Ghassan Kanafani Is a Martyr to Palestinian Freedom

Today marks 50 years since Israeli agents murdered Ghassan Kanafani in Beirut. Their terrorist attack silenced the Palestinian writer — but failed to extinguish his people’s spirit of resistance.

Palestinians carry the body of Obaida Jawabreh, killed by Israeli soldiers, at his funeral north of Hebron in the the occupied West Bank, on May 18, 2021. The mural depicts a portrait of slain Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani (left) with his saying in Arabic that reads “Bodies fall, but ideas perdure.” (Hazem Bader / AFP via Getty Images)

July 8 marks fifty years since the murder of Ghassan Kanafani, the Palestinian writer, hero, and martyr who died in a Beirut car bombing. The assassination was carried out by Israeli state agents hoping — in 1972, like today — to fatally weaken the struggle for Palestinian liberation.

Yet half a century later, Kanafani’s legacy lives on — with his legacy also leaving many lessons. One is that the Israeli state and its American handlers have always feared the voice of liberation and democracy — and so, too, socialism — in Palestine more than religiously motivated struggle. Another related lesson was reaffirmed by the recent execution of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli snipers. It again showed that while Zionism’s apologists are quick to deny the Palestinian right to armed resistance, they can be even more hostile toward those Palestinians who have given everything to communicate their hopes, struggle, and simple truth in words and stories.

The apologias for the Israeli state at the moment that Kanafani was murdered resorted to another ever-dependable feature of its methods, by diverting attention to the then-recent attack on Lod Airport by members of the Japanese Red Army. That a Palestinian author in Lebanon was deemed a legitimate target in response to an attack carried out by Japanese militants inside Israeli-occupied Palestine is only further indictment of the strange contortions used to justify Zionist brutality.

Yet if Kanafani’s death deserves to be marked today — and his legend established among younger generations coming to the global movement for Palestine — he should most of all be honored for his life and its written output. For it is there that his words and thoughts still breathe.

Resources of Resilience

In 1962’s Men in the Sun, Kanafani tells a story of Palestinian laborers making their way inside a lorry through the Iraqi desert, in hope of work in the oil-rich nation of Kuwait. In its premise and economic context, the novel deals with the frequent betrayal of Palestinians by the Arab world, particularly in the Gulf. The past castration of the lorry driver, referenced mostly in his trauma, serves as metaphor for the emasculation of Palestinian men under the disarmaments of Zionism and insincerely held narratives of peace. The fact that critical events in the story hinge on bureaucratic wrangling eerily foreshadows the dispossession of Palestinians by paperwork, of which the Oslo Accords — three decades after the book was written — would mark the perhaps unsurpassable crescendo.

A decade later, Kanafani’s other best-known work, 1970’s Returning to Haifa, was still full of the richness of magical realism by which the Palestinian imagination can transcend, process, and to some extent undo the catastrophe of the Nakba. The novel sees its central Palestinian couple head back to their port-city house, which has since been occupied by Jewish settlers. These latter have raised as their own the baby, now named Dov, they found there when his parents were forced to make a hellish, chaotic flight in 1948.

The reunion, in a moment where the reader waits to find if the child feels Palestinian or Israeli, recognition or strangeness, sees Kanafani grapple with whether the Palestinian or any cause can truly travel immutably in blood. Perceptively — demonstrating an understanding that can only come from empathy with Israeli thinking too — Kanafani also lances the innocent-yet-sinister desire of the adoptive parents and grown child to talk and keep talking about what has happened. This is a subtle metaphor for the fondness of Israeli “moderates” past and present to pontificate and hair split even in the face of endless Palestinian tragedy, loss, and heartbreak. This constant affection for relitigation obliges Palestinians to always muster new resilience; it is a crime on the part of the outside world, lessened only by the fact that Palestinians, for now, still seem somehow able to rise to such an unfair demand.

A Conversation Between the Sword and the Neck

Crucially, though, it is Kanafani’s perception here, in seeking to understand even the psychologies of his oppressor, that shows the power of his empathy. This somehow vaults the physically weaker side into the morally stronger one, as Palestinians meet Zionism’s undignified, extreme violence with the dignity that represents most of what they still have. Recent images of Shireen Abu Abkleh’s embattled pallbearers, imploring baton-wielding Zionist cops not to attack a funeral, similarly capture this sense in which Palestinians can see Israelis and their brutality far better than they see themselves.

