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It was May 4, 1975, when I came upon the terrifying Sunday Times report of the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. I was then a student in London. The report described how a once thriving city became an echo chamber of silent streets lined with empty houses and shops. Even the sick were rolled out of their hospital beds and forced to leave, carrying their oxygen tanks with them.
As I read this account, I could not stop weeping. I had no connection with that city and did not know anyone there. The description of the residents forced out of the city, leaving it empty, brought back memories of what I had heard from my mother about the evacuation of Jaffa in April 1948. Only later did I realize that I had never been able to imagine how it was possible to force out the Palestinian population of Jaffa nor shed tears over it. The description of the tragedy that befell a far-away city prompted a belated reaction to the events of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), when in 1948 over 750,000 Palestinian Arabs—about half of pre-war Palestine’s Arab population—fled or were expelled from their homes. I had suppressed my emotional response for all those years.
More recently the images on television of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees trudging through the snow, fleeing the destruction of their homes and cities by the invading Russian army, brought back more memories of the Nakba. As I watched I felt I knew these war refugees’ feelings, the sinking understanding that they might never be able to return to their lives. I wondered whether in their rush to escape the ravages of war, like many Palestinian families fleeing during the Nakba, they too lacked the time to pack family photographs to document the life they were forced to leave behind.
For Palestinians memory of the Nakba is not optional. Remembering is the duty of the oppressed, while forgetting is the luxury of the oppressor. We Palestinians carry the memory year after year, like a duty and a burden, because forgetting would be tantamount to abandoning a right we’re still struggling to realize. In contrast, most Israelis have the luxury of not only forgetting about the Nakba, but also that of denying that it ever happened at all.
Palestinians have been accused by some Israelis of fabricating facts. As one Israeli journalist, Noga Tarnopolsky, supposed: “for many Palestinians the fabrication of facts was considered normal. It’s a world view in which ‘facts’ do not exist independently but as objects one can manipulate to one’s benefit, thus racking up points in a long-term struggle.” According to this view, our history and our very existence as a Palestinian nation becomes a fabrication.
After the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war, Edward Said wrote that he experienced the suppression of a history. Everyone around him celebrated Israel’s victory at the expense of the original inhabitants of Palestine, who now found themselves repeatedly having to prove that they had once existed. Said wrote:
‘There are no Palestinians,’ said Golda Meir in 1969, and that set me and many others, the slightly preposterous challenge of disproving her, of beginning to articulate a history of loss and dispossession that had to be extricated minute by minute, word by word, inch by inch, from the very real history of Israel’s establishment, existence and achievements. I was working in an almost entirely negative element, the non-existence, the non-history which I had somehow to make visible despite occlusions, misrepresentations, and denials.
Like all other Palestinians, I have been imprisoned by our collective past. As long as there is no recognition of the tragedy that befell us, we cannot escape that predicament. Reminders are everywhere. Throughout Ramallah, where I live, there are scores of placards with the names of the Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. The words سنرجع يومآ (someday we shall return) are written underneath. The Mediterranean coast is visible from Ramallah, with Jaffa on the horizon. I am often asked if I ever thought of leaving Palestine. My answer is that I cannot, for there can be no escape as long as there is no recognition. I carry that burden with me wherever I go.
In his 1984 essay, Reflections on Exile, Said wrote: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”
Palestine’s saga is the remarkable story of an attempt to erase the memory of a cataclysmic event, an event that did not take place during the high age of colonialism but in the mid-twentieth century. Abundant documentation has always been available: photographs, films, oral and written histories, and memoirs chronicle every stage of that ethnic cleansing. No wonder, then, that writers from near and far were enthralled by the secrecy, writing about the Nakba even when they had no personal connection to or experience of it. Yet, afterward, these writers faced a barrage of criticism, denouncing that they had fantasized or exaggerated their narratives. This was the case when Egyptian writer Radwa Ashour wrote the superb novel The Woman from Tantoura (2014) in which she described the massacre that took place in that Palestinian village by the sea.
