Crossing a Line
Laws, Violence, and Roadblocks to Palestinian Political Expression
Amahl Bishara



In early 2011, I became a frequent visitor to the Israeli Ministry of the Interior in Acre, the Galilee, in an effort to obtain the Israeli passport to which I always had a legal right, because my father is a Palestinian citizen of Israel. At first, my uncle drove me there and made sure I found a Palestinian clerk whom he knew through his years as a nurse in Acre. He knew how to share with her a little joke and a smile, or to ask after a common acquaintance, putting us all at ease. But after a while I made these trips on my own. I would pass through the metal detector and bag check into the undistinguished mall and go up the cramped elevator to the office only to pass through another metal detector and another bag check.

The Ministry of Interior reflected the population of the Galilee, the northernmost part of Israel’s 1948 territories. There were as many Palestinians as Jewish Israelis, it seemed,1 and also a great diversity of those in urban or rural styles of clothing, observant Muslims, Palestinian Christians wearing necklaces with prominent crosses, Orthodox Jews, Arab Jews, Russians—and many, many children. Often I had to scramble for a seat. One time I met someone who told me she was the first female Palestinian clown. She pulled out her red nose to entertain my nine-month-old daughter as we waited. Eventually, I would meet with the special clerk in her small office. She handled more complex cases than those dealt with at the line of service windows that ran the length of the room, and she always, it seemed, had a line of Palestinians waiting to meet her. These bureaucratic exchanges were a reminder of Palestinian presence throughout the spaces of Israeli public life.

I would return to Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank, where my husband was born and raised. This had become my primary home base during fieldwork because Israeli closure prohibited my husband from entering Israel legally since he carries a West Bank identity card. Each time I would return, my father-in-law would ask about the progress of the passport. He oversaw the goings on of his eleven children and dozens of grand- and great-grandchildren as he reclined on a mattress in front of his house. This summer setup was a convenient adaptation of a traditional Arab seating that benefited from the several extra mattresses this large family always had on hand. A few hundred meters away was the military base from which Israeli soldiers could enter the refugee camp at any time, but we felt relatively sheltered from it in the small courtyard. When he asked about the passport, I would usually report that it was still in progress: We needed more documents, or more time, or another meeting.

One day, when he inquired again, “Is it done?” I flashed him the sky-blue passport. It felt odd to see it in the refugee camp—I suddenly had a closer relationship with the soldiers in that watchtower. But he did not miss a beat. “Congratulations!” he exclaimed. “You’ve become Palestinian.” We both laughed loudly. All these years after he was pushed out of his own lands, he allowed that attaining an Israeli passport made me more Palestinian than I had been when I had only my US passport. Having identity documents that are complicated, problematic—that facilitate some things but undercut others—is indeed distinctly Palestinian.2 Palestinians on both sides of what is called the Green Line that divides Israel’s 1948 territories from the 1967 occupied territories of the West Bank know this well, though they know it differently. The dynamics of political expression shaped by this line and those identity documents are the topic of this book.

The next year, the clerk remembered me when I came back to register my marriage so that we could apply for a permit for my husband to visit my family in the Galilee. She all too quickly found my husband’s name in the computer. This time, it seemed strange that we were so far north in a little office in Acre and my husband’s information was so readily available—that, nearly twenty years after the establishment of the Palestinian Authority (PA), the entity that was to become a Palestinian state, there was not even a pretense of a border between the system for Israeli citizens and that for Palestinians in the West Bank. This time there was no shared laughter, only a long look, and her finger pointing at the screen. I wondered what else she could see about my husband and his politically active family. Meanwhile, my husband applied for a magnetic card, a precursor necessary for applying for a permit, and then he applied for the permit itself, only to be denied. When I told my family in the Galilee, they asked why he had been declined. I did not know how to answer them. I knew they might be anxious about proximity to a Palestinian somehow regarded as a “terrorist.”3 Yet, in 2007, Israel categorized about 20 percent of the male population of the West Bank between the ages of 16 and 55 as security threats, such that, as Yael Berda has asserted, “the restriction was applied broadly across a wide range of risk levels, not only in cases where information actually existed.”4 It was hardly a surprise that this included my husband, a refugee who had relatives who were political prisoners. One of my relatives in the Galilee—himself active in a Palestinian political party in Israel—offered to contact a high-ranking Palestinian in the Israeli army who might help. I quickly declined the offer. This would have been both odious and alarming from the perspective of my husband: One avoids asking the Israeli security system for help. Moments of interaction with the Israeli security system are often opportunities for Israel to coerce Palestinians into collaborating.5 Certainly, in many Palestinian communities inside Israel’s 1948 territories, Palestinians are also suspicious of contact with Israeli authorities,6 but this sense is even more pervasive in the West Bank. In any case, for years, whether my husband did or did not visit with me, the question of his permits loomed.

