24 May 2008

The struggle for a Palestinian history

By Juliette Harkin

The Nakba (which means catastrophe in Arabic) is the name given to the period when Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes throughout 1948, allowing for the creation of the Israeli state. As Israel celebrates 60 years of statehood, Palestinians around the world have been commemorating the Nakba for what it was – ethnic cleansing to make way for European settlers. That these settlers were fleeing from persecution and a European created Holocaust is no conciliation to the millions of Palestinians today without a home.

But, this year's commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba is not just about dwelling on the past. It is not about the destruction or expulsion of one people in favour of another, for that is already occurring with catastrophic effect to the Palestinians. It is a call for more understanding and knowledge about what is happening today in Palestine.

Bringing the Nakba of 1948 into the present is a way of showing how what happened then is intricately linked with what is happening now.

The British government's historical record in Palestine and the subsequent Nakba shape the every day lives of Palestinians today.

Lord Balfour declared in a letter that the British government would view with favour the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. The Zionists lobbying for an Israeli state in Palestine seized on this and continued their project of settlement, in a land that already had a people. In doing so they ignored the part of Balfour's declaration that stated nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights of the non-Jewish population in Palestine. The British must take historical responsibility.

At St Antony's College in Oxford University last week, politics lecturer Karma Nabulsi told how a British delegation of MPs met with Palestinian refugees some years ago, to see how the problem could be resolved. The MPs were told that an apology would be a good start.

No one seems to want to admit that a wrong has been done. The Israelis employ a powerful public relations machine to ensure that only their version of events reaches much of the mainstream media in the west. President Bush saw nothing wrong in ignoring the Palestinian narrative of history as he spoke to the Israeli Knesset about their biblical right to the land.

Karma Nabulsi went on to talk about the imperative now for Palestinians to continue to retrieve their own history; a history that renowned Israeli historian Ilan Pappe says has been taken from the Palestinians along with their land.

That the idea of Nakba so greatly offends the senses of the Israeli government and much of its public is indicative of the leap that still needs to be made before people can begin to talk of a real peace.

Karma Nabulsi also indicated that we, in the west, need to understand the Palestinian situation outside the confines of the failed Oslo and subsequent 'peace agreements'. The second Intifada of 2000 was an inevitable attempt to restore the Palestinian national and historical narrative in the face of the failed peace process and failed leadership.

Since Oslo the injustices brought about by the Israeli state on the people of Palestine have been reduced to a series of 'incremental steps' in a 'peace process' that actually delayed resolution of the fundamental Palestinian right of return into a 'final status' compartment to be dealt with later.

Karma Nabulsi explained how this fragmentation of Palestine and its people effectively ignored the essence of the Palestinian struggle - the right to self determination and return for all the people of Palestine. The Oslo peace accords effectively disconnected the Palestinians living under occupation from those refugees living outside of the territories.

Today, a piecemeal peace is discussed with willing negotiators in the West Bank, without considering the millions of refugees outside of Palestine, the Palestinians within Israel and the Palestinians suffering in Gaza. When we know the Palestinian narrative and its historical context we then can see how more compromise and denial of history cannot lead to peace.

This article draws on a lecture by Dr Karma Nabulsi, Fellow at St Edmund Hall and Lecturer at Oxford University, on the 21 May 2008 at St Antony’s College, Oxford, hosted by the Oxford University Arabic Cultural Society.