The Truth and Violence of a Symbolic Act

On September 21, 2002, Tsahal planted the flag bearing King David’s Star on the ruined site of the Palestinian Authority’s compound in Ramallah. Whether done by order or through the folly of a hyper-patriotic shocktrooper, the symbolism of the act brought the muddled intentions behind the destructive will that drives Israel’s strategy into the clarity of daylight. Under siege, Chairman Arafat was free to leave, Ariel Sharon declared. The radio message could have also added that so were all Palestinians from the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River, as well as those from the Gaza strip.

After weeks of newspapers being justifiably slammed for their slanted coverage of the war, suddenly the fortune of some foreign eyes caught a glimmer of truth. Jamie Tarabay of the Associated Press was there to report that “at one point, Israel troops raised a flag on a nearby building in the compound. When told of the flag, Arafat got up to take a look from a window, said Hani al-Hassan, a senior PLO official trapped inside.” Could anything else have been as obvious to him as what that flag symbolized?

Israel planted its flag to seal the tautening of the internationally condemned destruction of the Palestinian Authority headquarters and land. The act ends up spinning history forward to back. Foreign occupation and seizure of land — AKA land grabbing — forces us all to look back and witness history’s unfolding as if it were now a message coded in reverse. To look back to a time before the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and criminal suicide bombings, to a time prior to the assassination by a Jewish fanatic of a warrior turned leader of peace, General and Prime Minister Itzak Rabin. Landing there we face an era of hopelessness before the name Oslo arose to frame the opposite.

Further back on that journey, we would be lifted to an era prior to the PLO, Beirut, Sabra and Shatila and Munich, prior to the Six-Day War and occupation of what was left of Palestinian land — Arab land. The fact that UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and Security Council Resolution 242 against Israel have been left unenforced by the key players on the Security Council itself should not justify our own forgetting. Their abnegation has de facto abandoned the fate of Palestinians to destiny. Even then history would still drive us back from “Palestinian terrorists” to “PLO guerillas”, and upward and back to the Arab resistance.

Out of breath, we reach 1948 and the Nakbah.

With an estimated 150,000 Palestinians having fled to Jordan since the onset of Sharon’s invasion of the Palestinian territories, we are gazing once again at one of the great flights of Palestinian Arabs from their homes. It is being officially whispered as indirectly part of a “Transfer Option”, while according to countless reports it seems more like a “Transfer and Fill Option”. A pattern has been set to life on this narrow contested strip of land. Every space vacated by Palestinians is filled just as quickly by settler Jews. And the major factor permutating the present from the past is that the New York Times covers the onrush as if it were occurring painfully but justifiably in the historical precedence of our own backyard.

To that extent, the flag as it was hoisted before Arafat’s gaze is the stamp of the remarkably well-orchestrated continuation, indeed drive to completion, of the Nakbah. As much as we have tried thinking otherwise by weighing all of the options, the interpretation keeps insistently pointing in that direction. The onus is not on the Palestinians to prove that it is the extension of the Nakbah; it is up to Israel’s Jewish population to now convince us that it isn’t. Still, it all seems to pale terribly when compared to 1948, when Israel took over 80% of Palestinian land, inhabited land. However much it might pale in relation to the real events, to memory’s longing the Nakbah is now little else but oblivion. Thankfully there are researchers and intellectuals left to keep reminding us. The effort is to have their conclusions be known in North America.

On May 17, 2002, al-Ahram weekly, the English-language Egyptian political news review, featured an article penned by Ilan Pappe on the events of 1948 called “Demons of the Nakbah”. The writer is a professor of political science at Haifa University and a notable member of Israel’s New Historians. He sought to inform his non-Arab readers of the significance of the term Nakbah — which means “catastrophe” in Arabic –, and his Arab readers of the oblivion into which the term had fallen for Jews.

In the late 1980s, toward the end of the first Intifada, Professor Pappe and other Israeli colleagues began questioning the official history of the founding of Israel. He has contextualized these origins as part of a “denial process”, a continually suppressed element of Israeli self-awareness regarding the sources of today’s conflict. No people likes to be told how oblivious it is. Yet with the phenomenon of mass psychologies being fairly well-studied in our times, every people owes itself the work of being reminded of the historical blindspots its passions brutally veil.

The symptom and residue of the oblivion peers out from behind the pernicious question of the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, the right to which was decreed in UN Resolution 194. Among other aspects of the failed Arafat/Barak accord of 2000, the refugee question was to foment the dispute even more than conflict over land. According to Pappel’s account, it was this issue that brought the peace accord to a deadlock. By now it is well known to critical minds that Barak did not yield to all of the Palestinian Authority’s demands, as frequently suggested in the Western press. Only 70% of the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River were ever up for discussion.

As for the refugee question, close to the entire political class of Israel put a stop to it. As Pappe emphasized in his article, “the worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue, and this ‘danger’ was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a consensual position was formulated: no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to discuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.”

After some initial success in the course of the 1990s to bring the Nakbah into public debate, Professor Pappe has been witness to the politically sponsored retraction of the circumstances of its occurrence — retraction marshalled at the highest political levels. According to his account, the current minister of education in the Sharon government is responsible for “beginning the systematic removal of any textbook or school syllabus that refers to the Nakbah, even marginally. Similar instructions have been given to the public broadcasting authorities.” Israel may be lauded for its democratic constitution and institutions. By contrast, the limits of what is acceptable to think and believe have proven to be irremediably set.