As these stories show, my own personal history as someone with beloved relatives inside Israel’s 1948 territories and in the West Bank both encouraged me to ask questions about Palestinian relationships across the Green Line and actively shaped this research. Throughout the project, my identity was a factor, in particular that I am a middle class, cis-gendered woman with higher education and a professional job in the United States, who speaks good Arabic and fluent, first-language English. Yet, my apparent identity read differently on either side of the Green Line. In the West Bank, most people assumed when looking at me that I was white American or European, while in Israel’s 1948 territories many first thought I was Jewish Israeli, depending on the context. Moreover, as the above demonstrates, my own legal identity shifted as I was doing the project. I took on the Israeli passport both because it was my right to do so and so that I would have better access to my field site, rather than having to worry about being prevented from entering any territory controlled by Israeli authorities, as has happened to many Palestinians and activists.7

It was not only my social position and legal status that shaped this research; it was also my embodied experience. Knowledge production about a highly militarized colonial setting is especially situated or embodied.8 My own experiences of risk and fear flared up and faded based on the political situation and my physical location either in Israel, the West Bank, or even the United States. I noted when I felt tense, as when, after a protest in Al-Lidd / Lod, I was both hesitant and eager to ask police officers leaning on my car to step away from it. I noted the way I flinched when the first stun grenade would punctuate a calm afternoon in Aida Refugee Camp, the West Bank. This, in turn, made me remember the booms that filled my chest as a child in the Galilee, when Israeli warplanes flew over our village to bomb Lebanon. But of course there were pleasures in the field as well. I felt satiated and grateful when a spring meal of ʿakoub (thistle-like gundelia) offered a sense of Palestinian cultural and agricultural continuity. I enjoyed my walks through the olive groves of the Al-Walaja hills in the West Bank and the olive groves on the hills around my father’s village.

All the while I recognized how the experiences of those Palestinians permanently and irrevocably impacted by these forms of violence were different from my own: the sisters and brothers of prisoners and the parents of someone in a Jerusalem hospital, both applying for military permits to visit; those who live with no end in sight to the threat of military or police violence and in the shadow of Israel’s rule that is never concerned with the well-being of Palestinians. Palestinians living under Israeli rule grow up with it, celebrate graduations and weddings at its whims, raise children with it, manage illnesses within its capricious illogics, bury loved ones at its conditions. This is a difficult and immense fact to take in; perhaps it has only been as I have spent almost two decades doing fieldwork—raising my own children, mourning the dead—that I begin to grasp the enormity of this toll. Slowly I witness how “someone’s ordinary can endure or can sag defeated,”9 or how people assemble bluster or joy or determined routine to make it through the year, again and again. As other feminist women of color have written on the practice of activist fieldwork:

Centering the body in the stakes of activist research advances the path toward the project of decolonizing anthropology . . . A critical feminist activist anthropology . . . holds us politically accountable to our interlocutors as well as to our own embodied reality, as part of the same liberatory struggle, albeit differentially located.10

That is, centering the body does not mean focusing inward; it is a means toward an ethical engagement in the field and beyond.

Writing about my own experience in a way that takes into account embodied and emotional dimensions is also helpful as a complement to writing about other Palestinians’ political affect. I found that as I traveled across the Green Line, my senses needed to be constantly retuned, almost like the radio station did as I swerved around a curve on the road out of Bethlehem toward Al-Walaja Checkpoint and toward Jerusalem. Neither the West Bank nor Palestinian communities inside the Green Line felt like a comfort zone to me, both because of the frequent threats of political tension or outright violence, and because I am a partial outsider. Moving between them, I often felt off balance, like I needed to adjust my accent or my posture. If I am interested, here, in how Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinians under military occupation often experience politics through different affective lenses, then I must also recognize my own distinct location as a Palestinian American who is differently socially comfortable in the West Bank than Israel, and who has quite specific ties to the two locations. It does not escape me that I am related to one side of the Green Line through my father and the other through my husband, and that each of these relations can hold weighty assumptions in prevailingly patriarchal societies. But I also appreciated that there were parts of both areas that I explored on my own, and that many of my field relationships were mediated through my female cousins and my sisters-in-law, because of their own activism, creativity, and prominence.11 I also explore in this volume how traditional kin modalities can be expanded toward liberation through deeply Palestinian practices of hosting and caring, and my family members have been models for this, too.

