How to Reclaim the Palestinian Narrative


Jamil Hilal’s provocative commentary Reclaiming the Palestinian Narrative evoked diverse responses from the Al-Shabaka network that are captured in this roundtable. Hilal identified five major misrepresentations in the discourse on Palestine: “shrinking” Palestine, truncating its history, “shrinking” the Palestinian people, the mirage of the two-state solution, and the myth of development under occupation. He proposed several ways to reclaim the narrative.

In the first of the Roundtable responses, Ali Abunimah urges that the Oslo fictions, including the one that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is a representative body, be stripped away as Palestinians work on changing the balance of power that sustains the dominant narrative. Guest author Mandy Turner addresses the double struggle, within and outside the Palestinian community, that will be needed to overturn the Oslo paradigm in favor of an alternative narrative. Saleh Hijazi ties the problems in the narrative to the Palestinians’ inability to be clear about the end goal and to the very pertinent question of whether there is a place for the Israeli in the Palestinian narrative.

Halla Shoaibi criticizes the role of the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in designing a flawed curriculum that distorts the discourse and calls for a move to reclaim the education system to build a new discourse on solid ground. Ismail Khalidi points out that reclaiming the discourse is one part, albeit important, of a multi-faceted struggle to expose the Israeli matrix of control in all its aspects, ending the Oslo illusions once and for all. Guest author Cecilie Surasky speaks of the progress made in decolonizing the mind and challenging the hegemonic narrative on Israel, particularly in the United States, and explains why, and how, fulfilling Hilal’s vision is doable.

Ali Abunimah

Jamil Hilal accurately diagnoses many of the myths and falsehoods that plague discussion about Palestine. But these myths and falsehoods – whether it is starting history in 1967, erasing the Nakba, or the hoax of Salam Fayyad's Israeli and American-sponsored "state building" initiative -– are not accidental. They are the fictions necessary to underpin the "two-state" project that were accepted by the PLO and whose only purpose now is to prolong Israel's existence as a Jewish state by legitimizing its fundamentally racist practices, especially the exclusion of Palestinian refugees for the sole reason that they are not Jews.

It is not narrative that stands in the way of Palestinians now but real life obstacles. There's little point complaining that non-Palestinians use "Palestine" to refer only to the West Bank and Gaza Strip when Mahmoud Abbas tells Israeli television precisely that only the West Bank and Gaza Strip are "Palestine" and the rest is Israel. Palestinians everywhere steadfastly defend and emphasize the Nakba and the right of return already despite the fact that the PA surrendered refugee rights in negotiations, as revealed by the Palestine Papers. One fiction we actively need to discourage is that the Palestinian Authority has any representative legitimacy whatsoever. Palestinians vigilant about defending their rights should be the first to object when foreign leaders receive Abbas as a "head of state." This only feeds the damaging fictions of the Oslo era. 

Yet the formidable obstacle that the Palestinian Authority poses to the realization of Palestinian rights cannot stop us. The 2005 Palestinian civil society Call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) -– which Hilal rightly emphasizes –- restores and recasts the Palestinian struggle in terms of rights for all three groups of Palestinians: those in the territories conquered in 1948, those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Diaspora. By organizing around and promoting the BDS call, we are already changing the narrative. The fact that Israel sees the growing success of BDS as "delegitimizing" its very existence demonstrates that when the shape of the struggle changes, the narrative follows. The narrative is dominated by those with the most power, so we must focus on changing the balance of power by all legitimate means of struggle and resistance in pursuit of Palestinian rights, and the narrative will follow.