Palestinian Liberation is Disability Justice

Nelly Bassily
15 min readDec 3, 2023
Protest for Palestine in Tiohtiè:ke/Montreal with many protest signs and Palestinian flags. In the background, you can read a sign that says: “End the siege on Gaza Now!” Photo by Nelly Bassily
Protest for Palestine in Tiohtiè:ke/Montreal with many protest signs and Palestinian flags. In the background, you can read a sign that says: “End the siege on Gaza Now!” Photo by Nelly Bassily

I write these words in anger. In pain. In anguish. But this anger, pain and anguish doesn’t even begin to come close to what my sisters and brothers in Gaza and Palestine are living daily. It’s been almost two months and 75 years of mass killing and maiming of Palestinians.

I publish this piece on International Day of Persons with Disabilities to call attention to the fact that Palestine is a disability justice issue. I’m dismayed (but not surprised) at the silence of the international disability rights community.

So, I start with context to then delve into why Palestinian liberation is a disability justice issue.

Context of current Palestinian struggle for liberation in Gaza

“Across the neighborhood, you can hear children crying. A little girl whimpers under the rubble of her house and calls out to her father, who is trapped beneath a fallen wall. “Baba,” she sobs. But her father cannot hear her, because he was killed instantly. A boy, meanwhile, is begging his mother not to die under the rubble.

This is what is happening in Gaza right now. If they are not killing our children, they are scarring the rest of their lives.”

These are the two first paragraphs of a testimony by Gaza journalist Mahmoud Mushtaha published by the Institute for Palestine Studies on October 11, 2023. October 11, internationally recognized Day of the Girl-Child. But Gazan girl-children were not celebrating their girlhood, they were being indiscriminately bombed and maimed.

Now almost two-months into the Zionist bombardment on Gaza (read that AGAIN), the Israeli occupation forces are on a combined air strike and ground invasion genocidal destruction of Gaza and nowhere is safe for Gazans. Israel not only cut off food, water, fuel, electricity, internet, medicine and any access to aid or safe passage out of Gaza, it is deliberately doing this in an effort to kill via starvation and disease, as well as disable, maim and dehumanize. This complete siege has been criticized by human rights groups for breaking humanitarian law and comes in disproportionate response to Hamas’ attack on October 7 which killed around 1200 Israelis and took 200 hostages. Disproportionate response because pretending like these attacks were “unprovoked” is false. It flies in the face of history. Palestinians have been living and resisting in myriad ways under Zionist settler-colonialism for over 75 years. The fact is: every Palestinian resistance movement or group exists BECAUSE of Israel’s illegal occupation.

Let’s repeat that. EVERY Palestinian resistance movement or group exists BECAUSE of Israel’s ILLEGAL OCCUPATION.

Under international law, Palestinians are an occupied people and therefore have the right to defend themselves. The only real way any of the violence will end, is to END the OCCUPATION.

Internationally and for several years, the United Nations and human rights organizations have denounced Israel’s settler-colonial occupation of Palestine and the illegal and inhumane 17-year siege on Gaza but this wasn’t enough to stop the post-October 7 massacre in Gaza that has now reached (as I write this on December 3rd, internationally recognized UN Day of Persons with Disabilities), terrifying levels of genocide, with the use of illegal white phosphorous and carpet bombing aimed at everyone and everything that “humanitarian rules of war” would prohibit targeting: journalists, doctors, nurses, firefighters, ambulance crews, school teachers, UN staff and children. Israel also bombed UN humanitarian aid warehouses in Gaza with wheat flour, powdered milk and other basic necessities for survival.

Genocide in Article 2 of the 4th Geneva Convention is defined as “any acts of mass killing or any acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, which is a crime prohibited under international law.”

On October 17, the Zionist Israeli settler-colonial occupation committed a massacre at al-Ahli hospital in Gaza where well over 500 people have been martyred in that one attack. On October 31st, the Israeli occupation committed a massacre in Jabalya refugee camp, leveling an entire neighborhood with six US-made bombs, each of them weighing one ton, leaving all citizens of the neighborhood either dead or injured. On December 3rd, 2023, “ In an escalation of its bloody attacks on the Gaza Strip, Israel has committed mass murder by massacring entire residential blocks, resulting in over 1,000 people killed, wounded, or reported missing” according to a Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor report.

And the death toll from all the bombardments just keeps on rising. Because of the constant bombardment and total infrastructure collapse in Gaza (even with the recent “humanitarian pause”), it’s been harder and harder for the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza to have up-to-date numbers of dead Palestinians. According to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, as of December 1st, an estimated 1.78 million Palestinians in Gaza have been displaced, 37,400 people injured, and 21,022 killed by Israel, with many still unaccounted for and missing under the rubble of destroyed buildings. The numbers have officially surpassed the numbers of displaced and killed in the 1948 Nakba.

