Deir Yassin Remembered

A View from the Arab World

By Rami G. Khouri, in Amman, Jordan

Israel's jubilee, Palestine's catastrophe, and the memory and making of Amalekites

In the Middle East and throughout the world, the 50-year jubilee of two historical events will be commemorated this year: the birth of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and the simultaneous 'nakba', or catastrophe, of the fragmentation, occupation, and exile of the Palestinian Arabs. How both communities mark these events reminds us of where we stand at the beginning of the second century of the Arab-Zionist conflict (if we accept the conflict's symbolic genesis to have been the publication in 1896 of Theodor Herzl's book The Jewish State, which was an important catalyst of modern Zionism's quest for a Jewish state).

Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary as a powerful, wealthy, dynamic state that is still expanding its territory in some places, and retreating from occupied Palestinian lands in other, smaller, places. Yet Israel is also troubled by serious domestic tensions and regional and international isolation that often�not always�can be traced back to its fundamental challenge of having been born on the ashes of the native Arab Palestinian community. The angry and arrogant Age of Netanyahu has rekindled the Arab realization that the nakba continues today, that Palestinian communities still face the threat of displacement in order to make room for new Jewish colonies.

The Arab-Israeli conflict between armies, economies and diplomats has almost run its course. Instead, we now witness the birth of the new Palestinian-Zionist conflict�a battle between individual memories, personal and cultural identities, family homes, ancestral villages, communal remembrance, and collective rights, played out on the same piece of land. On this battleground of culture, identity and history, Arabs and Israelis fight on equal terms�both armed with formidable cultural weapons of comparable magnitude, and both motivated by existential forces of equal power and determination.

The 50th anniversary of the Palestinian nakba and the birth of Israel is an odd mutual celebration: Israelis and Jews rejoice in their strong state and the protection it provides for a Jewish way of life in Israel and around the world; Palestinians rejoice in the newfound vitality of their national identity and patrimony that are anchored in the soil of Palestine and rooted in its indelible communal memory. Palestinians challenge Israelis and Jews to deal honestly with their place in the totality of the past�not only the partial, ancient past of the Amalekites, Moabites, and Babylonians who tormented and killed Jews, but also the full, recent past in which Jews killed, displaced and exiled Palestinians and established the state of Israel on their lands.

The most striking dimension of this year's commemorative events for Palestinians is not their sense of the loss of Palestine, but their sense of continued possession of Palestine, their knowledge of the land, and their eternal rights in it. The Palestinians, living in exile in their own, largely Jewish-made, Babylon of the 20th Century, have not forgotten the land of their ancestors, but rather they have recreated it, carried it with them everywhere they go, and made it more formidable than ever before.

This is dramatically manifested in two parallel events that Israelis and Jews should ponder with analytical seriousness: 1) the spontaneous, widespread, and intense current focus of Palestinians around the world on the hundreds of Palestinian Arab villages that were destroyed and vacated during the 1947-48 catastrophe, and 2) the escalating political and geographic nature of the celebration of Land Day by Palestinians in Palestine and Israel.

The annual Land Day celebrations expressing Palestinian opposition to Israeli confiscations of Arab lands this week encompassed coordinated public events in the Galilee, central Israel/Palestine, and the southern Naqab (Negev) region. The added focus on the Naqab emphasizes a key reason why the Palestinian-Zionist conflict has entered its second century�Jewish/Israeli authorities continue to confiscate Arab land in Palestine, to dislocate native Arabs from their ancestral communal lands, and to replace them with Jewish colonies and towns.

The Palestinian nakba continues, inside Israel and Palestine, and in exile elsewhere. In response during this jubilee year, a new Palestinian/Arab response is crystallizing to the Zionist assault against Palestinian land and identity. A few years ago, Palestinians and Arabs mainly criticized Israel's denial of Arab rights, refusal to implement United Nations resolutions, and disregard for international law and conventions; today, the Palestinian/Arab discourse about Israel has adopted a harsher new vocabulary that stresses Israeli and Jewish massacres, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and colonialism. The Palestinians today are documenting the history and current status of their villages in Palestine, the ugly truths of systematic or isolated Jewish terror in 1947-48, the facts of their parents' expulsions and flight from their homes, and the realities of their long and continuing association with the land.

They are using this jubilee year to transform the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict from state-to-state confrontations on the military battlefield to people-to-people contests on a terrain of culture, identity, and history, where the two sides are evenly matched. Israelis can respond to this by drawing on the Jewish commitment to truth and justice; or, they can continue to deny the truths of our shared past, and instead remain isolated in the agonies of their own past, when the young Hebrews and Israelites were repeatedly harassed and killed by Amalekites from the east.

The danger facing Israelis and Jews today is not an attack by raiding parties of hostile Amalekites, but the greater tragedy of being hated and harassed by new generations of neo-Amalekites of their own making, in Galilee, the Naqab, Ramallah, Gaza, Lebanon, Jordan, North America, Africa and everywhere else in the world where millions of Palestinians sit down every day this year and remember their villages in Palestine, and work harder than ever before to find their way home�just as the Jewish people once did, in their own anguished minds, in their own tormented exiles, and in their own blessed lands.

© 1998 Rami G. Khouri

Deir Yassin Remembered

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