Until Palestine is free: we must fight Israel’s settler-colonial “disability-washing”

Nelly Bassily
5 min readMay 18, 2021
Image taken during From Montreal to Palestine, a day of protest action. The photo shows, in the foreground, a black protest sign with red, green and white lettering that reads: “Stop arming colonialism!” The blurry background shows people protesting in solidarity with Palestine in the streets of Montreal.

In the 2016 article, Disrupting global disability frameworks: settler colonialism and the geopolitics of disability in Palestine/Israel, Laura Jordan Jaffee writes: “Within Palestine, Israeli settler-colonialism is contingent upon ‘disabling’ the Palestinian population and, further, the tactics employed to marginalize and oppress Palestinians serve to reify ableist conceptions that equate disability with deficiency.”

To eliminate the disability injustice rooted in the settler-colonial occupation of Palestine, we have to understand how settler-colonialism operates and intertwines with disability. Colonialism, wherever it may manifest in the world, is always characterized by a hegemonic and violently disabling power imbalance, in the form of raping, killing, maiming and disabling oppressed populations. (As I write this from Canada, I would be remiss not to point out that Canada also participates in this on different fronts: 1) through the ongoing colonization of un-ceded Indigenous lands on Turtle Island and the rising numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit folks 2) through what is known as “Imperial/Commercial Penetration” and “Extractivist” colonization)

The number of children killed in Israel’s latest violent settler-colonial aggression is unconscionable. “The nights are so scary for us — for our children. In any moment your home might be your grave,” says Palestinian mother Najwa Sheikh-Ahmad living with her five children (aged 11 to 22) and husband on the edge of a refugee camp in the centre of the Gaza Strip.

According to a Gaza Ministry of Health update on May 16, 2021, at least 192 Palestinians were killed in the last week, with 58 of them being children. Still in Gaza, 366 children were injured among an estimated 1200 Gazans wounded through Israel’s aerial bombardments and attacks. The Electronic Intifada reports that in an early morning attack on May 16, “multiple generations of the al-Qawlaq family — at least 17 people — were killed. The youngest victim, Qusay Sameh al-Qawlaq, was 6 months old, and the oldest was 84-year-old Saadiya Yousef al-Qawlaq.” In Yaffa, Israeli settlers set a Palestinian house full of children on fire, critically injuring and in some cases disfiguring the children. This means, not only are future generations of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip disappearing from this earth; if they survive, Palestinian children will be living with physical and psychological disabilities for the rest of their lives. Disabilities that the Zionist Israeli occupation created through war and aggression, in the middle of a global pandemic, forcing all Covid-19 testing to halt after it bombed the only Coronavirus testing lab in Gaza. Vaccinations are also indefinitely suspended because vaccines are sent by land across the border to Gaza but the border with Israel is currently closed. Also, according to the United Nations, as Palestinians cram into shelters for safety, the risk of superspreading the coronavirus is increasing.

Palestinian writer and researcher, Mariam Barghouti recently wrote in The Guardian, “What we are in the streets protesting about now is not one killing or one violent raid, but a whole regime of oppression that destroys our bodies, our homes, our communities, our hopes — just as the protests for Black lives that spread across the US last year were not only about George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or any one killing.”

Since May 10, 2021, the Zionist Israeli regime has been terrorizing Palestinians in Gaza through airstrikes. But terrorizing is not a new tactic. Palestinians have been displaced, maimed and killed by Israel for the past 73 years, since May 15, 1948, a day known as Al-Nakba. Nakba (the arabic word for catastrophe) refers to the ethic cleansing of Palestine through the destruction of more than 500 Palestinian villages, the killing of 13 000 Palestinians and the dispossession and displacement of 750 000 Palestinians – rendering them refugees – all in an attempt to erase historical Palestine.

Israel cannot on the one hand ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and on the other hand maim and disable Palestinians with brutal imperialist colonial force. This is called “disability-washing”. And it all happens with impunity while the international disability community stays silent about this hypocrisy. As disability studies scholar Helen Meekosha puts it in her article Decolonising disability: thinking and acting globally: “The processes of colonisation, colonialism, and neo-colonial power have resulted in vast numbers of impaired people in the global South. Much of this relates to the global economy; it concerns control of resources. Impaired people are ‘produced’ in the violence and war that is constantly provoked by the North, either directly or indirectly, in the struggle over the control of minerals, oil and other economic resources — ultimately control of the land and sea themselves.” She also says that we need to ask ourselves: “why disability and poverty are so interrelated in the global South, who is responsible and who profits?”

Much like the organization alQaws for Sexual & Gender Diversity in Palestinian Society “developed and popularized the concept of “pinkwashing” to expose how Israel and its defenders use the language of LGBTQ rights to distract from the oppression of Palestinians”, anti-colonial feminist disability organizers and organizations must also expose and speak out against Israel’s attempts at “disability-washing”, that is, saying they care about disabled people by using a disability rights framing within Israeli society, all the while massively disabling Palestinians through brute military force and through the psychological terror imposed on Palestinians (in occupied-Palestine and the diaspora) who live not knowing when or how ones family, friends and neighbours will be attacked. Disability and settler-colonialism are inextricably linked through war, injury and displacement and as an anti-colonial intersectional feminist disability justice activist, I think we collectively have a duty to callout this “disability-washing”.

The unlawful colonial Israeli occupation, aggression and war on Palestine is a disability justice, intersectional feminist, queer, refugee and abolitionist issue. And I will take every opportunity to denounce it until Palestine is free. Because as Angela Davis says it: “Palestine under Israeli occupation is the worst possible example of a carceral society.”

I wrote this piece as an invitation to disability communities across the world to break their silence on Israel’s “disability-washing” and join the day of action in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising and general strike.

Meme with black background with boy leaning against a police barricade and with writing in white and red lettering that reads: “From across colonized Palestine, we call on you to join pur general strike and day of action on Tuesday May 18. Launched from Jerusalem and extending across the world, we call on your support in maintaining this moment of unprecedented popular resistance.”
Day of action in solidarity with the Palestinian uprising and general strike. #SaveSheikhJarrah #GazaUnderAttack

“Our struggle will be long and arduous because the enemy is powerful, well-organized, and well-sustained from abroad. We shall win because we represent the wave of the future, because we are the immense majority of the oppressed, because mankind is on our side, and above all because we are determined to achieve victory.” — excerpt from the book My People Shall Live: Autobiography of a revolutionary by Leila Khaled as told to George Hajjar.