By Rich Wiles
A quick search for ‘Palestine’ on Amazon.com (the world’s biggest book retailer) reveals over 15,000 available entries. There is clearly no shortage of literature on the subject, much as thereis no shortage of discussion or opinion around the world. Many of the books written pre-Nakba were structured within two main catagories. Some were traditional ‘adventurer’ type travel journals almost exclusively penned by authors from the ‘privileged minority’ of the colonialist states, whilst others looked through religious and/or political perspectives including the reams of early Zionist literature. Post-1948, Palestine-related literature was dominated by accounts lauding the establishment of the Zionistdream. Again, these works were almost exclusively written by ‘Westerners’, which is unsurprising when acknowledging the fact that the creation of ‘Israel’, and the ethnic cleansing that formed an intrinsic part of that process, was a European-style colonialist project.
Since the release of previously restricted government archives in the mid-1980’s, a substantial amount of Israeli’revisionist’ history has been published which has shed light on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from 1947-49. Whilst Israel’s so-called ‘New Historians’ have received much attention for their ‘uncovering’ ofPalestinian expulsions during al-Nakba, and whilst their works do indeed provide valuable insights intothe how the Zionist movement achieved its aim of transferring Palestinians, earlier works by Palestinian scholars such as Walid Khalidi and others had made almost identical claims without receiving the same level of recognition.Where the work of Khalidi differed from that of many of the New Historians, putting aside the fact that he began researching and publishing nearly 30 years before the Israeli academics, was in his references. Khalidilargely referenced Palestinians who had firsthand experience of al-Nakba, whilst the New Historians such as Benny Morris almost exclusively sourced information from de-classified Israeli documents. Khalidi’s work was dismissed by many as one-sided and biased, whilst the work of the New Historians was considered radical and groundbreaking. Ilan Pappe’s widely acclaimed book ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’(2006, One World – London) detailed Plan Dalet from de-classified sources amongst its proof that al-Nakba was a planned process of ethnic cleansing, yet some 45 years earlier Walid Khalidi published his comparatively unknown paper ‘Plan Dalet: The Zionist Masterplan for the Conquest of Palestine’ (Middle East Forum,November 1961). In reality, the literature of the New Historians was unique not in its convictions, but simply in the fact that these ideas were at last being written about by Israelis which gave it much greater credence in the Western world.
Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada, several ‘internationals’ have published books attempting to convey the realities of life for Palestinians as they have witnessed it whilst supporting ‘non-violent resistance’projects, or working for international NGO’s in the remnants of Palestine. So many people have opinions they want to express, often with good intentions, yet invariably these fall into categories that are intentionally palatable to a Western audience. These practices drag the international ‘understanding’ of Palestine into mainstream Western ideals where they can be safely pigeon-holed inside a framework that is acceptable to both Western publishers and their readerships. There are of course some very valuable exceptions to these norms, although these books make up a tiny minority with the support of generally alternative presses. The international ‘solidarity’ movements and segments of ‘the left’ often fall into exactly the same trap. Their eagerness to support ‘non-violent Palestinian resistance’ at the expense of the all encompassing Palestinian concept of ‘mucawameh’ (resistance) is one such example. I have lost count of the number of times I have listened to ‘peace activists’ promoting non-violence projects as opposed to Palestinian resistance in general, or trade unionists who claim to ‘support Palestine’ whilst keeping open avenues of communication with the Zionist Histradut believing that doing so follows their interpretation of a Marxist agenda. In a similar vein, many ‘solidarity activists’ eagerly campaign for bans of Settlements’ produce without fully endorsing the 2005 Palestinian civil-society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Moreover, in the vast halls of academia around the western world, non-Palestinian academics discuss the intellectual polemics of the one-state versus two-state debate from the safety of their well stocked libraries and comfortable armchairs without actually asking Palestinians what shape their own future should take. The notion in certain circles seems to be that ‘we will support Palestine but only on our terms’. Through such practices, people are incorporating personal agendas into a struggle that is not their own, whether intentionally or otherwise, although few of them have ever actually ‘lived’ that struggle. This does not deny or refute the fact that everyone is entitled to have and express an opinion, but the problems arise when the opinions of Western ‘experts’ are considered of greater value than those who by definition truly understand what it means to be Palestinian – the Palestinians themselves. This ‘intellectual imperialism’ can be extremely damaging to Palestine and the global understanding of it. The voices of the people who have truly lived the struggle, and who have suffered its consequences are all too often neglected, yet there can be no better opportunity to understand Palestine than by listening to its people.
Through ‘Behind the Wall: Life, Love, and Struggle in Palestine’ (Potomac Books 2010) I attempted to create this kind of platform; a solid base from which uncensored and un-sanitized Palestinian voices could be heard in their own words. Palestinian stories should be told by Palestinians, they should be listened to, and, if one is intending to stand in solidarity with Palestine, they should be acted upon according to a manner promoted by, and in full support of, those same people. When wanting to profess solidarity with a people who have struggled with intense dignity and inspirational sumoud (steadfastness) for over six decades, people should not attempt to pigeon-hole the Palestinian struggle into a box that is acceptable by states that continue in their historic role of dictating the global political climate through warfare and their control of natural resources and commodities.
At the heart of Palestine’s struggle is the refugee case, which remains almost a taboo subject in many forums including in the seemingly endless and fruitless ‘Peace Process’, which seems on the verge of what one can only hope is a final collapse. Time and again, in speeches and in op-eds around the world, ‘pro-Palestinian’ commentators speak of ‘over 40 years of Occupation’ as if the unjust colonial appropriation of 78% of Palestinian land pre-1967 were somehow morally different from the occupation of the remainder of Palestine. Similarly, the estimated three quarters of a million Palestinians who were ethnically cleansedfrom their homes during al-Nakba and the 7 million or so Palestinians who were born as refugees followingthese events are treated as political lepers whose insistence upon their rights, including the Right of Return,is regarded as quixotic and even malicious.
It is not too late to go back to the beginning and look at all this again, but this time through Palestinian eyes. Look at how this began, how it developed, how it is sustained, and how it progresses today throughthe ongoing Nakba. Without hearing the voices of Palestine’s refugees, and listening to their stories with a clear eye on the historical and contemporary context, the voices of the vast majority of all Palestinians alive in the world today will continue to be ignored.
– Rich Wiles is a photographic artist, independent writer, and activist based in Palestine. His latest book is ‘Behind the Wall: Life, Love and Struggle in Palestine’ (Potomac 2010). He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Visit: www.richwiles.com. (This article was commissioned by Al Majdal Magazine.)