In Praise of Al Nakba

By Salman Abu Sitta

To Palestinians, as well as to an increasing number of people the world over, Al-Nakba represents the largest, longest, planned ethnic cleansing in modern history for which reason the title under which this article appears may appear at first sight cynical, if not downright offensive.

The trauma of Al-Nakba is imprinted on the psyche of every Palestinian, on those that witnessed it as well as those that did not. They have all suffered, and in a multitude of ways: they lost their livelihoods, nationality, identity and, above all, their homes. In order to survive Palestinians were forced to defend themselves, fighting on many fronts.

The sheer size of Al-Nakba is overwhelming. Over three quarters of Palestine was conquered in 1948 by Israeli forces that staged their attacks from bases on land acquired during the British Mandate, as a direct result of British policy or with British collusion.

Some 675 towns and villages were seized and their populations forcibly removed or massacred. On the day that Israel came in to existence 85 per cent of Palestinians whose homes had been on the land occupied by the newly created state found themselves refugees, and remain so until today.

Al-Nakba goes on. It continues every day, in different places and through different means. Whatever the legal cover fabricated by Israel the process remains the same. People are uprooted, and thrown to the four corners of the earth; their land is taken, their landscapes and history obliterated.

So how can Al-Nakba be praised?

It can be praised only because, from the ashes, the Palestinians have risen like the proverbial phoenix. They realised that with no home, no military power and no powerful friends they would have to depend on that greatest of gifts, the human spirit.

Immediately following Al-Nakba I saw boys walking up and down the only asphalt road near their refugee camp studying their books. With no rooms to go back to, no light and no space in which to study they would sit at night under a lamp post on the same road, its dark macadam acting as a blackboard, using a soft stone as chalk, solving algebra problems for next day’s classes.

Do not suppose, though, that there were classrooms for these classes. At the time they were held in the open air, under a tree, where the teacher stood by a board explaining the lessons. The children’s clothes were in tatters. Many were barefoot. Many came to school without breakfast. All were eager to learn.

The teacher — himself a refugee — was not much better off. Initially he was paid by his UNRWA employer a salary of loaves of bread or a sack of flour.

He was probably one of the lucky few during the British Mandate, when only a third of children aged between five and 14 found places in schools, who received an education past sixth grade. The brightest were taken to Jerusalem — three dozen at most throughout all of Palestine — to complete their secondary education and obtain their Matriculation Certificate.

The British were too busy handing Palestine over to the Jews or else quelling Palestinian protests against this injustice. In the Public Records Office I found a Palestinian request for ¨200 to upgrade a school: a senior British official, after expressing his reservations on the risks involved in education had added the note: "I dislike all something for nothing schemes in connection with Africans or Arabs. They do not appreciate it."

The celebrated Palestinian painter, Ismail Shammout, himself a part-time teacher, had to supplement his income by selling candy in the afternoons. With a tray hung from his neck he would walk for miles selling his goods. Once he almost strayed into a minefield. With the little money he could save he bought crayons and drawing paper and a painter was born.

Eventually the number of high school graduates would mushroom from dozens to hundreds and thousands. Gamal Abdel-Nasser opened the doors of Egyptian universities. Soon, thousands of engineers and doctors had been trained and they went on to form the backbone of development in the Gulf — especially in Kuwait — during the late 1950s and 1960s. Today there is hardly a university in the western world which does not have a Palestinian professor or more on its staff.

It is ironic to note that the educational achievements of these refugees compares favourably with that of Jewish Israelis who receive infinitely greater resources. It is, perhaps, even more ironic to note that the refugees’ education is far better than that of their compatriots who became Israeli citizens and were subject to discrimination in spite of the benefits claimed of a modern democratic state.

