Mustafa al-Hallaj, Self-Portrait as God, the Devil, and Man (1994 – 2002)
Words by Sara Mohtaseb
Despite Israel’s best efforts, on this day Palestinians in historic Palestine, the Occupied Territories and the diaspora commemorate the anniversary of the Nakba or Catastrophe signifying the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on the 14th of May 1948. This establishment was made possible, however, by previous colonial and imperialist endeavours: the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 not only saw the French and British division and consequential weakening of the Arab Middle East, it also put Arab and in this case Palestinian self-determination and agency into the hands of the British empire. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 made a pre-emptive promise to Baron Rothschild, who in 1923 set up the ‘Palestine Jewish Colonization Association’, of the land of Palestine as a future home for the Jewish people. The history of British imperialism in Palestine then is steeped in both the exploitation of resources and, significantly, Zionism. The foundations of the Catastrophe were thus set at least as early as 1916.
The term Nakba is rooted in the word nakabah, meaning ‘to make miserable’. This misery was inflicted on the Palestinians by the events of 1947 (the UN Partition Plan) and 1948, and continues to exist today predominantly in the absolute destruction of Palestine both militarily, with the destruction of villages and towns and the massacre of their Palestinian inhabitants, and symbolically, with the negation of Palestinian culture and history in order to create an Israeli national narrative disassociated from their settler-colonial reality. Of the several hundred massacres and towns depopulated that took place, I will focus on the events leading to the Lydda ‘death march’ in the year of the Nakba, for the selfish reason that my father was one of the children lucky enough to survive the march and find his way to Jericho with his family to begin life as refugees. In Lydda on July 12th 1948, after the massacre of around 80 Palestinians the day before, Moshe Dayan’s militia opened fire on the Dahmash Mosque, directly facing the Al-Khader or St. George’s Church, executing nearly 250 Palestinians. After forcing surviving Palestinians to clean up the bodies, these Palestinians were also murdered. Those who subsequently fled Lydda experienced what has been described as a ‘death march’, walking to places such as Ramallah and Jericho in the summer heat resulting in the deaths of many of the elderly and children. Israel as a nation-state was thus conceived on the foundations of the mass, indiscriminate and brutal killings of the Palestinians, presenting them with an ultimatum: stay and risk the execution of entire families and villages, or leave and, as it turned out, remain in lifelong exile.
This insurrectional violence however was followed by the co-option and attempted negation of both Palestinian autonomy and the Palestinian narrative. As Amal Amireh puts it, echoing the Palestinian writer Anton Shammas, “The Palestinians have been denied not only a homeland, but also the ‘permission to narrate’.” This is not only highlighted in the alteration of Palestinian town and road names into Hebrew names, it is elucidated most clearly in the assassinations of Palestinian political activists and cultural producers such as the Acca-born exilic writer Ghassan Kanafani, killed alongside his niece in Beirut by a bomb planted in his car in 1972. This desire to erase a Palestinian narrative and expressions of Palestinian identity are also manifested in the deliberate destruction of tens of thousands of books in 1958 and the plundering of archives from the Palestine Research Centre in Beirut by Israel in 1982 which were shipped over to Tel-Aviv. The attempt to negate the Palestinian narrative and history continues today, with laws such as the ‘Nakba Law’ passed in 2011 stating that the Finance Minister can cut government funding to organisations that engage in activities such as commemorating the Nakba rather than celebrating ‘Independence Day’, along with other activities denying the democratic nature of Israel. Initially, the legislation gave a three-year prison sentence to anyone publicly commemorating the Nakba. Legislation such as this, along with the irony of censoring those who question the democratic nature of Israel, is clearly aimed at further marginalising and silencing its Palestinian minority who are being told to forget the history of massacres and mass exodus and accept the constructed national history of Israel.
The Catastrophe, then, continues. With Palestinian identity within historic Palestine being repressed by the state of Israel, we, Palestinians within Israel, the Occupied Territories, and the diaspora, have no strong leadership or even popular political movement to turn to. Indeed, modern Palestinian history has consisted of recurring nakbas, some more or less catastrophic than others: the Oslo Accords of 1993, for instance, mark a significant moment in history described by Edward Said as “the degrading spectacle of Yasser Arafat thanking everyone for the suspension of most of his people’s rights”. The PLO cemented its position as a political movement that alienates and is totally unrepresentative of the refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon who experienced such atrocities as the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982 and Black September of 1970, as well as acting in direct collaboration with Israel to serve the interests of the elite while keeping the working class or unemployed barely above the poverty line. The Open Door neo-liberal policy that exists today, upheld by the PNA and otherwise known now as Fayyadism, has created an economy absolutely dependent on Israeli loans and international, often state-funded, donors, providing conditional funding (with the condition that there is no attempt at resistance) and a sedated and inert population. This coupled with Mahmoud Abbas’ statement in November 2012 publicly relinquishing his right of return to Safad suggests that the first step toward the end of the Nakba must be the overthrow of the PNA and figures such as Abbas and Bashar Masri, the Palestinian entrepreneur backing the construction of the ‘New Palestinian city’ Rawabi using construction materials from Israel and creating additional business opportunities for the US. Palestine and other Arab nations that have been victims of imperialism such as Iraq and Libya have thus far been opened up as havens for international corporations, with NGO catchphrases such as “Grab yourself a slice of Palestinian culture!” translating in the global market as “Grab yourself natural resources, cheap labour and business opportunities!”.
With the continuous expansion of Israeli settlements throughout the country and the thousands of demolitions that have taken place or that are due to take place, such as the most recent Prawer-Begin Plan (May 6th 2013) aiming to make the Negev “as clean as possible of Bedouin”. Palestine is shrinking and with it – the possibility of return. What we need now is a cohesive movement rejecting those figures falsely representing the Palestinians, who are instead exploiting both the land and its people, seizing what they can while it is still possible. It is only then that we will be able to form an alternative movement with the aim of, rather than normalising the Occupation and its dehumanisation of the Palestinians, achieving self-determination, the end of the Occupation, and with it the end of our Nakba.