Refugees Are the Essence

By Azmi Bishara

Some have an almost religious faith that Israel will one day cease to exist. Others maintain that Israel will end if the Arabs optimise their conviction that it is an alien entity in the region, incapable of reaching a just peace because it seeks to dominate rather than to assimilate. Odder yet is the belief that peace is the key to Israel’s inevitable destruction. Unless Israel can be delivered a major defeat just once, proponents of this belief hold, normalisation is the most powerful weapon against it, because it would then be torn apart by its internal contradictions.

There is no proof of the potential efficacy of either the major defeat concept or the normalisation weapon, even if Ben-Gurion had raised the spectre of the latter. Unfortunately, the reiteration of such unsubstantiated claims becomes a form of opiate for the people, a mystical alternative to the summoning of collective will, the formulation of a strategy for resistance, and the proactive exploitation of Israel’s internal contradictions.

Plurality within the framework of Zionist unity has never been a sign of a weakness that, if left to its own dynamics, would lead to Israel’s collapse. To the contrary, it is a sign of strength. It is indicative of the ability of that plurality to organise itself, in accordance with the rules of a democratic process and on the basis of certain principles of a national consensus. Moreover, to add insult to injury, those people who appeared in this region from all corners of the earth did not come from a single nationality or even, necessarily, from a democratic culture in the countries they hailed from. Yet they succeeded in creating a national bond, or call it what you will, that could serve as a basis for the rules of a communal democratic game for Jews without their polity breaking down along tribal, sectarian or cultural divides. Meanwhile, 60 years after the Nakba, the Arab peoples, who speak a single language and who had formulated an Arab national project long before the birth of colonialist Zionism, are still reluctant to respect the rules of a democratic game for fear that that will lead to dissolution into hostile parties, tribes and sects.

The memory of the Nakba will not help create democratic institutionalised systems of government in the Arab world or realise Arab unity. Such tasks require the unification of diverse interests or the domination of an overriding interest, and the creation of identity-shaping institutions, value systems and books, all of which reproduce it in shape and form. Nor are they part of confronting the Nakba. Rather they are a part of confronting dictatorship, the absence of the rule of law, the personification of political life, oppression and corruption with an alternative political project founded upon national agendas and capable of transcending protest to offer realistic options. None of this will happen until it becomes an aim in its own right. However, the memory of the Nakba is important. Indeed, it is as vital to this nation as air and water. There can be no national identity without collective national memory. I stress the memory of the Nakba . If the actual Nakba had not occurred, the Arabs may have been better off and they may have even realised a form of unification like other peoples. However, the Nakba, like the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the June 1967 war, is also a stage in the formation of collective Arab memory, as distinct from other national collective memories, and it remains the most significant stage in the formation of modern Palestinian identity with all its positive and negative traits.

The memory of the Nakba has a political dimension that is rarely discussed, especially now that the current "peace process" has transformed the Palestinian cause into the cause of the territories occupied in 1967, even though that political dimension should be the most important facet of the process. Even under the logic of the negotiating process and its stylised rhetoric that is divorced from reality and captive to wishful thinking, a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, even a fully sovereign one, can not be regarded as a compromise solution unless it is recognised that the Palestinian tragedy began not in 1967 but in 1948. Even a bi-national state is a compromise solution from this perspective since it recognises a priori that the country was Arab in its entirety before being subjected to a protracted armed robbery in full view of the 20th century.

To date the "problem" to the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 is to refute the Palestinian cause. To acknowledge the Nakba is to acknowledge the historic injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people in 1948, which, in turn, is a prerequisite to the search for relatively just redress for this people. Justice (relative to the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people in 1948) is not a negotiable principle. If negotiations were based on this principle it would be merely a matter for negotiations to work out how to translate it on the ground. In the absence of a common principle, on the other hand, negotiations must inevitably fall prey to the balances of power, which as they stand would impose an Israeli solution. This is how Israel perceives the negotiating process and has always perceived it and this is why Israel will only accept a negotiating partner that accepts an Israeli solution.

The memory of the Nakba is vital because its most salient consequence is the refugee question, which is still alive and waiting for a solution today. Certain parties here and there are keen to drop this matter from the international, Arab and national agenda, even though it started out as an international question with respect to which the Palestinians obtained international resolutions in their favour even before the international community recognised them as a people with the right to self- determination (if the partition resolution effectively recognised this right it is also the resolution that effectively justified the theft of half of Palestinian land).

Palestinian refugeedom is not a state of mind to be indulged when the spirit takes one, as some poets and novelists seem to imagine. It is a permanent state characterised by the loss of home, citizenship, fundamental rights and hope. It is a state of obliviousness and oblivion for some Palestinian elites who have abandoned hope of victory and given themselves over to solving their own problems through politics. In the meantime, the Palestinian refugee camp, especially in Lebanon, has become a place of accumulating misery and wretchedness in the absence of any attainable hope for return, which had justified the permanence of the camp, and in the absence of the option of resistance from the outside, which had once transformed the camp into a school of national liberation struggle. What is the sinificance of the Palestinian refugee camp in an Arab country without the option of resistance from the outside and without the hope for return in the near future?

The Palestinian national liberation struggle began as a refugee movement, waging armed struggle from the outside. The camp was the centre of that movement. Were it not for armed struggle it would not have been possible to sustain it. The camp was by definition a temporary condition until the realisation of the right of return — a base, school and community for the resistance. Once these reasons for its existence ceased it became nothing but a ghetto of poverty and misery. These are the conditions that produce Shaker Al-Abbasi and others, and that produce crime and political apathy. They might also engender local community gentrification drives, as occurred in the Yarmouk camp, or they might simply drive people out, as occurred in many camps in Lebanon. If the refugee camp is to be salvaged from its wretchedness and preserved for the purpose for which it was meant to serve there must be a national project for resistance for which the camp serves as a centre. Has any thought been given to this of late? I suspect not. Certainly indifference to the fate of the inhabitants of Al-Barid River and of the refugees of Iraq, and the neglect of their fate on the part of the current official Palestinian leadership in particular, form a painful episode that compels us to contemplate such questions.

In some Arab countries, the memory of the Nakba was used to justify the inhumane treatment of Palestinian refugees. That way they would remember they were refugees, or so the official thinking went. Sadly, such treatment was not so much a reminder of the Nakba as an extension of it. Indeed, it was part and parcel of the Nakba. The Palestinians have not appealed for citizenship in this Arab country or that. More importantly, they were hardly in need of additional persecution and maltreatment to remind them of their original towns and villages and the homes they were forced to flee, the keys to which are still passed from generation to generation as they fluctuate between hope and despair.

Meanwhile, the shift of the centre of gravity of the Palestinian national movement from the outside to the inside — and from the 1948 to the 1967 reference point — failed to produce a unified Palestinian strategy for resistance. In fact, it appears to have led to a vertical rift, the most dangerous aspect of which is not plurality within the framework of a liberation movement but fundamental division over the very strategy of the movement. No liberation movement can sustain this, which is a division over both aims and means, and not just a power struggle, as ugly as that is already.

Undoubtedly, the neutralisation of the roots — the Nakba and the cause of seeking refuge — and the neutralisation of the role of the refugees themselves as communities were instrumental in creating that polarisation inside a non-sovereign Palestinian Authority governing entity. On anniversary of the Nakba we must not only recall the rights of Palestinian refugees. We must also remember to ask ourselves what role the Palestinian Diaspora and refugees should play in the framework current Palestinian policy.

(This article was originally published in Al-Ahram Weekly – – June 12-18, 2008 edition.)

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