[this post originally appeared on Jadaliyya as part of a series of reflections composed by Palestinian anthropologists in commemoration of Nakba Day]
The Palestinian Nakba-t: Catastrophe-s
On a cold and damp winter day in 1995, I walked through the narrow alleyways of an overcrowded and dilapidated refugee camp in Jordan. In subsequent visits over the years, the camp’s physical and political environment seemed to deteriorate, with poverty and unfulfilled dreams of return hanging heavier than in earlier years and decades. But back in the mid-1990s, I was on my way to meet al-Sarisi family, who along with approximately 750,000 Palestinians were the victims of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948. It was also the year when seventy-eight percent of Palestine’s territory was expropriated for the establishment of the “Jewish state,” a title that betrays its racist ideological and political underpinnings.
The sudden dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians forced around a third of the uprooted population to seek humanitarian aid and shelter in camps located in the West Bank and Gaza, and in Arab countries. The refugees recall 1948 as a horrifying ordeal, during which Zionist militias carried out several massacres especially in rural areas.
The family’s name, al-Sarisi, refers to their village of origin Saris, which was located in the district of Jerusalem, destroyed and depopulated by the Zionist paramilitary force, the Haganah, in mid-April. On its ruins arose the Jewish colony Shoresh, a Hebrew name that cynically mimicked the original Arabic name. This process of violent erasure and colonial settlement was the fate of hundreds of Palestinian villages and urban neighborhoods. While exploring the history of Saris, I stumbled upon the funders who helped establish the Shoresh forest and unsurprisingly it was the youth of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Johannesburg, South Africa (Khalidi, ed. 1992: 315-316). Indeed, Israel and the Apartheid regime were strong allies, economically, militarily, (including nuclear cooperation), and politically, as they shared in the “mission civilisatrice,” a euphemism used to justify brutal European colonial ventures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
What distinguished Apartheid South Africa from Israel, however, was that the former exploited the natives as cheap labor, whereas the Jewish State from its inception aimed to absent the Palestinians, and to rob them of their land along with their history as the natives of Palestine. The other distinction that weighs heavily against the Palestinians is that in Western societies Israel’s occupation is packaged as “self-defense” disseminated by powerful Zionist lobbies and mainstream media. Furthermore, Israel’s crimes are concealed by dominant narratives, including: a persistent Orientalism, Biblical myths which mobilize the support of right-wing Evangelists, and western guilt surrounding the Holocaust, whereby the establishment of Israel is viewed as redemptive and its violations against Palestinians therefore forgivable.
Since 1948, the Israeli state continued its colonial project in line with its demographic equation to ensure there are “minimum Palestinians and maximum land.” This was and continues to be achieved through various means, ranging from large-scale armed and violent attacks to low-key ethnic cleansing. Examples from recent history include: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 causing the displacement of some 400,000 refugees; the massive armed attack on Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) basis in 1982 when over twenty-thousand Palestinians and Lebanese were killed and resulting in the massacres in Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut; the massacre in Jenin camp in 2002; military assaults on Gaza in 2008-9, 2012, and 2014 which amounted to crimes against humanity. Add to these the everyday smaller-scale ethnic cleansing instruments through extrajudicial killings, imprisonment and torture, house demolitions, the concrete apartheid wall, the hundreds of checkpoints to restrict movement and humiliate Palestinians who have to carry ID cards not unlike those carried by South Africans, economic strangulation, tens of laws that discriminate against Palestinians including Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, etc. All these practices aim to disrupt everyday life and leave Palestinians few options but to leave. Yet neither the Zionists, nor their Western patrons had counted on long-term resistance despite overwhelming odds, or the survival of the villages and the attachment to the land in the memory of their rightful owners, and the transmission of these remembrances to successive generations.
