THIS MONTH ISRAEL will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of its independence. For Palestinians however, six decades of oppression and tyranny are nothing to make merry over. In this issue The Middle East looks back to 1948 and the Nakhba, or 'catastrophe', which saw the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and lands and the intervening years during which, despite scathing international rhetoric and damning UN resolutions, Israel continues its relentless persecution of the nation it dispossessed 60 years ago. The more I visit Israel and learn about its policies, the more I feel like I'm visiting an Orwellian, Kafkaesque Disneyland. As Israel gears up to celebrate its 60th birthday, to the critical outsider there is a disturbing sense of deliberate, collective amnesia in the air.
Denial seems to be Israel's modus operandi. Myths and mistruths have been used to legitimise and excuse its policies over the past six decades. If one scratches the surface to see what Israel's 60 years of statehood are built upon, it is largely the removal of centuries of Palestinian history and culture, meticulously obliterated and sanitised to allow for the Jews' mythical return to the Promised Land--that same legendary land without a people for a people without a land.
Palestinian villages and towns--over 530--were systematically depopulated, renamed and often destroyed by the emerging Israeli state. Over two-thirds of the indigenous inhabitants--some 750,000 Palestinians--were forcibly exiled and dispossessed of what was theirs by Jewish militias, in what Palestinians call the Nakhba ('catastrophe'). About half--380,000 Palestinians--were made refugees through a campaign of land expropriation and ethnic cleansing, called Plan D, for a month-and-a-half before neighbouring Arab countries intervened.
As western leaders and celebrities line up to party with Israel, few, if any, will comment or note the ongoing injustice and dispossession of the Palestinian people on the 60th anniversary of the Nakhba. Out of guilt and self-interest, western governments have helped perpetuate the "promised land" myth on which Israel has prospered, while largely ignoring the sacrifice of fundamental rights, as well as the hopes and aspirations of what are now 7m Palestinian refugees.
History, it is said, is written by the victor, and Israel's narrative has certainly enjoyed a monopoly these past six decades. Expect the following this month: Israel, the coloniser, will distort historical truths, dominate the media platforms on which it is presented to the world, and simultaneously project Israelis as the victims of ongoing Arab hatred and terrorism.
But fabricating the truth--whether by emptying, paving over and renaming villages or trying to silence voices--is bound to fail so long as there are people willing to speak out in the name of truth and justice. The voices that witnessed, experienced and participated in the profound injustices committed by Israel 60 years ago are being heard, and that narrative is gaining ground.
Bethlehem is home to three refugee camps: Aida, Azza and Deheishe. Each was set up by the United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNWRA) to give 'temporary' shelter to Palestinians forcibly displaced from their homes in 1948. Today, each is a warren of narrow, run-down streets and alleyways, with doorways from the roads opening to cramped, squalid homes. The clamour of competing noises, the dirty white concrete, the endemic poverty and the ubiquitous political graffiti are claustrophobic and oppressive.
But step inside a house and it is clear that, with their photographs, university degrees and cultural icons adorning the walls, these are homes in which love, life, procreation and mundane living unfold on a daily basis as they do across the rest of the world.
Umm Yunis unceremoniously empties the contents of a worn Manila envelope onto the wooden coffee table. Any futility or frustration she may feel in retelling her memories of the Nakbha are hidden by the warmth and hospitality that are customary in Palestinian homes. At 69, her lively, bright olive-coloured eyes still have a youthful warmth and sincerity about them. A photo of Umm Yunis and her late husband, looking like trendy newlyweds, hangs on the wall. Behind where Umm Yunis sits is a frame containing Quranic scripture. Outside it is overcast, a few small windows let weak sunlight into the cold room. The strong, aromatic scent of Arabic coffee fills the room and her son hands...