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The Palestinian Nakba: Where To Now?
We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinians] never do return ...The old will die and the young will forget - David Ben-Gurion, 18 July 1948

20 May   |   2006   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

At midnight, on 14 May 2006, Israeli Jews celebrated the 58 th anniversary of the creation of their State. But these Israel-wide joyous celebrations were also an occasion for Palestinians to recall that the birth of this state resulted in their own dispossession and destitution when the combined Irgun-Haganah forces launched an offensive in April 1948 and drove the Palestinian people out of their lands. I know this not solely because I have read it in history books, but more so because my late grandfather recounted to me time and again his memories of bundling my grandmother and three daughters (including my mum) together in a car, leaving the family home, business and properties in Talbieh and fleeing to Beirut for a brief period before settling down in the eastern part of Jerusalem that was at the time part of Jordan.

Indeed, successive Palestinian refugees - Christian, Muslim or Druze - grow up hearing the stories of those final moments in Palestine, the hard decisions and the panic, as they also re-live the terrible consequences of those fateful weeks. Books have been written, lectures have been given, organisations have been set up to defend the rights of Palestinian refugees, absentees and returnees, and all this as a result of the birth of one nation and the death of another.

Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and KefarYehushua in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population

Moshe Dayan, at Technion Haifa, 4 April 1969

Throughout 1948, as the State of Israel was delivered by the midwifery of the British Mandate, Jewish forces expelled thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and cities into Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Palestinian societies were uprooted from 418 towns and villages, and hundreds of thousands of others fled their homes - and political homeland - because they were afraid to stay behind or were intimidated from doing so by the invading forces. My grandfather, every time he recalled his garden with its lemon tree and the [now useless] keys to his front door, rued his decision to run away. He felt with hindsight that he had perhaps let his family down, but his UN friends had advised him to do so, and the fear of terrible consequences if he were to stay put had made him take this drastic step that ultimately cast him and his family out for many years. This is true of many other families, some of them my relatives, who also fled with their title deeds and keys but precious little else because they were afraid for their lives.

Dispossession was the Jewish objective, since its Zionist project aimed to create a Jewish state by expunging it of the original inhabitants who had lived there for centuries. The creation of the state of Israel was at the heart of this cataclysmic event for Palestinians, and its manifold cultural, socio-economic and political repercussions have recombined - almost genetically - in the Palestinian psyche as a phenomenon that became known as the nakba (or catastrophe). It remains one of the intractable symptoms of the conflict between Arabs and Israelis.

Today, there is a Palestinian minority in Israel that totals around 20% of the overall population, many of them internally displaced persons or "present absentees" - a contradictory appellation given to the nearly 200,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel whose properties were taken by Israel, making them refugees within their own country. Hillel Cohen's The Present Absentee: The Palestinian Internal Refugees in Israel since 1948 is only one of many references on the subject. There are equally the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank as a result of the defeat of the Arab forces in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 (also known as the naksa or setback), but there are also refugees in camps across the whole Arab world - from Jordan and Lebanon to Egypt and Syria - who are a constant mnemonic of this immutable reality.

However, the nakba has come to symbolise for Palestinians not only a historical event that is still being reeled out. It is a present-day reality too - whether for those living in camps across the West Bank, Gaza and the Arab world, or those under occupation (a different kind of refugee status) in their ever-shrinking lands. One consequence of this original nakba has been the entrenchment of apartheid (essentially colonialist) structures that have manifested themselves in anti-Palestinian racism and xenophobia across Israeli generations. Facing this colossal concatenation of circumstances, past and present, Palestinians have assumed the unenviable role of Sisyphus in Greek mythology as they passed the task of pushing the stone from one movement to the other across generations.

We must use terror, assassination, intimidation, land confiscation, and the cutting of all social services to rid the Galilee of its Arab population

Israel Koening, in the Koening Report (Memorandum), 1975

History, it seems, is not such a good tutor since the nakba , with its original perfidies, is being acted out today in other ways across the whole land. Within Israel, the Palestinian minority is resisting such discrimination through proactive legal and political means, although there are also those who try to find a solution by denying or belittling their identity. There are also those Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank who are remorselessly being made refugees again by a concrete wall that is gradually encircling their lands and homes. This wall has already created thousands of refugees and cordoned off tracts of occupied land. Judged as illegal by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the wall has nonetheless turned West Bank cities (such as Qalqilya) into ghost towns, and cut off thousands of Palestinians from their homes and businesses. Then, there are the Palestinians in Gaza who are under a different kind of occupation despite the withdrawal of the Israeli Army since they have been massed into ghettoes and forbidden to travel or work - not unlike the way Jews were treated in Europe during the 18C - in order to act out the numerous vested political interests of other parties, or even as a result of sheer indifference to their plight.

