In the past few days, a lot has been said about the Annapolis gathering of diplomats. Too often I heard the terms “terror” and “terrorism” in the remarks made by the US President W. George Bush when referring to Palestinians and too infrequently I heard the terms “occupation” and “oppression” in reference to Israel. What diplomats have to deal with is how to induce Israelis and Palestinians to peacefully coexist after years of conflict. If there is one thing that has been missing during the past decades of negotiations and “the peace process” is the establishment of truth. Why is this crucial aspect of peacebuilding not included in any remark, speech or joint understanding? While the establishment of truth has been a significant part of the peace proces of virtually every international or communal conflict that has come to an end since the early 1990s, reckoning with the past so Israelis and Palestinians may look to a peaceful shared future has been completely absent.
It was shocking to see Mahmoud Abbas, the designated head of the US-sponsored Palestinian Authority, warmly applaud the acknowledgement of Israel as a “Jewish state” and “homeland for the Jewish people” in Bush’s inaugural speech at Annapolis. With his clapping hands, Abbas supported the denial of his people’s history, in particular the 1948 mass expulsion that included the destruction of 531 villages and has been followed by the forced removal of Palestinians ever since. With his smile and embrace, Abbas implied just like his partners, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the US president, that the conflict started in 1967, instead of 1948 and even beforehand, and that the main problem is Palestinian terror rather than Israeli colonialization and oppression. With the US president and the Israeli prime minister demanding Palestinians to recognize Israel as “Jewish state,” Palestinians are expected to participate in the dismantling of their own history.
While Western diplomats are obsessed with the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, since the early days of this conflict, there has been a systematic attempt to deny the historic existence of the Palestinians. Whether they were forcefully expelled, live in “unrecognized villages,” are referred to as “refugees,” “Arabs,” “absentees,” “Bedouin,” people confined to their homes in times of curfews, under military rule, locked up in their towns and villages or in prisons and detention camps, and who have been finally put behind a concrete wall, Palestinians have been systematically wished away. The Israeli writer David Grossman once wrote about Palestinians in Israel as “those who are here but practically not here” and by denying the collective past and present, it is not up to Palestinians to recognize the existence of the other, but the other way around.
In the past sixty years and beyond, successive Israeli governments have tried to impose policies and regulations to make Palestinians invisible. Whether through expulsion, deportation, the destruction of their villages, restrictions on movement, the destruction of homes, imposing curfews, imprisonment and detention, or ultimately the construction of the wall, Israel has sought to make Palestinians disappear. At the same time, outside Palestine, Palestinians have been systematically denied what Palestinian intellectual Edward Said described as the “permission to narrate” their own story. Thus, Palestinians have not only the painful experience of many oppressed peoples who are systematically displaced, disenfranchised, denationalized, brutalized and murdered, but they have also been put in the awkward position of having to convince the rest of the world of their very existence.
The past few years we have seen the memoirs of Palestinians being published, such as Edward Said’s Out of Place, Ghada Karmi’s In Search of Fatima, Mourid Barghouti’s I saw Ramallah amongst others. Having been depending on Western and Israeli historians, it is time to correct mistakes and bias. The Palestinian narrative has only been recently accepted, only after Israeli (new) historians confirmed what Palestinians already had told each other. While in high school in the Netherlands I was taught that as soon as the state of Israel was declared, powerful Arab armies invaded Israel to destroy it, that the refugees left their homes in Palestine of their own accord, that there was no such thing as Palestinians, and that they were terrorists, that Israel is a democracy and that it made the desert bloom.
The current challenge to Palestinians today is not to sit down at fancy conferences to discuss parameters for negotiations but to object to and end this collective denial. In 2008, when Palestinians commemorate sixty years since the 1948 catastrophe, they will declare their existence through stories, film, books, music, artistic performances, documentation, photography and other means of narration. It is vital to document every single act of denial, whether in Palestine, in exile, or as a collective experience, until a process can be started to establish the truth, before other possible attempts at reconciliation. Establishing truth is crucial for reconciliation, but exercising the permission to narrate is a collective duty.
Arjan El Fassed is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and the author of a forthcoming book about his family history in Palestine.