Remembering the palestinian nakba: commemoration, oral history and narratives of memory

[HLS 7.2 (2008) 123–156]DOI: 10.3366/E147494750800019X REMEMBERING THE PALESTINIAN NAKBA:
Dr Nur Masalha
Reader in Religion and Politics and Director of the Centre for Religion and History and the Holy Land Research Project School of Theology, Philosophy and History This year Palestinians commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nakba – themost traumatic catastrophe that ever befell them. The rupture of 1948 andthe ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nakba are central to both the Palestinian societyof today and Palestinian social history and collective identity. This articleexplores ways of remembering and commemorating the Nakba. It deals withthe issue within the context of Palestinian oral history, ‘social history frombelow’, narratives of memory and the formation of collective identity. Withthe history, rights and needs of the Palestinian refugees being excluded fromrecent Middle East peacemaking efforts and with the failure of both theIsraeli state and the international community to acknowledge the Nakba,‘1948’ as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ continues to underpin the Palestine-Israelconflict. This article argues that to write more truthfully about the Nakba isnot just to practice a professional historiography; it is also a moral imperativeof acknowledgement and redemption. The struggles of the refugees topublicise the truth about the Nakba is a vital way of protecting the refugees’rights and keeping the hope for peace with justice alive.
1948 was the year of the Nakba. It saw the establishment of a settler-colonial Zionist state on 78 percent of Mandatory Palestine. It alsosymbolised the Palestinian Nakba (the ‘disaster’ or ‘catastrophe’)1 – the 1 One of the first authors to label 1948 the Nakba was Dr Constantine Zurayk, a distinguished philosopher of Arab history and liberal intellectual, in his book The Meaning destruction of historic Palestine and ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Palestinians.
In 1948 the expulsion and dispossession of the Palestinians was carried outas an integral part of the infamous Plan Dalet and through the systematicuse of terror and a series of massacres, of which the massacre of DeirYasin in April 1948 was the most notorious. The Israeli state delegatesthe job of acquiring, settling and allocating land in the country to theJewish National Fund (JNF), a quasi-governmental racist institution whoseown mandate is to build a homeland for the Jewish people only (AbuHussein and Mckay 2003; Lehn and Davis 1988). This year Palestinians inBritain and throughout the world will commemorate the 60th anniversaryof the Nakba and will reflect on its real essence – as the most traumaticcatastrophe that ever befell the Palestinians.
The year of the Nakba is a key date in the history of the Palestinian people – a year of dramatic rupture in the continuity of historical spaceand time in Palestinian history. Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi likensthe Nakba to the ‘ineluctible climax of the preceding Zionist colonizationand the great watershed in the history of the Palestinian people, markingthe beginning of their Exodus and Diaspora’ (Khalidi 1992: xxxi).
As Palestinian scholar Elias Sanbar puts it: That year, a country and its people disappeared from maps and dictionaries. . . ‘The Palestinian people does not exist’, said the new masters, andhenceforth the Palestinians would be referred to by general, convenientlyvague, terms as either ‘refugees’, or in the case of a small minority that hadmanaged to escape the generalized expulsion, ‘Israeli Arabs’, a long absencewas beginning.2 Sanbar was referring to the infamous statement made by Israeli PrimeMinister Golda Meir in 19693 (Meir, who herself migrated to Palestine in1921, was born in the Ukraine as ‘Golda Mabovitch’ and was knownas ‘Golda Myerson’ from 1917 to 1956). Sanbar was also articulatingthe exclusion of the Palestinian Nakba (a mini-holocaust) from Westerndiscourses on Israel-Palestine. The Nakba has become in Palestinianhistory and collective memory the demarcation line between two of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), a self-critical analysis of the socio-economic causes of theArab defeat in 1948, written almost immediately after the 1948 war. The term also becamethe title of the monumental 6- volume work of Palestinian historian ‘Arif Al-‘Arif entitled:The Disaster: The Disaster of Jerusalem and the Lost Paradise 1947–52 [Al-Nakba: Nakbat Baytal-Maqdis Wal-Firdaws al-Mafqud, 1947–1952] (Beirut and Sidon, Lebanon: Al-Maktabaal-‘Asriyya, 1958–1960 [Arabic]).
2 Sanbar (2001: 87–94); Sa’di and Abu-Lughod (2007: 4); Sanbar (1984). Sanbar’s work is situated at the crossroads of personal and collective history. See Sanbar (1994; 1996; 2001;2004).
3 Sunday Times, 15 June 1969; The Washington Post, 16 June 1969.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba contrasting periods; it changed the lives of the Palestinians at theindividual and national levels drastically and irreversibly; it also continuesto inform and structure Palestinians’ lives (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007;Nabulsi 2006: 16). Denied the right to independence and statehood, thePalestinians were treated after 1948 as ‘refugees’ (lajiin in Arabic) – eitheras a ‘humanitarian problem’, deserving the support of international aidagencies and, more specifically, the United Nations Relief and WorksAgency (UNRWA) (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007; Sanbar 2001: 87–94),or as an ‘economic problem’ requiring ‘dissolution’ through resettlementand employment schemes (Masalha 2003).
The Nakba resulted in the destruction of much of Palestinian society, and much of the Arab landscape was obliterated by the Zionist state – astate created by the Ashkenazi Jewish Yishuv, a predominantly Europeansettler community that immigrated into Palestine in the period between1882 and 1948. From the territory occupied by the Israeli state in1948, about 90 percent of the Palestinians were driven out-many bypsychological warfare and/or military pressure and a very large numberat gun-point. The 1948 war simply provided the opportunity and thenecessary background for the creation of a Jewish state largely freeof Palestinians. It concentrated Jewish-Zionist minds, and provided thesecurity, military and strategic explanations and justifications for ‘purging’the Jewish state and dispossessing the Palestinian people.4 Today some70 per cent of the Palestinians are refugees; there are more thanfive million Palestinian refugees in the Middle East and many moreworldwide.
But the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nakba and the displacement of the Palestinians did not end with the 1948 war and the Israeli authoritiescontinued to ‘transfer’ and dispossess Palestinians during the 1950s(Masalha 1997; Boqa’i 2005: 73). Israel instituted a military governmentand declared Palestinian villages ‘closed military zones’ to preventdisplaced Palestinians from returning. The Israeli army and the JNFbecame the two Zionist institutions key to ensuring that the Palestinianrefugees were unable to return to their lands, through complicity in thedestruction of Palestinian villages and homes and their transformation intoJewish settlements, national parks, forests and even car parks. The JNFalso planted forests in the depopulated villages to ‘conceal’ Palestinianexistence (Boqa’i 2005: 73). In the post-1948 period the minority ofPalestinians (160,000) – who remained behind, many of them internallydisplaced – became second-class citizens, subject to a system of militaryadministration by a government that confiscated the bulk of their lands.
4 For extensive discussion of Zionist ethnic cleansing policies in 1948, see Masalha Today almost a quarter of the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are‘internal refugees’.5 The founding myths of Zionism and the Israeli state, which dictated the conceptual removal of Palestinians before, during and after their physicalremoval in 1948, and the invention of euphemisms such as ‘transfer’ and‘present absentees’, have been extensively discussed elsewhere.6 The mainfocus here is on ‘remembering’ the Nakba and commemorating its 60thanniversary within the context of Palestinian oral history and narratives ofmemory. Memory accounts of the traumatic events of 1948 are central toPalestinian history and the Palestinian society of today. With millions stillliving under Israeli occupation or in exile, the Nakba remains at the heartof Palestinian national identity (Nabulsi 2006: 16). Palestinians, hardlysurprisingly, perceive their catastrophe as something unique, after all theNakba brought about a dramatic rupture in modern Palestinian history.
Palestinian author Salman Abu Sitta’s description of the Nakba is a case inpoint: The Palestinian Nakba is unsurpassed in history. For a country to beoccupied by a foreign minority, emptied almost entirely of its people,its physical and cultural landmarks obliterated, its destruction hailed as amiraculous act of God and a victory for freedom and civilised values, alldone according to a premeditated plan, meticulously executed, financiallyand politically supported from abroad, and still maintained today, is no doubtunique (Abu Sitta 1998: 5).
Although the ocean of refugee suffering is bound to be perceived as unique by the Palestinian people, it is, however, resonant with all extremehuman suffering, including historic Jewish persecution and suffering inEurope. Surely the Nakba and ongoing Palestinian suffering are a reminderof the reality of the suffering of Jews in Europe. Some observers haveremarked that that it is precisely because of the Jewish Shoah that the truthabout the Nakba and the continuing horrific suffering of the Palestinianpeople have remained invisible to enlightened public opinion in the West(Davis 2003: 18). Of course acknowledging the truth of what took place inEurope can never morally justify the uprooting of another people outsideof Europe and the destruction of historic Palestine.
inside Israel’, see release by BADIL Resource Center, 6 November 2002 at: (accessed 25 March2008); also Kamen (1984: 5–91); Cohen (2000).
