Every Palestinian living under Israeli occupation has an individual story of suffering. In “The Other Side of the Wall: An Eyewitness Account of the Occupation of Palestine,” (Cune Press, 2018) American professor Richard Hardigan provides important insights into the everyday struggles of Palestinians, while narrating his own journey as an activist through Palestine.
Hardigan’s book is a comprehensive travel narrative that combines personal experiences with political and historical facts and commentary. Written from the first-person perspective, it encompasses thirty chapters that were penned primarily in Ramallah and Nablus in the summer of 2014, coinciding with Israel’s mass slaughter and bombardment of Palestinians in Gaza.
As professor Ilan Pappé suggests in his foreword to the book, the presence of activists in Palestine serves as the primary human link between Palestinians and the outside world. If it was not for the effort of activists, Pappé argues, the West’s engagement with Palestine would be restricted to political elites and governments, which remain indifferent to Palestinian suffering. As his words suggest, activism and solidarity with Palestine can shift narratives in the West and are instrumental in creating positive change.
A deep dedication to Palestinian liberation is present throughout Hardigan’s book. A historically and politically informed academic, Hardigan’s narrative offers refreshing opposition to mainstream Western views on Palestine/Israel. In introducing the book, Hardigan recognizes that neutrality is not an option, and concedes that his views are neither balanced, nor neutral: “When one observes a strong man beating a helpless child or an overwhelming military force crushing a defenseless civilian population, balance is not a virtue in a point of view.”
Much of Hardigan’s criticism, which is directed at the Israeli state, is based on a thorough understanding of its colonial framework and the disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians. Through a combination of personal observations and conversations with Palestinians, the book vividly recounts the manifold sides of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people. The narrative sharply draws and articulates various manifestations of Israeli colonialism, such as the metal cages at the Qalandiya checkpoint outside Ramallah, where Palestinians must wait in dehumanizing conditions for hours. Hardigan’s book also explores the everyday phenomena of Jewish Israeli racism towards Palestinians and Arabs, land theft, settler militarism, and apartheid, while still making room for an examination of the international community’s callousness toward the Palestinians.
In describing his encounters with Palestinians, the author challenges Western stereotypes about the Palestinian people, as well as Israel’s propaganda around Hamas. Hardigan underscores the humanity of the Palestinian people. Despite the omnipresent danger of Israeli violence, Palestinians find joy in small and simple moments, telling jokes even in the most difficult situations. Dispelling the widespread myth that Israel’s siege of Gaza is a response to “terrorism,” Hardigan shifts the conversation to the key issue – Zionist colonialism. As Hardigan points out, Jewish colonialists settled in historic Palestine with the intention of displacing and dispossessing the native population, which they have, at least partially, accomplished. “Was Hamas, which did not have the access to modern weapons that Israel did, not entitled to defend itself against this action? According to international law, it certainly was,” Hardigan argues. While affirming Israel’s right to exist and the Jewish people’s right to safety, Hardigan insists that Jews cannot oppress the native population and then double-down when that population fights back.
As the author explains, while he had read extensively about Palestine beforehand, it was a completely different, more brutal, reality to witness the occupation with his own eyes. It seems fitting, then, that his book, in fact, serves as a practical guide for others who want to see the occupation first-hand. As Hardigan explains, activists generally face severe obstacles trying to enter Israeli-controlled territory. He recounts his own efforts in preparing to land at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport, including changing his name on social media platforms, altering the contacts in his phone book, revising the titles of critical books on his computer, and deleting all emails referencing Palestine, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or apartheid. These precautions proved to be wise, as Hardigan was questioned for hours at the airport by Israeli authorities, who ridiculed him for having previously visited Iran.
Hardigan story also provides insight into the struggle of international activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who have been demonized and targeted by the Israeli regime. While explaining particular techniques of activism, he stresses the constant danger these activists are exposed to, including the fear of being deported, arrested and/or shot. Indeed,
Hardigan’s time in Palestine was thoroughly shaped by his own feelings of fear. In preparing to participate in protests, the author repeatedly asked himself essential questions about survival: instance: “What would I do if soldiers knocked down the door? Would they shoot me just as they had so many others?”
While Hardigan risks his own safety and makes personal sacrifices to act in solidarity with Palestinians, he acknowleges his privilege. Although he was teargassed and shot at by Israeli soldiers, he realizes that “after all was said and done, I could leave. I knew I could always go home to my regular life.” These self-reflections are powerful moments throughout the book, amplifying the isolated, subaltern position of the Palestinian people.
Critically, Hardigan’s reflections allow the reader to comprehend the multi-faceted motivations behind activism. Hardigan is of neither Arab, Palestinian, nor Muslim ancestry – the “usual suspects” when it comes to stereotypes about Palestinian activists. He is, instead, a white U.S. citizen, who is dedicated to Palestinian rights. This commitment to ending the occupation stems from his sense of responsibility as a U.S. citizen: “To put it simply, as an American taxpayer, I felt complicit.” In expressing this view, Hardigan directly links Palestinian misery to U.S. supremacy and raises awareness about American complicity in Israeli colonialism.
“The Other Side of the Wall” is an invaluable resource to academics, journalists, activists, and a general audience alike. In less than 200 pages, Hardigan brilliantly provides a comprehensive understanding of the colonial suffering of Palestinians, creates space for empathy and solidarity, and inspires the reader to activism.