Lessons for Palestine from a female freedom fighter's Algiers memoir

Lessons for Palestine from a female freedom fighter's Algiers memoir
Comment: Zohra Drif's gripping account of her actions as a young freedom fighter in 1950s Algiers has important lessons for the Palestinian struggle for liberation, writes Vacy Vlazna.
7 min read
13 Nov, 2017
Supporters of Palestine in Algiers demonstrate the Israeli assaults on Gaza, July, 2014 [Anadolu]
Stylishly dressed in a lavender blue summer dress with narrow stripes, 22-year-old Algerian student Zohra Drif, guided by "absolute necessity, the sacred duty to succeed in [my] mission so that [my] people would not despair", planted a bomb concealed in a beach bag. 

It was to be detonated at 6.25pm in the Milk Bar cafe of Algiers on the elegant Rue d'Isly, a 10 minute walk from the Muslim Casbah that was held captive under the oppressive French military siege.

Across town, on the same sunny afternoon of 30 September 1956, Zohra's friends, Samia Lakhdari and her mother, Mama Zhor, targeted the Cafeteria on Rue Michelet, while Djamila Bouhired planted a faulty bomb in the Air France agency in the Mauritania building.

As an activist for Palestine, I was eager to understand the mind, soul and motive of a young freedom fighter. Zohra Drif's profoundly personal and nationalistic autobiography is a precise sliver of the wider 1954-1962 Algerian struggle for independence from 130 years of France's brutal colonisation; a struggle that claimed more than 1,000,000 Algerian lives.

Daughter of Qadi Ahmed and Saadi Drif, Zohra's path from childhood in rural Tiaret to schoolgirl and university law student in Algiers, and her dogged determination to join the National Liberation Front (FLN), to her stressful clandestine life, subsequent arrest and imprisonment, is a compelling read. 

The book's power lies in a tense, dramatic immediacy, intriguingly heightened by the voice of the young Zohra, the author who splices Algeria's tragic saga, underscored by French colonial privileged racism with the idealism and valiant acts of young revolutionaries. 

And herein lies the rationale and honour of the revolutionary identity:

"Perhaps the reader of today expects me to regret having placed bombs in public places frequented by European civilians. I do not.

'Perhaps the reader of today expects me to regret having placed bombs in public places frequented by European civilians. I do not.'

"To do so would be to obscure the central problem of settler colonialism by trying to pass off the European civilians of the day for (at best) mere tourists visiting Algeria or (at worst) the 'natural' inheritors of our land in place of its legitimate children.

"I will not adopt this position because I hate lies and their corollary, revisionism, whatever they are and wherever they come from.

"As for the civilians who perished during the war of national liberation, if they are Algerian, I would propose that they go to the ALN fighters and ask them, 'Why did we die?' I know that the ALN will reply, 'You are dead because your lives were part of the price we had to pay for our country to be free and independent.'

"And if they are French, I would propose that they go see the French authorities and ask, 'Why did we die?' I do not know what the French authorities would say, but I would propose to them the one real truth there is: 'You died because you were among the hundreds of thousands of Europeans that we used to subjugate and occupy a foreign country, Algeria, so that we could make it our settler colony.'

Read more: Lessons from the Paris massacre, 1961

In any case, this will not make me forget all the French who chose justice and the values of freedom and dignity (of which their own homeland boasted) and joined our camp."

Zohra's vindication of her mission intensifies when you consider the barbarities that the French regime perpetrated against Algerians: Wholescale massacres and napalm bombing in Setif, Kherrata, North Constantinos. The massacre of thousands of men in the Skikda stadium. Collective punishment, lynchings, collective rape, annihilation of villages, mass arrests, disappearances, concentration camps, tens of thousands of summary executions, terrible torture, curfews, checkpoints, looting, psychological warfare, the relentless incitement fear and terror, the Paris massacre of 300 Algerian protestors - the list continues.

All these acts were executed with merciless arrogance and indifference to the humanity of the 'natives'. This arrogance masked the moral inferiority of the colonist.

French colonial sadism exists to this day, explaining why, since 1947, Presidents from Auriol to Macron (with the exception of Pompidou and d'Estaing) have enthusiastically supported the savage colonialism of their Israeli frères d’armes.

