How memory became the Palestinians’ greatest weapon
Thousands of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and throughout the “shatat” (diaspora) on Friday participated in their annual commemoration of Nakba Day — the one event that unites all Palestinians, regardless of their backgrounds and political differences.
For years now, social media has added a whole new stratum to this commemoration. The hashtags #Nakba72, #NakbaDay and #Nakba all trended on Twitter for days. Facebook was inundated with countless stories, videos, images and statements written by Palestinians or in support of the Palestinian people.
The dominant Nakba narrative remains — 72 years after the destruction of historic Palestine at the hands of Zionist militias — an opportunity to reassert the centrality of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. More than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homeland in 1947-48. The surviving refugees and their descendants are now estimated to number more than 5 million.
Just 48 hours before thousands of Palestinians rallied on the streets, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid an eight-hour visit to Israel to discuss the seemingly imminent Israeli annexation — or theft — of nearly 30 percent of the West Bank. “The Israeli government will decide on the matter, on exactly when and how to do it,” Pompeo said in an interview with Israeli radio station Kan Bet, the Jerusalem Post reported.
Clearly, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has America’s blessing to further its colonization of occupied Palestine, to entrench its apartheid regime, and to act as if the Palestinians simply do not exist. The Nakba commemoration and Pompeo’s visit to Israel were a stark representation of Palestine’s political reality.
Considering the US’ massive political sway, why do Palestinians insist on making demands which, according to the pervading realpolitik of the so-called Palestinian-Israeli conflict, seem unattainable? Since the start of the peace process in Oslo in the early 1990s, the Palestinian leadership has engaged Israel and its Western benefactors in a useless political exercise that has, ultimately, worsened an already terrible situation. After more than 25 years of haggling over bits and pieces of what remains of historic Palestine, Israel and the US are now plotting the endgame, while demonizing the very Palestinian leaders that participated in their futile political charade.
Strangely, the rise and demise of the so-called peace process did not seem to affect the collective narrative of the Palestinian people, who still see the Nakba — not the Israeli occupation of 1967 and certainly not the Oslo Accords — as the core point in their struggle against Israeli colonialism. This is because the collective Palestinian memory remains completely independent from Oslo. For Palestinians, memory is an active process; it is not a docile, passive mechanism of grief and self-pity that can easily be manipulated, but a generator of new meanings.
In their seminal book “Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory,” Ahmad Sa’di and Lila Abu-Lughod wrote that “Palestinian memory is, at its heart, political.” This means that the powerful and emotive marking of the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba was essentially a collective political act. And, even if partly unconsciously, it was a people’s retort and rejection of Donald Trump’s so-called peace plan, Pompeo’s politicking, and Netanyahu’s annexation drive.
Despite the numerous unilateral measures taken by Israel to determine the fate of the Palestinian people, the blind and unconditional US support of Israel, and the unmitigated failure of the Palestinian Authority to mount any meaningful resistance, Palestinians continue to remember their history and understand their reality based on their own priorities.
For many years, Palestinians have been accused of being unrealistic, of “never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” and even of extremism for simply insisting on their historical rights in Palestine, as enshrined in international law. These critical voices are either supporters of Israel or are simply unable to understand how Palestinian memory factors in shaping the politics of ordinary people, independent of the quisling Palestinian leadership or the seemingly impossible-to-overturn status quo. True, the two trajectories — the stifling political reality and the people’s priorities — seem to be in a constant state of divergence, with little or no overlap. However, a closer look is revealing: The more belligerent Israel becomes, the more stubbornly Palestinians hold on to their past. There is a reason for this.
Occupied, oppressed and confined to refugee camps, Palestinians have little control over many of the realities that directly impact their lives. There is little that a refugee from Gaza can do to dissuade Pompeo from assigning the West Bank to Israel, or that a Palestinian refugee from Ain Al-Hilweh in Lebanon can do to compel the international community to enforce the long-delayed right of return. But there is a single element that Palestinians, regardless of where they are, can control: Their collective memory, which remains the main motivator of their legendary steadfastness.
Hannah Arendt wrote in 1951 that totalitarianism is a system that, among other things, forbids grief and remembrance in an attempt to sever the individual’s or group’s relationship to the past. For decades, Israel has done just that in a desperate attempt to stifle the memory of the Palestinians, so that they are left with a single option: The self-defeating peace process.
The Palestinian people still see the Nakba as the core point in their struggle against Israeli colonialism.
In March 2011, the Israeli parliament introduced the “Nakba Law,” which authorized the Finance Ministry to punish any institution that commemorates Nakba Day. Israel is afraid of Palestinian memory, since it is the only facet of its war against the Palestinian people that it cannot fully control. The more Israel labors to erase the collective memory of the Palestinian people, the more Palestinians hold on tighter to the keys of their homes and to the title deeds of their land in their lost homeland.
There can never be a just peace in Palestine until the priorities of the Palestinian people — their memories and their aspirations — become the foundation of any political process with the Israelis. Everything that operates outside this paradigm is null and void, for it will never herald peace or instill true justice. This is why Palestinians remember: For, over the years, their memory has proven to be their greatest weapon.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud