Sumud, an Arabic word that means steadfastness, has a distinct significance in Palestinian culture. It captures a collective response to chronic adversity and a people’s will to survive, endure, and remain connected to the land. In some ways, sumud intersects with the concept of resilience or the ability to adapt to difficult experiences. The Arabic word, however, carries deeper political meanings of defiance and determination to persevere despite historical erasure. To Palestinians, sumud is symbolized by the olive tree that survives under harsh conditions and provides sustenance year after year. For more than a century, the Palestinian people have stood steadfast against one of the longest and most brutal colonialisms in modern history. Beginning with the Balfour Declaration of 1917—when Britain promised Palestine as a national homeland for the Jewish people at the expense of the indigenous population—and ending with the most recent episode of Israeli assault on besieged Gaza, Palestinians persevered in the face of relentless dispossession, fragmentation, siege, apartheid, and attempts at annihilation.
In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 29 as the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People as they continue to struggle towards achieving their rights and liberation. The date is not insignificant. On the same day in 1947, the Assembly adopted a resolution to partition historic Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, whilst Jerusalem would remain under an international regime. The Jewish state of Israel was established in 1948 on the heels of the destruction and depopulation of 500 Palestinian towns and villages and the displacement of 750,000 indigenous Palestinians from their land, a series of events that Palestinians refer to as their Nakba or Catastrophe. Ever since its birth as a Jewish state, Israel has received political, financial, military, and ideological support from former and neo-colonial powers, the United States chief among them. All the while, Israeli policies have repeatedly breached international law, entrenched an apartheid system of unequal legal, economic, and housing policies in the West Bank, and, since 2007, instituted an inhumane blockade on Gaza.
This year’s observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian people coincides with the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 75th commemoration of the Nakba. It also comes during Israel’s most recent military attack on Palestinian civilians in Gaza, an unprecedented act of collective punishment in retaliation for Hamas’s terrible assault on Israeli citizens of October 7. Israel’s ruthless bombardment of civilian infrastructure in Gaza over the course of 42 days has demonstrated yet again that Palestinians are an unprotected population under de-facto Israeli occupation. The world watched as 2.2 million Gazans were deprived of food and water, forcibly displaced, and bombed with more than 25,000 tons of explosives, and as the Palestinian healthcare system was razed to the ground. Whilst some Holocaust historians described Israel’s military operation in Gaza as crimes against humanity and genocide, many politicians and media pundits cheered Israeli crimes or merely stood silent. Even after the United Nations General Assembly voted on October 27 in favor of a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce to protect civilians (120 voted in favor; 14 voted against, including the United States and Israel), a ceasefire was not upheld until November 23. Watching the scenes of destruction inflicted on Gaza’s civilian population and the killing of thousands, 6,000 of whom are children, one can only feel anger and confusion that some states objected to calls for a ceasefire to protect the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
Despite the destruction and loss of lives, there is one ray of hope and that is the genuine transnational solidarity expressed by millions of people from all walks of life and ethnic and religious backgrounds, including among progressive Jewish groups. Growing solidarity with the Palestinian cause among young Americans is a sign that public opinion is shifting in the United States and elsewhere. The future will inevitably see a majority view that insists on addressing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through frameworks of justice and rights and not through military might. In addition to overwhelming protests in cities in North America and Europe that called for the protection of Palestinian civilians, some professional bodies have taken bold stands against genocide whilst others called for a ceasefire to protect all civilians. In its most recent annual meeting (November 12-15, 2023), the American Public Health Association Governing Council voted by a landslide in support of a ceasefire policy, a principled stand that is in line with public health ethos. International agencies not known for their strong condemnations of state violence could not remain silent while bearing witness to Israeli violations of international law. For example, UNICEF described besieged Gaza as “the most dangerous place in the world to be a child.” The United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres described Gaza as “a graveyard for children.” The Pope himself referred to both the attack by Hamas on Israel as well as the ongoing Israeli violence in Gaza as terrorism, following a meeting with families of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners in Israel.
Today (November 29), marks the seventh day of a fragile ceasefire. Over the past few days, some Israeli and Palestinian hostages have been released and reunited with their families and loved ones. Even if the ceasefire lasts, which is the hope of any human being committed to health and equity, Palestinian survivors in Gaza now face the burden of cleaning the rubble and rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of the relentless Israeli bombardment of their homes, schools, hospitals, and places of worship. They will come to terms with the realization that they are exceptions to international law and that humanitarianism means providing them with little aid rather than protecting their humanity and dignity, let alone their aspirations for freedom. As Palestinians take time to collect themselves and mourn their children, teachers, and doctors, we at the Palestine Program for Health and Human Rights celebrate their steadfastness, sumud, and evoke it on this day of solidarity. By doing so, our intention is not to glorify loss and destruction or romanticize survival under conditions of injustice. Sumud should be a temporary state of being until justice is served and human rights are achieved.
The Palestine Program for Health and Human Rights is based at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard. It is a partnership program between the FXB Center and the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University that utilizes a decolonial framework in program development, leadership, and engagement. We invite you to follow our ongoing projects and stay informed about upcoming webinars and scholarly opportunities.
— Sawsan Abdulrahim, Inaugural Fellow, Palestine Program for Health and Human Rights, FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard
Photo: Alex Vinci / Shutterstock