Al-Ahram WeeklySpecial pages commemorating
50 years of Arab dispossession
since the creation of the
State of Israel
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

50 Years


One event, two signs

On the one hand, "calamity"; on the other, "liberation". How can two contradictory narratives be reconciled in a common destiny? Hassan Khader investigates the semiotic sleights-of-hand which serve to obscure the historic responsibilities -- and to obstruct the creation of a future.
Language is a mode of communication between a transmitter and a receiver. It is also a vehicle for thought, fantasy and dreams. The reality we attempt to describe is not immune to the emotional and political dynamics we project on it. Rather, in our linguistic representations of reality, we transform language into a system for encoding, at both the individual and collective levels. As the purpose of communication develops and as the features of reality increase in complexity and grow ever more intricately intertwined with present interests and historical and social ramifications, the more convoluted become the masks that we affix upon reality and the more difficult becomes the task of freeing it from attempts to alter or obliterate it.

The purpose of this article is to analyse the linguistic signs in Palestinian and Israeli discourse concerning the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The comparison involved in this context is not intended to place two narratives in a state of conflict on equal footing, but rather to treat their respective representations of an event that occurred at a specific time and place and to shed light on the implications of the elimination of a specific signification or the selection of another signification for an historical event experienced by both sides.

Driven back under the earth
Driven back into the earth: A 1949 AP photo with the caption "Some 216,000 of the poorest of the estimated million Arab refugees are living now in Gaza"
The Zionist Commission
Fresh off the train of modernity: The Zionist Commission arriving in Palestine, 1948

The Palestinians have epitomized their defeat in the War of 1948, their loss of large portions of their country, the transformation of the greater majority of them into refugees and the collapse of their political, geographical and social entity in the word nakba (calamity). Lisan al-Arab lists numerous synonyms for the word ((which may be rendered in English variously as: -- and then leave out the transliterated Arabic -- ) among which are: hadath (misfortune), naa'iba (vicissitude), nawba (evil turn of fate), riziya (heavy loss), aamma (cataclysmic disaster), ghaashiya (oppressive misery), jaa'iha (devastation), mulimma (tribulation), aariqa (sudden affliction) , haaqa (infliction), and naaqira (grievous hardship). It defines nakbaa' , derived from the same triliteral root, as "any of the four winds that shifts madly, wreaking havoc among the winds, so as to engulf the land and wreak great devastation."

The connotative significance of all these synonyms taken together is, firstly, a deference to nature, with all its latent violence and its impetuosity; secondly, a resignation to the vicissitudes of fate; and, thirdly, a relinquishment of responsibility for the catastrophe.

Do we find in the Palestinians struggle against the Jewish settlement movement, which began in the late 19th century and which was interspersed with violent confrontations and dire predictions for the future, and which engendered the emergence of political parties and organizations, cause to support the element of surprise and the arbitrariness of fate? Or is there cause to entertain the notions of a gradual decay in forces and a disposition to the necessary elements for defeat?

In the conflict that arose between an immigrant settler minority and an indigent majority, which eventually led to the defeat and expulsion of the majority, were there elements to suggest an oncoming catastrophe? Could there be a question of historic responsibility, in light of which the entire Palestinian entity (before 1948), with all its social, political, cultural and economic institutions, might be subject to accountability, revision and criticism?

The sign, nakba, represents an attempt to hone in on the human drama entailed in the event and to transform it into a key for discourse. The attempt was nurtured by two phenomena: the absence of critical Palestinian self-analysis and the birth of a body of literature heavily imbued with a longing for a lost paradise. This literature is inhabited by refugees whose tents are tattered by the winds, whose hearts burn for revenge, and who suffer the degradation of having to live off foreign relief assistance as they await the day of salvation.

This was the context that gave birth to the Palestinian refugee denizen of the literary text, and, with him, to Palestine. Palestine, in reality, was never a paradise; nor was it lost. It was a remote part of the Ottoman Empire, inhabited by poor peasant-farmers. The West Bank and Gaza, which were in and of Palestine, possessed the constituent elements for the perpetuity of Palestinian existence that might have stemmed the deterioration resulting from the annihilation of the larger entity.

However, for the idea of nakba to be complete, the idea of entity could not exist. Consequently, 'refugee' became the catchword for identity, which in turn required ignoring the existence of approximately 180,000 Palestinians who remained in that portion of Palestine that was lost. Their continued presence in their country was not viewed as proof of the impossibility of uprooting a people from their land, or as proof of their attachment to their land. Rather it was viewed as cause for embarrassment due to the certain contamination engendered by their daily contact with the usurpers of the land.

