Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 -19 May 2004
Issue No. 690
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fifty-six years have passed since Palestinian lands were usurped and the exodus of thousands of families began. Generation after generation has been consigned to refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries. Wars, international resolutions and countless peace initiatives have attempted to put an end to the Palestinian experience of suppression, violence and displacement. Marking the anniversary of the nakba, Palestinian writers address history and the present
Azmi Bishara

Searching for meaning

The nakba was not just a tragic moment in the history of Palestinians, but touches the core of the struggle -- now as in the past -- for Arab dignity, identity and justice in the face of power, writes Azmi Bishara

Click to view caption
A woman weeps for Nahed Abu Haddaf, 23, a Palestinian civilian killed by Israeli soldiers in Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Monday. Haddaf was caught in crossfire between Palestinian resistance groups and Israeli troops (photo: AP)

The Palestinian people fell under Israeli occupation just as the Third World liberation movement was getting under way, and the more that movement progressed the more complex the Palestinian problem became. The Palestinian plight has much in common with other Third World nationalist causes, but the factors that have aggravated its complexity are unique to it.

On the one hand, the Palestinian problem is inextricably linked with the problem of European Jewry, a factor that has made it difficult for the international community to treat this issue as an ordinary case of colonialist occupation. In addition to the fact that there is no "mother" colonial power of which Israel is a part, the world has had to come to terms with the horror of the attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe and the ramifications of this not only in terms of the nature of anti-Semitism, but in terms of the larger context of the question of minorities, democracy and the separation of church and state.

On the other hand, the Palestinian cause is also inextricably linked with the rise of Arab nationalism, which, in turn, has blurred the boundaries between Palestinians as a discrete population under direct occupation and Palestinians as part of a supranational entity consisting of 22 sovereign states. This confusion has given rise to a paradox: Palestinian people as part of a wider nation that could not deal with occupied Palestine as a distinct one.

For the Arabs, the Palestinian cause has acquired a symbolic power of unimaginable scope. It is the cause that justifies demonstrations in nations in which hunger is not sufficient grounds for protest and in which the only solace against tyranny is to pull out one's hair. Only the Palestinian cause has the power to become a rallying call for all Arabs; that is, when the Palestinians decide to confront oppression by themselves. Then, the lines of right and wrong are clear and sharp, sharp enough to cleave those furrows in the arid desert of Arab political life into which can be poured all those frustrations, all that resentment, all those grievances against injustice, whether that injustice is local in origin and projected abroad or taking place abroad but making things too uncomfortable at home. The Arab faith in the Palestinian cause is such that it has come to represent all usurped Arab rights. So strong is this faith that it has become the refuge from all internal contradictions and evolved its own liturgy of pain and hope, an exquisite range of litanies, recited as much as Arabic or Latin prayers, voice the supplications of unmarried women, the plaints of the elderly and the hopes of the poor.

It has been 56 years now and we are still trying to pinpoint "the meaning of the catastrophe" -- the "catastrophe" or nakba standing for the war of 1948 and the creation of Israel. This is our stone of Sisyphus, and the task of pushing it has passed from one movement to the other, and in each case no sooner did a movement's ideologues exclaim, "I found it!" than the stone came rolling back down to a lower world again with a resounding crash. After the "catastrophe" came the "calamity" -- the naksa, referring to the Arab defeat in 1967 -- and then followed the steady erosion encapsulated in headlines that invariably began with "crisis" and ended with "what next?" This obsession with "the meaning of the catastrophe" brings to mind that unanswerable question posed in the era of Arab enlightenment: "Why did the West advance and the Muslims fall behind?" The variables are endless, so much so that one despairs of an answer and feels that instead of asking "why" it would be more fruitful to concentrate on such questions as "what should we do now" and "how do we advance towards the aim implicit in the quest for the meaning of the catastrophe?"