Fear, outrage, and despair, along with senses of solidarity and love for Palestine as an idea or a territory or both, and the smaller places within it all motivate Palestinians’ political expression and action. While there are similarities across the Green Line—and while there are certainly important differences within Palestinian societies in Israel’s 1948 territories and the West Bank—Palestinian citizens of Israel and subjects of Israeli occupation do, I assert, have differences in their political habitus, or embodied ways of living in political and social structures,12 and their structures of feeling, or inchoate senses of social structures and political experience.13 These motivate political life. With my senses tuned by my own movement through space, I do my best to attend to these differences.

To write of affect is also to write of embodied senses that are not fully formed, that can shift. Or perhaps, in these Palestinian places, it is to write about underlying senses of similarity that haunt public political stances. The forms of violence that Palestinians face in various polities are not as distinct as they might seem. Palestinian citizens of Israel know that they, too, could be shot like Palestinians in the West Bank, because on key occasions, Israeli authorities have indeed shot Palestinian citizens of Israel at demonstrations. Palestinians in the West Bank know that they, too, could be bombed from the air as are Palestinians in Gaza, since they were bombed from the air during the second Intifada.

Especially in this project, movement is an important embodied epistemic experience. Ethnographic approaches to infrastructure—especially the road—are rich sites for considering the intersection of social, legal, and affective dimensions of experience.14 This is particularly true at and around places construed as borders.15 I watched how others controlled their tempers or bluffed their way through checkpoints, and sometimes I could feel my own pulse change as I approached checkpoints. Through movement Palestinians register their senses of safety or danger, and they apprehend how Israeli and other authorities regard them: as a threat, as irrelevant, as subjects that need to be taught their own irrelevance.16 This is why I include “passages” between chapters, accounts of mobility that give a sense of the texture of politics, the feel of geography, and the experience of fieldwork. All of the passages chronicle travels across the Green Line or between Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. They are examples of what I think of as “knowledge made in motion.”

It should be clear that I do not claim to speak “objectively,” because such a claim is inevitably a power play. Instead, my writing asserts its credibility from its grounding in experience and research, from a careful attention to perspective itself: to where I was standing when I saw something and to where I was sitting when I wrote it. I write as a person vested in Palestinian futures on multiple levels: first, as a Palestinian whose life has been conditioned by the dispossession of the Nakba and racism of Israel that eventually brought my father to the United States and who has reconnected to Palestinian societies through the people I have chosen to love as an adult, including many who continue to be on the front lines experiencing Israeli violence and racism; second, as an anthropologist who cares deeply about my field site as anthropologists are expected to do; and third, as a person who believes in justice for all those dispossessed or devastated by colonialism, militarism, patriarchy, and capitalism. These three dimensions are, of course, interrelated.

The reader will already have recognized a third location in this book: the United States. To the extent that state sovereignty is always relational among different states,17 sovereignty in its current conception is necessarily rooted in an imperial history and present,18 especially for Israel. Palestinian political expression is also shaped by international—and especially US—assumptions and definitions about Palestinians. Being a Palestinian American, I have been aware of this my entire life. Just as there are no comfort zones in the field, there are no comfort zones in writing about Palestine in the United States, in particular in the academy.19 I have never been an anthropologist without the backdrop of the 9/11 attacks and the so-called US War on Terror, or the deeper histories of Orientalism and anti-Arab racisms.20 It is all too engrained in the work of so many anthropologists of Southwest Asia and North Africa that our readers will open our books with tacit assumptions about engrained Arab violence, the universal good of US democratic values, and a watchful eye for who the “good” and “bad” Arabs are, including those who might be teaching them in the United States.21 The context of the War on Terror has helped shape Israeli justifications for violence against Palestinians, and vice versa.22 We write around and within these expectations, and, sometimes, we take them head on.

Still, anthropology’s reflexive turn, movements to decolonize my discipline, a growing field of anthropology of Palestine,23 and perhaps most of all my experiences with my Palestinian interlocutors give me the courage to write. I write also as a person who lives and works today in the territory of the Pennacook and Massachusett people. While it is important to recognize the specificity of that genocide and that dispossession, it is also crucial to recognize that my life in the United States has been shaped by the ongoing dispossession of many, many other Indigenous nations, in their interconnection and interrelationship with each other. I also witness US police and other violence against Black people with both an awareness of the white privilege I often harbor and with the stark outrage of recognition, because, as many others have recognized, US and Israeli mechanisms of racism and violence resemble each other,24 though the structural and historical circumstances that have created anti-Black racism in the United States are distinct from those that have created anti-Palestinian racism in Israel. All of this makes me heartily agree with Aisha Beliso-De Jesús and Jemima Pierre that anthropologists’ tendency to focus on the particular and the small scale can make it more difficult to identify and trace global white supremacy.25 This is all to say, I write about the US in this book because it is a related settler colony, with its own dynamics of racialized violence and logics of elimination of Indigenous peoples, and with its own imperial politics in relation to the Arab world.