The timeless universality of Zohra's insurrectionary call to dignity and freedom has invaluable resonance for the Palestinian resistance. Reading Zohra's memoir, the lessons for Palestine are electrifying:

1. Maintain focus on the occupier's fault lines;

"First, France was not invincible. Not only had she not resisted the German occupation but, even worse, over 80 percent of the French parliament had voted for the armistice - France's abdication to Germany - and what's more, the majority of the French elite had even collaborated with the occupiers, supporting the Vichy regime and its Marshal Philippe Petain. We were well aware that without Britain and the United States, France would never have been liberated."

Israel, for all its army, navy, airforce, vast cache of nuclear and high tech military hardware (France ties with Germany in arms exports to Israel) and US patronage is not invincible.

The 1973 Yom Kippur War resulted in the Israeli return of its Sinai gains to Egypt, and in the 2006 Lebanon War, Israel failed to destroy Hizballah. Israel's three wars on Gaza, 2009/10, 2011 and 2014 have incrementally caused heavy losses to Israel's credibility and fabricated reputation as a victim.

2. Resistance is justice and a right.

"We are not killers. We are fighters for a just cause, moved by the most sacred of duties: To liberate our land and our people. It is the colonial regime that kills - torturing, oppressing, and repressing to perpetuate its system of occupation on our land and our people… each of our attacks, each of our ambushes, each of our lives sacrificed must serve to unmask France before the world, to show that our people are at war against a foreign power occupying us by force.

In their illegal settlements, they bathe in private swimming pools while Palestinians are rationed water for necessities

The Zionist occupier also tries to convince the world that Palestine is Israel via western media and lackey governments spreading its false propaganda: That its daily war crimes in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention are acts of defence, that its daily theft of Palestinian land, livelihood and dignity was decreed by a god, that legitimate Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resistance to foreign domination is "terrorism" and "anti-Semitic".

In Algeria, all settlers had to "know that Algeria was at war, and understand that they could no longer sit back and enjoy life while watching us die".

In historic Palestine, according to Miko Peled, all Israelis are settlers. At arm's length from their inflicted suffering on indigenous Palestinians, the settlers move freely on apartheid roads. Many live in coercively vacated Palestinian homes, they enjoy cafes with views of beaches that the majority of Palestinians have never seen.

In their illegal settlements, they bathe in private swimming pools while Palestinians are rationed water for necessities. Colonists enjoy first class medical care while at a stone's throw, desperately ill Gazans are denied access to dialysis and cancer treatment.

3. Against great odds, independence can be achieved.

Knowing that "We all knew that each day we lived was a victory over a possible arrest or a probable death," the poorly armed Algerian guerrilla resistance movement was up against 'an army of nearly half a million highly equipped men'.

Despite lethal internal divisions between the FLN and the MNA, and collaborators such as the Harkis and Bachagha Ait Ali - "[who] was notorious for his public condemnation of our national liberation struggle and for his participation in France's fierce repression against our people", Algeria achieved independence in 1962 and many of its fighters went on to serve Algeria in government.

Against great odds, independence can be achieved

Zohra became vice-president of the Algerian senate.

Palestine too, has its Bachagha Ait Ali, in Mahmoud Abbas and his PA/PLO band of traitors to Palestinian resistance who uphold, "The security relationship [with Israel]… security coordination is sacred, is sacred."

Ultimately, it was France's tactics of disproportionate violent repression, racism, lies, deception, defiant abuse of the rule of law and international law, that courted defeat by raising the bar of Algerian resistance.

And so it is with Israel.

Each renewed Israeli aggression augments international support for Palestine's legitimate right to sovereignty and independence. Israel's settlement expansion is ironically the wrecking ball destroying the Zionist dream of "Eretz Israel". The occupation's strangulation of Palestinian society has birthed the counterinsurgency of BDS worldwide.

Decades of cruel Israeli repression have not made a dent in Palestinian 'sumoud' - the resilient soul of Palestine and her children.

As with French colonialism, Israel is imploding under the violent pressure of Zionism. The death of Zionism will inevitably herald what Svirsky calls "the noble 'one state' of equal partnership."

Dr Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters and editor of a volume of Palestinian poetry, 'I remember my name'.

Follow her on Twitter: @vacy_vacy

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.