The Palestinian nakba was not an act of God, of course. To explain it, therefore, should be within our rational powers. Nor is it synonymous with "death", for which reason there is no sense in deriving the tasks of the Arab community from this purported meaning. We do not live in order to die; we live because we presume that life has meaning and that death assumes meaning only when life has lost its meaning.

We did not strive for Arab unity for its own sake, but as a means to confront the nakba. We did not pursue the "democratic option" out of a commitment to democracy, but as an instrument for countering the naksa. Even the Islamic option has had to pose itself as the only way to stem the tide of catastrophes and calamities in order to be convincing. Our definition of nakba has changed with every new ideology and every new definition necessitated a change in means. However, the challenge itself remains the same, immutable, perpetually taunting, regardless of the means that were defeated in our own societies before they ever had a chance of being tested against the adversary that arose on the ruins of the nakba.

Israel, on the other hand, did develop a unified national identity as a tool to use against the Arabs, but rather because, for the Zionists, it was the only way to organise a modern state. Transforming the Jews into a single people like other peoples, as Herzl put it, was a Zionist ideal. Israel did not choose democracy and the sovereignty of law for its society because the Arabs were out there, but because democracy, as a political-cultural system that regulates the relationship between the individual, society and the state, was perceived as the optimum way to produce the type of human being a modern society needs.

The Arabs should contemplate the relationship between the absence of Arab nationalism, democracy and the sovereignty of law and human dignity and the rights of citizenship. We should contemplate the meaning of rampant bribery and corruption and how they fly in the face of concepts of modernism and modernisation, the principle of the right type of human being for a society at a particular time, and the notion of a decision-making process based on criteria that are not extraneous to the subject at hand. The questions we ask ourselves on this set of issues should not be posed as derivatives from the Arab-Israeli conflict or the nakba, but as questions that need to be asked in their own right if we are to help ourselves. Even if there exists a historic relationship between this set of issues and the Arab-Israeli conflict, we must make the effort to separate the two structurally and functionally. Only then will our answer to the meaning of the nakba derive from the circumstances, needs and capacities of contemporary Arab society.

In this sense, Arab solidarity with Palestinian liberation, if structured upon a solid strategy, should not only lead to the "liberation of Jerusalem" and the liberation of the Palestinians, but also contribute to the liberation of the Arab human being. Marx wrote that the Jews of Europe would be liberated when Europe freed itself of its Jewish complex. In like vein, the Palestinians will be liberated when the Arab world rids itself of its Palestinian complex, ie when it frees its will from the chains that bind it, from colonialist dependency on ignorance, myth and superstition.

Palestinian society was uprooted as the population moved from the Palestinian coast to the upland interior; its urban life was destroyed and along with it the dream that the Palestinian elite and middle classes had cherished between the two world wars to build an independent, modern nation. The Palestinian farmer who had pitted his hoe against the terrain of this land was torn from this eternal struggle and from his connection with the land. His small dreams were interwoven with the fragrance of the place and the sluggish passage of time marked by the rotation of seasonal rites. Now his dreams were political dreams, contingent upon the will of politicians, balances of power and international resolutions, and his rites were now the seasonal conferences calling for "return" and the portable transistor promising liberation. The fragrance of place was relegated to nostalgia.

Just as the nakba wrought a break in modern Palestinian history, it wrought a break in Arab modern history, because afterwards one of the repercussions of the reactions to it was the ascendancy of the dialectic with the outside -- the enemy -- over the internal dialectic. The Arabs were shocked by what happened, but that collective shock marked the beginning of an overdue pan-Arabism, albeit that this pan-Arabism manifested itself in regime-form rather than as an heir to that body of enlightened thought that was the legacy of the pan- Arab movement of the late 19th and early 20th century.