“If the assault on Gaza does not stop, and if humanitarian aid is not allowed in [..], we will witness an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe whose features have started to appear, said Ammar Dwaik, director general of the Palestinian Authority-mandated Independent Commission for Human Rights.

“Diseases have started to spread and dehydration has started to spread among children. We may see people killed that the conscience of the international, Arab and Islamic world cannot handle” he added.

Since Hamas fighters broke through the illegal siege cutting Gaza off from the world, global white supremacy has been demanding the perfect victims and the violence of that demand has deadly, dehumanizing and debilitating consequences on entire families: women, men and children. We talk about children a lot — and justifiably so — but Palestinian parents, women, men, grand-parents, aunts, uncles all deserve sympathy and love and humanity too. They deserve to be holding their children and parenting them in safe environments. And children deserve to grow up safely with their parents and in community, surrounded by their neighbours and friends.

Gaza is a very small — 583 square kilometer — enclaved land in the south of Occupied Palestine. About 50% of the population are children. Gaza has been under siege by Israel for 17 years, in the largest open-air prison ( now being called a concentration camp) the world has seen. That means the majority of Gaza’s 1,2 million children have lived their entire lives completely caged off from the world, unable to leave Gaza.

Israel has also pounded the Rafah border crossing with Egypt with multiple air strikes, cruelly blocking proper and adequate amounts of humanitarian aid from entering via Egypt. Gaza journalist Doaa Mohamed posted a video on Instagram of a bombed out truck that was carrying thousands of desperately-needed water bottles.

On October 13, the Israeli military was dropping pamphlets on Gaza, asking residents to leave the Northern part of Gaza to go to the Southern part because they were preparing to drop more bombs. As entire families were fleeing on foot and in cars, the Israeli military bombed those fleeing. In the night between October 16 and 17, entire families who had moved to the so-called “safer” southern part of Gaza were bombed in their sleep — rendering nowhere safe in Gaza. Israel is trying to force as many people into the south of Gaza in a bid to grab more land from Palestinians. The Israeli Zionist settler-colonial occupation has also publicly stated that Palestinians in Gaza should just go to the Sinai desert in Egypt — which Gazans vehemently oppose as a continuation of the Nakba of 1948. On December 1, Israel dropped leaflets declaring Khan Younis a war zone, asking people to evacuate immediately and move further south towards the Rafah border crossing with Egypt.

With all this happening and instead of being seen as deserving of life in their full humanity, oppressed and occupied Gazans are asked to condone/denounce Hamas’ violent response to over 75 years of occupation, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, displacement, imprisonment, and land theft of Palestinians while Israel is collectively punishing, bombing and mass killing them and their children. As Noura Erakat writes in her article, The violence of demanding perfect victims:

“Western reaction and media coverage of the attack have emphasized the fallibility of Israel’s military apparatus as well as Hamas’s tactics, which have not distinguished between military and civilian targets. Few Western observers have highlighted the context of Israel’s structural violence that has condemned Palestinians to a slow death, thus missing a critical opportunity to advance a true, durable solution in the region.”

No true, durable solutions to end the occupation but also no immediate solutions to irrefutable violence, to the point of global inertia, with the United States House of Representatives allocating new funding to the Zionist occupation to the tune of $14.5bn in military aid. And that’s not counting the over $124bn in military aid to Israel that the US has given since World War II. The entire UN system has been rendered a joke. Now almost two months into sheer carnage by Israel, there is still no permanent ceasefire or proper humanitarian aid corridors for Gaza’s people — the very least that can be demanded in the face of the genocide in Gaza. More and more Palestinian children and their families are being murdered, maimed, disabled as if killing and forever scarring were ever ‘normal’ or ‘justified’.

As I write and talk about all this from Tiohtià:ke (so-called Montreal), on the stolen traditional lands of the Haudenosaunee and the Kanienʼkehá꞉ka peoples, so-called Canada’s settler-colonial system forced and forces Indigenous peoples’ disconnection from land, culture and community. For example, there were no limits to what could be done to the Indigenous children in residential schools in colonial Canada (including but not limited to tearing families apart through cultural genocide and killing and unimaginable violence and abuse). The legacy and multi-generational trauma of this abusive and dehumanizing colonial system have consequences to this day on Indigenous children across Turtle Island. For example, Indigenous healthcare never was and to this day continues to not be a priority for the colonial Canadian government.