In these pages I will explore that attempt to make visible. I will also go further and show that, beyond cultivating persistent mourning over the Nakba, Palestinian leadership made no serious attempt to understand how Israel used law to transform its hold on the land and extend its control over the Palestinian population that remained in Israel. This has allowed Israel to use the same tactics and legal maneuverings to achieve similar results as regards the Palestinian land and people it occupied in 1967. I will examine how Israelis and Palestinians have engaged with the Nakba, both by remembering and denying it. I will end by describing two exhibits, one Palestinian and one Israeli, that both explore aspects of the Nakba.
In the introduction to his book The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After (2000), Said wrote, “only by seriously trying to take account of one’s own history—whether Israeli or Palestinian—as well as that of the other can one really plan to live with the other.”
Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli historian who was also deputy mayor of Jerusalem from 1971 to 1978, is one of those Israelis who remembered the landscape prior to the forced removal of Palestinians from their country. In his book Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948 (2000), he writes:
this book is about my troubled internal landscape as much as it is about the tortured landscape of my homeland. . . . As long as I remember myself, I have moved within two strata of consciousness, wandering in a landscape that, instead of having three spatial dimensions, had six: a three-dimensional Jewish space underlain by an equal three-dimensional Arab space.
He then declares: “I cannot envisage my homeland without Arabs.”
Benvenisti was a lone voice among Israeli political figures. Over time the Israeli state has done everything in its power to eradicate any remnants of Palestinian presence in the land. After 1948 Ben Gurion, the Israeli prime minister, wrote to the Committee for the Designation of Placenames in the Negev Region: “We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state. Just as we do not recognize the Arabs’ political proprietorship of the land, so also do we not recognize their spiritual proprietorship and their names.” Seventy-two years later, Israeli Channel 12 news reporter Forat Nassar tweeted about a downpour in Netanya/UmmKhalid. Attesting to how tenaciously Israelis continue to repudiate all traces of Arab placenames, a storm of comment chastised Nassar for noting the name of the Palestinian village.
What of those Palestinians who stayed in Palestine after the establishment of Israel? Actor and playwright Salim Dao is from the village of El Baaneh. His family remained in Palestine after Israel was declared. In his play Sagh Salim (2011), he describes with self-deprecating humor how he could not understand why neighbors from the village—neighbors who had managed to return home—were described as mutasalilun (infiltrators). As he spoke the word mutasalilun on stage, his face assumed an expression of perplexity, sadness, resilience, and weary endurance. He was almost in tears as he asked: “These were neighbors, their homes in the village, so how did they become outlaws who could only be mentioned in whispers?”
In 1949, just one year after the Nakba, Israeli novelist S. Yizhar published the novella Khirbet Khizeh. The book describes the violent expulsion of the inhabitants of a Palestinian village by a detachment of Israeli soldiers. By the time the soldiers arrived, most of the village’s young men had already taken to the surrounding hills. The elderly, infirm, women, and children were primarily those left behind. The soldiers blew up the houses, razed the village, and drove out the remaining inhabitants. Khirbet Khizeh remains one of the few accounts, fictional or otherwise, of the Nakba by an Israeli author.
The story is based on the experience of the author, who took part in the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. The passage of time seems not to have made it any easier for Israelis to write about the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in the way that Yizhar did, let alone deal with the moral and legal consequences. No wonder, then, that the novel caused controversy and even general outrage when it was published, and again when it was made into a 1978 TV drama on Israeli Channel 1. The television show sparked a public debate about whether it should be broadcast. Public apologists tried to interpret it as a work dealing exclusively with the pain experienced by Jewish forces for depriving the Palestinians of their country.
For a number of years after the Nakba, the novella was part of the Israeli school curriculum. With its removal from the curriculum generations of Israelis have been shielded from learning about the Palestinian Nakba. This failure has meant that the Israelis can well repeat the Nakba. The majority of the Israeli public prefers to hold on to the official line: that close to three-quarters of a million Palestinians left their homes in Palestine on orders of the Arab leaders. More than seventy years after the cataclysmic event, the Israeli army continues to pursue policies based on the denial of Palestinians as a national group entitled to self-determination, consequently violating their civil and human rights. At times Israeli soldiers stop Palestinian women in labor from crossing checkpoints to get to the hospital to give birth, forcing them to give birth on the road.
The latest attack on human rights was Declaration 373, issued by the Israeli minister of defense on October 19, 2021, declaring that al Haq, the human rights organization I helped establish, is a terrorist organization.
How did we get here?
