Remembering the Catastrophe

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“I heard you in the other room asking your mother, ‘Mama, am I a Palestinian?’ When she answered ‘Yes’, a heavy silence fell on the whole house. It was as if something hanging over our heads had fallen, its noise exploding, then – silence. Afterwards…I heard you crying. I could not move. There was something bigger than my awareness being born in the other room through your bewildered sobbing. It was as if a blessed scalpel was cutting up your chest and putting there the heart that belongs to you…I was unable to move to see what was happening in the other room. I knew, however, that a distant homeland was being born again: hills, olive groves, dead people, torn banners and folded ones, all cutting their way into a future of flesh and blood and being born in the heart of another child…’ Ghassan Kanafani 

15.05.48: a date that will forever be held in the collective memory of Palestinians. It marked the end of British colonial occupation of Palestine, and the declaration by Zionist forces of the State of Israel. For the Palestinians, it marked the loss of a homeland, the culmination of decades of colonisation and ethnic cleansing, summed up in one word: ‘Nakba’ or ‘the catastrophe’.

Expelled from their homes and fleeing in terror, over 750,000 Palestinians (approximately half of the population) became refugees, dispersed across the Arab world and beyond. The new State of Israel took control of 78% of historic Palestine, occupying the remaining 22% in 1967. Israel refuses their right to return, one of the most basic rights we have in international law. Today, the Palestinians remain a predominantly exiled population, living in precarious conditions under Israeli occupation, in refugee camps and across the Arab world and beyond. For Palestinians, displacement and homelessness has become a defining feature of their collective life. The experience of Palestinians in Syria today is a harsh reminder. In the past year alone, over 490,000 Palestinian refugees have been displaced once again.

Between 1947 and 1948, more than five hundred and thirty Palestinian towns and villages were razed in a strategy of ethnic cleansing. Arab communities that had existed for hundreds of years were wiped of the map, their history and that of their inhabitants subject to the Israeli policy of erasure of all traces of Palestinian life. In 1969, the Israeli military and political leader, Moshe Dayan described how “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist; not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”

Today Palestinians mark the Nakba by not only remembering the land they lost and the traumas they suffered but by asserting their collective will to resist their imposed dispossession. Since 1948, the Palestinian Nakba has never stopped but neither has the Palestinian’s determination to struggle to return to their homes. Israeli policies from military occupation, arbitrary arrest, home demolition, land confiscation, unrelenting settlement building and periodic lethal military offensives continue to assault Palestinian existence. But despite all the forces ranged against them, in towns, refugee camps and exile communities, Palestinians will be gathering this weekend to once again affirm their commitment to struggle for justice.

For years now, on May 15th, Oxford has remembered and commemorated the Nakba. On Sunday evening, Oxford Students’ Palestine Society along with Oxford Jewish Students for Justice for Palestinians and other societies will be holding a public candlelit commemoration on Cornmarket at 8.30pm tonight, standing in solidarity with the ongoing Palestinian struggle for freedom and return.

Image: Wikimedia