Walls and machsomot (checkpoints) constructed by Israel's occupying forces, Jewish-only by-pass roads traversing Palestinian lands, uprooted Palestinian orchards and olive groves, demolished Palestinian homes that are replaced with new or expanded settlements, or even extra-judicial assassinations, all demonstrate clearly the continuing nature of the nakba that besets Palestinians today. In fact, the latest political echoes from Israel indicate a priority toward a convergence plan whereby Israel would withdraw from a number of West Bank settlements on the east side of the wall whilst firming up its hold on the large settlement blocs on the west side. This, alongside any unilateral disengagement along mooted lines, would lead to the creation of Palestinian cantons across the West Bank and lead to the discontinuation of any Palestinian future homeland on the remaining 22% of historical Palestine. A landmass that enjoys neither sovereignty nor contiguity cannot be considered a viable entity - far less a future state - and would scupper any credible chance for a negotiated two-state solution as set out in the [now almost defunct] roadmap for peace.

Yet, this is precisely what is being prescribed for Palestinians today. I regard this emerging scenario as one that not only stunts the legitimacy of historical memory but also the reality of political geography. Over the past few weeks alone, the policy of the international community for imposing sanctions upon a democratically elected Palestinian government is tantamount to the collective punishment of an occupied people - rather than of the occupier! To add insult to injury, Israel has refused to remit to the Palestinian Authority its tax revenues. Such monies being withheld are actually necessary to help alleviate the occupation tactics of sanctions, curfews, closures and checkpoints that have ruined the Palestinian economy. As I have written or lectured in the past couple of months, I am one of those who distrust by instinct the Islamist political agenda of Hamas . I also deplore the lamentable - and pusillanimous - Palestinian struggles (be they ideology-based or power-driven, with an outlook that is at times even tethered to the use of violence). However, neither my distrust of Hamas , nor my distaste for intra-Palestinian tugs-of-war, justify in any way the punishment of a people whose legitimate aspirations have been pawned to different interests and coalitions. Even principled positions cannot yield to workable policies, but only foment humanitarian catastrophes, political chaos and domestic mayhem.

Everybody has to move, run and grab as many hilltops as they can to enlarge the settlements because everything we taker now will stay ours ... Everything we don't grab will go to them

Ariel Sharon, to Tsomet Party, 15 November 1998

During the optimistic days following the Declaration of Principles and the protracted Oslo process, one major stumbling block at all levels of the negotiations remained the issue of Palestinian refugees. This is not only due to a sheer instinct for survival or even historical memory by either side, or for that matter solely one of clashing nationalisms. It is the refusal by one side - Israel - to re-insert in its collective psyche the chip that would reboot its memory to the roots of its creation some 58 years ago and help it access its responsibility. But is also a refusal by the Palestinian side to devise a solution that underlines the juridical principle of return for Palestinian refugees, and then brings it forward to an achievable reality that would be acceptable to Israel let alone to the refugees themselves.

To my mind, all this means that grandstanding should give way to education, and that treating Palestinian refugees as men and women without rights in order to window-dress the 'Palestinian cause' is counter-productive - and in some political sense counter-intuitive too. Both sides must admit at long last that this issue - amongst many that need to be overcome in order to secure peace between two peoples - needs to be resolved one day.

Fifty-eight years have passed since the exodus of thousands of families from their homes, and generations of Palestinians have been consigned to refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. Wars, international resolutions and countless peace initiatives have endeavoured to put an end to the Palestinian experience of subjugation, suppression, violence and displacement. Marking the anniversary of the nakba involves a realisation that it was not just a tragic moment in the history of Palestinians, but that it touches upon the core of the struggle for Arab dignity, identity and justice in the face of enormous odds and daunting power. The nakba that is part and parcel of the Palestinian national memory is simultaneously one that has also contributed to the configuration of its national identity . Consequently, what is required is a paradigm that could shift those variables and lead to equal peace for Palestinians and Israelis alike, since the nakba as a 58-year reality is seamlessly tied to the conflict - and its unending tragedy - today.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2006   |   20 May


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