In all events, the Palestinians withdrew from the confines of place and embraced the lofty air of Arab time. They had been driven from 418 towns and villages that, before the diaspora, had been concentrating on how to unify their disparate rural times into a single national time that would be reflected on the land and in the face of the colonising power. They had fled to dozens of Arab cities that could not absorb them, because they could not even deal with themselves yet, so they -- the Palestinians -- were grouped into bundles of tents, which in turn became bundles of slums that they shared with rural migrants in the host country. Then, because the promise of Arab time failed to fulfill its promise of Arab unity, the Palestinian newcomers, once welcomed as strangers, were now scorned, much as a raped woman is shunned because, in spite of the horror at what befell her, the sense of shame is stronger than the sense of compassion. That did not mean, of course, that the Palestinians could not remain welcome guests for ideological purposes, and once they grasped this they barricaded themselves behind the ideology, even if this exacted the cost of masking bitter realities.

Ideology is a safe refuge for Arab regimes that take out their hostilities against other regimes on their citizens as though they were hostages. How do these regimes vent their hostilities against the undesirables from Palestine? With the paltry means at their disposal: make life hell for them at the borders. The story of Palestine after the nakba is the story of an entire generation that encountered hell at Arab borders. This was the generation that had once used nakba when talking about the death of a horse or a cow. Suddenly they had to comprehend the term in a sense they could never have imagined: the loss of their home, both in the narrow sense of the village homestead and in the broader sense of the political homeland. Nakba, too, became the calamity of homelessness, of wandering unimaginable distances in search of a shelter until the storm passes as they were promised.

We cannot forget the nakba because it derailed the course of Arab history and the history of the Arab individual. But, after 50-some years of constant Palestinian tragedy and Arab commiseration, we still find ourselves compelled to caution against regarding the nakba as an affliction of emasculation, the outlet for which is a collective hysteria that is sometimes directed against the Palestinians (as the ostensible cause for the crisis in 1948) and at other times shared with them (as the revivers of our national dignity in 1967). We must not transform the memory of the nakba into a collective exorcism, for this is to strip memory of its function in the process of identifying the causes behind our failure to modernise. We cannot forget the nakba because it transformed the calm and peaceful pursuit of the unification of a people that shares the same language, history and the modern dream of sovereignty into a screeching ideology that grows ever more strident the more our weaknesses and deficiencies appear through the gaps.

The nakba is not the memory of some lost paradise that existed beforehand. Palestine, like other countries of the Levant and the Arab world, was opening its eyes to modernism, acquainting itself with the rudiments of the modern world at the hands of the colonisers and their institutions, and through modern education and new technology from abroad. Palestinians were building cities, but most of their land was still rural and lacking the infrastructure to bind it together. Palestine as it stood then could never have fathomed the nakba, let alone the European and international causes behind it, and it is both ridiculous and unfair to pass judgment in hindsight on their refusal of the partition resolution at the time. When the nakba struck -- that is, when the Jewish Yishov leaders declared the independence of Israel and Israeli forces occupied portions of land that had been allocated to Palestine under the partition resolution -- the Palestinians had no power to resist, their strength having been sapped in the Intifada of 1936-1939. Nevertheless, they did try with whatever means at their disposal. But, neither they nor the neighbouring Arab regimes appreciated the size, force and organisation of the Zionist enterprise, which plunged into the fray not only with greater fire power but with greater numbers of troops -- and by greater numbers I mean more than all the Arab "armies" that fought in Palestine in 1948.

The Arab regimes were defeated in 1948 because they did not take part in the fighting or because their participation was governed by their internal and external conflicts and intrigues. The Palestinians were defeated because they underestimated their enemy's strength and because of poor timing. The Israelis won for many reasons, of which we have selected three: First, the Zionist homeland was a colonialist project that had been adopted as only one of the aims of the British mandate over Palestine. Second, European anti- Semitism had escalated to unprecedented proportions, as epitomised in the Nazi Holocaust. Third, the Zionist leadership had succeeded in building their own, viable political, economic and military institutions under the British mandate, and this leadership was pragmatic and rational enough to be able to assess its own strength against the enemy's, and to plan and time things accordingly.

The Arab memory of the nakba has chosen to deny these facts rather than face them. With regard to the first, it has argued variably that the British never knew where their "true interests" lay and that the nakba was a British-Zionist-Arab reactionary plot.