Back in the humble refugee shelter of al-Sarisi family, I found Abu Adel, an elderly man, who had participated in many battles during the 1936 Great Rebellion, lying on the cold floor, half paralyzed, and his dimmed eyes filled with the bitterness and sorrow of exile. In a feeble voice, he tried to stitch together words to provide some coherence to a ruptured life-history, organized around ‘before’ and ‘after’ the 1948 Nakba. 1948 represented the catastrophic cut-off time before which Palestinians lived an ordinary life, but also the point from whence refugees/exiles depart to recall subsequent catastrophes, or nakbat. These oral histories were nonetheless unyielding, injected with hope against numerous defeats, betrayals, and political desolation. Abu Adel al-Sarisi ended his story poignantly: “I will either return to Saris, or die in the camp”; he passed away in the rundown camp without ever seeing his beloved Saris not long after I recorded his life-history. His wife, Imm Adel recalled how her late mother used to pray that she be buried in the ‘soil of her village’, a wish that was never fulfilled, while Imm Adel herself expressed her deep yearning to see Saris someday, which as she noted was known for its olives, za‘tar (thyme) and its mayramiyya (sage). I turned then to the second generation, the educated children born in camps. Kamal, one of al-Sarisi sons recalled that while his parents and the adults in camp neighborhoods shared stories of their villages and the Nakba, children were quickly drawing images of these, contrasting them to the poor conditions in the camps.
Kamal proceeded to describe the village he never saw, observing that:
I imagine my village on top of a mountain. The mountains are high, there is a very thick forest. From there you can see the sea and the harbor of the Mediterranean. The village is close to Jerusalem and Jerusalem is higher than sea level …at night, if there is a ship coming in and it is lit up, you can see it clearly.
I was curious as I wrote this piece to see how Israeli sources described Saris-turned-Shoresh settlement in 1948, and this is what I found on a website advertising the village as an ‘amazing holiday experience”:
Centrally situated on a quiet hill top in the Judean Hills, surrounded with nature, rolling hills, forests, breath taking views of almost the whole of Israel, gentle sea breeze in all directions, yet very near Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea.
The similarity in the description of the villages between that of the native and the colonizer is as striking as are the differences. The lived experiences of Palestinians have been snuffed, claimed and transformed to forge a new colonial narrative. In this process, language and its absence were critical, by invoking, for example, the Biblical term “Judean Hill”, while absenting the real Saris, Palestine, and the inhabitants and their descendants, many of whom are poor refugees awaiting to return. Indeed, their return has been delayed for almost seven decades as Israel adamantly refuses to allow them to return, or to reclaim their lands and property.
The burden of memory grows heavier each year concatenating one generation to the next as the few remaining patches of Arab Palestine are slowly disappearing under Jewish colonies. Such is the hurried pace of ethnic cleansing that Palestinian memory work lags behind: as one catastrophe is documented and remembered, another is unfolding, Palestinian history has become laden and overflows with Nakba Times connecting Deir Yassin to Jineen, Jaffa to Gaza, back then, in-between and now.
Palestinian resistance has straddled two centuries and the price has been costly in terms of lives and land lost. Yet, a great deal could be done to halt Israel’s unbridled rampage against Palestinians. Especially as anthropologists who took a stand against the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and other oppressive situations, at the very least we should boycott, divest and call for sanctions against Israel, that is, participate in the growing BDS campaign. We need to speak out for Palestinians, lest we become complicit in power dynamics that perpetuate oppression.
Have we not as anthropologists long sought to “give voice” to the silent and the silenced, the oppressed and the colonized? Have we not written about representing the colonized, about indigenous histories, and the colonial encounter? Taking a stand against colonialism, racism, and anti-Semitism becomes hypocritical if we exclude the Palestinians as equal in their humanity and therefore worthy of a strong solidarity movement. Palestinian society is calling upon us to do something that does not require courage or much sacrifice. Rather, it is a simple request to join the BDS campaign. If we don’t answer their call, something is terribly wrong and we need to question and evaluate what we stand for, and what the production of anthropological knowledge is all about.
[This post is part of a series of reflections by Palestinian anthropologists on the Nakba. It is being published in partnership with Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions.]