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In Praise of Al Nakba (Part 2)

Development in the Gulf in the 1950s and 1960s was largely propelled by young Palestinian professionals, at the time the only available workforce. While material wealth remained with the local governments and people the wealth of experience and professional excellence was retained by the Palestinians, and they carry it wherever they go into exile. From the 1970s onwards -- and particularly in the 1990s -- these professionals took their experience to Europe and America. They thrived in an environment where talent was appreciated and rewarded.

Their impact on the western societies into which they moved goes beyond doing a good job. As colleagues, neighbours and friends they help dispel the vicious propaganda to which Palestinians are subjected. Some of them speak out while the majority let their living example speak for them.

It would be foolish to suggest that Palestinians command the world's sympathy. Far from it, the Zionist propaganda machine is still spewing all kinds of fabrications. In America they still believe that Palestinians "occupy" Israel. The whip of anti-Semitism scolds many backs. The Holocaust industry continues to do a roaring business.

In the early 1960s I watched a popular comedy show on British TV. The star was the Jewish comedian Benny Hill. In one episode he appeared with ugly demeanour and attire and called himself "an Arab refugee". He asked his audience if they wanted to see his family and then produced a photograph of miserable looking Australian Aborigines. This gross racist act drew roaring laughter from his audience but no protest.

Israel wiped Palestine from the map and the word Palestinian from current use. In the 1950s and 1960s commentators on the Middle East would make passing references to "Arab refugees", implying they could be Arabs anywhere from Oman to Morocco. But with the rise of the resistance movement in the late 1960s and 1970s the Palestinians were catapulted centre stage and the name of Palestine returned into regular usage.

When Yasser Arafat spoke at the UN in 1974 the world listened. In 1988, when the UN convened in Geneva -- to spite the US which had refused him entry -- it heard Arafat "denounce terrorism", words that reverberated across the world. The limelight in which the Palestinians found themselves, though, was seldom of their own making. European Jews have long commanded a great deal of power in both Europe and America. At the turn of the 20th century the fledgling Zionist movement, though small, was able to meet and influence the most senior British officials. To support their case and gain sympathy they had to invent or exaggerate the obstacles they had to remove and the enemies they had to fight.

The earliest publicised obstacles were the barrenness of Palestine, the prevalence of malaria and marauding Arabs. In "overcoming" these obstacles the Zionist pioneers ignited the imagination of Jewish and other Europeans who did not know that Palestine was not barren; that malaria, when it existed, was restricted to the marshes of Hula and Kabbara and the marauding Arabs were the inhabitants of Palestine and the builders of its towns and villages.

The 1948 war was depicted by Zionists as a desperate fight between brave pioneering Jews and hordes of savage Arabs. Palestine and Palestinians were not mentioned. Leading Arab officials outside Palestine were portrayed as enemies of the west and correspondingly the Jews.

The attention paid to the Palestinians in the 1970s and immediately after was not aimed at advocating their rights. They were reduced to stock characters, the required adversaries of the Jews/Zionists/Israelis. They were judged only in terms of how good, or bad, they could be for Israel. Arafat was portrayed alternately as a terrorist, a man of peace or a man not to be trusted depending on the political season. Yet despite this villain's role some Palestinian figures broke through the stereotype and projected an opposite image. Notable examples include Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and the young professionals Diana Buttu and Mike Tarazi. In universities and NGOs the world over new Palestinian faces appeared, bright, articulate and convincing, exactly the opposite of the stereotypes projected by Israel. The good genie escaped from the bottle, not to be locked up again.

DISPOSSESSED OF THEIR PATRIMONY, Palestinians were exiled from most of their 1,000 towns and villages. They found refuge in over 600 locations recognised by UNRWA and in many more unrecognised locations, and though the links with their homeland were forcibly severed they carried with them their identity and history.

Consciousness about identity, emphasised by the PLO in the late 1960s and 1970s, allowed shattered Palestinian society to reform in exile. Societies, syndicates, clubs and unions, of professionals, farmers, labourers, students, women, and businessmen, sprang up everywhere. Chapters of unions were established in cities around the globe gathering Palestinians from all walks of life.

The rebuilding of Palestinian society abroad had a tremendous positive impact on the image of Palestinians. Here was a people who had refused to disappear. Their tenacity was admired, albeit grudgingly. They received a warm welcome in Third World capitals and, gradually, in Europe.

The creation of a Palestinian cross-country skiing team, which received international recognition, is a telling reminder of this process. The organiser was a third-generation Palestinian refugee living in Boston. It did not matter that snow falls only on mountain tops in Palestine and there is no cross country skiing to speak of.

After Napolean's campaign in Palestine in 1801 many travellers, priests, surveyors, spies and adventurers descended, writing books, charting maps and describing the landscape. Victor Gue'rin toured the country and produced several volumes describing the villages. The Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) sent a survey team in 1871 which produced 10 volumes and 26 maps listing some 10,000 place names, none of them Jewish.


Dec 15, 2008 2:39 PM
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Language Skills
Arabic, English, Hebrew
Learning Language
English, Hebrew