When the Ottomans took over Palestine in 1517 they recorded 955 villages in their dafteri-mufassal. In 1871 the Survey of Western Palestine listed a similar number of villages, most retaining the names they had used for centuries. Under the British Mandate over 1,000 towns and villages were recorded. The average distance between villages was two to three miles, though the differences in village life, between accent, dress and especially women’s embroidery, were often marked. It was, and in some cases still is, possible to distinguish the origin of a person from his or her dress or speech. It was an unusual event for a girl to marry into a village 10 miles away. Thus they lived and survived for centuries. Dispersion, and the severance of this bond with the land, was an unforgivable blow. It was the fuel that turned the fellahin into revolutionaries.

When a Palestinian delegation arrived in London in 1922 to protest against the injustice of the Balfour Declaration not one member was fluent in English. The Zionists, who were European, born and bred, had a field day. Not only could they speak the language but they had businesses, or else occupied influential positions, were members of parliament, senior government officials and journalists.

Attempts by Palestinian delegations to explain their case were met with prejudice, political expediency and a colonial readiness to dispense the fate of colonised people. Such is the spirit that lies behind Balfour’s notorious statement with regards to Palestinian self-determination: "We do not," he said, "propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… [who are] totally barbarous, undeveloped and disorganised black tribes."

Today Palestinians can be found in London, New York and Los Angeles. Copenhagen and Berlin have small but thriving Palestinian communities. Palestinians run shops in South America. They are businessmen in China and Uzbekistan. There are long-time Palestinian residents in Botswana and Peru. When, in Cyprus, Amman and London families frequently meet to celebrate weddings, it would be a safe bet to assume that the assembled family members hold half a dozen different passports.

A number of foreign parliaments have Palestinian members or staff. So do many foreign societies and NGOs. Arabic newspapers, big or small, and Arabic TV stations with Palestinians on their staff, are headquartered in a host of European and American cities.

Today you can find Palestinians in every western, and in many eastern, countries. They speak the language of their exile and understand its culture. They are confident, articulate, efficient and highly educated. They sometimes blame their forefathers for not having done more for Palestine.

These Palestinians could not afford to be passive in their exile. Dispersed, education was their only protection, and they had to struggle twice as hard to succeed in the lands in which they were exiled.

Development in the Gulf in the 1950s and 1960s was largely propelled by young Palestinian professionals, at the time the only available workforce. While material wealth remained with the local governments and people the wealth of experience and professional excellence was retained by the Palestinians, and they carry it wherever they go into exile. From the 1970s onwards — and particularly in the 1990s — these professionals took their experience to Europe and America. They thrived in an environment where talent was appreciated and rewarded.

Their impact on the western societies into which they moved goes beyond doing a good job. As colleagues, neighbours and friends they help dispel the vicious propaganda to which Palestinians are subjected. Some of them speak out while the majority let their living example speak for them.

It would be foolish to suggest that Palestinians command the world’s sympathy. Far from it, the Zionist propaganda machine is still spewing all kinds of fabrications. In America they still believe that Palestinians "occupy" Israel. The whip of anti-Semitism scolds many backs. The Holocaust industry continues to do a roaring business.

In the early 1960s I watched a popular comedy show on British TV. The star was the Jewish comedian Benny Hill. In one episode he appeared with ugly demeanour and attire and called himself "an Arab refugee". He asked his audience if they wanted to see his family and then produced a photograph of miserable looking Australian Aborigines. This gross racist act drew roaring laughter from his audience but no protest.

Israel wiped Palestine from the map and the word Palestinian from current use. In the 1950s and 1960s commentators on the Middle East would make passing references to "Arab refugees", implying they could be Arabs anywhere from Oman to Morocco. But with the rise of the resistance movement in the late 1960s and 1970s the Palestinians were catapulted centre stage and the name of Palestine returned into regular usage.

When Yasser Arafat spoke at the UN in 1974 the world listened. In 1988, when the UN convened in Geneva — to spite the US which had refused him entry — it heard Arafat "denounce terrorism", words that reverberated across the world. The limelight in which the Palestinians found themselves, though, was seldom of their own making. European Jews have long commanded a great deal of power in both Europe and America. At the turn of the 20th century the fledgling Zionist movement, though small, was able to meet and influence the most senior British officials. To support their case and gain sympathy they had to invent or exaggerate the obstacles they had to remove and the enemies they had to fight.

