What Does Disability Justice Mean in Gaza?
on debility, drones, and solidarity
This is a heavy issue. If you are not in a place to read this today, scroll to the end for some reading recommendations.
Someone asked me recently where my politics come from, and maybe they meant Who have you read? But what I heard was What made you think this way? And the answer is that I saw horrible things I couldn’t ignore, and I saw myself as inextricably connected to them.
It is hard to really see the American empire if you’ve only ever lived inside the heart of it. Some people read their way out, but I had to leave and look at the US through the eyes of the world. When I was 25, I worked for a magazine in Vietnam, where I learned about what the Vietnamese people call the War of US Aggression.
There in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum, an exhibit struck me in the chest. On the wall in huge letters were America’s words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Across the room were photographs of Vietnamese villages destroyed by US soldiers; beneath them were jars that held fetuses debilitated by the ecotoxin Agent Orange. I had never learned about the depths of my own country’s brutality in school; I didn’t know the chemicals dropped on Vietnam were still in the soil decades later. I sat down on a bench outside the museum and cried.
I guess every anti-imperialist American has a moment like this, where you realize your country has always been lying to you, because that is what a nation has to do to paper over the violence required to become an empire — it has to make myths you can believe in. This moment came to mind as I’ve been sitting with the writing of Jews who talk about how they’ve come to reject the Zionist political project of Israel. As Sarah Schulman wrote last week:
The most difficult challenge in our lives is to face our contributions to the systems that reproduce inequality and consequential cycles of violence. Every person has to face their own complicities, and we start this by listening to whoever is suffering. Even if it is by our own hand. It is this transcendence that can lead us all to a better place.
Gaza has been under Israeli military occupation for over 50 years, and it has been funded by my own American taxes. The US has given billions of dollars to Israel over the last decade, more than it’s given to any country ever, because Israel represents the interests of the US empire in the Middle East.
In this worldview where “only certain bodies bleed,” as the Palestinian-American writer Sarah Aziza put it, some of us are allowed to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, while others are made to live in a hell of military checkpoints, drones, and mass injury. It seems a self-evident truth to me that building walls between family members is cruel and unusual; that denying 2.2 million people water and food is a gross abuse of power; that bombing schools, hospitals, and refugee camps is genocidal.
Do you know why the population of Gaza is half children? It’s a fact that comes out sterilized in news reports, stripped of the context that makes it mean something, but it’s because occupation causes mass disability and death. In her book of disability theory The Right To Maim, Jasbir Puar calls it debilitation.
During the Great March of Return from March 2018 to December 2019, thousands of Palestinians gathered at the border wall every Friday to peacefully protest their occupation and demand the right to return to their homelands. The Israeli Defense Force, one of the most powerful militaries in the world, responded by shooting them in the legs. 8,000 people were injured and 183 were killed, among them medics, journalists, and children.
In Gaza Fights For Freedom, a film that documented the March (which you should absolutely watch if you find yourself needing more context), Mohammed Al-Sha’rawi sits in a wheelchair, his leg bandaged and propped up on a pillow. He was shot in the foot, he explains, resulting in nerve damage and torn ligaments. The hospital told him he would need treatment outside of Gaza to avoid amputation, but his application for a permit to travel for medical care was denied twice, so he was still waiting.
Puar uses the term debilitation to describe what happens to Mohammed and so many others in Gaza that our neoliberal frame of disability rights can’t capture. She explains that debility can’t be understood as an identity like disability, which is usually thought of as an event that happens to an individual, after which they just need accommodations, access, and personal empowerment to be included in society. Rather, debility is what happens when a state makes an entire population available for mass injury — a denial of disability rights altogether.
In Gaza, for example, it is impossible to find anyone whose mobility is not restricted by military checkpoints, permit requirements, and border walls, or who doesn’t have a disabled family member or a disability themself. “Rather than saying Palestinians with disabilities are twice disabled,” Puar writes, “this frame posits that everyone is debilitated to some degree, or, in other words, no one is able-bodied.”
She points out that Israel is, in fact, a signatory on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The IDF proudly claims to be the world’s largest employer of autistic people, and in August, an ambassador told the UN that Israel is committed to eliminating ableism. But this disability rights frame, which for a long time, has been led and theorized by white disabled people who live in the US and Europe, doesn’t map onto the experiences of racialized groups who are targeted en masse by the state.
