Polemics about Gaza often reflect Israel’s complex relationship to African anti-colonial struggles and Africans’ own dynamic relationship to Zionism and the Jewish people. Gaza, however, also highlights the enduring richness of Africa’s anti-colonial past in defining the terms of Palestinian struggle.
A carousel of horrors has swung to life in Gaza since October 7, transfixing the world. Night reigns over a ‘city of ghosts’, my friend Fadi told me over the phone—Madinat ashbah. Since the Israelis cut off electricity to the coastal enclave of two million, Gaza empties at night, street lanterns dark, while the sleepless listen to the thunder of airstrikes overhead and the wails of ambulance sirens. Fadi tells me his family sleep in day clothes, so when they die their bodies will be ready for the funeral. Images of a cratered Gaza evoke Ken Saro-Wiwa’s verse on Biafra from Songs in a Time of War, ‘Broken houses roofless / Gape forlorn / at wet angry skies.’ The death toll climbs further into the tens of thousands. As Israel continues to pound Gaza with the full-throated backing of the US military and president, the ranks of the dead have risen far beyond those of the 2021, 2014, 2012, and 2008 confrontations with Hamas.
Every day carries news more lurid and shocking than the last—churches cratered, hospitals on fire, mosque and schools demolished, swollen morgues. By the first week of November, the Israeli military had effectively re-occupied the north of Gaza, expelling more than a million Palestinians to the south where they face an uncertain winter. Sketches in Arabic have surfaced on social media with instructions on how to boil sea water to drink. Yet even the south is not safe from airstrikes. Fadi himself, a dentistry student I met in Cairo, pulled his own relatives out of the rubble of his family home in South Gaza. ‘Fuel, water, and food dwindle,’ writes We’am to me. ‘The bread lines grow long.’ Beyond the spiraling humanitarian crisis, the most horrifying prospect, Fadi said, is the risk of blunt force trauma at any time. ‘It comes so quickly / the bird of death,’ Chinua Achebe wrote in his poem ‘Air Raid’:
A man crossing the road
To greet a friend
Is much too slow.
His friend cut in halves
Has other worries now
Than a friendly handshake
The news brim with creatures of another violence. Two months ago, while Israeli Jews celebrated on Sukkot the end of their Biblical exodus, Hamas fighters launched a surprise attack, the Al-Aqsa Flood. Fifty years after Egypt launched its own coup de main to regain the Sinai, the symbolism was not lost. Surreal images dazed a world public—militant paragliders, a bulldozer punching through Gaza’s separation barrier, parades of captured Israeli armored trucks in Gaza City. Gradually, as Israeli forces fought the Palestinian resistance back to the Gaza border, the scale of brutality left behind has become clear. Graphic videos on Telegram show scores of corpses at a music festival; those who surrendered executed under bursts of AK-47 fire. Errant rockets from Gaza killed dozens of Bedouin, many children, whose many unregistered villages in the Negev are not shielded by Israel’s Iron Dome. Forgotten victims of the October 7 attacks. Others remain captive; among the estimated two hundred held hostage by Hamas is a Tanzanian who came to Israel to study agriculture.
Perhaps the most shocking photos of October 7th are from a bus stop in Sderot; piles of old folk, flies buzzing on the corpses. The bus driver, a Palestinian from Tel Sheva, survived under the cover of the dead. He lay with them for hours, telling an Israeli broadcaster the scene haunts him. ‘They were good people, how do you do such a thing? How?’ Massacres also occurred in Netiv HaAsara, Be’eri, Kfar Aza, Nir Oz, and Holit kibbutzim in southern Israel. In one kibbutz, a video shows a Thai farm worker hacked to death with a garden hoe. Whatever the evasive assurances by the white-bearded Hamas leaders in Qatar—that their fighters only target Israeli military, that soldierly discipline and strategic exigency elide any indulgence in gratuitous violence—the bodies in the morgue tell of a more grisly, wanton story of killing. Killing either at the hands of Hamas or the ones who followed them through the breach.