If you are thinking that the settler-colonial Canadian government and Israel’s Zionist settler-colonial state have similarities, that’s because settler colonial systems take inspiration from each other. In her thesis, Toward Indigenous Ultimate Permanence: Examining Settler Colonialism and Genocidal Elimination in Canada and Israel, Molly Barbara Cop Rasmussen writes: “At the same time as the two settler states continue to commit genocide against the original inhabitants of the lands they have stolen, Canada and Israel utilize similar self-promotion strategies that present themselves as humanitarian and democratic, a specific tool used to wash away the sins of settler colonialism and genocide.” While no two settler regimes are exactly the same, they do support each other.

Which brings me to why resistance to settler-colonialism and imperialism and the military industrial complex is a disability justice issue.

Sins Invalid articulated in their article What is disability justice? that “The histories of white supremacy and ableism are inextricably entwined, created in the context of colonial conquest and capitalist domination.”

While we know that settler colonialism is an ongoing system of domination and disproportional power that perpetuates disablement, genocide and repression of indigenous peoples and cultures, we also must keep reminding ourselves that Palestinians are humans who are living through and resisting this brutal and crushing occupation.

The fact that the Israeli defense minister ordered a “complete siege” on Gaza with no water, no food, no electricity, and no fuel is precisely part of the continuum of the slow, debilitating violence on Palestinian lives. Jasbir Puar’s 2017 book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability made some major contributions to the study of disability by looking at the ways Israel designates Palestinians as available for injury. In simpler language, Alison Kopit, Aimi Hamraie, Kelsie Acton offer this explanation of the concept of the “right to maim”.

They write: “What happens when getting hurt happens slowly to a group of people because of how that group is treated? We need a way to understand the larger contexts around disability.

“For example, the Israeli government has caused serious harm to Palestinian people. When the Israeli military takes away food, water, and electricity, it hurts Palestinian people over time. This is called “slow violence.” Sometimes this violence is ignored because Israel defends its right to hurt Palestinians. Sometimes Israel says it treats queer and disabled people with great respect as a way to distract from the harm they are causing to Palestinians.

“There’s a word that can help us understand the process of hurting people slowly: debility. Debility explains how people get hurt every day. Debility says that having a body that is hurt or works differently from others is very common. We can miss how common it is when we only think of Disability Rights. People need accessibility and accessibility means freedom from slow violence.”

In her book The Right to Maim, Puar writes: “I contend that the term “debilitation” is distinct from the term “disablement” because it foregrounds slow wearing down of populations instead of the event of becoming disabled. While the latter concept creates and hinges on a narrative of before and after for individuals who will eventually be identified as disabled, the former comprehends those bodies [and I would argue also minds] that are sustained in a perpetual state of debilitation precisely through foreclosing the social, cultural, and political translation to disability.”

Disability Justice calls us to center the most marginalized and also calls us to be anti-imperial, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist and to demand our collective liberation. But, what does that mean? It means understanding that all our struggles are connected and precisely when it comes to Palestinian liberation, it means actively supporting the Indigenous Palestinian people’s decolonization in real time.

A meme with a pink and green swirling lines, flowers and chains with the words in Arabic: “من الزهر الي البحر“ which translates to “From flowers to the sea” and the words in English: “A Free Palestine is Decolonization Climate Justice Reproductive Justice Queer & Trans Liberation Workers Rights Disability Justice”

Settler colonialism is deeply intertwined with rabid racial capitalism. In the article published on October 13 titled Contextualizing Gaza: colonial violence and occupation, the writers clearly outline this link. They say:

“Israel’s military occupation of Palestine is a key facet of the global military-industrial complex, proving highly profitable for the Israeli state and Western allies. Indeed, the market value of Israeli weapon’s manufacturer Elbit Systems has surged by 37 percent since the start of this year, and the shares of US military contractor Lockheed Martin meanwhile soared by 8.6 percent in the last five days.

“Despite being subject to 140 UN resolutions critiquing its treatment of the Palestinians, Israel has evaded accountability. This recurrent and flagrant abuse of international law and conduct weakens people’s faith in these systems. Colonial violence and occupation often appear above the machinations of the international legal system.”

Anthony Loewenstein is the author of The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World. Writing for the Middle East Eye, Loewenstein explains: “Israel has used the occupied Palestinians as the ultimate guinea pigs when developing tools of repression, from drones to spyware and facial recognition to biometric data, while maintaining an “enemy” population, the Palestinians, under control for more than half a century.

“Israel has sold defence equipment to at least 130 countries and is now the 10th biggest arms exporter in the world. The US is still the dominant player in this space, accounting for 40 percent of the global weapons industry.”

In a world hell-bent on demonizing, vilifying and dehumanizing Palestinians and Arabs as barbaric “human animals”, we have to keep centring the most marginalized and reaffirming the humanity of Palestinians. Like the humanity of the estimated 50 000 pregnant Palestinians who for some were forced to almost give birth under the rubble and for others to have doctors perform cesarean sections on killed pregnant women to try to save premature infants who may or may not survive to see another day.

