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In Praise of Al Nakba (Part 3)

Agents of European colonialism toured the region to chart the territory of a decaying Ottoman empire. Men like Max Von Oppenheim, Alois Musil and T E Lawrence promoted German, Austrian and British interests respectively. Herbert -- later Lord -- Kitchener and S F Newcombe surveyed southern Palestine and Sinai, commissioned by the British- dominated Egyptian government. They left a treasure-house of data, including maps, photographs and books on Palestine. Their objective, of course, was not to immortalise Palestine but to prove the authenticity of the Bible and, later, to chart those parts of the crumbling Ottoman Empire that would soon be up for grabs.

They were oblivious to the presence of the "natives". They were looking for dead objects, archaeological remains that would prove the religious theses they had already decided were true. Their interest in the natives did not go beyond the dragoman, the mule driver and the cook. And their description of these natives was usually the same -- they were lazy, shifty and untrustworthy.

The "natives" were just as oblivious to these foreign-looking bands escorted by local individuals who regularly dealt with foreign "infidels". It never occurred to them that these foreign expeditions would result, a century later, in their own dispossession. In 1873, when the people of Safad became suspicious of young Kitchener as he went about charting their country, their fields and homes, a group of young men threw stones at his party, one of which hit Kitchener on the cheek. He became angry and demanded the British consul in Haifa intervene. As a result the Turkish governor had the village boys flogged.

When Herbert Samuel, the first British high commissioner in Palestine, was employed by Chaim Weizmann as head of the Advisory Committee to the Zionist Commission for Palestine, they together planned to survey the whole of Palestine in order to identify the land they could acquire for Jewish immigrants. When Samuel assumed office in July 1920 he established a survey department that produced detailed maps of most of Palestine. By the end of the British Mandate a large body of data on Palestine and the Palestinians had been accumulated.

With the exception of the Mandate period Palestinians were not aware of, nor interested in, the mass of data accumulated about them from the 19th century onwards. Their social history was transmitted from generation to generation, verbally and by example. The hill, the well, the wadi and the orchard -- scene of that social history -- were all around.

Al-Nakba shattered this continuity. The physical landscape was destroyed and although narratives continue to be transmitted from generation to generation the need arose to record them and put them in some kind of order.

Hundreds of monographs, each describing the life of a village, its families, its costumes and customs and how it experienced Al-Nakba, were published. There were autobiographies written by Palestinians, supplemented by documentary films, photographs and paintings. The edifice of Palestinian collective memory is being rebuilt, piece by piece.

Given the above, can anyone be surprised by the tenacity and the perseverance of the Palestinians in their struggle for the restoration of their rights? For 57 years, including five wars and innumerable air, land and sea raids, the Palestinians have endured a brutal occupation. Yet far from surrendering en masse their vigour and energy grow from generation to generation.

Palestinians have been fighting on many fronts: they have faced the combined influence of Zionists and world Jewry. They have battled against western colonialism and collusion, Arab impotence and the exploitation of their own shortcomings as a rural society forced to take on the (Western) world.

Many of their efforts have been thwarted. In the military struggle many Palestinian lives have been lost without defeating the enemy. Their efficacy in exile did not translate into a competent Palestinian Authority. In the end, though, it is the perseverance of the Palestinians that allowed them to continue with their struggle, and it is a perseverance that continues.

Calamity either destroys a people or makes it stronger. In the past half century Palestinians have transformed catastrophe into strength. They have done so through education and through their exposure to the world. They have done so by rebuilding their shattered lives in exile, by recovering their history, folklore, customs and costumes.

But what of their adversaries, the Zionists? Will they continue to bask in their military victory over a defenceless people or will they learn the lessons of history?

In the years to come, I think the history of the Jews will probably not be marked by their historical role in the fate of Jesus Christ. That was a matter of religious interpretation of an event which took place 2000 years ago.

The history of the Jews will also likely not be marked by the Nazi atrocities in the Second World War. That was a black chapter in European history in which millions of many nationalities died in the heat of the war. It all stopped after the war.

Any reckoning of Jewish history will be indelibly marked by what they have done to the Palestinians. Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, seized their homes and property and obliterated the landscape -- both historical and physical -- that they had inhabited. For more than half a century this has been done during both war and peace, not by individual criminals but systematically by the state. It is still being done. There is no remorse, no atonement. On the contrary, there is more and more of the same. The tragic history of the Jews seems to have contained no lessons. It is as if their own suffering was in vain.

I cannot help but recall the words of Arnold Toynbee in his seminal work, A Study of History :

On the morrow of a persecution in Europe in which they had been the victims of the worst atrocities ever known... the Jews' immediate reaction to their own experience was to become persecutors in their turn... In 1948, the Jews knew, from personal experience, what they were doing; and it was their supreme tragedy that the lessons learnt by them from their encounter with the Nazi German Gentiles should have been not to eschew but to initiate some of the evil deeds that the Nazis had committed against the Jews.

As for the Palestinians, they are still marching on. They carry the burden of Al-Nakba, which they have transformed into blessings.

* The writer is president of the Palestine Land Society, London.

Dec 15, 2008 2:41 PM
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