The earliest publicised obstacles were the barrenness of Palestine, the prevalence of malaria and marauding Arabs. In "overcoming" these obstacles the Zionist pioneers ignited the imagination of Jewish and other Europeans who did not know that Palestine was not barren; that malaria, when it existed, was restricted to the marshes of Hula and Kabbara and the marauding Arabs were the inhabitants of Palestine and the builders of its towns and villages.

The 1948 war was depicted by Zionists as a desperate fight between brave pioneering Jews and hordes of savage Arabs. Palestine and Palestinians were not mentioned. Leading Arab officials outside Palestine were portrayed as enemies of the west and correspondingly the Jews.

The attention paid to the Palestinians in the 1970s and immediately after was not aimed at advocating their rights. They were reduced to stock characters, the required adversaries of the Jews/Zionists/Israelis. They were judged only in terms of how good, or bad, they could be for Israel. Arafat was portrayed alternately as a terrorist, a man of peace or a man not to be trusted depending on the political season. Yet despite this villain’s role some Palestinian figures broke through the stereotype and projected an opposite image. Notable examples include Edward Said, Hanan Ashrawi and the young professionals Diana Buttu and Mike Tarazi. In universities and NGOs the world over new Palestinian faces appeared, bright, articulate and convincing, exactly the opposite of the stereotypes projected by Israel. The good genie escaped from the bottle, not to be locked up again.

Dispossessed of their patrimony, Palestinians were exiled from most of their 1,000 towns and villages. They found refuge in over 600 locations recognised by UNRWA and in many more unrecognised locations, and though the links with their homeland were forcibly severed they carried with them their identity and history.

Consciousness about identity, emphasised by the PLO in the late 1960s and 1970s, allowed shattered Palestinian society to reform in exile. Societies, syndicates, clubs and unions, of professionals, farmers, labourers, students, women, and businessmen, sprang up everywhere. Chapters of unions were established in cities around the globe gathering Palestinians from all walks of life.

The rebuilding of Palestinian society abroad had a tremendous positive impact on the image of Palestinians. Here was a people who had refused to disappear. Their tenacity was admired, albeit grudgingly. They received a warm welcome in Third World capitals and, gradually, in Europe.

The creation of a Palestinian cross-country skiing team, which received international recognition, is a telling reminder of this process. The organiser was a third-generation Palestinian refugee living in Boston. It did not matter that snow falls only on mountain tops in Palestine and there is no cross country skiing to speak of.

After Napolean’s campaign in Palestine in 1801 many travellers, priests, surveyors, spies and adventurers descended, writing books, charting maps and describing the landscape. Victor Gue’rin toured the country and produced several volumes describing the villages. The Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) sent a survey team in 1871 which produced 10 volumes and 26 maps listing some 10,000 place names, none of them Jewish.

Agents of European colonialism toured the region to chart the territory of a decaying Ottoman empire. Men like Max Von Oppenheim, Alois Musil and T E Lawrence promoted German, Austrian and British interests respectively. Herbert — later Lord — Kitchener and S F Newcombe surveyed southern Palestine and Sinai, commissioned by the British- dominated Egyptian government. They left a treasure-house of data, including maps, photographs and books on Palestine. Their objective, of course, was not to immortalise Palestine but to prove the authenticity of the Bible and, later, to chart those parts of the crumbling Ottoman Empire that would soon be up for grabs.

They were oblivious to the presence of the "natives". They were looking for dead objects, archaeological remains that would prove the religious theses they had already decided were true. Their interest in the natives did not go beyond the dragoman, the mule driver and the cook. And their description of these natives was usually the same — they were lazy, shifty and untrustworthy.

The "natives" were just as oblivious to these foreign-looking bands escorted by local individuals who regularly dealt with foreign "infidels". It never occurred to them that these foreign expeditions would result, a century later, in their own dispossession. In 1873, when the people of Safad became suspicious of young Kitchener as he went about charting their country, their fields and homes, a group of young men threw stones at his party, one of which hit Kitchener on the cheek. He became angry and demanded the British consul in Haifa intervene. As a result the Turkish governor had the village boys flogged.

