History of the People: Articulating ‘Palestine’
What do a Palestinian farmer who is living in a village tucked in between the secluded West Bank hills, a prisoner on hunger strike in an Israeli jail and a Palestinian refugee roaming the Middle East for shelter all have in common? They are all characters in one single, authentic, solid and cohesive narrative. The problem however, is that western media and academia barely reflect that reality or intentionally distort it, disarticulate it and when necessary, defame its characters.
An authentic Palestinian narrative—one that is positioned within an original Palestinian history and articulated through Palestinian thought—is mostly absent from western media and to a lesser degree, academia. If such consideration is ever provided, everything Palestinian suddenly falls into either a side note of a larger Israeli discourse, or at best, juxtaposed to a pro-Israeli plot that is often concealed with hostility. Palestinian news stories are often disconnected, disjoined news items with seemingly no relation to other news items. They are all marred with negative connotation. In this narrative, a farmer, a prisoner and a refugee barely overlap. Due to this deliberate disconnect, Palestine becomes pieces, ideas, notions, perceptions, but nothing complete or never whole.
On the other hand, an Israeli narrative is almost always positioned within a cohesive plot, depending on the nature of the intellectual, political, academic or religious contexts. Even those who dare to criticize Israel within a mainstream western platform, do so ever prudently, gently and cautiously. The outcome of this typical exercise is that Israel’s sanctified image remains largely intact. In the meanwhile Palestinians constantly jockey for validation, representation and space in a well-shielded pro-Israeli narrative.
To counter these misrepresentations, the pieces must be connected to form a collective that would truly epitomize the Palestinian experience—the story and the history behind it. Once that has been attained, there are chances for greater clarity regarding the roots of the conflict, its present manifestations and future prospects. That can only happen if we return to the basics of a protracted tragedy that is draped with the names and stories of individuals. Doing so would ultimately articulate a consistent, generational discourse that deserves to stand on its own, without belittling juxtapositions or belligerent comparisons.
All tragic stories of the greater Palestinian narrative—of those enduring the ongoing ethnic cleansing, those who are fighting for freedom and those who are seeking their right of return have the same beginning—the Catastrophe, or Nakba. But no end is yet to be written. The storyline is neither simple nor linear. The refugee is fighting for the same freedom sought by the prisoner or the son of an old farmer, part of whose family are refugees in one place or another. It is convoluted and multilayered. It requires serious considerations of all of its aspects and characters. Perhaps, no other place unites all of these ongoing tragedies like Gaza. Yet as powerful as the Gaza narrative is in its own right, it has been deliberately cut off from urgently related narratives. This is the case whether it is in the rest of the occupied territories or the historical landscape starting with the Nakba. To truly appreciate the situation in Gaza and its story, it must be placed within its proper context like all narratives concerning Palestine. It is essentially a Palestinian story of historical and political dimensions that surpass the current geographic and political boundaries that are demarcated by mainstream media and official narrators. The common failure to truly understand Gaza within an appropriate context whether it is the suffering, the siege, the repeated wars, the struggle, or the steadfastness and the resistance being presented, is largely based on who is telling the story, how it is told, what is included and what is omitted.
Most narratives concerning Palestinians in Western discourses are misleading or deliberately classified into simplified language that carries little resemble to reality. History however, cannot be classified by good vs. bad, heroes vs. villains, moderates vs. extremists. No matter how wicked, bloody or despicable, history also tends to follow rational patterns and predictable courses. By understanding the reasoning behind historical dialectics, one can achieve more than a simple understanding of what took place in the past. It also becomes possible to chart a fairly reasonable understanding of what lies ahead. Perhaps one of the worst aspects of today’s detached and alienating media is its reproduction of the past and mischaracterization of the present as it is based on simplified terminology. This gives the illusion of being informative, but actually manages to contribute very little to our understanding of the world at large. Such oversimplifications are dangerous because they produce an erroneous understanding of the world, which in turn compels misguided actions.
For these reasons, we are compelled to discover alternative meanings and readings of history. To start, we could try offering historical perspectives which attempt to see the world from the viewpoint of the oppressed – the refugees and the fellahin who have been denied the right to tell their own story amongst many other rights. This view is not a sentimental one. Far from it. An elitist historical narrative is maybe the dominant one, but it is not always the privileged who influence the course of history. History is also shaped by collective movements, actions and popular struggles. By denying this fact, one denies the ability of the collective to affect change. In the case of Palestinians, they are often presented as hapless multitudes or passive victims without a will of their own. This is of course a mistaken perception; the conflict with Israel has lasted this long only because the Palestinians are unwilling to accept injustice and refuse to submit to oppression. Israel’s lethal weapons might have changed the landscape of Gaza and Palestine, but the will of Gazans and Palestinians is what has shaped the landscape of Palestine’s history. This composition of farmers, prisoners, refugees and numerous other manifestations and characters of the oppressed are resilient individuals. It is essential that we understand the complexity of the past and the present to evolve in our understanding of the conflict, not merely to appreciate its involvement, but also to contribute positively to its resolution.
The Palestinian narrative has long either denied any meaningful access to the media or tainted through the very circles that propped up and sanctified Israel's image as an oasis of democracy and a pivot of civilization. In recent years however, things began to change thanks to developments such as the internet and various global civil society movements. Although it has yet to reach a critical mass or affect a major paradigm shift in public opinion, these voices have been able to impose a long-neglected story that has been seen mostly through Israeli eyes.
A narrative that is centered on the stories reflecting history, reality and aspirations of ordinary people will allow for a genuine understanding of the real dynamics that drive the conflict. These stories that define whole generations of Palestinians are powerful enough to challenge the ongoing partiality and polarization. The fact is Palestinians are neither potential "martyrs" nor potential "terrorists". They are people who are being denied basic human rights, who have been dispossessed from their lands and are grievously mistreated. They have resisted for over six decades and they will continue to resist until they acquire their fundamental human rights. This is the core of the Palestinian narrative, yet it is the least told story. A true understanding would require a greater exposure of the extraordinary, collective narrative of the "ordinary people".