Palestinian Nakba: From loss of land to loss of identity

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The Palestinian Nakba happened 66 years ago and the number of refugees around the world is still growing. It is rare to find a country without a Palestinian community, who look at Palestine’s recently acquired status of “member state” at the UN with sadness, since it did not prescribe their return. This is in the midst of the desperate Arab situation, which displaced them and turned them into fugitives once again.

In other words, the Palestinians transformed their struggle from one over land occupied by migrant Jews to a struggle over a nation, its memory, and history.

Paris: The Palestinian Nakba – the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland by Zionist forces between 1947-48 – was not merely a foreign invasion of a land and its usurpation from its rightful owners. Israelis arrived to Palestine and left behind all roots binding them to the rest of the world. They came with a full awareness that land on its own will not be enough for their survival and continuity.

The Palestinians were late to understand the equation imposed by the Zionist movement, which went beyond controlling land to build a state in every sense of the world. The history of the Palestinian cause, especially in the 1920s and 1930, indicates a lack of awareness of what was being prepared, with the exception of a few national figures who provided an early warning of the repercussions of the dangerous [Zionist] project.

After the Nakba, things went in a different direction. After the loss of their land, Palestinians became aware of the threat to their identity. They became motivated to stay alive in order to keep their identity. At the same time, an elevated, romanticized view transformed Palestine into a “lost paradise” in the consciousness of Palestinians themselves. A positive romanticism extended to all Palestinian matters, from dress to song to food. The relationship with these things was emotional. Palestinians adopted these symbols to emphasize the presence of the absent and confirm their relationship and ownership of what was lost. Refugees began giving their children the names of occupied towns and these type of actions are reflected in post-Nakba literature, poetry, and art.

In other words, the Palestinians transformed their struggle from one over land occupied by migrant Jews to a struggle over a nation, its memory, and history. This contributed to the emergence of a well-defined Palestinian national identity. It is not an exaggeration to say that the biggest achievement by Palestinians prior to the establishment of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) was to consolidate their identity. It would have been impossible to create such a movement without succeeding in protecting a common identity from being lost.

There were some attempts of armed resistance immediately after the Nakba. They were hasty reactions but any resistance would have been crushed without rebuilding the elements of national identity. The liberation movement helped to strengthen [Palestinian] identity and a national pride that will never die. The refugee camps did symbolize defeat, but the fedayeen [freedom fighters] made them into symbols of resilience. The act of resistance gave the tents and the keys of lost homes a positive meaning and they became one with Palestinian identity.

In the Palestinian case, speaking of identity is not merely a question of nostalgia; it is a central issue. Without a common identity, it would have been impossible to maintain a people dispersed around the world and whose generations intermixed with various cultures and languages. The Zionist movement, just as it was surprised by the ease in which it controlled the land, was also surprised by the Palestinians’ ability to safeguard their identity and collective memory. Zionists took control of land even though they had no real identity, while Palestinians safeguarded their history and identity even without their land.

This equation later formed the core of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. New generations of Palestinians were able to inherit a national identity, along with the positive symbols of their struggle related to resistance, while Israelis remain fearful of not being able to maintain their control over the land.

On May 15, Palestinians all over the world commemorate the 66 anniversary of the Nakba. After two-thirds of a century and successive generations, and in light of all that changed, the questions remain: Does the nation still have the same meaning it had right after the Nakba? Is the nation still being inherited in its original image? Do the symbols invoked on this occasion still have the same impression on their bearers?

The answer to those question seems to lie in the analysis of the fundamental changes brought about by the Oslo Agreement and the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). The transformation struck at the heart of national institutions representing the Palestinians, as well as their economic classes and social life. This was reflected automatically in Palestinian culture.

On the institutional level, the PNA was expected to be in place for only five years, in which an agreement on the final solution would be reached, with the creation of “a state within the 1967 borders.” However, this institution kept growing and expanding at the expense of the PLO, which was turned into an empty vessel. The transformation in the roles of institutions impacted the representation and cohesion of the people. While the PLO represented its people everywhere, the PNA, officially, could only represent those who live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. With the weight of the cause shifting from the diaspora to the 1967 territories, the refugee issue was relegated to a question of negotiations, no more.
Those who carry the keys to their grandfather’s house in Yafa and roam the streets of the West Bank and Gaza are also dreaming of immigration to Europe.

Refugees themselves started to realize the weakness of this representation in practice, not to mention the rearrangement of the links with Palestinians inside their country. Their common identity, which had been psychologically strengthened and represented by institutions after the Nakba seems to be on the decline. On the economic level, which is the main requisite to understand the social transformation, the PNA imposed a new economic order in the past two decades. It had an effect on social life for the whole population.

The middle class grew smaller to the benefit of a parasitic wealthy class made up of high-ranking PNA officials, senior managers in NGOs, which started spreading like a disease, and private company owners. On the other side, a new class was formed, oscillating between the middle and the poor and made up of an army of small employees, living off salaries paid by the international community.

The danger of this economic transformation becomes clear when knowing that a local productive base had already existed before Oslo. It provided the basic needs for a resilient people living under occupation, in addition to agriculture, which kept its role and social value. However, the post-Oslo economic system imposed a free market model in compliance with the Paris agreement. Over time, the old production base was eroded and jobs in the PNA replaced agricultural and artisanal work, which lost its value in the new consumerist society.

The PNA, especially during Salam Fayad’s term, consciously promoted the culture of bank loans. More than half of the population of the West Bank and Gaza became hostage to local banks. Curiously, resorting to loans was in order to keep up with the new social values imposed by that parasitic class. The rest were left to toil night and day to secure a living and keep pace with the imposed social values, at the expense of national concerns.

In relation to the trajectory of the PNA’s political power, these transformations are beginning to devastate Palestinians, as humans, after taking away their country. The PNA’s political conduct shattered the post-Nakba equation. The struggle today is no longer for a homeland, in every sense of the word, but for a piece of land that could be measured by square kilometers. The armed struggle to safeguard identity and common memory faded into negotiations on a state.

Discussing the question of a state, rather than speaking of a homeland, means that concessions will be pursued diplomatically and are subject to the balance of power within negotiations. The state is a political entity, prone to transformation, but the homeland is sacred and constant.

Based on the above analysis, this year’s anniversary should be welcome with extreme apprehension. It would be naive to be reassured by the known slogans about the right of return, while witnessing all this destruction against the Palestinian people. It would be politically foolish to keep asking refugees to remain resilient after more than half of a century, while they remain at the bottom of national interests.

We should not be too optimistic. Those who carry the keys to their grandfather’s house in Yafa and roam the streets of the West Bank and Gaza are also dreaming of immigration to Europe. We need to be afraid for a generation who are learning from geography books that erase half of their nation’s map. Today, we should care for the symbol bearers, not the symbols.

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