May 22, 2008
Palestinians Mourn Continuing Catastrophe
Seth Freedman, The Guardian
In sharp contrast to last week’s Independence Day celebrations on the streets of West Jerusalem, the east side of the city took on an air of mourning Thursday, as the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”) was marked. All over Gaza and the West Bank, demonstrations took place to commemorate the fate that befell the Palestinian people in 1948, and — despite their residing inside Israel proper — East Jerusalem residents were just as eager to make their voices of protest heard.
I headed to Damascus Gate on Thursday morning, to see for myself how high emotions were running amongst the demonstrators — yet before I’d even arrived I was already knee-deep in discussion about the conflict. Upon learning my reasons for crossing the divide into East Jerusalem, my Arab cab driver poured out a stream of invective against the Israeli authorities, bemoaning the situation he and his people had been forced to endure for 60 years.
Beginning with a scathing attack on George Bush — “He only cares about the Israelis; he’s not done a single thing for the Arabs in all his time as president” — he grew steadily angrier and more bitter as we circumvented the Old City walls en route to the protest. “We have no rights in our own land,” he muttered, “and even then the Israelis aren’t satisfied. It’s not enough for them to control us and humiliate us in our homes; now they want to drive us out of Jerusalem completely.”
“It’s a systematic program to get rid of us”, he assured me, sucking furiously on his cigarette. “They make our lives hell — they give us no (municipal services); they don’t let us build in our own neighborhoods, so people are forced to move out as the population grows; and they make us feel as though we don’t belong.” As I got out of the cab, next to a phalanx of border policemen fanning out to encircle the protesters, he beckoned me back to deliver his parting thoughts: “If you think I sound angry now, wait till the 70th anniversary of the Nakba. As long as Israel carries on behaving like this, our rage is only going to get worse.”
His words rang in my ears as I watched nine- and ten-year-old children stand defiantly alongside their parents at the protest. Several of them clutched cheap plastic poles with the UN flag flying atop them in the breeze; the words “Right of Return — 194” emblazoned across them in bold black letters. The children were under no illusion about what measures had to be taken to redress the injustices suffered by their forebears, and demanding the right of return suggested the time for talk of two states had been and gone.
A local shopkeeper told me just as much, asking me not to attach his name to his words, “since this country isn’t quite as democratic as they’d like you to think”. The right of return for Palestinian refugees was, he said, “something we can never give up on, not whilst every Jew on earth is allowed to move here without hindrance. Maybe if they said ‘no more Jewish immigrants — we’re full up’, then I’d consider it, but that’s not going to happen. They let people from Europe and Africa move here, yet refuse to discuss the issue of refugees (who came from here originally).”
“Any agreement with the Palestinian Authority must include the right of return, or at least significant compensation for those expelled. I know that Jews were kicked out of Arab lands too, and they should also be compensated, but on a much smaller scale. After all, they might have lost property, but we lost an entire country.”
At this point, his eyes glazed over and his tone took a marked shift away from the here and now and into the realms of fantasy born out of years of frustration with the status quo. “The truth is, my friend, that Nasser was right. He said that ‘What’s taken by force can only be returned by force’. We’re never going to get what we deserve from the Israelis. The only way we’ll have our dignity restored is when the Arab world stands up and fights for us and our rights.”
“And it will happen”, he declared forcefully, his eyes blazing as he spoke. “It might not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen in the next 50 years. I am one of the most moderate men around here, but — believe me — if an Arab army rises up to fight the Israelis, I’d join them myself. Not the groups carrying out suicide bombings, mind you, but a real army that had the power to take on the Israelis.”
“My son gets so furious when he is humiliated at checkpoints”, he went on. “He asks me ‘why should we deal with these kind of people at all? Better to live under the occupation, sign no agreements whatsoever, and wait for the Arab world to come to our aid’”.
His sentiments were distressingly similar to those of the embattled Jews in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, who bore their oppression at the hands of the Cossacks and others by falling back on waiting for messianic redemption. By retreating into an otherworldly shell, they were able to block out the injustice and iniquities that they were dealt, and focus on a time when they would be delivered salvation by a higher power.
For the shopkeeper, the “Arab world” is the messiah; the white knight who will ride in on his trusty steed to right all the wrongs and restore to the Palestinians their dignity and honor. Despite the last 60 years of history suggesting otherwise — that the Arab world is neither powerful nor interested enough to take serious action on the Palestinians’ behalf — he clings to this belief like a shipwreck survivor to a narrow plank of wood.
As each year passes, and the Palestinians feel ever more scorned by Israel and her allies, it’s no wonder that they seek comfort in droves in the arms of the extremists. Dogmatism and fundamentalism can promise them the moon, whilst the facts on the ground remain the same, and the longer the status quo persists, the stronger groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad grow. For them not to achieve utter domination amongst their people before the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation, much must be done to convince the Palestinians that there is an alternative — but no one on the Palestinian side is holding their breath.