Arabs have been particularly clumsy with the second. If they didn't try to pretend that anti-Semitism had not existed in Europe, or claim that it was a Zionist invention, or minimise the scale and magnitude of the Holocaust, or by some leap of the imagination compare it to the nakba in Palestine, they said it was a black stain on Europe and the West that had nothing to do with the Arabs. No harm would have come from acknowledging the truth of what took place in Europe, for that reality does not morally justify uprooting another people outside of Europe. Moreover, the Arab handling of this issue could well be considered another cause of the nakba, because the Zionists exploited it so well.

Europe could only feel relief at the opportunity to shift the burden of guilt onto the Arabs, and Israel is only too glad to oblige by helping Europe avoid facing its past seriously and draw the connection between its Jewish problem then and its racism and xenophobia today. The Palestinians, unable to perceive this context, imagine that the interest Europe is displaying towards them reflects actual concern for them instead of the continued playing out of the Jewish question. The Palestinian cause has evolved into a global industry of seminars, conferences and dialogues revolving around Israel, the Jewish identity, and Jewish-Western relations, and the Palestinians have, unwittingly, been cast as extras. Not that this industry has not attracted an increasing segment of Arab and Palestinian elites who are thriving on "The Cause".

Arabs fared no better on the third reason for the Zionist victory in 1948. If they didn't attempt to deny the Zionist leadership's accomplishments outright, as though the Zionist military organisation and infrastructure were just a colonialist fabrication intended to serve as the imperialist spearhead in the region, and as though its democratic institutions were no more than a propaganda gambit, they went to the other extreme and cowered before the Zionist establishment as though before a divinely visited plague bent on crushing everything that stands in its way. Of course, we will always have those who try to prove themselves more sophisticated and urbane. They will tell you that they want peace with Israel, even at the cost of justice for the Palestinians and the Arabs, not because they admire Israel, but because what keeps Israel together is war and that once there is peace it will implode from within from the force of all its internal contradictions and tensions. Who do we think we're fooling?

The diversity of the Zionist polity is not a sign of weakness but of strength. It is indicative of the ability of a people, in spite of their diversity, to organise themselves on the basis of the rules of the democratic game and consensus over an established set of national principles, forged into a cohesive, working entity. The odd thing is that those people who came to Palestine did not come from a single national background or even, frequently, from a democratic culture. Yet, they succeeded in creating a national bond to serve as a basis on which to ground a democratic system for Jews in Israel while more than half a century after the nakba Arab countries are loath to respect the rules of democracy for fear of factionalism.

The memory of the nakba will not succeed in creating democratic institutions in the Arab world or in realising Arab unity, not so long as it is shaped by ideology, which is shaped by various interests, tailored by regimes, regurgitated in schoolbooks and reproduced in the desired form. Democratisation and unification entail first and foremost that we address the questions of dictatorship, the absence of the sovereignty of law and the lack of institutionalised government face on. We cannot begin to solve these questions until they become aims in their own right. This is not to say that the memory of the nakba is not necessary; it is as vital as water and air. The nakba, like the Sykes- Picot agreement and the 1967 war, mark stages in the formation of modern Palestinian and Arab identity, in all its positive and negative aspects.

The memory of the nakba has a political dimension that has rarely been considered in the "peace process" era, despite its fundamental bearings on that process. A Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza -- even a fully sovereign one -- cannot be held as a compromise solution unless we acknowledge that the Palestinian tragedy did not begin in 1967 but in 1948. Even a dual national state is a compromise solution from this perspective since it presumes the recognition of the fact that this country was Arab before it was subjected to a drawn out process of armed robbery in broad daylight in the 20th century. Twenty two per cent of the land is certainly a compromise when we bear in mind that the Palestinians lost 72 per cent of it.

