[In September 2012, Aditya Nigam and I had the incredible good fortune to visit Palestine. This post is the first of a series in which we reflect on our experience and what we learnt there. We stayed in Ramallah, visited and interacted with colleagues at Birzeit University and spoke at a conference organized by Muwatin, a research institute based in Ramallah. We met a large number of inspiring people who pushed the frontiers of our minds, and we came away humbled and moved by the dignity of a people living through the brutal occupation of their lands by the Zionist state of Israel, with limitless courage and sense of humour intact.
Deepest gratitude to Rema Hammami of Birzeit who drove us around Jerusalem, and whose inimitable commentary gave us a live historical sense of her country.
Words are inadequate to thank our friends Magid Shihade and Sunaina Maira, whose passionate love of Palestine and determination to help us make the most of our brief stay there, expanded our horizons continually.]
On the 15th of May 1948, the state of Israel was born, dispossessing Palestinians who had lived on that land for centuries. Fleeing terror and genocide in Europe, and anti-semitism globally, Jews from all over the world poured into Palestine.
Why Palestine? Why was Palestine given to the Jews as their home? And whose property was Palestine, that it could be given away? Why were people who had never done any harm to the Jewish people made to pay the price for European anti-semitism? It was Germany and Italy and Poland that had in fact, run concentration camps; it was any number of other countries of Europe that could boast of centuries-old histories of violent anti-semitism. Why were not parts of these countries carved out to make a country for the people they had wronged?
Maps showing the gradual obliteration of Palestine by Israel
Because the Jewish religious belief is that Eretz Israel, the land of Israel, is a God-given inheritance of the Jewish people promised by God Himself to the descendants of Abraham through his son Isaac and to the Israelites, descendants of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. What better guide to modern state formation than the Old Testament? Zionism is the claim to Eretz Israel as the exclusive homeland of the Jews and as the legitimate focus for Jewish national self-determination. Zionism thus, is the companion ideology to anti-semitism, not its opposite. To be anti-Zionist is not to be anti-Jewish, any more than to be anti-Hindutva is to be anti-Hindu or to be anti-Taliban is to be anti-Muslim. (Ask the world’s most famous anti-Zionist Jew, Noam Chomsky!)
(The conflation of Judaism and Jews, with Zionism and Israel, works very well for Zionism. Thus a comment from a reader to the previous post on kafila calling for a boycott of Cameri in Delhi, triumphantly listed drugs from Novocain to digitalis and therapeutic practices like psychoanalysis, all invented by Jews, that should be boycotted if Israel is to be boycotted. Very conveniently, he forgot to mention Marx and his legacy as Jewish… And apparently the commenter believed s/he had made an irrefutable argument against the boycott of Israel. Logically then, those who call for hunting down Al Qaeda should also call for a boycott of the mathematical and scientific contributions of Arab scientists and philosophers that form the foundation of modern science ?)
From 1948 until today, this migration of Jews from all over the world into Israel has resulted in the steady swallowing of Palestinian lands by Jewish settlements and the herding of Palestinian people into the continually shrinking little slivers of West Bank and Gaza.
How is Palestinian land taken over? By a variety of strategies. By military force, with guns and bombs, primarily from noncombatant farm families. By demolishing Palestinian homes on flimsy legal grounds, and since Palestinians cannot obtain building permits from Israel, many suddenly homeless Palestinians have to vacate their land, which is then taken over for Jewish families.
(Demolitions don’t stop even on Jewish holidays – or perhaps they are stepped up? On September 17th 2012, one of the days of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – a Palestinian friend, feminist scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, wept as she told us of watching helplessly from her window as a familiar yellow bulldozer demolished yet another Palestinian home in the distance.)
Sarah Haines, an Australian volunteer with Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), wrote to her family from an Israeli prison cell in 2009:
Every time settlers move into a neighbourhood means the Army also moves in to protect them, Palestinians are restricted from moving in the area, and the flavour of the neighbourhood of course changes. This is already a heartbreaking situation for Palestinians whose national aspirations both depend on East Jerusalem as capital for any future economically viable state, but also whose very cultural desire is tied up in this city.
The other point is that every home taken away from Palestinians is one less home available for Palestinians — not just in that neighbourhood, but in toto. They do not have the option to buy somewhere else in Jerusalem or Israel so they become homeless, or squish in with over-crowded relatives. In some cases, as per the policy design, they will give up their Jerusalem residency and privileges and job opportunities, and instead move to the West Bank.
More recently, Palestinian families in Silwan, East Jerusalem, have learnt that the Israeli authorities plan to demolish large parts of Silwan to build a controversial tourist site.
“We are also waiting for the bill for the bulldozer” said a resident. Because the best part of losing your homes? Getting to pay the demolition costs. In June 2011, a Committee of the Israeli Knesset passed a first draft of a law that will require that Palestinians whose homes are destroyed by Israeli forces, will have to pay the Israeli government for the demolition costs, which runs into thousands of dollars Already, many Palestinian homeowners, mainly in Jerusalem, have been forced to pay for the forced demolition of their homes.
In the first five months of 2011, Israeli forces demolished more Palestinian homes than in the entire year of 2010, rendering homeless 706 Palestinians, including 341 minors. This is according to the most recent numbers released by the Israeli Civil Administration. Israel has created Jewish colonies all through the heart of Palestinian Jerusalem in an effort to engulf the Old City, a project that continues by the minute.
You look around a Palestinian neighbourhood and see the Israeli flag fluttering from a window, from roof tops, and you know you’re seeing the Zionist project of ethnic cleansing in action.
A house taken over as part of Jewish settlement in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarra. The spikes sticking triumphantly into the skyline represents the Menorah, the nine-branched candelabrum used in Jewish temples. (Photo AN/NM)
Palestinian legal activist Raja Shehadeh, writes of settlers:
Today’s Jewish settlers…appear to think of themselves as renegades breaking away from the ruling establishment and following their own interpretations of the Scriptures….But…these present day rebels live on state subsidies. They are protected by the strongest army in the region and needn’t work for a living…Their heroism is attributed to their harassment of unarmed Palestinian civilians…whom they attempt to drive away from the land they consider as theirs.
(Palestinian Walks: Notes on a Vanishing Landscape P 116)
Barbed wire and armed guard acting as outpost of Jewish settlement in Hebron, an ancient Palestinian town. (Photo AN/NM)
May 15th then, is the day of Nakba or Catastrophe for the people of Palestine. It is a day of mourning, but also of resolve. It is a day on which the Right to Return is asserted and reasserted by hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in exile and in refugee camps world-wide.
An Israeli tour guide said to Sarah Haines, “We politely make it impossible for them to live here.” Nothing polite about bulldozers.
Jewish settlers in Hebron who took over the homes above shops, would (politely?) throw down rubbish, rotten eggs, acid and even shit on to the Palestinians as they came to their shops every morning. The latter put up netting and plastic sheets to protect themselves. The rubbish continues to be thrown. (Photo AN/NM)
But the one thing that Palestinians are proud of?
Their sumoud. Steadfastness. They will not leave.
Graffiti in Hebron (Photo AN/NM)