THE POLARITIES OF ISRAEL AND PALESTINE
The October 7th attacks and ensuing siege have polarized public opinion on predictable lines, as it has polarized Nigerians. For some voices on the left, the Palestinian resistance are like Biblical Samsons, bringing down the house upon their enemies, even as it spells self-destruction. How else to avenge oneself of the betrayal, humiliation, and enslavement from half a century of suffering? From Frantz Fanon to Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani to Albert Memmi, Aimé Cesaire to Léopold Sédar Senghor—generations of Black and North African thinkers have explained to us how the Manichean divisions of the settler-colony prefigure the pathologies and violence of the subaltern who fight to end it. That resistance, even at its most brutal or ugly, is not sui generis. It is a consequence of the brutality of the colonial state, whether in Israel or elsewhere. As South Africa’s ANC spokeswoman, Mahlengi Bhengu-Motsiri wrote, ‘the decision of Palestinians to respond to the brutality of the settler Israeli apartheid regime is unsurprising.’
One can imagine the most famous Nigerian in the Palestinian resistance, Fatima Bernawi, taking this position. Born to a Nigerian father and Palestinian mother, she grew up in the African quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and became the first woman to plot an armed attack in Israel. She is now buried in Gaza. In 2002, the Nigerian Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, also remarked on the resentment created by Israeli rule, saying it ‘reminded me of my own country, Nigeria, between the first military coup and the Biafran Civil War, and its immediate aftermath. It recalled the faces of despair and resignation, but also the simmering anger of a populace that faced daily humiliation at the hands of an arrogant military.
Like Soyinka, some Nigerians have framed the events in Gaza in terms of their painful memories from the Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1970, in which the federal government’s blockade against Biafran separatists consumed 1 to 2 million lives, according to UNICEF and Nigerian medical officers at the time, judging from the rates of edema and marasmus. Images of an attendant train of horrors—mass famine, kwashiorkor, rape, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and mass graves—were beamed across the world. Like Gaza, journalists televised Biafra real-time with unprecedented granularity, shocking an otherwise-apathetic world with images of infants’ rust-colored hair and distended bellies: ‘Americans may not know much about Biafra,’ wrote Kurt Vonnegut, ‘but they know about the children.’ Parallels between Gaza and Biafra have not escaped some observers; one Facebook user on the Radio Free Biafra page, would write about Gaza during the May 2021 crisis, ‘[It’s] like the first Biafra war when Nigeria had everything …We were Palestine.’ Acts of solidarity with Palestine, of course, enjoy a long tradition in post-colonial Africa, embodied by the continent’s towering statesmen: Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, Léopold Sédar Senghor in Senegal, Julius Nyerere in Tanzania, and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
Yet the general tone of most Nigerians is cautious. Minister of Foreign Affairs Yusuf M. Tuggar condemned the ‘cycle of violence and retaliation that the current escalation has assumed’ urging restraint and the ‘safety of civilians.’ A message shared on the Radio Free Biafra page announces ‘I will never behave like British and American President that says they stand with Israel neither will I behave like [Colombian] president and Iranian president that says they stand with Palestine.’ The author lays ultimate fault with the United Nations for failing to resolve disputes such as Palestine and Biafra diplomatically. In other words, what is happening in Gaza and Israel is a senseless civil war, a fratricide between the sons of Shem, Arab and Jew, with no clear moral hero. Such is tragedy. Ken Saro-Wiwa’s poem ‘Dis Nigeria Sef’ about the agony of Biafra comes to mind: ‘For yonder soza dey shoot him enemy / Nigeria soza de shoot him brother.’
Yet for the Israeli right and its supporters, Hamas’s attack has re-ignited a fuming rhetoric of revenge. Quoting a line from the Yiddish poet, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Mr. Netanyahu declared war on the 7th of October: ‘Revenge for the blood of a little child has yet been devised by Satan.’ Defense minister and Likud party member, Yoav Gallant, announced a ‘complete siege’ on the ‘human animals’ of Gaza: no electricity, food, water, or fuel. Another Likudnik, Ariel Kallner, called for a ‘second Nakba’. The cabinet minister Avi Dichter called it a ‘Gaza Nakba’. Plans to expel the 2.3 million Palestinians of Gaza to the Sinai desert, leaked by an Israeli ministry ‘concept paper’ have for now been temporarily rebuffed by Egypt. However, celebrations of corpses and genocidal calls to ‘erase’ Gaza have become ubiquitous on Israeli social media. In Netanyahu’s declaration of a ground offensive on Gaza, he cited a genocidal passage of Biblical scripture, I Samuel 15:2, in which the God of the Hebrews commands them to ‘go attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, infants and children.’
