Concomitant with Israel’s founding in 1948, its armed forces systematically expelled Palestine’s native population and razed some 500 of their communities to the ground in the largest and most successfully denied ethnic cleansing campaign in modern times.
A mere six and a half decades later, who knows about Damoun, for example? Who remembers it except for its surviving refugee sons and daughters and their descendants?
Imprisoned in Gaza’s open-air jail or in Lebanon’s camps, they are terrorized daily by Israel’s sonic booms or real air raids to force on them an alternative narrative of history. Yet Damoun was another Palestinian village, of an equal size to that of Arrabeh, my home village.
Like Arrabeh, it was continuously inhabited for some 4,000 years, since the days of the Canaanites who first founded it. And like the rest of Palestine, each had absorbed into itself one conquering invader after another, adapted to a softened version of their dictates, practiced an altered version of their beliefs, and survived on the gifts of its good earth and its hardy crops, its olives, figs and wheat.
Now Damoun is forever gone, replaced by a jealously exclusive Jewish settlement named Yasur in an open, premeditated and so far successful revision of history.
The fate of Damoun, and of the other hundreds of erased and largely forgotten Palestinian villages, serves as a lesson to us, members of the Palestinian minority in Israel.
No-one to trust?
Ethnic cleansing still looms large on the horizon. Every time we hear the saber rattling of an impending war with Syria, Lebanon or Iran, the threat of being driven across an altered border comes alive.
Whom can we trust to stop that from happening? Not “the international community” — not after its media correspondents stood on that emblematic Hill of Shame north of Gaza and watched the white phosphorous light show in winter 2008-09, reporting to their evening news viewers at home what the Israeli army fed them, not to mention its continued inaction in the face of the bloodier carnage of the summer of 2014.
The Palestinian citizens of Israel stand at the crossroads of hope for peace in the Middle East, their achievements uncelebrated and their promise untested. As a member of this indigenous group, I try to bring our existence to light, to sing out our pleasure and pain, to echo our sense of alienation and dispossession, to face up to the dilemma of our identity, and to hail our occasional successes and our trust in the future.
In 1948, on the morrow of the Nakba, the group destined to become the Palestinian citizens of Israel woke up to a new and disturbing reality. Some 85 percent of the Palestinian residents of what was to become Israel had been forced to cross the borders and become refugees in neighboring countries.
The remaining 15 percent found that “a brutal border crossed them,” as Dr. Hunaida Ghanim, one of their descendants, puts it. They became Israeli citizens through no choice of their own. Those Palestinians, together with residents of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, now make up more than one-fifth of the total population of Israel.
Tactics of control
In 1948, between one-fourth and one-third of us were internally displaced to become what is officially known in Israel as “present absentees.”
Laws were promulgated to deprive members of this subgroup of their homes and private property, including their land and bank accounts. The rest of us gradually lost most of our land to confiscation by the state through dozens of specifically designed and finely tuned laws and ordinances that claimed to serve the “public good” or the security needs of the state.
The tacticians of the new state were inventive in applying all types of control and dispossession tactics to the group of defeated, thinly dispersed and leaderless peasantry. They adapted the British Mandate emergency regulations, originally promulgated to deal with Jewish underground movements, including a draconian military rule that denied “Israel’s Arabs” — as the state liked to call us — freedom of movement and occupation for two full decades.
In 1967, the entire system was moved lock, stock and barrel to the newly occupied territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
Simultaneously, the Jewish majority population proceeded to define the state it dominated as coterminous with itself, thus defining us, the Palestinian minority, for all practical purposes, out of the emerging “public good” and the state’s security concerns. We now own less than three percent of Israel’s land and are essentially exempted from utilizing any of the remainder because it is owned by the Jewish National Fund or defined as state lands, the very essence of the Zionist enterprise.
In contrast, about half of the constituent Jewish population of Israel arrived from the countries of the Middle East and North Africa with socioeconomic attributes not unlike those of the Palestinians. The main difference was that the state, backed by the world Jewish community, invested massive funds and efforts in well-coordinated programs for the socio-economic betterment of one group.
Not only did no parallel programs exist for us, the Palestinians, but also our agrarian communal underpinnings were undercut with massive land confiscations and limitations on crop selection and marketing, and on irrigation schemes for the benefit of Jewish cooperative farms. As the Eastern Jews (Sephardim) in Israel were corralled into Ashkenazi cultural hegemony, members of our community were further marginalized to become day laborers in construction and agriculture in Jewish cities and new settlements.
We lost our agricultural self-sufficiency while lacking an alternative base for development such as industry or commerce. The image of our villages as peripheral enemy locales added to our isolation.
Our towns and villages became bedroom communities to which men returned nights and weekends. This was the actualization of Zionist biblical dreams of using us, the Palestinians, as “hewers of wood and carriers of water.”
Adding insult to injury, fellow Arabs across the malicious border portrayed us as a collection of lackeys of the Zionist state who chose to stay and hobnob with the enemy. This malformed image only started to fade with Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza, a process that put us in touch again with fellow defeated Palestinians.
Our politicians stepped in to offer what little favors they had within their means, our entrepreneurs assumed the ranks of subcontractors and middlemen between occupier and occupied, and our literary figures glowed in the new limelight of the national and literary fidelity they had never abandoned — witness the likes of Mahmoud Darwish, Samih al-Qasim, Taha Muhammad Ali, Tawfiq Zayyad and Emile Habibi.
Since the establishment of the state, we have endured systematic dispossession and ghettoization. Of late, the process has turned vicious: fundamentalist messianic Zionists and settler leaders, the abrasive curse of occupation, have assumed advanced positions in Israel’s political and military leadership.
Education is our strong card
With this, the process of our exclusion has gathered greater speed and legitimacy, buttressed by racist legislative steps and a vindictive public mood verging on consensus.
In the face of the current wave of distrust and enmity culminating in lynch mobs, I struggle to draw courage from my social surroundings. I ask a village neighbor about his family and he proudly announces that his firstborn is studying biochemical engineering in the United States. I wonder about the high expenses, and he raises the electric saw high in his right arm and gives a proud buzz in response, his sweaty brow glistening in the light of the setting sun.
I pay a visit to a younger colleague, seeking his reassurance in the face of some compromised bodily functions of mine. He reminisces about his own father, a refugee who put his three boys, now a doctor, an architect and a physiotherapist, through university, relying solely on the power of his biceps as a plasterer.
My colleague flexes his arm in a proud show of sumud, steadfastness. A half dozen young doctors and nurses, all grandnephews and nieces, surround me for a photo at a relative’s wedding, and I feel proud beyond the fidelity and solidarity this implies: yes, in the “State of the Jews,” education is the Palestinians’ strong card; we are proud sumud and education freaks.
Entire families pool their combined labor wages to support a student through college. Young professionals are hard at work to guarantee their community a future and measure up to the high expectations of their hard-slugging artisan fathers and mothers, descendants of land-stripped subsistence farmers. The practice and the tradition should be enough to sustain us in the face of the gathering storm.
Dr. Hatim Kanaaneh is the author of Chief Complaint as well as A Doctor in Galilee: The Life and Struggle of a Palestinian in Israel (Pluto Press, 2008).
This essay is an excerpt from the new book Chief Complaint: A Country Doctor’s Tales of Life in Galilee, by Hatim Kanaaneh, reprinted with permission. Chief Complaint will be published by Just World Books on 24 February.