When Peter Torres Fremlin of Disability Debrief asked disability rights advocate Shatha Abusrour about the experiences of disabled people in Gaza right now, she said:
“Gaza is taking most of the fire, regardless of all individual differences among citizens: civilians; women; children; persons with disability; elderly people, etcetera. The main target is the Palestinian. This, in most cases makes it hard to think from a disability inclusion perspective.”
To really get “all care for all people,” as Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant write in Health Communism, accommodations are not enough — these systems of power have to radically change. Puar writes:
Black Lives Matter and the struggle to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine are not only movements “allied” with disability rights, nor are they only distinct disability justice issues. Rather, I am motivated to think of these fierce organizing practices collectively as a disability justice movement itself.
What would accommodations look like in Gaza? Puar says that the main demand of disability activism there is “treatment without checkpoints” — the only way to achieve this, of course, is a free and equitable Palestine.
The problem, though, is that debilitated populations are not just oppressed, they are also a source of value. Adler-Bolton and Vierkant call this extractive abandonment, which affects every member of the surplus class in some way, from the chronically ill to the incarcerated to the occupied. It’s perhaps most clear in the fact that Gaza has become a testing ground for one of Israel’s largest exports — military drones.
“Their loud sound, like an electric generator, accompanies us at every moment and everywhere,” Nour Naim writes of life under occupation. Journalist Antony Loewenstein has studied how the IDF uses the occupation in Gaza to test, develop, and advertise their advanced weapons systems to other countries.
I keep finding myself confused and furious at that fact that what scholars are calling “a textbook case of genocide” is allowed to happen. Countless human rights groups have called Israel an apartheid state — how does a crime against humanity still have so much support from so many world leaders? The concept of extractive abandonment, at least, explains.
“This is why Israeli apartheid and the Palestine laboratory are so hard to stop; countless nations want a piece of Israeli repression tech to surveil their own unwanted populations,” Loewenstein writes.
Israel, to borrow phrasing from Adler-Bolton and Vierkant, is debilitating with one hand and exporting drones with the other. But it’s not just drones — American police forces train with the IDF, the US-Mexico border is guarded by high-tech surveillance towers made by the Israeli company Elbit, and spyware tested on Palestinians ends up in the phones of journalists and activists around the world.
When repression is globalized, our solidarity must be, too.
Usually I reserve extra reading recommendations for paid subscribers, but a paywall feels wrong here, so here’s more of what I’ve been reading while I wrote this essay:
Light in Gaza: Writings Born of Fire, edited by Jehad Abusalim, Jennifer Bing, and Mike Merryman-Lotze
This e-book is free right now at Haymarket and it’s a really great collection of essays and poetry from Palestinian writers! My favorite piece is Gaza Asks: When Shall This Pass? by the literature professor Refaat Alareer, who talks about the importance of telling stories.
Doomsday Diaries, the Sarah Aziza piece I quote above, is heart-rending and needs to be read in full.
I actually don’t recommend reading The Right to Maim unless you’re an academic into biopolitics — it’s not an easy read! But Crip News did a Plain Language explainer of the book this week, and I found this review/summary by Sabiha Allouche helpful, too.
We Cannot Cross Until We Carry Each Other by Arielle Angel, the editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, on the arduous emotional realities of solidarity in the midst of grief.
Palestine Inside Out by Saree Makdisi explains in detail what life is like under occupation.
Fariha Róisín is currently posting a series of deep dives on her Substack. On Israel and Propaganda is an extremely thorough explanation of media bias and myth-making.
Briahna Joy Gray did a great interview with human rights activist Miko Peled, the son of an Israeli general who was moved to activism for Palestine when his cousin was killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.
Antony Loewenstein’s interview on Tech Won’t Save Us is a great supplement to reading his book The Palestine Laboratory.
If you’ve been confused by all the geographic references in the news, I found this interactive map and history by B’Tselem that shows how Israel has divided up the land since 1967 very visually helpful.
The independent journalist Abby Martin has been covering Palestine and creating documentaries for years — her work is free on YouTube.