Although the land was the object of the conflict between the Jewish minority and the Palestinian minority, it was not to be found with the literary refugee. Nor was it in Palestine, as the object of mental abstractions incapable of depleting the significations of paradise. The irony is that the Palestinian identity that became rampant in the seventies, with its revival and glorification of the land , was, in fact, the new utopia created by the manufacturers of Palestinian identity who grew up and thrived in Galilee, not in the refugee tents (e.g.: Emil Habibi, Mahmoud Darwish, Samih Qasem, etc.)

If the use of nakba had conformed to the circumstances that afflicted a society consisting largely of peasant farmers, the conversion of this sign into hard political currency did not occur with the same measure of innocence or spontaneity. Following the 1948 defeat, the Palestinian question became an Arab question. The remainder of Palestine had fallen under the administration of two Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan), large numbers of Palestinian refugees had fled to these and other Arab countries, an the defeat of the Arab armies left a widespread and deeply felt rancor. The Palestine issue was thus absorbed into the movement of the social elite in the Arab world, particularly in those countries bordering on Palestine where the blame for defeat and the loss of Palestine was cast on defective weapons and treachery. At the Arab level, therefore, the signification of nakba was reinforced. It became essential for the incitement and mobilization of opinion within the context of the domestic power struggle, in which faulty weapons and treachery were the catchwords for toppling some of the existing regimes. This process in turn required that the question of Palestinian accountability be shunted aside and turned into a technicality that could be resolved with non-defective weapons and patriotic rulers. For their part, the Palestinians took on board entire excerpts of the Arab narrative and merged them with their own, as new evidence of their commitment to their national-Arab identity.

It is only possible to understand the sudden radicalism that pervaded the discourse of the Palestinians following the Arab defeat in June 1967 as a backlash against the Arab narrative which had countered in many ways the Palestinian ontological existence. It is only possible to understand the Palestinians' insistence on political autonomy, their assault on the idea of the refugee, their elevation of the refugee camp from a place of misery and degradation to a production plant for freedom fighters and the birth of the idea of the state at the expense of the idea of paradise as a retaliation against the two intervening decades between 1948 and 1967 and as a reproach against their social and political leaders.

If, for the Palestinians, the sign, nakba, had as its reference the vicissitudes of 'nature', for the Zionists 'history' served as the reference out of which they modeled two designations for the event of 1948: "independence" and "liberation." It is impossible to understand the relationship between these two terms and the victory of a minority of immigrant settlers over an indigenous majority population outside of the context of Zionist discourse itself. This discourse is suffused with the notion of normalising Jewish life, of transforming the Jews from a religious group outside history to a national group that acts on history and is acted upon by history in the same manner as other national groups.

"Independence" in this context renders three signfications. Firstly, it identifies the Zionist movement with the other national liberation movements in the wake of World War II. Secondly, it locates the Jewish settler drive in Palestine in history as the last and most recent manifestation of the purported Jewish continuity with this land from the collapse of the Jewish entity in AD 70 until the first half of the 20th century. Thirdly, it elevates the notion of statehood advocated by a handful of Jews from Eastern Europe to a vanguard movement that rests its political enterprise on the ontology of a people as a pre-existing nation (though without a land).

For this sign to be complete, certain facts that would undermine the possibility of normalising Jewish life would have to be excluded. Customary political thought presupposes existence of a people as proof of the existence of a nationalist movement. In Zionism the equation is inverted, whereby the existence of a national movement became proof of the existence of a people. Normally a nation of people projects itself onto the land it inhabits. Zionism required the land in order to project itself onto the people.

Even with this conceptual inversion the Zionists could not stretch the sign ('independence') to its absurdest limits: to signify the liberation of Palestine from Palestinians and the realization of Israeli independence with the overthrow of a Palestinian occupation of the land. The Zionist classics, including Hertzle's The Jewish State, speak of the "Jewish settlement fund in Palestine" and the possibility of buying the land from the Ottoman authorities or obtaining the land under international guarantees. Never before in history has a national liberation movement had to buy its own nation. Nor could a demographic minority that had been living on the land for only a matter of decades and that controlled less than seven per cent of that land possess sufficient historical or nationalist cause to comport itself as a national liberation movement in this sense.

Consequently, Zionist discourse suppressed its conflict with the Palestinians and transformed the Palestinian uprisings into disturbances instigated by armed Arab groups. It excluded the Palestinians from the dynamic of colonialism and liberation and accorded this significance to the British. Thus, three decades of the British mandate in Palestine became the "colonial era" and the operations mounted by the Zionist gangs against the British forces became the primary expression of the Jewish war of liberation and independence in Palestine. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that the British were the fathers of the Balfour Declaration and the original guarantors of the Jewish settler movement in Palestine.

