By Joharah Baker
Every year, Israel’s independence celebrations are a sore reminder to the Palestinians of the price they were made to pay for this state to be created. This year, on the 60th occasion of Israel’s independence, nothing has been remedied or rectified for those Palestinians who lost their homes over half a century ago.
The Palestinians hardly spend this time of year, May 15 to be exact, in celebration. While Israeli flags flutter over buildings and cars and Israelis take the day to picnic and barbeque, Palestinians are remembering Al Nakba, the Catastrophe which emerged as a result of the creation of the State of Israel. By the time the 1948 War was over, 800,000 Palestinians from all walks of life had been made refugees, virtually overnight. In days of horror, Palestinians from northern Palestine and along the coastal line fled the fierce fighting and the fear of massacres with the understanding that they would return to their homes once the fighting had subsided. That was never to happen and 60 years later, these refugees have multiplied many times over, with an estimated five million Palestinian refugees in camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, neighboring Arab countries and abroad.
By now, an ample number of people have a vague idea of what transpired in 1948. The Palestinians have done a satisfactory job of getting this out, constantly pushing the refugee issue back up the ladder to the top of the priority list even when other more immediate issues push it down. However, the efforts put into portraying the real picture of what went down 60 years ago are not nearly enough. The majority of the world still believes Israel was created out of a desperate need for a Jewish homeland – which of course, was validated by the 1917 Balfour Declaration – and the Israelis proceeded to “make the desert bloom.”
Still, Israel is taking nothing for granted, continuously spewing out falsities about its history, camouflaging the fact that, similar to its best friend, the United States, it was created at the expense of an entire people, unapologetic of the bloody trail it left behind. This year, several events are taking place throughout the United States in particular for all to join in Israel’s celebration. New York, California and Washington will all host Israeli events to mark the 60th anniversary. “Authentic” food will be served – no doubt falafel and hummous – floats will parade through the streets and concerts and cultural activities held. For example, on May 8, New York’s Washington Square – usually booked for major events such as a September 11 memorial or more recently, a Barak Obama campaign rally – will be flooded with American and Israeli youths, rocking and rolling to music played by an Israeli DJ on the biggest dance floor ever. The event, organized by the Israeli consulate in New York, is part of the elaborate 60th anniversary.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Events in Israel are also abundant, including the Jerusalem Writers Conference next month. The conference will host 15 Israeli and around 40 foreign writers all traveling to Israel in honor of its Independence Day. Controversy has swirled around one of the attendees, prominent South African writer Nadine Gordimer. The 84-year old author, known for her outspokenness against Apartheid, has been criticized by the Palestinians for agreeing to join Israel in its celebrations. Still, she is coming, defending her decision by saying that, “her comrades should have no doubts about her solidarity with the struggle against apartheid.”
Gordimer, unfortunately, represents the overwhelming majority of the world’s masses. Boycotting Israel has become a dangerous pit, which many try to avoid at all costs, even those who advocate noble causes elsewhere. The fact that Israel is implementing a system even beyond the perimeters of Apartheid South Africa has conveniently gone right over Gordimer’s head. The fact that the very independence she is honoring is the same occasion marking the disastrous plight of another people is dismissed by this so-called woman of conscience.
Hence, it goes without saying that Israel is being kept on this bizarre pedestal where it is not held accountable for violations and transgressions that would otherwise be penalized if any other country were the perpetrator. That is why the Palestinians now have to take their struggle up a notch in an attempt to better showcase the great injustice done to them 60 years ago. Sterile statistics and impersonal numbers will not suffice. Real people are behind these numbers – horror stories of exile, starvation and loss. Just like Israel continuously dredges up the history of the Jews, reminding the world over and over again of their persecution, keeping their past alive as a means of justifying their present, the Palestinians need to constantly remind the world that the Israelis have no monopoly over human suffering.
On this 60th anniversary of Al Nakba, the opportunity has arisen once more. To be fair, there have been events organized by Palestinian grassroots organizations to mark the occasion, such as marches and demonstrations. On May 15, Palestinians will release 21,915 black balloons (one for every day of the last 60 years) into the sky from Qalandiya checkpoint and Bethlehem to counter Israel’s celebrations and to remind the world of the destruction and death Israel has brought upon the Palestinians since then.
For those refugees, however, even more must be done. There has been an acute lack of acknowledgement of their plight by the world and an outright denial of any wrongdoing by the Israeli government. For many who have endured exile and years of hardship in the squalid refugee camps of South Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Gaza Strip, a start to the solution is for their story to be told. Every leader, without exception, every state representative in the United Nations, should know the story of Palestinian refugees – how they left to protect their families from another massacre carried out by Jewish gangs, how they were forced out by Israel’s nascent army or how they fled in fear with the belief that they would be allowed to return in a matter of days. They want the world to know how they left their chickens with little feed and their windows open, hastily picking up a few thin mattresses, a small bundle of clothes, whatever money and personal possessions they had along with their children at their heels and locked their door, strung the key around their necks and never returned.
So when the Palestinian leadership insists on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, it is speaking of a right embedded in the lives of real people. These refugees also know that much of what was their homes no longer exists, torn down and replaced by jarring foreign structures offensive even to the landscape. Some destroyed villages have a highway in their place, or an airport. Others have remained, turned instead into Israeli national parks. For the original owners, this is an open wound, a wound hardly ever acknowledged. Nonetheless, the right of return is still an inherent and inalienable right that cannot be nullified regardless of time.
Hence, for once let us rain on Israel’s parade. As it waves its flags, invites world dignitaries to share in its celebrations, and pats its own back over its vast achievements in the face of such horrible adversity, let the images of those Palestinians made homeless in the wake of Israel’s creation cast a shadow over the jubilations.
An injustice so great should not be so hard to defend. The facts speak for themselves. They only need the right amount of committed people to turn up the volume.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. (This article was originally published by www.Miftah.org)