Radicalizing effects of such rhetoric have rippled outward. A mob in Tunisia burned down a synagogue. Followers of Meir Kahane, an ultra-nationalist idealogue, have shouted on the streets of New York to ‘KILL ALL THE PALESTINIANS. ALL OF THEM!’ Israel’s settler right, led by ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, have used the attacks as a pretext to funnel machine guns to Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Calls proliferate to #TakeBackGaza for Jewish settlers, who resent Ariel Sharon’s decision in 2005 to dismantle their outposts and swap the occupation of Gaza for a siege. According to PA officials, Israeli security forces have killed more than 200 Palestinians in the West Bank in the first six weeks since October 7. Several villages have since faced attacks by violent Jewish settlers. On Gaza, the United States and Western Europe have, predictably, rallied to Israel’s defense, with the US positioning aircraft carriers on the coast, supplying Israel with arms, and vetoing diplomatic resolutions for a ceasefire in the UN Security Council. A $14 billion aid package is in the works.
Scattered voices in the Biafran secessionist movement have also adopted a pro-Israel posture. Radio Free Biafra, a pirate radio station outlawed in Nigeria, has shared Facebook posts condemning the Hamas attacks as ‘pure terrorism’. According to the post, this terrorism gave Israel ‘the reason to demonize and destroy them’. The upshot according to the author is that ‘you cannot blame Israel.’ Nnamdi Kanu, a Nigerian-British citizen and founder of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) organization, considers himself a Jew and considers the Igbo people a ‘lost tribe of Jews’. Periodically, between evading arrest by Interpol and Nigerian federal authorities, he has surfaced in Israel, telling Israeli media he ‘owes his life’ to the Mossad spy agency. Benjamin Igwe Onwuka, another diaspora Igbo created the Biafra Zionist Front (BZF) in 2010, a splinter group of MASSOB who espouse a Zionist-Biafran ideology. Onwuka re-declared the defunct Republic of Biafra in 2012, hoisting the flag of Biafra over the state house in Enugu before his subsequent arrest. Since 2015, the Nigerian government has considered MASSOB an extremist group, as it does the northern Islamist Boko Haram and the militant Yoruba group Oodua People’s Congress.
These political acts build on an earlier polemical tradition. In 2003, an Igbo journal Body & Soul published a ‘vision’ of a future sovereign Biafra ‘committed to political as well as spiritual Zionism.’ In this vision, the cities adopt Israeli names. The national flag bears a Star of David. A ‘Biafran Shekel’ is legal tender, and the Israeli president presides over a 120-member ‘Biafran Knesset.’ However, this Biafra would also be a ‘pure Christian state’, which bans the practice of all other religions and devotes ten per cent of its national revenue to ‘zealous evangelization of the world.’
Such expressions of Israel-mania may seem bizarre to us now, but they call to mind an older generation of pan-Africanist discourse. The Liberian statesman Edward Blyden, in his treatises From West Africa to Palestine (1874) and The Jewish Question (1898) saw in the Zionist project for a Jewish state in historic Palestine something to admire and emulate. So did W.E.B DuBois and George Padmore. In 1948, even Paul Robeson vowed to an interviewer in 1948 that should a war happen ‘in the Holy Land, he would immediately go to Palestine to sing for Jewish troops.’ And why not? They were fighting, in Robeson’s words, “Arab feudal lords” who aimed ‘to continue the work of Adolf Hitler.’
For an outsider, a stock image of the Biafran flag juxtaposed with an ‘I stand with Israel’ poster is perplexing – mysterious as the support of early Black radicals for Zionism. It invites a host of questions. Why should contemporary adherents of an Igbo secessionist movement support Israel and identify as Jews? Israel, of course, was one of the few states in the world to offer military support to the Republic of Biafra, even as it consolidated its new-found occupation of Gaza, the Sinai, West Bank and Golan in the late 1960s. Why? Who are the Palestinian’s friends in Africa, anyway?
