Nur Masalha’s latest book, “Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History” (Zed Books, 2018) presents an accurate distinction between the Palestinian return to history and the purported Zionist reclamation – the latter failing in its endeavours to justify its claims historically. In discussing Palestine’s rich history, the limitations of Zionism and its colonial creation are exposed.
Prioritising fabricated narratives over documented Palestinian history shaped the colonisation of Palestine. The first recorded mentions of Palestine date back to more than 3,200 years ago. Yet much of Palestine’s ancient history is neglected, in line with the colonial approach which only gives selective visibility to Palestine to establish Zionist erasure of the indigenous population. In turn, the Zionist erasure was also responsible for the elimination of the Jewish Arab-speaking minority in Palestine among other disappearances, to pave the way, in the aftermath of the Second World War, for racial identity and eliminate the various regional identities in Palestine. In colonial conquest, the Zionist movement’s erasure of Palestine and its entire heritage was paramount.
Masalha identifies three types of writing on Palestine and what they have achieved regarding preservation, or erasure, of Palestinian memory. The first is what is termed as scriptural geography which is linked to Israeli settler-colonial writing and is disseminated by the powerful elite. In new historical writing, Palestinian history is treated as an appendage to Israel and mostly attributed to Zionist historians conflating settler-colonialism and democracy. The third is the subaltern history of Palestine which prioritises the need for Palestine to articulate itself.
Throughout the book, Masalha shows that Palestine’s detailed history would naturally veer towards the subaltern narratives. The chronological accounts, substantiated by many references to mentions of Palestine, prepare the reader for the later contrast with Orientalist and Zionist misrepresentation; the former allows the latter ample space to thrive having initiated the first replacing of indigenous history with a desired and profitable imaginary.
There are two main premises in the book which show how Palestinian and Zionist concepts of land are founded upon attachment and erasure, respectively. In Palestine, Masalha asserts, “the struggle between the coloniser and the colonised over land, demography, power and ownership also centred on representation, misrepresentation and self-representation.” Palestinian representation about land had an entire history to draw upon – it was in no need of innovation. On the other hand, the Zionist myth of return was “constructed around erasure, the non-existence of the indigenous people of Palestine and the actual physical uprooting of the Palestinians and their detachment from history.”
Masalha shows that, unlike Zionist conjectures, Palestine had its currency, experienced administrative, provincial and military autonomy, as well as having established its international trade links. Throughout the different historical periods, it is noted that while Palestine underwent several transformations – religiously, economically and socially – there was continuity as regards the preservation of Palestinian territory and its dissemination in literature, travel writings and cartography. Palestine’s social memory and political geography, it can be argued, remain inscribed and documented history attests to this fact. Furthermore, there is evidence of indigenous collective consciousness and self-representation among Palestinians which would, in later years, resist British imperialism and Zionist colonisation.
The book’s discussion of land, conceptions and misconceptions reveal a gradual contrast that is brought to the fore with Masalha’s discussion of Orientalist frameworks and the forcing of an imaginary narrative of Palestine “not so much as a land of living histories and shared memories of ordinary people, but more of a memorial to Western Christianity.” Zionism’s non-existent history in Palestine sought to render a documented history absent. Hence the links between biblical restoration and colonial involvement to the extent that Palestinians were intentionally misrepresented to the West “as something that could be understood and managed in specific ways”.
The impositions, leading to Zionist colonisation, were of a coercive nature which refuted to local Palestinian identity and the emergence of Palestine’s “new territorial consciousness”. Masalha refers to the writings of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, whose writing draws upon the diverse history of being Palestinian and conceives Palestinian identity as “the product of all the powerful cultures that have passed through the land of Palestine.”
Colonial narratives, Masalha states, have conflated Palestine’s history with biblical myths which eliminate historical knowledge of Palestine and its status as a distinct geopolitical entity since the Bronze Age. A reading of Palestine from an indigenous perspective shows an uninterrupted sequence in which the land was enriched by different cultures and no attempt to annihilate the original inhabitants and their spaces. Linguistically and territorially, there was continuity. The cultural heritage and Palestinian historical consciousness were also paramount in shaping its national consciousness.
Under the British Mandate and in its aftermath, Masalha writes, “active resistance to the existential threat posed by Zionist immigration to, and settler-colonialism of Palestine during the Mandatory period became central to the Palestinian nationalist struggle.”
In reading the book, one becomes aware of how the intricate history of Palestine, which spans the major part of the book, is swiftly destroyed by the Zionist colonial project; the latter presented in the last chapters and echoing the fast-paced colonisation of territory and the replacement of the indigenous population with settler-colonists. The three types of writing identified by Masalha at the beginning of this treatise all feature in the book as the discussion turns to the more recent historical analysis of how Christian Zionism enabled the settler-colonial narrative and thus rendered subaltern history of paramount importance, despite the power imbalance due to Zionist hegemony.
Zionist erasure is not without contradictions. The myth of the barren land, which Masalha expands to include the colonial narrative of land whose inhabitants are unworthy of any consultation, ran into obstacles which exposed the limitations of Zionism itself, such as having to Hebrew-ise Arabic village names as the biblical tradition was inadequate to accommodate the alteration of Palestinian toponymy. What could not be destroyed was altered or appropriated, the latter framed as natural occurrences or manipulated into a selective process of reconstruction that served Zionist settler policies.
As with all of Masalha’s books, the attention to detail, as well as the rigorous explanation is impeccable. Every reading, or re-reading, of this book, will provoke new contemplation due to the diverse themes and their analysis, in particular concerning the detachment of the indigenous from their history, enforced by Zionism, to accommodate the colonial project. Palestine has always been capable of self-defining itself, while Zionism and Israel have sustained each other by plunder, alteration, appropriation and replacement.