An irreducible fact
In the face of the most sustained assault on the collective memory of a people in recent history, the Palestinians still remember who they are, writes Ramzy Baroud*
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Palestinian refugees fleeing Gaza by boat to the safe haven of Egypt; Palestinian boys studying amid the deplorable conditions of an UNRWA refugee camp; The advert that appeared in several Western publications
Don't ask for what you never had: that is what Israel's supporters mean when they claim Palestine was never a state to begin with.
The contention is, of course, easily refutable. Following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century the colonial powers plotted to divide the spoils. When Britain and France signed the secretive Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, which divided spheres of influence in the Near East, there were hardly any nation states in the region, certainly not recognisable according to the definitions of today. All the borders were colonial concoctions that served the interests of those countries seeking to consolidate their political and economic control. Most of Africa and much of Asia were victims of this colonial scramble which disfigured their geo-political and subsequently socio-economic composition.
But the Palestinians, like many other peoples, did see themselves as a unique group linked historically to a specific geographic entity. All That Remains, by Professor Walid Khalidi, is but one volume that documents the thriving history of Palestine and the Palestinian people pre-Israel. Such history is often overlooked, if not entirely dismissed. Some choose to believe that no other civilisation ever existed in Palestine, either prior to the building of the Second Temple or after its presumed destruction by the Romans in 70 CE, until the founding of Israel in 1948. But what about irrefutable facts? The Israeli Jerusalem Post was called the Palestine Post when it was founded in 1932. Why Palestine and not Israel? The answer is obvious.
It isn't the denial or acceptance of Israel's existence that concerns me. Israel does exist, even if it refuses to define its borders or acknowledge the injustices it has committed against the Palestinian people. The systematic and brutal ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinian Christians and Muslims from 1947 to 1948 is what produced a Jewish majority in Palestine and subsequently the Jewish state of Israel.
Also worth remembering are the systematic attempts at dehumanising Palestinians and denying them any rights. When Ehud Barak, prime minister of Israel at the time, compared Palestinians in a Jerusalem Post interview (August 2000) to "crocodiles, the more you give them meat, they want more", he was joining a consistent Zionist tradition that equates Palestinians with animals and vermin. Another prime minister, Menahim Begin, referred to Palestinians in a Knesset speech as "beasts walking on two legs". They have also been described as "grasshoppers", "cockroaches" and more by famed Israeli statesmen.
Disturbingly, such references might be seen as an improvement on former prime minister Golda Meir's claim that, "there were no such thing as Palestinians... they did not exist." (15 June, 1969)
To justify its own existence Israel has long forced its citizens to live a kind of collective amnesia. Do Israelis realise they live on the rubble of hundreds of Palestinian villages and towns, each destroyed during the bloody ethnic cleansing of nearly 800,000 Palestinians?
As Israel celebrates its 60th birthday nothing is allowed to blemish the supposed heroism of its founding fathers or those who fought in its name. Palestine, the Palestinians, and an immeasurably long relationship between a people and their land hardly merit a pause as Israeli officials and their Western counterparts carry on with their festivities.
While some conveniently forget many chapters pertinent to the suffering of Palestinians, Israeli leaders -- especially those who took part in the colonisation of Palestine -- were fully aware of what they did. David Ben- Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, warned in 1948, "We must do everything to insure they [the Palestinians] never do return." By ensuring that Palestinians were cut off from their land Ben-Gurion hoped that time would take care of the rest. "The old will die and the young will forget," he said.
Moshe Dayan, a former Israeli defence minister, also had no illusions regarding the real history of Israel's "momentous" achievements. His speech at the Technion in Haifa (4 April, 1969) was quoted in the Israeli daily Haaretz thus: "We came here to a country that was populated by Arabs and we are building here a Hebrew, a Jewish state; instead of the Arab villages, Jewish villages were established. You do not even know the names of those villages, and I do not blame you because these villages no longer exist. There is not a single Jewish settlement that was not established in the place of a former Arab village."
Since its foundation Israel has laboured to undermine any sense of Palestinian identity. Without most of their historic land the relationship between Palestinians and Palestine could only exist in memory. Eventually, though, memory managed to morph into a collective identity that has proved more durable than physical existence on the land. "It is a testimony to the tenacity of Palestinians that they have kept alive a sense of nationhood in the face of so much adversity. Yet the obstacles to sustaining their cohesiveness as a people are today greater than ever," reported the Economist (8 May 2008).
Living in so many disconnected areas, removed from their land, detached from one another, Palestinians have not just been oppressed physically by Israel, but physiologically as well. There are attempts from all directions to force them to simply concede, forget and move on. It is the Palestinian people's rejection of such notions that makes Israel's victory and "independence" superficial and unconvincing.
Sixty years after their catastrophe (Nakba), Palestinians still remember their past and present injustices. But more than mere remembrance is necessary; Palestinians need to find a common ground for unity -- Christians and Muslims, poor and rich, secularist and religious -- in order to stop Israel from eagerly exploiting their own disunity, factionalism and political tribalism. Yet despite Israel's hopes and best efforts Palestinians have not yet forgotten who they are. No amount of denial can change that.
* The writer is editor of PalestineChronicle.com .