GAZA’S ROADS TO AFRICA
The polemics surrounding Israel reveal a deeper, rooted morass of history on Israel’s complex relationship to African anti-colonial struggles, as well as Africans’ own dynamic relationship to Zionism and the Jewish people. The situation in Gaza also highlights the enduring richness of Africa’s anti-colonial past in defining the terms of Palestinian struggle. We note for example a striking ideological realignment underway, in which terms such as decolonization and apartheid, previously at the margins of mainstream liberal discourse on Israel and Palestine have emerged as defining frameworks for the Palestinian struggle. It is telling, for instance, that American activists have not simply used the Hebrew term for separation, hafrada (which Israelis themselves use to explain their system of ethnic differentiation) nor do they reach as frequently to Jim Crow analogies. The resort to the term apartheid and its legal doctrine is a special act of moral claims-making, underscoring the abiding appeal of Africa’s anti-colonial heritage—in Algeria, South Africa, Liberia, and beyond—as a contested source of inspiration for advocates of both the Jewish state and Palestinian liberation from it.
For these reasons, Africa’s anti-colonial history is like a land mined for its ore—metaphors, cautionary tales, art, discursive framing. A coalition of activists have seized a key term of that heritage, apartheid, to articulate a progressive vision for Palestine—that tortured but sacred place Ghassan Kanafani once called the ‘land of the sad orange’. Their names are many. In the US where I live, they include Jewish anti-Zionists such as Jewish Voices for Peace and IfNotNow. Radical socialist parties such as the DSA and PSL. The American Muslim Association. Christian Quakers. Catholic and Orthodox churches. Black and Hispanic civil societies. Labor unions. Black student groups and Students for Justice in Palestine. A raft of magazines: N+1, Jewish Currents, Jacobin, Dissent, Baffler, NLR and occasional legacy media, such as the Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, and the London Review of Books. Movements such as the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights, ANSWER, Code Pink. The list goes on.
In Israel, they include a beleaguered human rights community—B’Tselem, Adalah, Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, Rabbis for Human Rights. Their parties and media: Hadash, Meretz, Ha’aretz, and +972, along with the international human rights space: Amnesty, Save the Children, Oxfam, Caritas, Doctors without Borders, the United Nations. Together, they follow a united front of Palestinian mass opinion and civil society demanding the broad contours of an offramp to the war: a permanent ceasefire, release of all captives, an end to the siege on Gaza, the dismantlement of apartheid, and the creation of a progressive, multi-ethnic, social democracy (whether one or many) from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean. This coalition faces a towering adversary—the governments of Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu, the US Congress, and the American and Israeli militaries—for whom Hamas is a useful enemy, the occupation sustainable, and the cycle of violence de rigueur.
TOWARD A POLITICS OF HOPE
If the opposition to Israel’s siege of Gaza and Israeli apartheid are those who claw back a seemingly inevitable history from collision course; who endure the insults of cynics calling them bigots, traitors, or utopians; who overcome the hopelessness and apathy of a traumatic moment; who rise above the self-censorship, the confusion, the paralysis, the sectarianism; who remain undaunted by the enormity of the world’s grief but persist with fire in the belly—what the Palestinians call samoud; who refuse the cold logic of a politics of death but choose to ‘act justly and to love mercy’ as the Prophet Micah thundered; who ‘mourn the dead’ as the chant goes, and ‘fight like hell for the living’; then they will be the flames of a radical politics of hope, the peace-makers who inherit the earth, the lions and the lambs, the prophets and the king. So, Chinua Achebe wrote in his poem ‘Vultures’:
providence if you will
that grants even an ogre
a tiny glow-worm of
in icy caverns of a cruel
It is difficult to see these glow-worms of tenderness in the racing tempo of the present, the darkness of war, the clash of ogres. So, too, it is difficult to see beautiful lives in Gaza, who appear in our gaze as dehumanized and faceless under the backdrop of relentless destruction—missiles, corpses, rubble, the wailing of the exiled. We are told, Gaza is an open-air prison, a ghetto, a Hamas barrack. The only other mention of Gaza most of us encounter is Biblical, where Samson, the great warrior who once fought armies with a camel’s jawbone (as the Muslim tafsir authors narrate) was broken, blinded and enslaved. Gaza here is a place of blindness. But there is a third Gaza in Abrahamic tradition. Gaza marked the road from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, where Philip converted the first black African—an official of the Ethiopian court—to the Christian Gospel. It was the transfer point from the Holy Land to Africa, binding the two together. Perhaps then if we follow the Gazan road to Africa, we will come to a deeper understanding of Palestine in the present. The scales will fall from our eyes, and we will see Achebe’s glow-worms, shimmering in the darkness⎈
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