonialism in Palestine – and with demands for action, concrete things people can do. This vigil was an encapsulation for me of just how important organizing, connected to people, is. It’s not dismissive of people’s emotions; it channels them to continue our work. Yeah, it was a really beautiful moment for us.

sd:      I feel like this time is a social, political tipping point, where people who used to be friends may never speak to each other again. So much is at stake, not just in terms of individual personal relationships, but in how those relationships then move out into society and explode.

Kaleem Hawa:        Yes. Our conversation has been about organizing and history and strategy, these types of things. But it must be emphasized that what’s being done to Gaza by the U.S. and Israel, is total horror. It’s incredibly difficult to see the destruction of civilian infrastructure, all of our martyrs, the thousands of children martyred. I don’t have any other word for it: it’s just horror. For me, personally, there are moments where I’ve let myself feel immense grief for my people. But there’s also rage, rage and anger at this system.

Being part of a movement like PYM has been life-saving. To be able to focus on doing what we can –I’d encourage anyone reading this, who’s feeling similarly, to join an organization. To organize their communities and families and workplaces around this topic. But I’m not gonna lie. It makes you really angry to see the masks that have come off in the last two weeks – and clarifying to understand who was not ever in solidarity with Palestinian people in the first place…

How do I put this? There are people who have made a career off Palestine, off of essentially metabolizing our pain and our resistance, appointing themselves as pseudo-spokespeople or intellectual historians of this moment, who have been shown to be fundamentally unqualified to do so, essentially that they’re cowards. To avoid giving specific examples, I’ll say that I’ve found refuge in my comrades in PYM, and in those who’ve shown principled, unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people. This is a clarifying moment, because, if this has not been enough for you to adopt solidarity with Palestinians, nothing ever was going to be.

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—susie day, 2023
*A list of “Palestinian Martyrs Since October 7, 2023” is given in “The Second Week,” by the Palestinian Youth Movement in The New Inquiry

photo 1 credit: Kaleem Hawa
photo 2 credit: Reuters