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Reclaiming Palestinian collective memory of the Nakba

The treachery and massacres committed by the Zionists against Palestinians in 1948 marked an enforced physical disappearance of indigenous Palestinians, strengthening the myth of the barren land and the fictitious patriotism allegedly enshrined in religious texts. Last month’s discovery of the mass graves in Jaffa revisited the intentional exclusion of Palestinians from Israeli historical narrative, and the ramifications of creating space for a fortified collective memory which derives its legitimacy from oral testimony, historical archives, academic studies and physical spaces which have been obliterated, altered or obscured in Israel’s implementation of the Plan Dalet.


Israel’s territorial expansion and occupation, achieved with the participation of the Jewish paramilitary group Haganah, was marked by a sequence of massacres, ethnically cleansing towns and villages of Palestinians in order to improve the Zionist narrative of the right to a national homeland. The expulsion, consisting of internal displacement and fleeing to neighbouring countries contributed to the forced disappearance and silencing of Palestinian memory due to the Israeli narrative being fortified with superior violence. Palestinians scholars, including Elias Sanbar, describe the transformation of Palestinian identity into an incongruous reference to ‘refugees’, as the memory of the Nakba was excluded from an international perspective. Nur Masalha’s distinctive work on collective memory regarding the Nakba summarises the commencement of the massacres as providing “the security, military and strategic explanations and justifications for ‘purging’ the Jewish state and dispossessing the Palestinian people”.

The mass graves in Jaffa are shrouded in a multitude of unanswered questions. Palestinian researchers are reluctant to commit to answers until scientific results have been confirmed. Reports have largely centred upon the Zionist violence and the forced participation of village people in ‘clearing’ the streets to eradicate any evidence of the massacres. It has also been alleged that bodies were buried according to Muslim rites – a suggestion which would indicate the occupying power coercing Palestinians to collaborate in concealing war crimes. Village elders have also spoken about their role in burying the bodies while towns were being shelled by Zionist forces, suggesting an imparting of memory which might have been previously stifled, despite a tenacity to uphold and conserve oral testimonies. While the discovery has entrenched the oral testimony of the Nakba massacre within concrete evidence, divulging the reasons behind the purported silence in the case of Jaffa would be equally fundamental in the preservation of Palestinian history.

Memory frameworks differ according to the country’s history. In Chile, memory narrative and testimony is vociferously supported by movements campaigning for truth in discovering the fate of the disappeared. Pinochet’s imposed culture of oblivion – a strategy which coincided with the amnesty laws designed to absolve the dictatorship from guilt, prompted the Manifesto of Historians which attacked the manipulation of memory and called for the manifestation and development of collective memory. In a way, the insistence upon oblivion addressed the crude reality that atrocities had indeed been committed during the US aided dictatorship.

In the case of Palestine, the memory framework develops an additional complexity. Zionism sought to obliterate Palestinians from the dominating narrative prior to the physical manifestation of the illegal occupation. Therefore, apart from requiring scientific proof to establish historical veracity about the period during which these bodies were buried, Palestinians have to contend with the issue of oblivion even prior to recognition of the Nakba. Zionist narrative is a major form of oppression through which the Nakba is rendered negligible, since the narrative itself obscures and invalidates the very existence of Palestinians as indigenous people in former Palestine.

Masalha (2012) argues that “Israeli positivist and revisionist historiography has long privileged state papers and official documents over the people’s voices behind the documents”. There has been a necessity to assert the triumph of Palestinian memory through amalgamating the dynamics of narratives in order to construct ‘alternative histories and memories’.

In turn, Palestinian collective memory is essential to combat the institutionalised and fabricated history of Jewish ‘nationhood’. While the identity of Palestinians cannot be separated from the Nakba, the context of memory framework is still ensconced within the battle for acknowledgement and recognition, hindered and overshadowed by the excessive guilt which the international community attaches to the memory of the Holocaust. In conformity with Zionist propaganda, conventional history creates a metaphor of suffering which is bestowed upon imperial allies, while deliberately creating an absence of Palestinian memory in order to suffocate the alternative. The marginalisation of Palestinians, primarily due to Zionist laws preventing Nakba commemorations, has not been challenged by the international community, who have not hesitated to create a profitable industry out of the Holocaust. The dominating narrative has thus also determined which nation is entitled to memory, striving to annihilate the construction of the Palestinian alternative which is imbued with the continuity of oral tradition even prior to the Nakba.

If there is to be a preservation and imparting of Palestinian memory regarding the Nakba, it is necessary to challenge the Israeli policy of assuming authenticity solely based upon archived information which does not take into account Palestinian retrieval of memory. The same challenge should be applied to the Palestinian elite, which is somewhat distanced from the subaltern memory. Far removed from the rigidity of official documents, an insight into collective memory which challenges the elite narrative is necessary to consolidate social history. As Masalha (2008) states, “…the oral history of the Nakba is not only an intellectual project dictated by certain ideological commitments; it can provide an understanding of the social history ‘from below’ that Palestinian elite narratives and political history often obscure”.

As with other aspects of the Zionist occupation, the illegal has been enshrined within an allegedly democratic framework embraced by the international community, as international law absconds from this irregular framework, allowing Israel to absolve itself of atrocities, invoke justification of slaughter and deny displacement of millions of Palestinians by reiterating the false premise of the right to a national homeland, thus twisting the narrative to portray itself as perpetual victim. If not rectified, the international community’s lenience towards Israel’s trend of moving from fabrication of events to justification of atrocities will constitute another impediment for recognition of Palestinian collective memory beyond the confines of the forcibly displaced communities.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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