Reclaiming the Palestinian Narrative

“Whoever writes his story will inherit the land of words, and possess meaning, entirely!”
(Darwish, Why Did you Leave the Horse Alone?)

Where does the dominant discourse on the Palestine question stand today and what does it communicate? This is a crucial question – indeed an urgent matter of national interest – because the Palestinian people do not fully control the discourse, which is stacked against them and their rights. Worse, some Palestinians have become the most ardent followers of this dangerous discourse. The need for critical awareness of who narrates history and to what end is obvious. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the fact that Israel celebrates its establishment as Independence Day whereas in the Palestinian collective memory it is their Nakba (catastrophe).

The Palestinian story of dispossession, exile, occupation, and discrimination faces a systematic and concerted effort to empty it of significance and to “normalize” the situation. The dominant political literature on the Palestinian question is permeated by misrepresentations of the history, geography and identity of the Palestinian people. These misrepresentations are taken for granted in the language used by international organizations, including those of the United Nations, political leaders, and the mass media both globally as well as some official Arab media. More disturbing is the fact that they have crept into the discourse of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the major political organizations.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to identify five major misrepresentations and the dangers they carry, and to suggest the kind of action that can and must be taken to reframe the narrative.

The first misrepresentation involves a reduction of Palestine to a fragment of its original territory by transforming it into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, i.e. 22% of mandate Palestine. Israel has been further shrinking “Palestine” since it occupied these territories in 1967, through colonization and land annexation in East Jerusalem and the West Bank while maintaining Gaza under a stringent siege, all in violation of international law. The later political program of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) contributed to this misrepresentation by raising the possibility of accepting a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza in 1974 and formally adopting this position in 1988.

The second misrepresentation, closely tied to the first, involves an assault on Palestinian history, by setting its starting point at 1967 in much of the political and media discourse. This, wittingly or not, removed from discussion the responsibility for the historic injustice that was inflicted on the Palestinian people during the British Mandate and in 1948 and that continues to this day. It was also an attempt to expunge from the record the long history of Palestinian resistance against British colonialism and Zionist settler colonialism and for self-determination. Palestinian history began long before the Nakba of 1948. In fact, Palestinians spent most of the first half of the 20th century fighting for self-determination against British military occupation and Zionist colonization of their land. Previously, they had fought for greater autonomy from Ottoman rule.

The shrinking of the Palestinian people to those living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as they are often portrayed, is the third major misrepresentation. In fact, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza account for less than half (4.3 million) of the total Palestinian population, estimated at 11 million by 2010. Another 1.2 million remained in their homeland in what is now Israel. The remaining Palestinians live in Jordan, where they account for over half of the Jordanian population, in Lebanon, Syria, and other Arab countries, and in the rest of the world. No solution of the Palestinian-Israel conflict will be sustainable without the acknowledgment of the right of return of these Palestinian refugees and exiles to their homeland – not just to a so-called state that might be established on parts of West Bank and Gaza Strip but also within Israel.

Indeed, Israel and its Western supporters must acknowledge and accept legal responsibility for the injustice inflicted upon the Palestinian people if genuine reconciliation is to be achieved. Although they are unlikely to do so in the near future, this is not out of the question if regional and international changes continue. At present, however, there is a real danger that Israel, which is increasingly dominated by extreme right wing political forces determined to make it a “pure” Jewish state, will seek to expel its Palestinian citizens, whether to a Palestinian entity or through other means such as withdrawing the citizenship of Israeli Palestinian advocates for equality and recognition as a national minority.

The fourth misrepresentation is the assumption that the two-state solution is a valid and viable option. In actual fact, nowhere in the 1993 - 1999 Oslo accords is there mention of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied in 1967. The PLO simply assumed that this would be the outcome of negotiations with Israel. However, nearly 20 years of negotiations have exposed the emptiness of those assumptions beyond shadow of a doubt. Far from agreeing to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, Israel argues for its “right” to colonize the West Bank without, as yet, annexing it to avoid undermining its so-called Jewish nature by adding the Palestinian population.

The Israeli leadership continues to muddy the waters by suggesting that Palestinians can have their own state on what remains of the Palestinian land occupied in 1967 after it has appropriated as much of it as it can. But even assuming that a Palestinian entity would be allowed to emerge, it would be devoid of any sovereignty or socio-economic sustainability and would be disjointed both within the West Bank and between the West Bank and a Gaza Strip that is already facing enormous problems and is projected to be uninhabitable if current trends continue.