6 See Masalha (1992; 1997; 2000; 2005); Gabriel Piterberg, ‘Erasure,’ New Left Review 10 (July–August 2001), at: 16 September 2004).
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba Categories of Palestinian Refugees and the Internally
Displaced Population7
Reliable figures on the Palestinian refugee and displaced population arenot easy to find, as there is no centralised agency charged with maintainingthis data. UNRWA administers the only registration system for Palestinianrefugees. But UNRWA includes only those displaced in 1948 (and theirdescendants) who are in need of assistance and located in UNRWA areasof operation – the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
BADIL, a Bethlehem-based Palestinian non-governmental organisation,estimated that there were more than 7.2 million Palestinian refugeesand displaced persons at the end of 2005. This includes Palestinianrefugees displaced in 1948 and registered with the UNRWA (4.3 million);Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948 but not registered with UNRWA(1.7 million); Palestinian refugees displaced for the first time in 1967(834,000); 1948 internally displaced Palestinians in Israel (355,000); and,1967 internally displaced Palestinians (57,000).8 Categorisation and definition of the Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians across the Green Line have to be understood againstthe background of three different political entities and three differenthistorical periods: Mandatory and historic Palestine, the creation of theState of Israel in 1948, and the 1967 occupied territories. Delineatingthe difference between ‘refugees’ and ‘internally displaced’ Palestinians isfurther complicated due both to the lack of internationally recognisedboundaries between Israel and Palestine and to the fact that the Israelilegislature does not recognise the term ‘refugee’ (laji in Arabic) as far as thePalestinian Arab inside Israel is concerned (Davis: 2003: 100). There are,however, several distinct categories of Palestinian refugees and internallydisplaced Palestinians across the Green Line-the first and second categoriesare often referred to as ‘present absentees’, under the Absentees’ PropertyLaw of 1950.9 They are present physically but legally and conceptually 7 The author gratefully acknowledges the very useful information provided by Terry Rempel, of Badil Resource Center in Bethlehem, on the various categories of theinternally displaced.
9 The term relates to the status of the internally displaced under Israel’s 1950 Absentees’ Property Law. Laws of the State of Israel, Vol.4, Ordinances, 5710 (1949/50): 68–82. Theoriginal draft law was amended to prevent internally displaced Palestinians and thoserefugees in the West Bank and Gaza Strip from returning to their homes. In the caseof the latter, Israeli officials were concerned that if the West Bank and Gaza Strip fellunder Israeli jurisdiction in the future, Israel would be obligated to allow the refugees toreturn to their homes. For critical comments on the law, see Segev (1986: 80); Korn (1991:91–6); Gabriel Piterberg, ‘Erasure,’ New Left Review 10 (July–August 2001).
absent in relation to their homes and lands of origin. Acquiring theKafkaesque title of ‘present absentees’ (Masalha 2005a: 23), the internallydisplaced had their property and homes taken by the state, making themrefugees and exiles within their own homeland. To complicate matters ofcategorisation and definition, Palestinians internally displaced from west toeast Jerusalem in 1948, for example, were considered ‘refugees’ due to thecreation of a functional ‘border’ between the two sides of the city – i.e., the1949 armistice line. Setting aside the legal implications of Israel’s militaryoccupation of the West Bank (including east Jerusalem), and the GazaStrip, the removal of the physical barrier between west and east Jerusalemin 1967 would suggest that 1948 refugees from western Jerusalem residingin the eastern part of the city were no longer refugees but ‘internallydisplaced persons’. These general categories are: • 1948 Palestinian refugees: this is the largest category of refugees driven out from what became Israel in 1948 (over 5 million refugees, most ofthem residing in the UNRWA areas of operation – the Gaza Strip, WestBank, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria).
• 1948 Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel: the largest group of internally displaced Palestinians is located inside Israel and consists ofthose originally displaced and dispossessed of their homes and landsduring the 1948 war or immediately after. They originate primarilyfrom 44 villages located in northern Palestine.10 • Post-1948 Internally Displaced Palestinians: A second and smaller group consists of those Palestinians inside Israel who have been displacedsince 1948 due, primarily, to internal ‘transfer’ and eviction, landexpropriation, and house demolition. A large sector of this group iscomprised of Palestinian Bedouins in the Negev.11 • 1967 Internally Displaced Palestinians: A third category of internally displaced persons is comprised of those Palestinians displaced withinthe West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip during the1967 war. This does not include 1967 Palestinian refugees who are oftenreferred to as ‘1967 displaced persons’ due to the fact that at the timeof their displacement the West Bank was under Jordanian control – i.e.,they did not cross an ‘international border’ to seek shelter in Jordan.
• Post-1967 Internally Displaced Palestinians: The fourth category of internally displaced Palestinians are those Palestinians displaced withinthe West Bank, east Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip after 1967 due toland expropriation, house demolition, revocation of residency rights in 10 ‘Overview: Palestinian Internally Displaced Persons inside Israel’, BADIL Resource Center, 6 November 2002 at: (accessed 25 March 2008) 11 On displacement in the Negev see Abu-Rabia’ (1999: 31–3).
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba Jerusalem, and other forms of internal transfer including more recently,forced separation along ethnic, religious and national lines. This groupalso includes a large number of Bedouin.
There are no precise statistics on the internally displaced Palestinians either in Israel or in the 1967 occupied territories. Overall the dataon the internally displaced Palestinians and their social and economicconditions have serious shortcomings. As with other groups of internallydisplaced persons worldwide, there is a lack of comprehensive andsystematic data. There is no registration system for internally displacedPalestinians12 and official data on the current status of Palestinians insideIsrael and in the 1967 occupied territories does not distinguish betweeninternally displaced Palestinians and the general Palestinian population.
As with refugees, it may be assumed that internally displaced Palestinianshave relatively lower standards of living than Palestinians who are notdisplaced. However recent surveys of the 1967 occupied territories suggestthat Israel’s military response to the second Palestinian uprising (al-AqsaIntifada of 2000) has led to a narrowing of the socio-economic gapbetween refugees and non-refugees.13 Nevertheless distinctions betweenrefugees and non-refugees remain according to area of residence – i.e.,camp populations as compared to non-camp populations. In general, dataon the current status of internally displaced Palestinians is characterised byits uneven quality and uncertainty and is derived largely from historicaldocuments, news reports, and human rights documentation.
Silencing the Palestinian Past
Since 1948 Palestinian attempts to constitute a coherent narrative of theirpast have often been challenged and silenced (Khalili 2007: 60). In theIsraeli collective memory, Palestine of 1948 was ‘a land without a peoplefor a people without a land’ (Masalha 1997). Yet, not only was the countrynever empty, an abundance of archival and documentary evidence showsa strong correlation between the Zionist ‘transfer solution’ and the Nakba(Masalha 1992). By the end of the 1948 war, hundreds of villages had been 12 Early registration and census information exists for 1948 internally displaced Palestinians. Internally displaced Palestinians requiring assistance were originally registeredwith the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). Initialregistration files for 1948 internally displaced include 6 boxes consisting of 11,304 familycards and 5,155 correction cards. Each card contains the names, ages, sex, occupation, pastaddress, and ‘distribution centre’ to which the family was attached. For more details on theUNRWA registration system see, Tamari and Zureik (2001: 25–60).
13 See Palestinian Public Perceptions on their Living Conditions: The Role of International and Local Aid during the Second Intifada, Report VI (Geneva: Graduate Institute of DevelopmentStudies, University of Geneva, September 2003).
completely depopulated and their houses blown up or bulldozed. Themain objective was to prevent the return of refugees to their homes, butthe destruction also helped to perpetuate the Zionist myth that Palestinewas virtually empty territory (Masalha 1997) before the Jews entered.
An exhaustive 1992 study by a team of Palestinian field researchers andacademics under the direction of Walid Khalidi details the destructionof 418 villages falling inside the 1949 armistice lines.14 The study givesthe circumstances of each village’s occupation and depopulation, and adescription of what remains. Khalidi’s team visited all except fourteen sites,made comprehensive reports and took photographs. The result is both amonumental study and a kind of memoriam. It is an acknowledgement ofthe enormous suffering of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees(Khalidi 1992).
Of the 418 depopulated villages, 293 (70 percent) were totally destroyed and ninety (22 percent) were largely destroyed. Seven survived, including‘Ayn Karim (west of Jerusalem), but were taken over by Israeli settlers.