This project has helped me to think about practices of solidarity in the field and as a writer. The concept of solidarity is relevant here on multiple levels. First, in one sense, I am analyzing solidarity. While Palestinians sometimes distanced themselves from the label of “solidarity” for activism across the Green Line, preferring to assert that they were simply part of a shared political project, there are elements of solidarity in their practices, since often one group would advocate on behalf of another that was apparently more vulnerable. Denying “solidarity” might have more performative than analytic value. Second, there is my relationship as a Palestinian-American anthropologist to those with whom I worked. Third, there are forms of political solidarity between Palestinians and other non-Palestinians, especially, today, in the US and Europe, and especially Indigenous and Black activists. Another crucial form of solidarity today is between Jewish activists and Palestinians (in Israel, the United States, and beyond), all of whom have different stakes in building toward justice for Palestinians and Israelis, and all of whom carry different historical burdens of struggle, suffering, and responsibility. An activist ethnographic approach encourages us to attend to historical and structural similarities across relations of solidarity and similarities of experience, with an awareness that in finding these similarities we are never asserting sameness, that highlighting difference in nuanced ways will only make stories and bridges stronger. This book is a practice in doing just this. I will explore how people can, in speaking, recognize cross-cutting power hierarchies and multiple vulnerabilities, how they can speak with the goal not of achieving unison but with the goal of making space for more voices that may illuminate interrelationships among groups.

If this book is centrally about a comparison-as-relation26 between Palestinians in Israel and those in the West Bank that reveals history and power rather than holds apart two isolated groups, I also aim for this book to reach beyond this small place. Palestinian scholars defined Israel as a settler colony decades ago;27 scholarly interest in this perspective has only expanded in recent years. Alongside this, Palestinians and others have had renewed debates in recent years about whether Palestinians should use the framework of apartheid or assert Indigenous identity,28 a discussion that has been shaped not only by critical Indigenous studies but also by conceptions of the political limitations of struggle for Indigenous self-determination under law as well as by preconceptions about indigeneity as a cultural category. Scholarly attention relating to Black-Palestinian solidarity has been approached through the frame of colonialism and through a lens of racism and militarism.29 This volume contributes to these discussions by looking at distinct experiences of dispossession and their interrelatedness. Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship and Palestinians in the occupied territories are both dispossessed through Israeli settler colonialism, yet they exhibit subtle differences in (1) their experiences of state violence, (2) their political aspirations, and (3) how they historically relate to these different analytic lenses or kinds of solidarity. Palestinian history may structurally align them closer to analogies with Indigenous struggles, while there may in some cases seem to be more of a resemblance in terms of the politics of everyday life with Black Americans’ experiences of racism. How do we match theoretical frames and ethnography in ways that account for these distinctions? Ethnography is an important method for this work. This angle on the study of Palestinians—looking at two Palestinian locations—is distinctly positioned to enrich a conversation about the relationships among settler colonialism, empire, racism, and militarism as ongoing—distinct, but related—processes.

Finally, we should note that these analogies are primarily US-centered. This is partly because I am a US-based scholar. But is it also another dimension of US empire that turns the heads of scholars of Palestine and Palestinian activists in the direction of the US? As Samar Al-Bulushi, Sahana Ghosh, and Madiha Tahir argue, US academy also needs to be provincialized as we work to decolonize our discipline.30 We should be concerned about what we lose, politically and analytically, from tacitly centering the United States, these decades after Bandung and after the Palestinian Revolution firmly located itself in alignment with other anticolonial struggles. It is worth looking at how Palestinian histories and experiences of state violence resemble or connect to other Indigenous or racialized groups—or other groups living under foreign military rule—in Southwest Asia and North Africa and beyond. What remainders of nationalism as a de facto analytic—and Arab nationalism as a political movement—inform a relative lack of conversation between scholars writing with and about Sahrawis, Berbers, Armenians, and Kurds, and scholars of Palestine?