But what is the refugee question exactly? And why is 1948 being discussed here as a result of the fact that Tsahal planted the Israeli flag atop the ruins of the Palestinian Authority complex, Chairman Arafat’s rubbled headquarters, to which they had laid siege and subsequently destroyed? Lest anyone forget, the act of planting the flag on territory that is not one’s own, is an act of conquest and appropriation. These were the principles that resulted in the Nakbah.

On the question of 1948, Professor Pappe explains that while doing doctoral research at Oxford, he “found strong proof for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine, and I was taken aback by the speed at which the judaisation of the formerly Palestinian villages and neighborhoods was carried out. These villages, from which the Palestinian population had been evicted in 1948, were renamed and resettled within a matter of months.”

To the list of the Palestinian villages of Israel, we will eventually have to start adding the refugee camps of the occupied territories, like Jenin. Adjacent to the border of Jordan, Western media purposely misses the outflow of Palestinians. Sharon’s problem now is how to get them out of Gaza without attracting even more elements to a rapidly growing dossier of ethnic cleansing, ‘as they are also free to leave’.

By 1948, an era also spoken about at length by Edward Said as the one during which he and his family became exiles, Palestinian territory was being annexed at a feverish pace. The UN General Assembly recognized the partitioning of British-governed Palestine into an Arab state and Jewish state in November 1947 (Resolution 181). By the time a narrow strip of land was carved, stretching land-locked from the Sinai upward to the Mediterranean in the vicinity of Tel Aviv, but remaining squeezed against the Sea until the land north of Haifa, only to then curb inward to the land known as Eastern Galilee and bordered from the north by Lebanon, a more united land mass had already been designed by Zionist insurgents. The UN act legitimated the grounds for the massive land grabbing of 1948, which led to Israel’s independence. Mixed with terrorist tactics on the part of the Stern gang, it meant to symbolize reparation on the part of the Allied victors for the Extermination that none of them were able to prevent in the countries occupied by Nazi Germany. The “coming of Messianic time” was the Christian West’s gift of moral reparation for the Shoah, and perhaps for centuries of oppression. It was also the moment when centuries of peaceful coexistence between Jews, Arabs and Berbers, further west in the Maghreb, began to unravel.

Was it justified? History can be judged in hindsight only through the irresolution that interpretive and self-interested litigation fosters. But what remains of that past history in today’s representation is what Pappe goes on to show in his article. In minute detail he disassembles the historical fabrication that brings the allure of legitimacy in favor of what Israeli spokespersons plead for in today’s conflict, i.e. the refusal by its neighbors to accept its right to nationhood. Pappe shows the attempt undertaken by different sectors of the Israeli population to rid the memory of Arab residences and lands from the cities now known as Israeli, renewing as it were with Galilee and Judea. He accuses the historical negligence in the field of “Middle Eastern Studies”, which persisted well into the first Intifada, of barely mentioning Palestinians and the lives they led throughout the centuries in that area.

Furthermore Pappe emphasizes that the academics familiar with elements of Palestinian life were mainly those who had been Israeli intelligence experts. Other researchers, who rely on historical accounts, have found little if anything pertinent to use for compiling their study. In other words, the eyewitnesses had left.

On May 14, 1948, the leaders of the Jewish community in what was then British-ruled Palestine gathered in the Tel Aviv museum to declare the founding of Israel. In an interview given on Radio France Culture for a program celebrating Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, the former US Ambassador to the UN, Ms Jeanne Kirkpatrick revealed an essential historical key to the American and Israeli relationship. She recalled a discussion with Golda Meier, the late former Prime Minister would have spoken of how America and Israel are bound by a common spirit owing to their experience as settler states.

Planting a flag on foreign territory has one meaning and one meaning alone: conquest. Whether accidental or intentional, this act has shown once and for all the power and violence of symbolism, and the truth it can also convey. It confirmed the objectives of the Sharon cabinet, annexation of all the territories, further legitimized after Palestinians were pushed to the brink of desperation, acted out in the criminal hopelessness of suicide bombings.

On that final note, what history teaches is never final. Be reminded Jews, Arabs, Christians and atheists of all ilk: there has never been a popular insurrection in history – not one – in which the ruling power has not treated the insurgents as “terrorists”. There has never been one in which the ruling power has claimed that now, this time for sure, they are really terrorists. After the blood letting of an initial colonial campaign, fully justified in the eyes of the conquerors, only terrorism could come to dishevel manifest destiny. History may legitimate occupation, but historical repetition betrays it.

Professor Pappe’s commitment to the historical sciences and the fair and accurate representation of where its discoveries may lead has ended up jeopardizing his career. In May, the University of Haifa decided to subject him to a trial for comments he was alleged to have made of faculty members regarding their reception of a master’s thesis developed under his supervision. The expulsion hearing arose from Pappe’s effort to defend the research of Teddy Katz, a former Kibbutz member in his late 50s. Mr. Katz received his Master’s degree from the university in 1999. His research told the story of a little-known slaughter of hundreds of unarmed Arab fighters by Jewish militias during the 1948 war of independence in the Palestinian village of Tantura.

An international campaign ensued, demanding that Haifa University withhold its standard of academic freedom. Just like the charges against Professor Pappe have only been suspended, as he has emphasized, “but not dropped,” so also has the Israeli flag been withdrawn from the P.A headquarters. Yet its intent – at least as far as the Sharon government is concerned – has not been lifted. Internationally condemned for the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, the siege continues.

NORMAN MADARASZ, Ph.D., has contributed to Gabriel Riera’s (editor) “Alain Badiou: Philosophy under Conditions”, forthcoming from SUNY Press. He writes from Rio de Janeiro, and welcomes comments at