A few of the quaint Arab villages and neighbourhoods have actually beenmeticulously preserved. But they are empty of Palestinians (some of theformer residents are internal refugees in Israel) and are designated as Jewish‘artistic colonies’ (Benvenisti 1986: 25; Masalha 2005). While an observanttraveller can still see some evidence of the destroyed Palestinian villages,in the main all that is left is a scattering of stones and rubble. But thenew state also appropriated for itself both immovable assets includingurban residential quarters, transport infrastructure, police stations, railways,schools, libraries, churches, mosques as well as personal possessionsincluding silver, furniture, pictures, carpets, etc. (Khalidi 1992).
The destruction of Palestinian villages and the conceptual deletion of Palestinians from history and cartography meant that the names ofdepopulated Palestinian villages and towns were removed from the map.
The historic Arabic names of geographical sites were replaced by newly-coined Hebrew names, some of which resembled biblical names. In hisrecent book, A History of Modern Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappéremarks: [W]hen winter was over and the spring of 1949 warmed a particularlyfrozen Palestine, the land as we have described . . . – reconstructing aperiod stretching over 250 years had changed beyond recognition. Thecountryside, the rural heart of Palestine, with its colourful and picturesquevillages, was ruined. Half the villages had been destroyed, flattened byIsraeli bulldozers which had been at work since August 1948 when thegovernment had decided to either turn them into cultivated land or to buildnew Jewish settlements on their remains. A naming committee granted the 14 Palestinian author Dr Salman Abu-Sitta produced and distributed a map on the occasion of the 50th. anniversary of the Nakba showing that Palestinians left from 531villages in what was mandatory Palestine.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba new settlements Hebraized [sic] versions of the original Arab names: Lubyabecame Lavi, and Safuria Zipori . . . David Ben-Gurion explained that thiswas done as part of an attempt to prevent future claim to the villages. It wasalso supported by the Israeli archaeologists, who had authorized the namesas returning the map to something resembling ‘ancient Israel’ (Pappé 2004:138–9).
The disappearance of Palestine in 1948, the deletion of the demographicand political realities of historic Palestine and the erasure of Palestiniansfrom history centred on key issues, the most important of which isthe contest between a ‘denial’ and an ‘affirmation’ (Said 1980; Abu-Lughod, Heacock and Nashef 1991). The deletion of historic Palestinefrom cartography was not only designed to strengthen the newly-createdstate but also to consolidate the myth of the ‘unbroken link’ between thedays of the biblical Israelites and the modern Israeli state.
Post-1948 Zionist projects concentrated on the Hebraicisation and Judaisation of Palestinian geography and toponymy through the practice ofre-naming sites, places and events. The Hebraicisation project deployed re-naming to construct new places and new geographic identities related tosupposed biblical places. The new Hebrew names embodied an ideologicaldrive and political attributes that could be consciously mobilised bythe Zionist hegemonic project. The official project began with theappointment of the Governmental Names Committee (Va‘adat HashemotHamimshaltit) by Prime Minister Ben-Gurion in July 1949. Ben-Gurionhad visited the Negev in June and had been struck by the fact that noHebrew names existed for geographical sites in the region. The 11 June1949 entry for his War Diary reads: ‘Eilat . . . we drove through the openspaces of the Arava . . . from ‘Ein Husb . . . to ‘Ein Wahba . . . We must giveHebrew names to these places-ancient names, if there are, and if not,new ones!’ (Ben-Gurion 1982, vol.3: 989). The Governmental NamesCommittee, which included members of the Israeli Exploration Societyand some leading Israeli biblical archaeologists, concentrated in its initialefforts on the creation of a new map for the Negev (Abu El-Haj 2001:91–94).
Throughout the documents produced by the Governmental Names Committee, there were reported references to ‘foreign names’. The Israelipublic was called upon ‘to uproot the foreign and existing names’ andin their place ‘to master’ the new Hebrew names. Most existing nameswere Arabic names. The committee for assigning Hebrew names in theNegev held its first meeting on 18 July and subsequently met threetimes a month for a ten-month period and assigned Hebrew namesto 561 different geographical features in the Negev–mountains, valleys,springs, and waterholes – using the Bible as a resource. Despite theobliteration of many ancient Arabic names from the Negev landscape, some Arabic names became similar-sounding Hebrew names, for example‘Seil ‘Imran’ became ‘Nahal ‘Amram’, apparently recalling the father ofMoses and Aaron; the Arabic Jabal Haruf (‘Mount Haruf ’) became HarHarif (‘Sharp Mountain), Jabal Dibba (‘Hump Hill’) became Har Dla‘at(‘Mount Pumpkin). After rejecting the name Har Geshur after the peopleto whom King David’s third wife belonged, as a Hebrew appellation forthe Arabic Jabal Ideid (‘Sprawling Mountain’), the committee decidedto call it Har Karkom (‘Mount Crocus’), because crocuses grow in theNegev.15 However the sound of the Arabic name Ideid was retained in thenearby springs, which are now called ‘Beerot Oded’ (‘the Wells of Oded’),possibly after the biblical prophet of the same name.16 The committeereport of March 1956 stated: In the summarized period 145 names were adopted for antiquities sites,ruins and tells: eight names were determined on the basis of historicalidentification, 16 according to geographical names in the area, eightaccording to the meaning of the Arabic words, and the decisive majorityof the names (113) were determined by mimicking the sounds of the Arabicwords, a partial or complete mimicking, in order to give the new name aHebrew character, following the [accepted] grammatical and voweling rules(quoted in Abu El-Haj 2001: 95).17 In the north, the depopulated Arab village of Balad al-Shaykh, nearHaifa, which housed the grave of the legendary Sheikh ‘Izz ad-Din al-Qassam (1882–1935), became the Jewish town of ‘Nesher’. Many of thePalestinian houses and shops are still standing and are occupied by theJewish inhabitants of Nesher. ‘The cemetery is visible and is in a stateof neglect’ (Khalidi 1992). Throughout the country the Hebraicisationproject included renaming Muslim holy men’s graves and holy sites intoJewish and biblically-sounding ones. ‘In the fifties and sixties’, MeronBenvenisti writes: the location and “redemption” of holy men’s graves was in the hands ofthe religious establishment – especially the Ministry of Religions – and ofAshkenazi Haredi groups . . . According to an official list, issued by a groupknown as the Foundation of the World and appended to a book [entitled:Jewish Holy Places in the Land of Israel18] published by the Ministry of Defence,there are more than 500 Jewish holy places and sacred graves in Palestine(including the Occupied Territories). Many of these, albeit not the majority,are former Muslim sites (2002: 282).
15 Don C. Benjamin, ‘Stories and Stones: Archaeology and the Bible, an introduction with CD Rom’, 2006, at:
pdf, note 78, p.254.
16 Yadin Roman, at:
17 Approximately one-fourth of all geographical names were derived from the Arabic names on the basis of the similarity of sounds. Abu El-Haj (2001: 95).
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba In the centre of the country, among the many Judaised Muslim holy places were two sites: Nabi Yamin and Nabi Sama‘an, located onekilometre east of the Jewish town of Kfar Sava – a Jewish city itself namedafter a Palestinian village destroyed in 1948 (Kafr Saba). Until 1948,Benvensiti writes, these two sites were sacred to Muslims alone, and the Jews ascribed no holiness to them. Todaythey are operated by ultraorthodox Jewish bodies, and members of thereligion from which they were taken do not set foot there, despite the factthere is a large Muslim population in the area (Benvenisti 2002: 276–7).
The tomb of Nabi Yamin was renamed the grave of Benjamin,representing Jacob’s youngest son, and Nabi Sama‘an became the graveof Simeon. Jewish women seeking to bear offspring pray at the grave ofBenjamin: The dedication inscriptions from the Mamluk period remained engraved inthe stone walls of the tomb, and beside them hang tin signs placed there bythe National Center for the Development of the Holy Places. The clothsembroidered with verses from the Qur’an, with which the gravestones weredraped, have been replaced by draperies bearing verses from the HebrewBible (Benvenisti 2002: 277).
Jewish settlements were established on the land of Palestinian villages.
In some cases these settlements took the names of the original Palestinianvillages. For instance, the Jewish settlement that replaced the destroyedvillage of Beit Dajan village was named Beit Dagan; Kibbutz Sa’sa’ wasbuilt on Sa’sa’ village; the cooperative moshav settlement of ‘Amka onthe land of ‘Amqa village; moshav Elanit (tree in Hebrew) on the landof al-Shajara (tree in Arabic) village (Wakim 2001a, Boqa’i 2005: 73).
Al-Kabri in the Galilee was renamed ‘Kabri’; al-Bassa village renamed‘Batzat’; al-Mujaydil village (near Nazareth) renamed ‘Migdal Haemek’.
In the region of Tiberias there were 27 Arab villages in the pre-1948period; 25 of them – including Dalhamiya, Abu Shusha, Hittin, KafrSabt, Lubya, al-Shajara, al-Majdal and Hittin – were destroyed by Israel.