After winning the 1967 war, the Israeli government had to confront the dilemma of dealing with the 1.5 million Palestinians who were living in the territories Israel occupied. They had hoped there would be a mass exodus like in 1948; when this didn’t occur, the Israeli cabinet attempted to find “solutions.” The prime minister, Levi Eshkol, told his ministers that he was “working on the establishment of a unit or office that will engage in encouraging Arab emigration.” He continued, saying that, “we should deal with this issue quietly, calmly and covertly, and we should work on finding a way [for] them to emigrate to other countries and not just over the Jordan [River].” He added, “Perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither.”
Even though this “solution” hasn’t yet worked, this effort diligently continues. Another, slower Nakba is unfolding. But despite Israel’s determination over the past half century to force the separation of Palestinians living in Israel and in the occupied territories, they remain unified. This was demonstrated by the common stand they took against Israel’s attempt last May to evict thirty-six Palestinian families from the Shiekh Jarrah neighborhood. The families had settled there after losing their property in Western Jerusalem. For two months in the Spring of 2021, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip—along with Palestinians with Israeli citizenship in cities such as Haifa, Jaffa, and Lydd—protested in shared struggle with Sheikh Jarrah. Many from all of these cities participated in a general strike called for on May 18.
The Nakba has also continued through the enactment of new Israeli laws. Israeli leaders clothe their crimes with legal garb that they attempt to justify through international law. The Israeli defense claimed that it was Palestinians fault for rejecting the partition scheme. They and the Arab leaders chose to go to war. Following the war new laws were necessary to take care of the consequences on people and properties—here Russia’s war against Ukraine comes to mind. There is blatant and depressing irony in that the United Kingdom led the call for the International Criminal Court to investigate Russia’s war crimes when it had vehemently opposed a similar investigation of Israel.
In 1950 Israel enacted the Absentee Property Law and designated anyone who tried to return an “infiltrator” whom it was legitimate to shoot. The custodian of absentee property, appointed by the law, seized all the property and assets that the fleeing refugees had left behind. Every bank in the country was ordered by the government to freeze the accounts of all Arab Palestinian customers, and to transfer all their balances, and the contents of their safe deposit boxes, to the account of the custodian. This deprived Palestinians everywhere of access to their money and savings. Israeli officials were working on the principle of “no money, no country.” They wanted to turn Palestinians into beggars. And this was exactly what happened to many of them. Imagine the outcry should the same happen now in Ukraine.
By the end of December 1948, every bank operating in Israel had obeyed the order. Two years later the custodian withdrew a large amount of money from the Arab Bank’s frozen account at Barclays Bank and explained to the local manager that “the reason for this substantial withdrawal of funds was to finance an irrigation scheme.” The usurpation of Palestinian properties was so complete in Israel’s view that it thought it right to use Palestinian funds to finance the irrigation of orchards it had stolen from the Palestinians. In 1950 the Arab Bank submitted a case in London against Barclays Bank that went all the way up to the House of Lords, which in 1953 issued a judgment in favor of Barclays.
A year later my father, Aziz Shehadeh, took a case in Jordanian district court against Barclays Bank, which had also refused to pay its clients who had accounts at the bank’s Israeli branches. He won the case, forcing the bank to pay up. Having won that case, he had plans to take up other cases against Israel in the courts. But this was not in line with British plans for the future and would have gone against the Jordanian government’s appeasement outlook supported by the British. My father was banished from Jordan before he could fulfill his plans.
Unfortunately the blocked accounts case, which I write about in detail in my forthcoming book We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I, was neither celebrated by the authorities in Jordan nor cause for a new form of resistance against Israel. Except for those whose money was returned, the general public and Palestinian leadership took no notice of the case as an example of what could be done to restrain Israel’s excesses through legal action.
A law similar to the 1950 absentee property law passed by the Knesset was issued as a military order in the Palestinian territories in 1967. This order was used to acquire large areas of land that belonged to Palestinians who were not allowed to return to the West Bank. Most of these lands were subsequently given to the Israeli settlers.
In the face of Israeli attempts to use law to deprive Palestinians of their land, our leaders had a tenacious commitment to the slogan “We shall not forget,” but offered no sustained effort to understand how Israel was manipulating the law to acquire Palestinian property even when a number of Palestinian legal scholars in and outside of Israel had written about this.
