Sheikh Jarrah and a Nakba of past and present
Israel's inception in 1948 came at the expense of the majority of Palestine's indigenous population. Known as the Nakba (Arabic for 'catastrophe'), Zionist militias started a comprehensive campaign of ethnic cleansing which led to the displacement of 800,000 Palestinians from their homes.
Today, these militias have become the IDF, Palestine became Israel, and the Palestinian populations who were expelled, currently estimated at 6.5 million, became refugees internally displaced or scattered around the world.
This story is yet to come to an end, and those Zionist objectives remain steadfast. In Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood this week, Jewish settlers - protected by the Israeli army and police - tried to expel Palestinian families from their homes. Their actions have snowballed into recurring violence between Palestinian Jerusalemites and the Israeli security forces, which soon developed into attacks on worshippers at Al-Aqsa Mosque, and it's now an all-out deterioration in the Occupied Territories and Israel.
|Four generations on, the Nakba repercussions continue to trap Palestinians in a battle for survival|
If the events in Sheikh Jarrah - and what followed - mean anything, it's that even though the methods of dispossession changed, the ethnic cleansing continues unabated. In what has become an abnormal norm for the Jerusalemites, the recent political changes like Trump's declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital; Israel's current political impasse; Arab normalisation with Israel; delaying Palestinian elections and factional disunity, have all conspired to make thier situation unprecedentedly delicate.
Four generations on, the Nakba repercussions continue to trap Palestinians in a battle for survival, not only in terms of physical existence, but also through the struggle against the continuous attempts to eliminate their identity and history. This is exactly why when we talk about the Nakba, we also emphasise its impact on Palestinian cultural identity.
What would otherwise be considered a multi-layered, rich cultural dimension was used by the Zionist movement as a means to delegitimise Palestinian historical links to the land. As if to say, since Palestinians are just "normal Arabs;" their culture and identity are not unique and, therefore, Palestine never existed.
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However, the Zionist attempts on Palestinian legitimacy starting in 1948 and continuing today everywhere in Palestine, especially, most recently, in Jerusalem, have prompted a significant cultural shift in Palestinian society.
The endless endless efforts to eliminate Palestinian identity have transformed us into a people constantly on the defence, changing our national character to match the abnormal mode of existence in which we operate.
Today, what sharply and firmly separates Palestinian culture from other Arabs in the region is the Nakba. To borrow from Ghassan Kanafani (1966), not only did the Nakba take its toll on Palestinian society in the physical and statistical sense, it set in motion a profound change in the social structure. In other words, it changed the collective consciousness and gave rise to a unique culture.
Whether in the diaspora, in the Occupied Territories, or inside Israel, Palestinians' worldview is centred on the notion of dispossession and loss. The recent events in Jerusalem signalled to Palestinians everywhere that what is at stake is their national identity and, possibly, their very existence. This resulted in a unified resistance that ignited almost everywhere inside and outside historical Palestine.
That's probably why it's incorrect to frame the Nakba as a historical trauma only.
Generally, the memory of historical trauma functions as a lens through which the collective constructs its social reality and upon which it builds its identity. But in the case of the Nakba, although possessing most of the typical characteristics of historical trauma, the circumstances in which it emerged and its consequences made it different.
In the Nakba context, the margin between the past and the present is blurred, which creates a tragedy that keeps renewing and reinventing itself, as we see in Sheikh Jarrah today. As such, it traps Palestinians in a constant fight-or-flight mode, producing a culture whose resources are geared toward self-preservation, both physically and symbolically.
|The recent events in Jerusalem signalled to Palestinians everywhere that what is at stake is their national identity and, possibly, their very existence|
At the heart of this culture is the preservation of memory. Palestinian culture has become largely about passing the memory of the lost homeland down with as many details as possible, to protect younger Palestinians from alienation and insecurity, and to ensure that they receive at least part of their inheritance.
Some feel that as more time goes by, the memory of the Nakba grows stronger. The feeling intensifies every time Israel steps up its aggression. This paradox exists because the process of ethnic cleansing continues today. The more volatile and dangerous the present is, the more idealised and precious the memory about pre-Nakba Palestine becomes. You may call it escapism that keeps the memory fuelled and active, but its a mechanism that also functions as a means of physical and symbolic survival.
The truth is, since 1948 the Zionist effort to ethnically cleanse all of Palestine has spared no-one, Nakba refugees or otherwise, inside what became Israel or outside in the 1967 Occupied Territories.
|In the Nakba context, the margin between the past and the present is blurred|
Think of how the people of Sheikh Jarrah, many of whom lived in the area for hundreds of years, are in danger of being forced out of their homes. Think of the native people of Jaffa, those who remained in their homes during the Nakba, who are now facing evictions in favour of Jewish "investors".
Think of the native Gazans who over the past decade saw their neighbourhoods in Shujaiya and Tuffah being erased to the ground. Now, as we look at the situation in Gaza developing into a full-blown onslaught, ironically on the Nakba 73rd anniversary, it's worth remembering that it all stems from Israel's "original sin". The situation in Gaza today is a result of the siege, which is a consequence of the '67 occupation, and both are the direct result of the Nakba. The people of Gaza whose homes are bombed, whose families are killed, and whose youngsters join the resistance are the direct descendants of those who were made refugees during the Nakba 73 years ago.
The Nakba initially defined Palestinian worldview in terms of displacement and dispossession, then evolved to become also about suffering under military occupation, settlements, siege, and war. As long as Israel continues to occupy and oppress Palestinians, the memory of the Nakba will continue to regenerate and re-emphasise itself - only every time it does, it adds more dimensions and deeper meanings to the Palestinian experience. As the trauma grows deeper, the more intractable the Israeli-Palestinian situation becomes.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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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.