The name ‘Hittin’ – where Saladin famously defeated the Crusaders in1187 – was renamed ‘Kfar Hittim’. Nearby the road to Tiberias was namedthe ‘Menachem Begin Boulevard’ and heavy iron bars were placed overthe entrance to Hittin’s ruined mosque; the staircase leading to its minaretwas blocked.19 Fifty-six years after the Nakba, in March 2004, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy published an important article in Haaretz, entitled ‘Twilight 19 Gideon Levy, ‘Twilight Zone/Social Studies Lesson’, Haaretz, 31 March 2004, at:
Zone/Social Studies Lesson’.20 The article describes an excursion to thehidden side of the Galilee – the ruins of depopulated Palestinian villages ineastern Galilee and the Tiberias region. The guided tour was organised incommemoration of the ‘Land Day’ of 1976, organised by three NGOs:the Haifa-based Emile Toma Centre, the Association for the Defense ofthe Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel (ADRID) and Zochrot(Remembering). Founded in 2002, Zochrot is a group of Israeli citizensworking to raise awareness of the Nakba. The March tour was led byPalestinian guides from the Galilee. Levy writes: Look at this prickly pear plant. It’s covering a mound of stones. This moundof stones was once a house, or a shed, or a sheep pen, or a school, or astone fence. Once – until 56 years ago, a generation and a half ago – not thatlong ago. The cactus separated the houses and one lot from another, a livingfence that is now also the only monument to the life that once was here.
Take a look at the grove of pines around the prickly pear as well. Beneath itthere was once a village. All of its 405 houses were destroyed in one day in1948 and its 2,350 inhabitants scattered all over. No one ever told us aboutthis. The pines were planted right afterward by the Jewish National Fund(JNF), to which we contributed in our childhood, every Friday, in order tocover the ruins, to cover the possibility of return and maybe also a little ofthe shame and the guilt.
The JNF put up a sign: ‘South Africa Forest. Parking. In Memory of Hans Riesenfeld, Rhodesia, Zimbabwe’. The ‘South Africa Forest’ andthe ‘Rhodesia parking area’ were created atop the ruins of Lubya village,of whose existence not a trace was left. Here was a big village whose sonsand daughters are now scattered throughout the world and who continueto carry the memories with them.21 Dr Mahmoud ‘Issa, a son of Lubyaand a Danish citizen, who accompanied Levy on this excursion, made afilm in Danish (with English subtitles) about his village. Dr ‘Issa, an oralhistorian, also published a book based on interviews with refugees fromLubya.22 Levy writes: Deep in the grove, one can find a single wall that survived from the village,as well as a stone archway that covered a cavern used to store crops. Thedozens of wells that belonged to the village (‘Issa says there were more than400) are surrounded by barbed wire. They are wrecked and full of garbageleft behind by hikers in the South Africa Forest who must have thought thatthe JNF had dug big trash cans in the ground. How were they to know thatthese were freshwater wells?23 20 A earlier version of this article appeared in Haaretz, 31 March 2004, at:
21 Levy, ‘Twilight Zone/Social Studies Lesson’.
22 See also Issa (2005: 178–196).
23 Levy, ‘Twilight Zone/Social Studies Lesson’.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba Subaltern Groups, Palestinian Oral History
and the Historian’s Methodology
As is the case with other subaltern groups, Palestinian oral testimony isa vital tool for recovering the voice of the subaltern: peasants, the urbanpoor, women, refugee camp dwellers, and bedouin tribes. An importantfeature of the Palestinian oral history effort from its inception has beenits popular basis with the direct participation of displaced community(Gluck 2008: 69). Since the mid-1980s this grassroots effort has shown anawareness of the importance of recording the events of the Nakba from theperspective of those previously marginalised in Palestinian elite and male-centred narratives. Although gender (both female and male) imagery andsymbols have always been prevalent in Palestinian nationalist discourses(Khalili 2007: 22–3) – the Palestinian National Charter of 1964 (revised in1968) and the Palestinian Declaration of Independence of 1988 had bothimagined the Palestinian nation as a male body and masculinised politicalagency (Massad 1995: 467–83).
In 2002 the editors of a special oral history edition of the Beirut-based Al-Jana – the Harvest: Arab Resource Centre for the Popular Arts – pointedout that individual initiatives were being undertaken even before the1980s, when more projects began to develop with institutional support,especially from NGOs. One of the earliest projects was first proposedin 1979 by two Birzeit University scholars, Dr Sharif Kanaana and DrKamal Abdel Fattah. In 1985 the University’s Documentation Centrelaunched a series of monographs on the destroyed villages.24 Since 1993this work has been overseen by Dr Saleh Abdel Jawad (Gluck 2008:69). From 1983 onwards Dr Rosemary Sayigh, in particular, pioneeredworking with Palestinian women in the refugee camps of Lebanon onan oral history project. Sayigh and other oral historians, who advocate afresh examination of Palestinian history from an oral history perspective,have been working in a field in which there are already dominant elitenarratives which rely on official documentation and archival material.
This oral history approach has both challenged and complemented archivalhistoriography. Sayigh’s original contribution to the field of oral historyhas made it possible for the victims, the subaltern, the marginalisedand women to challenge Zionist hegemonic and Palestinian elitenarratives.
This ‘history from below’ approach was given a major boost in the 1990s with the publication of Ted Swedenburg’s seminal workon the great Palestinian rebellion of 1936–1939: Memories of Revolt:The 1936–1939 Rebellion and the Palestinian National Past (1995). Earlier in 24 See for instance Kanaana and Zitawi (1987) ‘Deir Yassin’, Monograph No.4, Destroyed Palestinian Villages Documentation Project.
1990 Swedenburg commented on the internal silencing of the Palestinianpast and popular memory by the PLO leadership: Perhaps the sensitive nature of the subject of infighting during the [1936–39]revolt is one of the reasons why PLO, which funded numerous projects inLebanon during the seventies and early eighties, never supported a study ofthe [revolt] based on the testimony of the refugees living in Lebanon. Maybethe resistance movement was hesitant to allow any details about the internalstruggle of the thirties to be brought to light because bad feelings persistedin the diaspora community. (1990: 152–3; also Swedenburg 1991: 152–79) Clearly more accounts of memory and research are still needed onMandatory Palestine and the events surrounding the Nakba as experiencedand remembered not just by particular subaltern groups but by the wholenon-elite majority of Palestinian society.25 The storyteller (al-Hakawati) is part of a long tradition in Arab society and culture. Story telling and oral history was deployed inthe post-1948 period by the Palestinian refugee community as an‘emergency science’. Individual accounts of struggle and revolt (thawra),displacement and exodus, survival and heroism served as a buffer againstnational disappearance. Narratives of memory and oral history becamea key genre of Palestinian historiography – a genre guarding against the‘disappearance from history’ of the Palestinian people (Sanbar 2001:87–94; Yahya 1998). In recent decades two distinct historiographicalapproaches concerning the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem haveevolved. Recent debates about 1948 tell us something about the historian’smethod and the meaning of the ‘historical document’ (Pappé 2004: 137).
Methodologically, many historians have displayed a bias towards archivalsources; Israeli historians, in particular, believe they are both ideologicallyand empirically impartial (Masalha 2007: 286), and that the only reliablesources for the reconstruction of the 1948 war are in the IDF archivesand official documents. This bias towards ‘archives’ has contributed tosilencing the Palestinian past. The silencing of the Nakba by Israelihistorians follows the pattern given by Michel-Rolph Trouillot in Silencingthe Past: Power and the Production of History: Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments:the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of factassembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the makingof narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (the making ofhistory in the final instance). (1995: 26) 25 More recently Rochelle Davis (2007: 53–76) has examined the way Palestinian memorial books, written by ordinary people, recollect memories of village places inpre-1948 Palestine.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba Morris (1987), Masalha (1992) and other historians could not resist the opportunity presented by the availability of mountains of Israeli andHebrew archival sources on 1948 and the Mandatory period. However,as in the case of other subaltern groups, Palestinian oral testimony is animportant tool for recovering the voices of the victims of the Nakba:the Palestinian refugees (Pappé 2004a: 188). Furthermore in recent years,more and more historians have been paying attention to the idea of ‘socialhistory from below’ – or ‘from the ground up’ and thus giving more spaceto the voices and perspective of the refugees, rather than that of ‘policy-makers’; and also incorporating extensive oral testimony and interviewswith the refugees. In that sense, the oral history of the Nakba is not onlyan intellectual project dictated by certain ideological commitments; it canprovide an understanding of the social history of the refugees ‘from below’that Palestinian elite narratives and political history often obscure.
Of course the two sets of methodologies can complement each other.
