Every May 15th brings the commemoration of the Nakba, the “catastrophe” which marked the most important (and most painful) milestone in the contemporary history of the Palestinian people. The war of 1948, which led to the creation of Israel, drove over 700,000 Palestinians into exile. The social fabric of Palestinian society was destroyed, along with their national aspirations. About 80% of the population that had lived and worked for centuries the land of their ancestors –now under the control of Israel– lost their possessions and livelihoods, becoming refugees entirely dependent on a political settlement. Sixty-four years have passed since then and the world still does not know what to do with the five million or more descendants of those both early exiles and the others who followed in their wake in 1967.
Palestinians are the largest and oldest refugee population on the planet. The uniqueness of their case (their homes and properties have been razed or are now owned by Jewish settlers and their descendants) has been recognised through the creation of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank are home to five million currently registered refugees, distributed between 64 refugee camps, many of which are technically ghettos. Each country has different regulations for the Palestinian people, with Lebanon being the state in which they survive under the most difficult conditions, with no civil or social rights and very limited access to employment and public services.
Visiting one of these forgotten places is revealing because it violently shakes Western awareness and its complacent view of a fair, human political order and morality. The landscape that appears before our eyes is grey: a compact mass of cement blocks, corrugated iron roofs and twisted alleyways into which hardly a ray of sunlight enters. A tangle of electric cables typically covers the streets through which sewage, barefoot children and feral cats roam at ease. A fence usually surrounds the perimeter of these ghettos and some of them are guarded by military personnel. There are no squares or parks, nor the slightest sense of harmony. And yet there is beauty in the hearts of the refugees – in their dignified bearing, in the way they smile and say good morning, in their exquisite hospitality, in their love for their children and in their hopes and dreams.
They are a strong people, these Palestinians without a homeland. Survivors of ethnic cleansing, uprooting, spoliation, the suppression of basic rights, massacres and persecution, war and radicalism, fear and uncertainty. And neglect. If nobody remembers you, it is as if you do not exist. So the fight against obscurity, the fight for memory, is the principal weapon of these outcasts of the world. Recognising the Palestinian collective memory, their loss and deep pain, is not only just, it is necessary in order to assert their identity, alleviate their trauma and reaffirm their political and social demands for redress and the right to return. The fact that 64 years on, millions of Palestinian refugees continue to live in deplorable conditions with no prospects for the future should be a source of shame for Arab leaders; but above all, the situation calls into serious question the morality of the Zionist project and demonstrates humanity’s failure to abide by the values expressed in the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The world has been slow to recognise the tragedy of the Palestinian people and still fails to understand the magnitude of the trauma caused by the Nakba. The intensity of this collective experience is such that it haunts all Palestinian descendents, wherever they may be, driving them to live lives that are, at times, both melancholy and painful. Such was the case with Edward Said, Mahmoud Darwish and so many Palestinians who live anonymously among us. The Nakba is the moment to which all Palestinians return obsessively, again and again. It is therefore vital to recognise their pain, in order to help them avoid insanity. The Nakba is the root of the Arab-Israeli conflict and we must begin by recognising the trauma in order to find the right way of dealing with the problem.
This year in the U.S., Europe and the Arab world, the Nakba will be remembered. It will also be remembered in Israel, even with the High Court approval in January of the controversial law that establishes economic sanctions against any entity organising such acts of commemoration (which coincide with those of Israeli Independence Day). This year, the University of Tel Aviv, whose campus was built over the land and properties of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwanis, has publicly recognised the pain of the loss of Palestine, in the midst of heated political controversies and quarrels. Just four gravestones are left in the cemetery of Sheikh Muwanis, along with a single building, the Green House, which was converted into a club for students. The orange groves are long gone, although some larger trees still stand as living testimonies of the hands that planted them long ago in the hope of one day enjoying their generous shade. Let’s not forget.