The Zionist narrative thus transformed its conflict with the Palestinians into a quirk of fate: two rival nationalist movements had emerged in the same place at the same time, along with the consequent misunderstanding and inability to seek a mode of cooperation against the British occupiers. As for the expulsion of the majority of the indigenous population, it was the tragic result of the Arab military intervention intended to dislodge the nascent Jewish "independent" entity. The subsequent objective existence of refugees became, in turn, a political device, invented by Arab states for the purposes of perpetual agitation against Israel.

In spite of its inherent contradictions and aberration of history , the notion of "independence" is still a central sign in Israeli narrative and discourse. Nevertheless, in the new generation of (Israeli) historians and social scientists, it is possible to come across new developments, the results of which are difficult to predict, but which suggest that the official narrative has depleted many of its ideological defenses and ideological fallacies. These developments have revolved around two points: te investigation into the origins of the Palestinian refugee problem and the reexamination of the Zionist movement's omission of the Palestinians until 1948. These inquiries have yielded a recognition of the centrality of the Zionist conflict, not with the British, but with the Palestinians in conjunction with a realization that the Zionist leaders can not be exonerated of their responsibility for the expulsion of the Palestinians and for ignoring their nationalist ambitions at the time of the British protectorate. Even if they only exist within a narrow scope of academicians, the importance of these developments can not be underestimated as they intersect with the anxieties and qualms that have emerged in the works of a number of Israeli novelists and poets over the past three decades.

The process of linguistic codification is intertwined with a range of cultural elements, among which are the relationship of a specific culture with itself, the extent of its capacity for self-criticism and the relative importance of a specific linguistic sign at a specific time and place for the cultural group in question. However, the sign is not immutable. It is perpetually mutating, which explains the constant change in beliefs in various societies.

While nakba may have shrouded what the Palestinians were incapable of doing or expressing five decades ago, their present circumstances are very different. The current minority-majority conflict in Palestine is in need of a revision of its signs. Specifically the problem summons a restoration of the former element of demographic superiority. The lost Palestine will never return. As for the real Palestine, it exists in the Palestine of today with its particular demographic, cultural and linguistic characteristics and notably with its narrow majority of Jews and its Palestinian minority that stands to become a demographic majority within a few decades.

What occurred five decades ago, apart from the human drama, was that Palestinian sovereignty over the land was violently wrested away and supplanted by a model for exclusive Jewish statehood. The displaced Palestinians did not counter with a model of statehood of their own until the latter half of the seventies. Even then they were incapable of elevating that model from the status of a political slogan to a sign of significance in their own narrative of events and, sadly, it was forgotten in the rush of subsequent political developments.

The Palestinians still have the task of deriving a model of statehood capable of solving the Palestinian-Jewish question. Today, this task appears more urgent than ever. This year the Palestinians have been commemorating the passage of fifty years since they lost their country. If the aim of this attention is to incite the collective memory to defend the land of its identity by invoking the names of more Palestinian villages that were eradicated and the human suffering that this engendered, then we must conclude that the war juxtaposing the Palestinian memory against the Zionist colonizer still dominates the Palestinian mindset at the threshold to the next fifty years after the elimination of the Palestinian political entity. The rationale that regenerates the search for the lost Paradise may have its advantages, but only if we distance ourselves from the memories of bitterness and grief engendered by reality in the past which alienate us further from reality today.

The backlash against the sign, nakba, offers proof that the Palestinian narrative has reached the age of maturity. Every narrative of what happened inherently contains proposals of what should be. The way in which we narrate our stories determines the end we want to hear. The conflict between two stories - between the Palestinian and Israeli narratives - is the essence and the key to the conflict. I do not believe that the rifts that have emerged in the Israeli narrative of the event should remain a purely Israeli concern. On the contrary, we should make these rifts into one of our most important priorities. The more we can contribute to expanding those rifts and to discovering the potential they offer, the closer we will come to the perception of the end we seek.

We who are alive today and who have experienced the war between Palestinian memory and the Zionist colonizers will not live to see the end of the next fifty years. However we can start to think about what it should be like and to sew the seeds for what our children will reap half a century from now. Palestine will always be where it is. The problem will be how to judge those who have not understood the lessons of the past and remain mired in the repetition of the mistakes of that past.

* Hasan Khader is the recipient of this years Palestine Award for best newspaper writing and is an expert on Israeli literature. He has published a study on the subject "Hawiyyat al Akhar" (1996, Ittihad el Kuttab publications), & translated a novel by David Grossman

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