But, also crucially, in recent years Palestinian authors have been producingmemories of the Nakba, compiling and recording oral testimony andstudying annual commemorations. While many authors in the Westcontinue to rely on Morris and his publications, as a key source forrecovering and reconstructing the past, at least some authors, influencedby the emergence of post-colonial and post-modern studies in recentdecades, are beginning to raise question marks concerning the reliabilityand ‘objectivity’ of the IDF archives. Moreover it is important to point outthat a report by an Israeli officer from 1948 is as much an interpretation ofthe reality as any other human recollection of the same event; archivaldocuments are never the reality itself (Masalha 2007: 286); the realityof 1948 Palestine can only be reconstructed using a range of sources.
Even historians who rely extensively on written documents often resortto guesswork and imagination when reconstructing the past from officialdocuments (Pappé 2004a: 189). Therefore the vitality and significance ofPalestinian oral testimony in the reconstruction of the past is central tounderstanding the Nakba. The most horrific aspects of the Nakba – thedozens of massacres that accompanied the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nakba,as well as a detailed description of what ‘ethnic cleansing’ was from thepoint of view of the one ‘ethnically cleansed’ – can only be recoveredwhen such an historiographical approach is applied (Pappé 2004: 137).
In the context of rural and peasant Palestinian society, oral history is a particularly useful methodology; throughout much of the twentiethcentury the majority of the Palestinians were fellahin (peasants); in 1944sixty-six percent of the Palestinian population was agrarian with a literacyrate, when last officially estimated, of only fifteen percent (Esber 2003:22). Their experiences in the fields, in their villages and in exile arelargely absent from history-writing and much recent historiography (‘Issa 2005: 179–186). Moreover the Nakba itself, and the politicalinstability and repression faced by the dispersed Palestinian communitiessince 1948 have also impeded Palestinian researches and studies (Khalidi1997: 89). In Palestinian Identity, Rashid Khalidi argues that modernPalestinian historiography has suffered from ‘inherent historical biases’and that The views and exploits of those able to read and write are perhaps naturallymore frequently recorded by historians, with their tendency to favourwritten records, than those of the illiterate (Khalidi 1997: 98).
The Palestinian elite and intellectuals produced and published a number of Nakba memoirs. However, in the absence of a rich sourceof contemporary Palestinian documentary records, oral history andinterviews with Palestinian (internal and external) refugees are a valuableand indeed essential source for constructing a more comprehensiblenarrative of the experience of ordinary Palestinian refugees and internallydisplaced Palestinians across the Green Line. While Louis Starr notesthat memory is ‘fallible, ego distorts and contradictions sometimes gounresolved’, nevertheless Problems of evaluation are not markedly different from those inherent inthe use of letters, diaries, and other primary sources . . . the scholar musttest the evidence in an oral history memoir for internal consistency and,whenever possible, by corroboration from other sources, often includingthe oral history memoirs of other on the same topic. (Starr 1984: 4–5) Taken as whole, Palestinian oral history and refugee recollections give a good idea of reality. However in the case of the Palestinian Nakba,oral history is not merely one choice of methodology. Rather its usecan represent a decision as to whether to record any history at all (Esber2003). Oral history is the major means of reconstructing the history of thePalestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians as seen from theperspective of primary subjects. Oral history has been of such importancein the recollection and collective memorisation and memorialisation ofthe Shoah. The Israeli national memorial at Yad va-Shem, the ‘HolocaustMartyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance’ institution, is predominantly basedon oral history and millions of pages of testimony. It was establishedin 1953 by a Knesset act and located in West Jerusalem. According toits website, Yad va-Shem is a vast, sprawling complex of tree-studdedwalkways leading to museums, exhibits, archives, monuments, sculptures,and memorials. It has been entrusted with documenting the history ofthe Jewish people during the Holocaust period, preserving the memoryand story of each of the six million victims, and imparting the legacyof the Holocaust to generations to come through its archives, library,school, museums and recognition of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba The archive collection of Yad va-Shem comprises 62 million pages ofdocuments, nearly 267,500 photographs along with thousands of filmsand videotaped testimonies of survivors. The Hall of Names is a ‘tributeto the victims by remembering them not as anonymous numbers butas individual human beings’. The ‘Pages of Testimony’ are symbolicgravestones, which record names and biographical data of millions ofmartyrs, as submitted by family members and friends. To date Yad va-Shem has computerised 3.2 million names of Holocaust victims, compiledfrom approximately 2 million pages of testimony and various other lists.
The collections of Yad va-Shem include tens of thousands of testimoniesdictated, recorded or videotaped by survivors of the Shoah in Israel andelsewhere. The testimonies are in all of the languages spoken by thesurvivors. A second type of testimony consists of the forms filled outby survivors or relatives of the victims containing information aboutindividual victims, such as their names, place and date of birth, placeof residence, vocation, place and circumstances of death and so on.
2 million pages of testimony have been digitised in order to be accessibleto the public in the institution’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’Names which went on online in September 2004.26 However, in contrastto the Israeli national memorial at Yad va-Shem and other holocaustmuseums (including the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum inO´swi˛ecim, Poland, and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) there isno ‘Nakba museum’, no ‘Nakba Hall of Names’, no ‘Central Databaseof Nakba Victims’ Names’, no tombstones or monuments for thehundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. The hundreds ofPalestinian villages and towns destroyed in 1948 are still forced out ofIsraeli public awareness, away from the signposts of memory.
However there are some interesting developments. Since 2002 the Nakba Archive in Lebanon has recorded more than 500 interviewson digital video with first generation Palestinian refugees living in thecountry about their recollections of 1948. This project was conceivedas a collaborative grassroots initiative in which the refugees themselveswere encouraged to participate in the process of representing thishistorical period. The project, which consists of about 1,000 hoursof video testimony with refugees from over 135 villages in pre-1948Palestine, has its work centred on the twelve official UNRWA campsin Lebanon. But it has also conducted interviews within unregisteredrefugee ‘gatherings’, and with middle class and elite Palestinians living inurban centres in Lebanon. Apparently six duplicate sets of the interviewshave been produced, along with a detailed database and search engineand copies of the archive will be held at the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut, Birzeit University (Palestine), the American Universityof Cairo, Oxford and Harvard universities.27 The project is also part ofthe ‘Remembrance Museum’ which is being established by the WelfareAssociation in Palestine. According to its website the Welfare Association’sRemembrance Museum will be a national museum, to operate as an independent, non-profit organization,for the purpose of recording and reflecting Palestinian history. A technicalteam of specialists in a variety of fields is engaged in planning the museumproject. The museum is to be based in Jerusalem but satellite locationsare being considered in Birzeit, Bethlehem and Abu Dis until a suitableJerusalem location can be identified. The museum will concentrate onthe last 300 years of Palestinian history and will contain permanent andmultimedia exhibits, a library and research center, and an educationalresource center.28 Furthermore those of us who have used Israeli archival sources know that there are still many files of the Israeli army from 1948 which arestill closed and not accessible to the historian or the public. But whatare the overall historiographical implications of the debate on 1948? Thefirst point concerns the military historiography of 1948 which tends todominate Israeli and Western historiographies. The clashes taking placein Palestine during the late Mandatory period have been treated as partof an overall war between the Arab and Israeli armies. Such a paradigmcalls for the expertise of military historians (Pappé 2004a: 185–186).
Military historians tend to concentrate on the balance of power andmilitary strategy and tactics. They see actions and people as part of thetheatre of war, where events and actions are judged on a moral basisvery different from that applicable in a non-combatant situation. Thewriting of the military historiography of 1948 inherently tends to favourthe victorious Israeli army. Israeli revisionist historian Ilan Pappé arguesthat the events of 1948 should be examined within the paradigm of‘population transfer’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ and not just as part of militaryhistory. The UN partition plan of November 1947 did envisage some formof bi-nationalism for Palestine-Israel; the UN certainly did not envisagean exclusive (ethnically cleansed) Jewish state in 1948. This means thatthe expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 by the Israeli army was part ofthe domestic policies implemented by an Israeli regime vis-à-vis it ownPalestinian citizens. The decisive factors in 1948 were ethnic ideology,colonial settlement policy and demographic strategy, rather than militaryplans or considerations (Pappé 2004a: 186). In my work Expulsion of thePalestinians: The Concept of ‘Transfer’ in Zionist Political Thought (1992) 27
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba I show that ‘transfer’ – a euphemism for expulsion and ‘ethnic cleansing’was from the start an integral part of Zionism and that much of the ‘ethniccleansing’ of the Nakba was not related to the battles taking place betweenregular armies waging war.