Perhaps the US focus is an anticipation of my audience, since my most obvious audience is made up of scholars of Palestine and the Middle East and colleagues and students in US anthropology who are concerned with state power, settler colonialism, and political expression and action. I have also written this book for anyone with the time and English-reading chops to tackle a full-length book on Palestine. For these readers, I hope I offer a sense of the texture of politics for Palestinians and the value of an ethnographic approach to political expression, broadly conceived. Perhaps my most treasured audience for this project is Palestinian readers. I recognize that Palestinian activists and writers who are citizens of Israel or subjects of Israeli occupation will find some part of this volume thin. Yet, I hope that some part of it will also be novel to most of these readers because of the very fact of Palestinian fragmentation. It is, after all, a result of my own privileged position as a diasporic Palestinian with an Israeli passport and a university position in the United States that I have been able to experience these occasions of Palestinian life on two sides of the Green Line. As an approach to the effects of geopolitical fragmentation on Palestinian political life, this book is by necessity partial, because of the great multiplicity of Palestinian places, because of the broadness of the framing of this book, and because it does not robustly address Palestinians in Gaza or the diaspora. Nevertheless, especially for Palestinian readers, I hope it will be evocative, demonstrating what an adjustment in perspective—actively decentering and looking constantly at more than one Palestinian location—can do for our understandings of our Palestinian present. Palestinian diversity has always been something to marvel at: from cuisines to lifeways to environments. An ethnographer is bound to appreciate that “differentiation is not after all contained—it runs riot.”31 Yet, the fragmentation of settler colonialism makes it difficult to embrace and maintain these diversities, and the violence of dispossession can exacerbate forms of oppression more internal to Palestinian societies. I hope to show that Palestinians can fight fragmentation with an awareness of each of our strengths and challenges and a willingness to struggle for connection, even when we do not speak from one experience. More generally, I hope this volume offers a vision of politics and action—and a way of writing about them—that embraces a multivocality rooted in experience and cognizant of difference, that honors those willing to attempt eloquence and bravery despite the many obstacles they face in doing so.


1. Increasing the Jewish population of the Galilee, which was supposed to be part of a Palestinian state as part of the United Nations partition plan and which has had a stubbornly high percentage of Palestinians, has been an enduring goal of Israeli planners (Falah 1991; Ghanem 2001; Y. Jabareen 2017).

2. Tawil-Souri 2012.

3. See Silvia Pasquetti’s analysis of a similar dynamic in Al-Lidd / Lod (Pasquetti 2013, 472).

4. Berda 2017, 47.

5. Berda 2017, 54.

6. Pasquetti 2013.

7. Lior 2017a.

8. Haraway 1988.

9. Stewart 2007, 4.

10. Berry et al. 2017.

11. This complexity gives new meanings to what it means to be a feminist, “halfie” anthropologist in the field (Abu-Lughod 1991). I am also inspired by other Palestinian writing about class, exile, family history, and privilege, including that of Sherene Seikaly (Seikaly 2018).

12. Bourdieu 1993; Hirschkind 2006.

13. Williams 1977.

14. Gilroy 2001; Hammami 2019; Larkin 2013; Peteet 2017; Yazıcı 2013.

15. Dalakoglou 2010.

16. A. A. Bishara 2015. In this regard, Palestinians are like other Indigenous people who diagnose and contest settler colonialism in and through transit (Byrd 2011).

17. Cattelino 2008; Rutherford 2012; A. Simpson 2014.

18. Anghie 2006.

19. Deeb and Winegar 2016.

20. Said 1979, 1981.

21. Bayoumi 2008; Deeb and Winegar 2016; Mamdani 2004.

22. Erakat 2019.

23. Atshan 2021; Furani and Rabinowitz 2011.

24. A. Y. Davis 2016; Lamont Hill 2018.

25. Beliso-De Jesús and Pierre 2020, 65.

26. As Shu-mei Shih writes, “Comparison as relation means setting into motion historical relationalities between entities brought together for comparison, and bringing into relation terms that have traditionally been pushed apart from each other due to certain interests . . . The excavation of these relationalities is what I consider to be the ethical practice of comparison, where the workings of power are not concealed but necessarily revealed” (Shih 2013, 79).

27. E.g., Said 1992; Zureik 1979.

28. Bhandar and Ziadah 2016; S. Bishara 2018; Pappé 2018; Tatour 2019.

29. Allen 2018; A. Y. Davis 2016; K. P. Feldman 2015; Fischbach 2018; Lamont Hill 2018; Lubin 2014.

30. Al-Bulushi, Ghosh, and Tahir 2020.

31. Strathern 2004, xxi.