Palestinians are fighting a freedom struggle and have an inherent right to live full lives, to resist and to self-determine what the future will look like for their people (Shaab شعب), for their land (ard ارض), with dignity (karama كرامه) but also to rest, to love, to laugh, to smile, to hold their loved ones without the impending fear that warplanes will drop bombs, potentially killing or maiming them and their children.

Disability Justice also asks us to analyze things from an intersectional feminist perspective. As such, we must affirm that Palestinians have complex and layered lived-realities. While Palestinians all share the reality of living under occupation or displaced in the diaspora, some may be further marginalized because they are also Black, disabled, queer, Christian, etcetera and everything in between. Palestinians are not a monolith.

As Palestinian queer author Mejdulene Bernard Shomali writes on her Instagram account: “mark it on the record: i am a queer Palestinian.

i will not let my queerness be weaponized against palestine. i will not let my queerness be erased. these facets of myself are not contradictory. in fact they are inseparable.

miss me with this idea that Palestinians and/or Arabs and/or muslims are exceptionally homophobic. these are some of the oldest imperial tricks in the book.”

Her book, Between Banat, examines homoeroticism and nonnormative sexualities between Arab women in transnational Arab literature, art, and film.

Palestinians and Arabs contain multitudes and will not succumb to imperial silencing, maiming and killing. None of this has worked before because all of these tactics will not kill the insatiable need for a Free Palestine.

Bisan Owda, a filmmaker from Gaza, who was sheltering in Shifa Hospital but was forcibly displaced to the South, has been documenting daily what’s happening in Gaza through her Instagram account. While documenting destruction and daily slow death and debilitation, Bisan also talks about daily life under non-stop bombardment:

“We are people who deserve to live and who are creating new ways and trying to make it suitable for living every day and every place that we are going to, despite we don’t know we are living until tomorrow or not, despite we don’t know when is that ending? We’re just trying to make the hospital or the shelter as safe, as suitable as we are used to in our streets, our neighbourhoods, our homes. So here people are selling كعك (Kahk), selling any other goods like snacks and juices making drinks and some people are shaving, are barbers now — open air barbers. So, no one could deprive this people of their right to live and their right to live safely in their country, in their homeland. Whatever they do, whoever they were, whatever support they got, it’s just our right to live as Palestinians in Palestine eating ‏ ‏كعك”

While this genocide, violence and aggression in Gaza today is devastatingly being televised and instagrammed and witnessed in real-time, other aggressions in other parts of Palestine like the West Bank and indeed other genocides in other parts of the world, don’t get nearly as much attention (if at all) but are just as important and deserving of our attention.

From Palestine to Sudan, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to Ethiopia, to Kashmir, to Haiti (only to name a few). Indeed, writer Neema Githere Siphone says:

“Palestine is ushering in — is DEMANDING — an expansion of our proactive consciousness. If we understand all struggles as connected, if we grow in curiosity and compassion and rigor, then we will see why we don’t know enough about Sudan — even as 6 million people have been displaced by the war there this year alone. If we understand all struggles as connected, we will have to confront the reasons we don’t talk about Tigray when for 3 whole years (2020–2023) the people resisting a genocide there were silenced by a strategic communications blackout. If we understand all struggles as connected, we will come closer to being able to process that the fact that we have smartphones at all is facilitated by the death and displacement of millions of Congolese who are unconsenting martyrs to the global demand for the minerals (specifically coltan) that power our devices.”

In Sins Invalid’s article What is Disability Justice?, they also invite us to understand that “Disability justice holds a vision born out of collective struggle, drawing upon legacies of cultural and spiritual resistance. Within a thousand underground paths we ignite small persistent fires of rebellion in everyday life. Disabled people of the global majority — Black and brown people — share common ground confronting and subverting colonial powers in our struggle for life and justice. There has always been resistance to all forms of oppression, as we know in our bones that there have also always been disabled people visioning a world where we flourish, a world that values and celebrates us in all our beauty.”

And that’s I think the point of anger and resistance, it fuels us to ask: how can disabled people, who’s disability is not necessarily linked to aggression and occupation (although one could argue that even the disabilities that don’t ‘seem’ linked to occupation could be linked somehow) and those rendered disabled as a direct result of the colonial violence and psychological traumas of bombing and maiming inform our collective fight for liberation? And the answer I think will always be by centering their lived-realities. So, on this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I leave us with this question: How do we make sure Deaf, disabled, mad, sick neurodivergent folks are front and center of the resistance and struggle for liberation in Palestine and beyond?