Pappé makes another important point which centres on the difference between macro and micro histories. The Israeli ‘New Historiography’of 1948 has remained largely macro-historical. This is partly due tothe nature of the Israeli archival material. In general Israeli archivalsources give us a skimpy picture of 1948. This means that a detaileddescription of what happened in the case of each Palestinian village andtown remains largely elusive. Often a document produced in 1948 byan Israeli army officer refers briefly to an occupation of a Palestinianvillage, or to the ‘purification’ of another. Pappé points out that Palestinianoral history can produce historically accurate accounts of 1948, showingthat the same events in 1948 appear in a detailed and graphic formin accounts of memory, often as a tale of expulsion, and sometimeseven massacre. Israeli historians who reject Palestinian oral history mayconclude there was no massacre until the precise documentary sourcesassure them otherwise. Avishai Margalit (2003), Alessandro Portelli (1997)and others argue that ‘Memory is knowledge from the past. It s not necessarilyknowledge of the past’;29 and that oral history tells less about events inhistory and much more about the significance of the events. But writtendocuments are also often the result of a processing of oral testimonies(Pappé 2004a: 186). Therefore refugee memory accounts could be asauthentic as the documented ones. But also the narrative of individualvillages and towns in Palestine can only be constructed with the help ofPalestinian oral history. Consequently oral history is a crucial methodologyfor pursuing further research on the Nakba. Although oral history isnot a substitute for archival material, it can supply crucial material forfilling gaps and be cross-referenced with archival sources and documentaryevidence.
The Nakba as a Key Site of Palestinian Collective Memory
Collective memory and commemoration have played an important rolein nation-building processes and as a vehicle for victims of injustice andviolence to articulate their experience of suffering. Narratives of memoryand commemoration have also been part of grassroots initiatives to bringto life marginalised and counter-narratives that have been suppressed,either by hegemonic discourses or the unwillingness on the part ofrepressive regimes to acknowledge the past (Makdisi and Silverstein 2006).
In the case of the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine the Nakba has been akey site of collective memory and history that ‘connects all Palestinians to aspecific point in time that has become for them an “eternal present”’ (Sa’di2002: 177). While Palestinian national identity took roots long before1948, Palestinian memory accounts of the post-Nakba period played amajor role in the reconstruction of Palestinian national identity and theemergence of the PLO in the 1960s; in recent decades there has been anintense relationship between the Nakba and the articulation of Palestiniannational identity (Sanbar 2001: 87–94; Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007: 4;Sa’di 2002: 175–198; Khalidi 1997; Fierke 2008: 34; Slyomovics 1998;Sayigh 2007: 135).
In the absence of a Palestinian state, which would have been expected to devote material and cultural resources to commemorative events andmemorialisation projects, Palestinian refugee communities in Lebanonand elsewhere in the Middle East have actively promoted Nakbacommemoration and memorialisation (Khalili 2005: 30–45). Since 1948Palestinian refugees from individual villages marked ‘their’ Nakba, or theanniversary of the date of the fall of their village. At the same time,however, for many years the topic of the Nakba was hardly broached inPalestinian film-making – a memory too painful to evoke (Bresheet 2007:160–163). In Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory (2007)Ahmad H. Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod show how in the last decade this haschanged dramatically, with Palestinian filmmakers examining the historyand the memories of this cataclysmic event. The book provides excellentaccounts of memory of the Nakba in a number of recent Palestinian films.
It also explores concepts of home and exile, identity and its relationshipto memory, and exilic cinema and its characteristics, cinematic use ofnarrative devices and storytelling and the struggle between two opposingnarratives: the hegemonic (Zionist) narrative which tries to displace,replace and suppress the narrative of the indigenous people of Palestine(Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007). Of course as Palestinian film-maker Omaral-Qattan (2007: 191) points out, ‘There is no single Palestinian memory’of the Nakba – ‘rather, there are many tangled memories. A collectivememory or experience is in its nature complex and elusive, constantlychanging with time’. Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the Claims of Memory(2007) and Catastrophe Remembered (2005) are two of the recent collectionswhich explore the complex narratives of the Nakba. Drawing on theworks of memory theorists such as Maurice Halbwachs (1980) and PierreNora (1996; 1997; 1998), Sa’di and Abu-Lughod show that authorsdealing with Palestinian narratives of memory have not always beensensitive to the complex and multi-layered relationships existing betweencollective memory, oral history and historiography. As a result, studies ofPalestinian collective memory have been largely divorced from the broader Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba political context, national narratives and national identities, elite discoursesand the class structures which inform and shape them (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007).
Ten years ago, in 1998, there was a remarkable proliferation of Palestinian films, memoirs and archival websites – all created around the50th. anniversary of the Nakba. In conjunction with this 50th anniversary,several films were released, including Edward Said’s In Search of Palestine,Muhammad Bakri’s 1948, Simone Bitton’s film about the poet MahmoudDarwish: Et la terre comme la langue (Bresheet 2007: 160–87). More Nakbafilms have recently been released in conjunction with the 60th anniversary,including Maryse Gargour’s La Terre Parle Arabe, with which I have beenpersonally involved.30 Also since 1998 several ‘online archives’ have beencreated on oral history and refugee experiences and recollections of theNakba.
Palestinian social history and refugee experience and stories about places from their past that appear in oral history collections,autobiographies, novels, poetry collections and memorial books focuson both the symbolic and the emotional connections of Palestinians totheir former homes and villages. It is also the ‘documentary evidence’that proves their existence and legal right to the land of their ancestors.
Their memory accounts of Palestine before 1948 reflect the beauty ofthe landscape, richness of the land and of village and city lives. Thesenarratives about the land testify to the intimate and intense experienceof everyday life on the land – the names of the valleys and wadis, hills,shrines, streets, springs and water wells, cultivated fields and vineyards;the importance of all kinds of trees (olive, almond, grape) and othernatural elements in memories of the past (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007).
Hand-drawn maps marking the places of importance to the villagers,personal documents, personal memories and oral accounts all intertwineto create a larger picture and a collective narrative of life before theNakba (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007). Interestingly, however, Sa’di andAbu-Lughod (2007) show how until recently little research has beencarried out in order to understand the underlying power claims within thecontext of what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have referredto as the Palestinian ‘symbolic marketplace’ (Bourdieu 1977); narrativesof memory are the archaeology of a people criss-crossed with individualexperiences – narratives of suffering and sumud (steadfastness), of courageand resistance born out of anger and revolt against oppression (Sa’di andAbu-Lughod 2007).
30 This documentary film has recently won three international awards, including the palmares de la 13eme edition du prix international du documentaire et du reportagemediterraneen.
Internal Refugees and Nakba Commemoration: Articulating
a New Narrative on the Site of the Village of Origin
Storytelling and memory accounts have always been central to the struggleof the internal refugees – internally displaced Palestinians inside Israel.
Since 1948 the ‘villages of origin’ have been the centre of memoryaccounts and the important provider of ‘legitimacy’ for the internallydisplaced persons and for their struggle for return. Moreover in recentyears the local campaigns of the internal refugees have reflected a strongrelationship between memory accounts, refugee identity, and the desire toreturn to the place of origin. These three inter-connected dimensions areclosely linked to the current grassroots struggle of the internal refugees.
‘Socialisation’ of the place of origin, promoted by many grassroots activistsof the displaced communities, was aimed at creating a territorially-based identity which centred on the village of origin. This, in turn,helped to empower and renew the struggle for return. Most of theactivities of the internally displaced inside Israel have had a strong physicalconnection to the village of origin. These initiatives, which includeannual Nakba commemorations, visits to destroyed villages, and summercamps, have taken place not only within the boundaries of the villageof origin, but also outside it. These activities include issuing pamphletsabout destroyed villages, printing new maps, lobbying Arab parties andpoliticians, petitioning the Israeli courts, and generally articulating thenew ‘narrative’ of the village of origin (Boqa’i 2005:101; Masalha 2005a:46–7).
The grassroots struggles of the internal refugees residing in host villages in Galilee has to take into account ‘daily’ issues and living conditions.31However their political activism, which centres on the village of origin, isdirected more against the Israeli government and its quasi-governmentalarm the JNF. While becoming an important symbol for the provision of‘legitimacy’ for the internal refugees, the village of origin also providesa collective identity for the internally displaced within the host village.
The village of origin shapes the perception of both the past and thefuture, and more specifically the collective memory, refugee identityand desire to return. Social protests which centre on the village oforigin embody elements of indigenous resistance directed against boththe Israeli authorities and the ‘status quo’ in the host village. Throughtheir grassroots struggles, the internal refugees articulate a new and moreassertive programme which can only be fulfilled through return to thevillage of origin (Boqa’i 2005:101; Masalha 2005a: 43–51).
