The Nakba: A Palestinian inheritance of trauma and resilience

The Nakba: A Palestinian inheritance of trauma and resilience
Comment: Until the Israeli government's occupation and dispossession policies change, the Nakba will continue, writes Elias Jahshan.
6 min read
14 May, 2018
2018 marks 70 years since over 700,000 Palestinians fled their homes on Israel's creation [AFP]
At my mum's house in Sydney, there's a lovely black-and-white photo of my dad and his sister - then aged nine and 10 respectively - dressed in their Sunday best.

My dad, Faris, is wearing the most splendid suit a boy his age could possibly own, while my aunt Fourtoneh, in a white dress, stands by his side with an arm around his shoulder.

The occasion was Orthodox Palm Sunday in 1948, and the location is St George Church in Jaffa, Palestine.

That photo is now one most poignant in my family. No other image evokes as much bittersweet and painful memories, a sense of melancholy, and an inexplicable yearning for home all in one.

"We fled Jaffa the same week that photo was taken," my late father would often tell me.

"We locked up the house thinking we would be back in a few weeks. But we couldn't come back at all."

Indeed, little did my grandmother Victoria, a widow, know, it would be the final photo of her children in their homeland.

Little did she know that her family, her brothers and sister, her cousins, nephews and nieces, would flee the violence and chaos that would soon engulf Jaffa in the weeks leading up to the creation of Israel.

And little did she know that she would eventually be buried half a world away, never having the chance to set foot in her hometown again.

Unfortunately, my dad met a similar fate.

I grew up listening to his stories, the trauma of his idyllic beachside childhood being turned upside down seared into his memory right up until he passed away in 2009.

Little did my grandmother Victoria know, it would be the final photo of her children in their homeland

It's an epigenetic inheritance and I'm not alone. Millions of Palestinians - whether they live within Israeli borders, the West Bank and Gaza, or among the global diaspora - live with their own unique family inheritance.

Every year on 15 May, the memories of our parents and grandparents cristallise. The day is known as the Nakba, or "catastrophe" in reference to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine around the time of the creation of the state of Israel.

A photo taken on Orthodox Palm Sunday in 1948 of the author's father
and aunt. They fled Jaffa the same week, not knowing they would never

This experience of dispossession and loss of homeland is 70 years old this year, and the collective memory that comes with it continues to be a defining aspect of Palestinian identity.

The establishment of a Jewish-majority nation state came about through a period of war. Armed forces had captured around 78 percent of the country, destroyed about 530 villages and cities, and killed around 15,000 Palestinians in more than 70 massacres.

It is estimated that 750,000 Palestinians - both Muslim and Christian - either fled out of panic for their safety or were forcibly expelled from their homes and sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

A series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented Palestinians from returning to their homes or reclaiming their property. And while the Zionist movement's dream of realising their divine right to a Jewish nation state was fulfilled, the process of ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians has never stopped.

The list of state-sanctioned discrimination and crime carried out by the Israeli government over the past 70 years is endless.

Illegal settlement expansion and subsequent theft of Palestinian land in the West Bank, restrictions on freedom of movement through the infamous separation wall, the humanitarian crisis from the ongoing siege of Gaza, and the excessive and arbitrary arrests Palestinians are subjected to - even teenagers - are just a few examples on that list.

The process of ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians has never stopped

Meanwhile, those who reside within Israeli borders have had their culture and history repressed in subtle ways. For example, they are no longer Palestinians in the eyes of the government, and are now "Arab-Israeli".

Rights groups have also recorded around 50 pieces of Israeli legislation that discriminate against them, including a 2011 law that banned publicly-funded institutions from commemorating the Nakba.

It's a slap in the face when the rest of the world - especially the West - congratulates the Israeli government for 70 years of being a nation state.

The Nakba is a sorrowful and significant part of my family's history. The stories of my dad, my aunt, my grandma have left an important legacy and they deserve to be recognised and mourned.There is next to no public recognition for the never-ending grief and trauma felt by Palestinians. Next to no initiatives that aim to correct the atrocities of the past. Instead, we're reminded that we're an inconvenience. We're reduced to stereotypes or dehumanised for the benefit of reinforcing western intellectual and cultural superiority.

There is next to no public recognition for the never-ending grief and trauma felt by Palestinians

I acknowledge I've had a privileged upbringing - born, raised and educated in Australia - but the connection to my family history and culture is strong, and always will be.

Like it or not, every Palestinian inherits the trauma of their family's history. It lives in the deep yearning for justice we carry in our bodies, and it's carried in the bodies of most Palestinians I know. It is a legacy of loss, despair, painful and bittersweet memories, and anger at consistently having the existence of our culture and history questioned.

The Nakba is also an inseparable part of the story of the founding of the state of Israel.

The world powers that played a part in creating and continue to contribute to the Nakba must also be held accountable, and by this I don't just mean the Israeli government. I'm also talking about the imperial legacies of the UK, Turkey and the US.  

If Israelis - and the world, for that matter - truly want a future of peace, coexistence and full equality and freedom in the Holy Land, they will need to do more than just recognise the Nakba.

[Click to enlarge]

They must also accept our humanity as Palestinians.

Until the Israeli government's occupation and dispossession policies change, the Nakba will continue. Until the separation wall is demolished and all Palestinians are granted freedom of movement, the Nakba will continue.

Until the siege of Gaza comes to an end and solutions for Palestinian refugees are found, the Nakba will continue.

And until the Israeli government recognises and apologises for all its wrongdoings and embarks on genuine reconciliation with Palestinians, it will continue.

Once all these changes are made, only then can the Israeli government have a chance of yielding to equal rights. In an ideal world, it would realise that the security of Israeli Jews would benefit from respecting the dignity of Palestinians, and that the current apartheid regime would be ditched in favour of a truly secular, democratic state that promises a shared, harmonious future for Palestinians and Israelis.

Read more: So, you want to wear a keffiyeh?

Only then will the Nakba truly be commemorated as a thing of the past.

In the meantime, Palestinians like myself will continue to share our stories. We will continue to demand justice and equality. We will continue to wear our keffiyehs to remind everyone we exist.

But most of all, we will continue to be proud of our cultural heritage, our history and the resilience of our families. Because if the world won't, who will?

Elias Jahshan is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. He is a former board member of Arab Council Australia. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.