When Herbert Samuel, the first British high commissioner in Palestine, was employed by Chaim Weizmann as head of the Advisory Committee to the Zionist Commission for Palestine, they together planned to survey the whole of Palestine in order to identify the land they could acquire for Jewish immigrants. When Samuel assumed office in July 1920 he established a survey department that produced detailed maps of most of Palestine. By the end of the British Mandate a large body of data on Palestine and the Palestinians had been accumulated.

With the exception of the Mandate period Palestinians were not aware of, nor interested in, the mass of data accumulated about them from the 19th century onwards. Their social history was transmitted from generation to generation, verbally and by example. The hill, the well, the wadi and the orchard — scene of that social history — were all around.

Al-Nakba shattered this continuity. The physical landscape was destroyed and although narratives continue to be transmitted from generation to generation the need arose to record them and put them in some kind of order.

Hundreds of monographs, each describing the life of a village, its families, its costumes and customs and how it experienced Al-Nakba, were published. There were autobiographies written by Palestinians, supplemented by documentary films, photographs and paintings. The edifice of Palestinian collective memory is being rebuilt, piece by piece.

Given the above, can anyone be surprised by the tenacity and the perseverance of the Palestinians in their struggle for the restoration of their rights? For 57 years, including five wars and innumerable air, land and sea raids, the Palestinians have endured a brutal occupation. Yet far from surrendering en masse their vigour and energy grow from generation to generation.

Palestinians have been fighting on many fronts: they have faced the combined influence of Zionists and world Jewry. They have battled against western colonialism and collusion, Arab impotence and the exploitation of their own shortcomings as a rural society forced to take on the (Western) world.

Many of their efforts have been thwarted. In the military struggle many Palestinian lives have been lost without defeating the enemy. Their efficacy in exile did not translate into a competent Palestinian Authority. In the end, though, it is the perseverance of the Palestinians that allowed them to continue with their struggle, and it is a perseverance that continues.

Calamity either destroys a people or makes it stronger. In the past half century Palestinians have transformed catastrophe into strength. They have done so through education and through their exposure to the world. They have done so by rebuilding their shattered lives in exile, by recovering their history, folklore, customs and costumes.

But what of their adversaries, the Zionists? Will they continue to bask in their military victory over a defenceless people or will they learn the lessons of history?

In the years to come, I think the history of the Jews will probably not be marked by their historical role in the fate of Jesus Christ. That was a matter of religious interpretation of an event which took place 2000 years ago.

The history of the Jews will also likely not be marked by the Nazi atrocities in the Second World War. That was a black chapter in European history in which millions of many nationalities died in the heat of the war. It all stopped after the war.

Any reckoning of Jewish history will be indelibly marked by what they have done to the Palestinians. Israel ethnically cleansed the Palestinians, seized their homes and property and obliterated the landscape — both historical and physical — that they had inhabited. For more than half a century this has been done during both war and peace, not by individual criminals but systematically by the state. It is still being done. There is no remorse, no atonement. On the contrary, there is more and more of the same. The tragic history of the Jews seems to have contained no lessons. It is as if their own suffering was in vain.

I cannot help but recall the words of Arnold Toynbee in his seminal work, A Study of History:

On the morrow of a persecution in Europe in which they had been the victims of the worst atrocities ever known… the Jews’ immediate reaction to their own experience was to become persecutors in their turn… In 1948, the Jews knew, from personal experience, what they were doing; and it was their supreme tragedy that the lessons learnt by them from their encounter with the Nazi German Gentiles should have been not to eschew but to initiate some of the evil deeds that the Nazis had committed against the Jews.

As for the Palestinians, they are still marching on. They carry the burden of Al-Nakba, which they have transformed into blessings.

-Salman Abu Sitta is president of the Palestine Land Society, London. He contributed this article to

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