31 On the adjustment patterns among Palestinian internal refugees inside Israel, Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba In recent years grassroots organisations and NGOs set up by Palestinians inside Israel have waged a never-ending battle for the preservation ofboth Nakba memory and the material heritage of the refugees (Masalha2005; Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007).32 However, in contrast to the Israeliholocaust museum at Yad va-Shem in Jerusalem, there is still no centraldatabase of Nakba victims’ names, no tombstones or monuments for thehundreds of villages ethnically cleansed in 1948. What is also more chillingis the fact that the Deir Yasin massacre of 9 April 1948 took place withinsight of the place which became the holocaust museum in Jerusalem; onlya mile from where Jewish martyrs are memorialised lie the Palestinianmartyrs of Deir Yasin, whose graves are unknown and unmarked. In factYad va-Shem itself is situated on the lands of Deir Yasin, as is the city ofJerusalem western (Jewish) cemetery (Davis 2003: 25). The irony of Yadva-Shem and Deir Yasin is breathtaking; no Israelis and foreign visitors toYad va-Shem go to Deir Yasin and in dedication ceremonies at Yad va-Shemno one ever looks to the north and remembers Deir Yasin (McGowan1998: 6–7).
For Palestinians Deir Yasin has remained a potent symbol of the collective Nakba. But in Israel the ghosts of Deir Yasin, Lubya, KafrBir’im33 and the hundreds of villages destroyed in 1948 are renderedcompletely invisible. Dr ‘Azmi Bishara, a leading Palestinian intellectualfrom the Galilee, writes: The villages that no longer exist were forced out of [Israeli] public awareness,away from the signposts of memory. They received new names-of Jewishsettlements – but traces [of their past] were left behind, like the sabr bushes34,or the stones from fences or bricks from the demolished houses . . . The Arabvillages have no tombstones and there are no monuments to them. Therewill be no equality and there will be no democracy [in Israel], and therewill be no historic compromise [between Israelis and Palestinians] – untilthey receive their tombstones. The Jewish site cast out utterly the other, the‘local’ i.e., the other who was in that place. The response of the [Israeli-Jewish] Left to the [Palestinian use of the] nomenclature of the collectivememory was that this matter must be removed from the [Jewish-Arabnational] compromise, [that] there is no room in the compromise of history.
History itself will prove that it must be part of the compromise – in order forthe victim to forgive, he must be recognised as a victim.35 32 See also Gideon Levy, ‘Twilight Zone/Social Studies Lesson’, Haaretz, 31 March 2004, at:; Benvenisti (2000:267–69).
33 On the story of Iqrit and Kafr Biri’m see, Ozacky-Lazar (1993).
34 Sabr is the Arabic name for a type of cactus which flourishes in Palestine.
35 ‘Azmi Bishara, ‘Between Place and Space’, Studio [Hebrew] 37, October 1992, An interesting development in the struggles of the internally displaced, which are centred on the villages of origin, has taken place amongthe second and third generations of internal refugees. Younger activistshave made the village of origin a key project of collective memory andidentity, and have expressed a stronger belief in future return than theolder generation of internal refugees.36 The same younger generationshave also learned from their fathers’ attempts to return without success inthe past, taking into account the political developments that have takenplace among Palestinians inside Israel. As Dawud Bader, a member ofthe second generation of internal refugees and one of the leaders of theAssociation for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced inIsrael (ADRID), put it: the internally displaced persons in Israel faced difficult experiences and badconditions in the past. During the early years of military rule, displacedpeople could only find a shelter to live quietly and to try to advancethemselves. Later, and gradually, the younger educated generation becamemore involved in political and national issues. The displaced personsbecame more advanced in many fields. They became more involved inconfronting the Israeli authorities and their discriminatory policies. Israeldoesn’t distinguish in its policy between displaced persons and non-displaced persons in the fields of land confiscation and ethnic-nationaldiscrimination.37 Younger generations of internal refugees began to recover the past and reconstruct memory accounts of the village of origin through variousmeans. Until the 1980s the stories and memories of the older generationhad largely existed in oral form, and within the social context of the hostvillage. Since the early 1990s younger generations have been trying toarticulate a new narrative of return and memorialisation. In this regard, theinternal refugees have been more fortunate than the Palestinian refugeesin the diaspora, owing to the possibility of physical access to the villagesof origin, providing individuals and local groups with the opportunityto ‘experience the village of origin’. As Secretary-General of ADRIDWakim Wakim explains: Our task is not only to confront the grandsons of Zionism on the issue ofdisplacement, or to rewrite the Palestinian Nakba narrative, systematicallyand comprehensively; it is more than this. We aim to organise the displaced 36 The vast majority of the Palestinian younger generation in Israel believed that the solution for the refugees and displaced persons must be based on UN resolution 194 (67percent); while only slightly more than 50 percent of the older generation agreed with thisposition. The younger generation also believe that it is possible to implement resolution194 (67 percent)-as opposed to only 40 percent of the older generation. See Zureik (1999).
37 Interview with Dawud Bader, 28 October 2002, Shaykh Dannun village, quoted in Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba communities through the popular committees and relevant associations, andunder the [umbrella] of the Displaced Committee [ADRID], as an organisednational forum, and by encouraging the local committees to organise visits[to the villages of origin], by publishing bulletins to strengthen the belongingof the de-populated village as a microcosm of Palestine, by organisingsummer camps for displaced children, and by protecting the holy sites inthe depopulated villages. (Wakim 2001a) Visits to the villages of origin, preserving holy sites, holding summer camps and marches within the boundaries of the village of origin, havebecome key components of the internal refugees’ strategy in their attemptsto articulate a new narrative based on the village of origin. These activitiesaim to encourage displaced people to ‘rediscover’ the village of originthemselves, and to empower their memory, sense of belonging andidentity. During the commemoration of the Nakba in 2000, ADRIDorganised, in coordination with the local refugee committees, more than20 marches and trips to the villages of origin (Badil 2002a).38 In 2003most of the Nakba commemoration activities were held in the villages oforigin (Said 199; Boqa’i 2005:103).39 The protection and preservation of the original villages’ Muslim and Christian holy sites are carried out on both local and national levels. InMarch 2002 displaced people from al-Ghabisiyya organised public prayerin front of the closed village mosque. The participants had asked theIsraeli authorities to re-open the mosque which has been closed since1997.40 Some of the voluntary and semi-religious activities in the villagesof origin have been carried out by the Islamic-led Al-Aqsa Association,which has been looking after and cleaning remaining old mosques andcemeteries. In 1994, the Al-Aqsa Association presided over the voluntarywork of restoring the cemetery in the depopulated village of Husha.
Similar activities were also carried out in the old village of Balad al-Shaykh(Cohen 2000). The Al-Aqsa Association has continued to lobby the Israeliauthorities for the re-opening for prayer of all old mosques in villages oforigin. This campaign has had some successes, including the decision bythe Israeli Ministry for Religious Affairs in the mid-1990s to spend someNIS300,000 (around $70,000) on repairing some mosques in villages oforigin (Sa’id 1999; Boqa’i 2005: 103).
38 Most of the IDPs national activities in the commemoration of the Nakba were held under the slogan of ‘Their Independence. Our Nakba’. See ADRID press releases, 8 May
2000; 17 April 2001; 14 April 2001.
39 While the village of origin was the ‘centre’ of the 2003 Nakba commemoration activities of the internally displaced people inside Israel, the Palestinian refugees have triedto focus on another ‘symbol’ of the Nakba: namely the refugee camp. Approximately halfof the 2003 Nakba commemoration activities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip took placeinside refugee camps. See Boqai’ and Rempel 2003.
40 Al-Ittihad, 3 March 2002.
Since 1987 displaced persons from Kafr Bir’im village have been organising annual summer camps on the site of this depopulated Arabvillage (Magate 2000). Working in coordination with various Arab NGOs,several village committees have organised summer camps in the villages oforigin. During these summer camps, individuals from the first generationof displacement are often invited to come to give talks about life in thevillage before the 1948 Nakba. Organisers of the Kafr Bir’im summercamps summed up the purpose of the events: ‘it’s not to talk about thevillage, but rather to live it 24 hours a day’ (Sa’id 1999; Boqa’i 2005:103–104).