If there is a sort of quiet triumph to this — a retention of Palestinian nobility in the face of the ignoble — then it can have dangerous consequences too. A growing and global support of Palestine is only the logical, obvious, and moral reaction to Zionist brutality, but this solidarity with Palestine is often misinterpreted — however dishonestly or otherwise — as some sort of antipathy to Jews. This complex of victimhood can itself frighteningly fuel some of the ideologies of being unliked and vulnerable that often back up the self-justifications for Israeli violence.

Through the novelist’s responsibility to humanize his characters, having to understand even their worst flaws, Kanafani demonstrates an embrace of complexity. Yet this is put to the task of understanding and action rather than — as is so often the case with Palestine — obfuscation.

While his novels capture the smallest of nuances, Kanafani was also an expert with the quip. As with literary greats like Oscar Wilde, it is easy to imagine him in the quick, pithy world of social media. The famous line “It is not a conflict, it is a liberation movement fighting for justice,” is Kanafani’s and exemplifies his understanding of the role of language in how events in Palestine are framed and thus understood.

He was unswerving in recognizing the connection between creativity and arms in the Palestinian struggle, answering that his tools were “whatever I can use to protect myself: paintbrush, pen, gun — they are all tools of self-defense.”

In a famous archive interview with Australian journalist Richard Carleton, Kanafani rejects the colonial implication that Palestinians should be obliged to relinquish their sense of their rights, as a helpful precondition for peace. In the same interview, Kanafani was asked about the need for talks with the Israelis under such conditions; he dismissed such terms as a conversation “between the sword and the neck.”

Archive footage, off-the-cuff quotes, and novels all, crucially, evince a proud tradition of oratory prowess, arts, and creativity in service of the Palestinian cause. The emergence of brilliant young Palestinian writers such as Mariam Barghouti, Mohammed El-Kurd, or even Gazan child hip-hop sensation Abdulrahman al-Shantti cannot be separated out from this heritage into a “new” development, as if “discovered” by Western audiences. If the Western electorates who still fund and arm the Israeli occupation could, instead, grasp that this has always been the nature of Palestinian resistance, which has simply spent decades being overlooked, then that would be all to the good.

His Pen Was His Rifle

Like all the finest writers, Kanafani says everything by saying very little. He makes complexity simple. His writing glows with an understanding of human fallibility but also the eternal strength of the cause of Palestinian liberation for which he fought, advocated, and — most importantly — wrote. His pen, as was often said, was his rifle.

The bomb that took Kanafani’s life did so when he was aged just thirty-six — three years younger than Malik el-Shabazz (Malcolm X) or Martin Luther King when they were likewise stolen by assassination from a world that still needed them. Half a century on, the Mossad organization that did the deed has become only more synonymous with illegal actions, conducted from the shadows. It persists in the foolish belief that it can also kill off the cause for which Kanafani had his life stolen. Those agents that murdered Kanafani remain anonymous in the world, if not before the gods of any faith.

The Israeli state project, much like Mossad specifically, is often forceful in its actions but ever weaker in its moral constitution or even internal cohesion. Any secular project for Israel has been cannibalized by the settler violence and extreme nationalism on which it relies to sustain and expand itself. Meanwhile the growing religiosity, both from Orthodox and nonorthodox Jews, torpedoes any pretense at a liberal, democratic, and noncolonizing home for Jews in West Asia.

At the same time, the ongoing murders of Palestinians and others who resist only deepen the reputation of an Israeli endeavor that operates through such methods because it cannot understand the dignity of words. Ever irrepressible, words are something it cannot command.

Kanafani and his pen burned strong in life. But fifty years after his martyrdom, both continue to shine, while the entity he opposed becomes ever more a pariah. The verdict that this is but a sorry apartheid regime is growing ever harder to refute, even among its onetime defenders.

It is somehow apt that an Israeli regime so committed to propaganda and censorship would slowly lose the battle to an author like Kanafani: a man humble in all the most important ways, glorious in all the best. Along with his seventeen-year-old niece, Lamees Najim, also killed in the cowardly 1972 attack, Kanafani is now everywhere, his words and spirit incandescent.