Negotiations that took place between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization during 1991–93 neglected legal aspects of a settlement, in part because the Palestinian leadership did not know enough about Israel’s legal maneuvers in the West Bank to curtail Israel’s consolidation of changes in the law and its increasing control over the majority of the land in the occupied West Bank. Said was appalled at the complete absence of a legal grounding for the talks. My father would have been, too.
Perhaps the use of the term Nakba to describe what happened to the Palestinians in 1948 is part of the problem. In his book Self-Criticism after the Defeat (2012), Sadik al-Azm points out that the word is also used to describe natural disasters, and thus contains within it some logic of lack of human responsibility. He writes:
Since whomever is struck by a disaster is not considered responsible for it, or its occurrence, and even if we were to consider him so, in some sense, his responsibility remains minimal in comparison with the terror and enormity of the disaster. This is why we ascribe disasters to fate, destiny, and nature, that is, to factors outside our control and for which we cannot be held accountable.
In 1963 Tel Aviv decided to demolish what was left of Manshiya, the Palestinian neighborhood in northern Jaffa which had been partially leveled in 1948 by the terrorist Irgun. After 1948 deprived Jewish families were moved into its ruins and inhabited the houses that were still standing. The rubble from the demolition was to be thrown in the sea. The Israeli architect Hillel Omer was tasked with designing the park (later called Charles Clore Park) that was to be built atop the debris.
Before its demolition the architect filmed the neighborhood. In 2017 his granddaughter, artist Mai Omer, found the 8mm film which became the basis for her recent exhibit, called Al Ayyam (which means “To the Sea” in Hebrew and “The Days” in Arabic), mounted last December at Liebling Haus in Tel Aviv. The exhibit presented the viewer with a split screen showing Hillel’s 1963 film on one side, and the artist’s recent images of Jaffa and the park on the other side.
In an interview with curator Eran Eizenhamer, the artist says her grandfather “documents and destroys at one and the same time.” In her investigation she counterpoises the 1963 film with her own contemporary photos, propelled, she says, by her fascination with “silenced narratives.” “Manshiya is a classic example of hidden history,” she says. “I think that the kind of story my grandfather created in his film is a very naïve story, but underneath that naïveté you can sense a repression of reality. I think my grandfather regarded Jaffa as if his generation had not been the one that fought in the war and was part of the Nakba.” Later, she is asked: “What can be done with your grandfather’s gaze?” She offers this disappointing response:
What do you do with problematic history, with the weight of history? How do you deal with collective trauma and with your own personal trauma within the collective one? In the UK and in the U.S., for example, monuments commemorating imperialist history have been removed. But Charles Clore Park has no monument to topple. The entire park is the monument. Can a park be toppled?
Contemporaneous with the exhibit in Tel Aviv was another at the Palestinian Museum near Ramallah called A People by the Sea, curated by Inass Yassin. The exhibit featured documents, photographs, and narratives that presented evidence not only of Palestinian life in Jaffa, but of the richness of the city’s culture. It took pains to document Palestinian presence in the city before 1948. In the words of the curator, “It allows for a reexamination of the Nakba through a presentation of 200 years of historical landmarks.” One of the best installations at the exhibit was by a Palestinian artist from Jaffa, Amir Nizar Zuabi. On his daily walks by the sea, he collected hundreds of pieces of colored ceramic tile and other detritus thrown back by the sea from the demolished Manshiyia, which he then grouped together to produce a map of the city.
Omer’s attempt to highlight the demolition of Manshiya and Zuabi’s display of the remnants of Palestinians’ presence in Jaffa are two salient ways in which the Nakba is remembered by descendants of its perpetrators and their victims. As I stood looking down at the floor of the Palestinian Museum with Zuabi’s installation of fragments from the demolished homes of Jaffa’s former Palestinian residents, I was acutely aware that until there is a recognition of the Nakba—and a right of return is established—these fragments of a shattered past will never coalesce.
Editors’ Note: This essay was adapted from Raja’s Edward Said Memorial Lecture at American University in Cairo.
Raja Shehadeh is a Palestinian lawyer and writer, and founder of the human rights organisation Al-Haq. His most recent book Going Home: A Walk Through Fifty Years of Occupation won the 2020 Moore prize
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