In 1998 ADRID, in coordination with local committees of internal refugees and Palestinian NGOs inside Israel, began organising the ‘ReturnMarch’ as a major annual event. The ‘Return March’ is held on thesame day as Israeli ‘Independence Day’ – which is marked according to theHebrew calendar – with the participation of thousands of displaced peopleand Palestinians inside Israel. One of the key slogans of the ‘return march’is: ‘their Independence Day is our Nakba/catastrophe’. The route of thereturn march included one of the host villages, ending with one of thevillages of origin. In 1998, on the commemoration of the 50th. anniversaryof the Nakba, the march started from the town of Nazareth and ended inthe pre-Nakba village of Saffuriyya.41 In 2000 the march began in the hostvillage of Kabul and ended in al-Damun village of origin. In 2001 it beganin the host village of Yafa and ended in the Ma’lul village of origin. In2001 there was also a march to al-Birwa village of origin (Wakim 2001a;Badil 2001), and in 2003 to Umm al-Zinat village of origin.42 Othernational dates around which marches were held included Land Day, andthe 1948 date of village occupation, for example a march was held on 28March 1998 from Shaykh Dannun host village to al-Ghabisiyya village oforigin. These marches expressed a strong protest against the Israeli attitudetowards the internal refugees; the symbolic ‘return’ each year to the villageof origin on exactly the same day as Israel’s ‘independence’ is symbolicallypowerful (Boqa’i 2005: 104).
Palestinian NGOs inside Israel and local committees of the internally displaced have produced geographical maps and oral histories, pamphletsand books focusing on the experience of displacement.43 Historicalaccounts of the villages of origin, especially those accounts focusingon the pre-Nakba period, have been produced mostly by the displacedcommunities themselves. These accounts of the villages of origins inthe pre-Nakba era list names of families, names of sites and landmarks, 41 Haaretz, 15 May1998.
42 ADRID press release, 26 April 2003.
43 In 1998 ADRID published a book written by the Palestinian journalist Wadia ‘Awawdeh on this experience and on memory and identity.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba the boundaries of the village, as well as including photos from the pre-1948 period.44 ‘Socialisation’ of the village of origin, therefore, has beenattained by commemorating the suffering of the internal refugees (andthe Palestinian refugees as a whole) and remembering their places oforigin. Collective commemoration and memorialisation have ensured that‘socialisation’ processes have become central to the social protests of theinternally displaced (Boqa’i 2005: 104).
Individual solutions for the Palestinian refugees will not suffice. There is a need to address the questions of land and property that have symbolic,religious, national, cultural and economic significance for the Palestinianrefugee community as a whole. For Palestinians a main reason for thecontinuation of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the failure of the Israelistate to acknowledge 1948 as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the dispossessionof the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine and their descendants. As longas this historical truth is denied or excluded, there can be no peace, noreconciliation in the Middle East. Clearly recognition of the Nakba iscentral to the future of Palestine and Israel; recognition of the historicinjury and injustice that were visited upon the Palestinians is a prerequisitefor a just solution.
Remembering the Nakba is also vital because its most salient by- product was the Palestine refugee problem, the greatest and the most
enduring refugee problem in the world. In the last two decades we have
had major contributions by Palestinian authors, many of whose accounts
have been based on oral history of the refugees themselves and ‘social
history from below’. Palestinian authors have also been producing data
and memory accounts of the Nakba (Masalha 1992; 2005; Sanbar 1984;
1994; 1996 ; 2001: 87–94; 2001; Khalidi 1992; Abu Sitta 1998; Al-
Azhari 1996; Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007; Sa’id 1992; 1999; Ashkar 2000;
Cabaha and Brazilai 1996; Wakim 2001; 2001a; Badil 2001; 2002; 2002a;
2003; 2003a; al-Qalqili 2001), compiling and recording oral history and
encouraging annual commemorations designed to preserve the memory
of the catastrophe, while emphasising the link between refugee rights,
collective identity and the challenge of return.
Remembrance seems to be about the past. But the Nakba did not end in 1948. For Palestinians, mourning 60 years of al-Nakba is notjust about remembering the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of 1948; it is also aboutmarking the ongoing dispossession and dislocation. Today the Nakba 44 The local committee of al-Ghabsiyya, in coordination with ADRID, published a pamphlet on the village of al-Ghabsiyya in May 2002, ‘Al-Ghabisiyya: We Still Have theKeys, the Story of an Uprooted Palestinian Village’. And in May 2003, in coordination withthe local committee of Umm al-Zinat, a booklet entitled: ‘Umm al-Zinat: The Story ofan Uprooted Palestinian Village’, was published by ADRID. The displaced committee ofal-Damun village of origin published ‘Al-Damun: My Village’ in May 2000.
continues: the ongoing forced displacement of Palestinians caused byland confiscation, continued closures and invasions, de facto annexationfacilitated by Israel’s 730-kilometre Apartheid Wall in the occupied WestBank, and the ongoing horrific siege of Gaza. Palestinians in Gaza, theWest Bank and east Jerusalem are denied access to land, water, and otherbasic resources. Today the Nakba continues through the ‘politics of denial’.
There are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees around the world, all ofwhom are denied their internationally recognised ‘right of return’ to theirhomes and land. The history, rights and needs of Palestinian refugees havebeen excluded from recent Middle East peacemaking efforts. The failureof both the Israeli state and the international community to acknowledge1948 as an ‘ethnic cleansing’ continues to underpin the Palestine-Israelconflict (Masalha 2005: 4).
Institutionalising Nakba Commemoration?
The facts of the Nakba, the destruction of Palestinian society anddispersion of the Palestinian people in 1948, Israel’s responsibility for‘ethnic cleansing’, the denationalisation of the Palestinian refugees, theocean of suffering in the last six decades and the gross and ongoingcolonisation of Palestine and continuing violation of international law,morality and human decency by successive Israeli governments, aresome of the issues which require redress. Many Palestinian activistsbelieve that the struggle to publicise the truth about the Nakba wouldbe better served by the institutionalisation of Nakba commemoration.
Of course in Israel Holocaust commemoration is heavily institutionalisedand Holocaust remembrance is a state-funded industry. In 1959 the Israeliparliament (Knesset) made Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoah)a ‘nationalist’ public holiday. In 1961 another law was passed that closedall public entertainment on that day; at ten in the morning, a siren issounded when everything stops and everyone stands in remembrance.
In the absence of a Palestinian state, the efforts to institutionalise Nakbacommemoration in Palestine will remain patchy. But perhaps the last thingthe Palestinians need is a state-controlled Nakba industry – modelled onthe Jewish ‘holocaust industry’. There is a need, however, for variousgrassroots projects such as educational workshops on the Nakba, a NakbaMuseum and perhaps the institutionalisation of a Nakba Memorial Day asa worldwide event. Nakba remembrance at grassroots levels will bind thisgeneration directly to the older one, and bind the exiled to Palestine.
It will also protect Nakba memory against its denial in Israel andaround the world, and will relocate the right of return at the centre ofpeacemaking in the Middle East.
Nur Masalha Remembering the Palestinian Nakba Clearly there is a need for a new approach to peacemaking in Palestine based on a recognition that the root cause of the Palestine conflictis the Nakba. The righting of the wrongs inflicted in 1948, and theredressing of the evils inflicted on the Palestinians ever since, would allowboth citizens and returnees to enjoy a normal and peaceful life on anequal basis in Palestine. But there can be no peace in the region untilthere is accountability, acknowledgement and acceptance of Israel’s rolein the continuing conflict. Public participation in peacemaking, and theinclusion of international human rights principles and the recognition ofrefugee rights are essential in any successful peace agreements.
Remembrance is also an act of hope and liberation. Edward Said once argued that to write more truthfully about what happened in 1948 is notmerely to practice professional historiography; it is also a profoundly moralact of redemption and a struggle for justice and for a better world (Masalha2007: 286). Remembering, as a work of mourning and commemorating,with its regime of truth, opens up new possibilities for attending tothe rights of the victims of the Nakba (Sa’di and Abu-Lughod 2007).
In English, ‘re-membering’, which is made of ‘re’ and ‘membering’,means reuniting things and putting the wreckage of a painful past togetherin ways which helps end suffering and helps the process of healing (Grey2007). Collective amnesia and contemporary forms of silenced voices arenot confined to the Palestinian refugees. Silenced voices are found inmany countries among groups of migrant workers and asylum-seekers.
These silences are partly due to racism and the lack of status granted todifferent groups, people who fall into the category of ‘the despised Other’.
These silences are often maintained because they serve racist and colonialinterests, or vested interests (Grey 2007). In Palestine when injusticeremains unaddressed, repetitive violence will continue to occur. How tobreak open the silence of injustice and many-layered oppressions, a keyquestion we face in Palestine, is a key dimension in building truth andreconciliation. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu: ‘it wasn’t possibleto move forward in South Africa without listening to the painful storiesof victims of Apartheid in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’.
In 2002 Tutu said Israel was practising apartheid in its policies towardsthe Palestinians. He was ‘very deeply distressed’ by a visit to the HolyLand, adding that ‘it reminded me so much of what happened to us blackpeople in South Africa’.45 In Guatemala, also, there is the Recovery ofHistorical Memory Project (REMHI): the truth-telling of memories ofthe killings that would enable healing. Truth telling projects should be part of the solution in historic Palestine. Acknowledging and remembering theNakba will help us to begin tackling the Palestine refugee problem.
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