By Ramzy Baroud
The commemoration of the Nakba needs to be more than a ritualistic event; the remembrance should be integrated into a clear and comprehensive national project aimed at offsetting the harm wrought to generations of Palestinians.
There is no question that Israel has repeatedly failed in distancing or erasing the memory of those ominous months in 1947-48 when hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed and their people expelled.
Israel made incessant attempts to redefine the legal, spatial and even psychological boundaries of the conflict to another date — its occupation of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza in June 1967.
The signing of the Oslo Peace Accord made any mention of pre-1967 events somehow a form of political ‘extremism’ tantamount to calling for the ‘destruction’ of Israel as a Jewish state. Worse, demanding a return to the 1967 border eventually became too much for Palestinians to expect as Israel began haggling over small spaces within that already shrinking area — barely 22 per cent of 1948 Palestine.
The Nakba, although never forgotten, was temporarily forced to the sidelines as the ‘peace-makers’ endlessly spoke of ‘painful compromises’. An ultimate Palestinian compromise was meant to erase the Nakba from any practical context within the political process as envisaged by Oslo.
Today, Oslo has more or less vanished. Now that the Palestinian National Authority is hanging by a thread, the Nakba is returning to reinforce its definition of the conflict. The massive rallies and the numerous events throughout Palestine and the Arab world on May 15, which were led largely by civil society, remind us of a history that cannot be ignored.
After nearly 20 years of peace talks, Palestinians are stating aloud that the conflict is not about divided ‘autonomous’ areas within the West Bank, but about the deaths of innocent people, the destruction of villages, the losses of homes, land and more.
In an article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on May 15, Hanan Ashrawi says that “Al Nakba is … not merely a historical date to be commemorated. It is the collective memory of Palestinians, which shapes their identity as a people. Al Nakba is not a distant memory, but a painful reality that continues to fester, as the rights of refugees continue to be denied and the inalienable rights of our nation remain unfulfilled”.
It is precisely for this reason that neither old nor young Palestinians have forgotten. Every day is another manifestation of the same protracted Nakba that has lasted 64 years now. The hardships of young people today are inextricably linked to the violent and horrific uprooting decades ago.
The Nakba has also remained an ongoing project through generations of Israeli Zionists. What is commemorated as Palestine’s ‘catastrophe’ is celebrated as Israel’s ‘independence’. While Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to implement the very expansionist plans of Israel’s founders, the Israeli public and the rest of the world are being taught a highly deceptive version of history that either demonises the victim or completely denies his existence.
Israeli activist and author Neve Gordon assures us that the Israeli government’s attempts to silence the voices of those who invoke the Nakba are ‘futile’. “The Nakba is a truth, and while the efforts to expose the unfolding historical events have recently experienced a fierce legal assault, its primacy over falsehoods guarantees that it will prevail,” he wrote in Counterpunch.
The ‘fierce legal assault’ refers to the passing of the Nakba law by the Knesset in March 2011. The law allows the government to financially punish any public institution that dares to defy the Israeli ban on Palestinian memory. Yet, Palestinians continue to commemorate the Nakba more passionately than ever, in larger numbers. This growing sense of resolve was reflected in the incredible strength displayed by over 1,600 Palestinian prisoners who went on a hunger strike for nearly a month, protesting jail conditions, inhumane treatment, unlawful detentions and more. Their struggle concluded successfully a day before the Nakba’s 64th anniversary, proving that unity, will and clarity of purpose can achieve even the supposedly ‘impossible’.
However, only a day after the Nakba commemoration ended, the BBC reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had sworn in a new cabinet in the West Bank. Not only is this another government made up mostly of Abbas’ allies and friends, it also lacks any real physical control on the ground. Worse, the new government has dashed the last hope that divided Palestinian leaderships can, after years of embarrassing disunity and infighting, mend their differences for the sake of the higher cause of the Palestinian people.
While Oslo has been dead for over a decade — ever since Palestinian masses revolted in the Second Intifada in 2000 — those who formed the new government once more reiterated their commitment to the ‘peace process’. Following a Palestinian letter to Israel’s prime minister, the latter dispatched an envoy, Yitzhak Molcho, who delivered to Abbas a counter letter. “Israel and the Palestinian [National] Authority are committed to achieving peace and the sides hope that the exchange of letters between President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu will further this goal,” read a statement issued by Netanyahu’s office (Jerusalem Post, May 12).
Palestinian history is now evolving in two opposing directions. One is stuck in the past, reproducing the same statements and referencing the same tired but fruitless language of peace, ‘confidence building’ and compromises. The other direction is being followed by protesting prisoners and thousands of people in refugee camps, behind Israel’s apartheid walls and all over Palestine. It is the latter, not former, that will eventually define the future of Palestine. Their discourse is the one that has defined every Palestinian generation, from before the Nakba to the present day.