Conversely, a compromise solution that takes the occupation of 1967 as its starting point would yield less than a state on the full area of the West Bank and Gaza and less than the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Recognition of the nakba, which is to say recognition of the historic injury that was visited upon the Palestinian people in 1948, is a prerequisite in the search for realising relative justice for this people (relative to what befell them in 1948). The memory of the nakba is vital, because its most salient by-product was the problem of refugees, which is still very much alive and waiting for a solution. There are some who are trying to drop this subject from the international, regional and national agenda, in spite of the fact that the Palestinians obtained international resolutions in their favour as refugees even before the international community recognised them as a people with a right to self-determination. To be a Palestinian refugee is not a form of escapism that can be worked out just as well in a five-star hotel, as some poets might have it. To be a Palestinian refugee is a permanent condition of statelessness, loss of fundamental rights and loss of hope; it is also to suffer the oversight or neglect of certain Palestinian elites who have lost faith and thrown themselves into the politics of salvaging something before everything is lost.

In some Arab countries Palestinian refugees are treated like dogs on the grounds that this keeps the memory of the nakba alive and that Palestinians should, therefore, remember that they are refugees. Unfortunately, this treatment is not a reminder but rather a perpetuation of the nakba. The Palestinians are not begging for citizenship, as might be imagined. Nor do they need to be whipped into remembering their villages and cities, the keys to their homes which are still being passed from father to son, as they continue to wait, torn between hope and despair.

The Palestinian cause is a case of colonialist apartheid. If a permanent and relatively just solution is not found, Israel will impose its own solution, which is to entrench its apartheid system through a unilateral disengagement that will leave the Palestinians in isolated cantons, without sovereignty over their land. Needless to say, an Israeli action of this sort, intended to isolate and surround Palestinians in less than 40 per cent of the West Bank (or at least this was Sharon's original plan and the basis for his understanding with Barak when forming a national unity government), is not destined to last. There will still be many points of contact -- along the ring roads, along Palestinian-Arab borders, through economic channels, not to mention through the confrontation that will still continue against the army and the settlements for those who are willing and find the means. Unilateral disengagement, therefore, is not a solution. Nor for that matter would be the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state, which under the present circumstances would not create a Palestinian state but rather legitimise the apartheid.

There are only two ways to end the apartheid. The first is to establish an independent Palestinian state in a manner that can be considered a truly historical settlement and not just a translation of the current balance of power. To produce this, the principles of relative justice and fairness based on the repercussions of the nakba must be taken into account. The second alternative is to work towards a democratic state that embraces two national identities. This solution is achievable in the long run if the pursuit of the first option fails to prove fair and realistic. However, it should be born in mind that this is a dual-national identity solution, not an Arab nationalist solution, and the Palestinian Intifada as it is currently being fought cannot accommodate it, focussed as it is on separation.

Perhaps now is the time to take a look at the self- deception that the Palestinian national liberation movement has exercised throughout the period in which it has focussed on the two-state solution, one Arab and one Jewish. Oddly, the Palestinian liberation movement is also adamant upon the right of return of Palestinian refugees to these two states, as though the hyphen in the formula of the "two-state solution" is sufficient to justify the logical leap. There is no way to secure the Palestinian right of return to a Jewish state through a negotiating process since it is inconceivable that the Jewish state would approve. The Palestinian liberation movement must make up its mind whether the creation of a Palestinian state without the right to return constitutes a historical settlement, as long as the state retains sovereignty over Al-Aqsa Mosque and as long as it has the right to accept Palestinian refugees within its own borders, or grant them passports and citizenship. But if it does make this concession, it will find that it will also be making concessions on the borders of 4 June 1967, on East Jerusalem and on Israeli withdrawal from the settlement complexes.

On the other hand, if it decides that a historical settlement resides in an impossible to achieve one- state solution because it is rejected both by Israelis and Palestinians, we will have a long battle ahead of us against apartheid and for equal citizenship of two peoples in the same nation, a battle in which national liberation and human liberation in Palestine converge. Not to worry. Israel, as a state and society, prefers perpetual war over this alternative, which, as we have said, is the democratic, dual- national identity option, which, inherently cannot be imposed unilaterally.

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