Wednesday, 16 May 2001

Three minutes free of violence

There was a brief, quiet interlude as Palestinians contemplated Israel's founding, MATTHEW KALMAN says

The Globe and Mail,
Wednesday, May 16, 2001

By Matthew Kalman

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK -- For three minutes yesterday, Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip stood in silent contemplation to mark the 53rd anniversary of what they call the naqba, the catastrophe of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

On a day otherwise filled with violence, traffic stopped and even children stood at attention.

The exact moment that commemoration was to begin was broadcast over Voice of Palestine Radio, followed by the Palestinian national anthem -- My Homeland, My Homeland.

It looked strikingly like events in Israel last month, when citizens stopped in their tracks -- as they do every year -- to silently mourn the dead of the Holocaust and then the fallen soldiers of more than a half-century of conflict.

Air-raid sirens mark the moment of commemoration on the Israeli side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

The similarity between the two ceremonies was not coincidental. Just as the Israelis place great emphasis on the Holocaust, which proves for them the necessity of an independent Jewish homeland, so the Palestinians want the world to remember their suffering, which they say continues to this day and demands the solution of an independent Palestinian homeland.

For decades, the Palestinian national movement has shadowed the institutions and the symbols of the prestate Zionists and then the Israelis, with each side creating a mirror image of the other.

For Israelis, May 15, 1948, was a day of joy and independence, later to symbolize their victory over the invading armies of several Arab states. For Palestinians, it triggered the flight of more than 600,000 refugees to those same neighbouring Arab countries, most of them never to return.

(Israel celebrated its 53rd anniversary last month, in accord with the Hebrew calendar.)

The gap between such conflicting interpretations of the same events has widened over the years as history itself has become a central motif in the identity of Israelis and Palestinians.

"We are trying to refresh the memory of all that there is another side to this story of 1948 -- the side of tragedy, expulsions and demolishing houses," Ahmed Tibi, an Arab member of the Israeli Knesset, said yesterday. "We are not only talking about the past. We are talking about a past that is being carried on in these days by the . . . Israeli occupation."

Israeli and Palestinian scholars disagree fundamentally -- and also among themselves -- over the events of the past century.

In Israel, a school of "new historians" has challenged official versions of Zionist history, which barely mention the 400 Palestinian villages destroyed in the 1948 war of independence, or the killings of Arab civilians.

Some Palestinian scholars, meanwhile, were deeply embarrassed this week when colleagues attended a seminar in Jordan dedicated to proving that the Holocaust was exaggerated. Many Palestinians complain that even if the Holocaust did occur, it is unfair that Israel was created on their land with the assistance of European powers.

Meir Litvak, a professor of Middle East history at Tel Aviv University, said the Palestinians have drawn on many of the symbols and institutions of the Zionist movement -- from the Palestinian declaration of independence to the creation of a Palestine National Fund modelled on the Jewish National Fund.

"The similarity and emulation is there. It doesn't mean it is not authentic, but there is borrowing -- conscious or unconscious -- from the Israeli example," he said.

"The Palestinian national movement is still in evolution and has not yet completed its nation-building. Part of that process is the establishment of institutions and holidays. . . . This is typical of every national movement."

This sense of national movement has been reinforced in the Palestinian community by the fighting of the past seven months, said Mahmoud Darwish, a prominent Palestinian poet.

"We are not looking back to dig up the evidence of a past crime, for the naqba is an extended present that promises to continue in the future," Mr. Darwish said in a speech broadcast over Voice of Palestine.

"We do not need anything to help us remember the human tragedy we have been living for the past 53 years: We continue to live in the here and now. We continue to resist its consequences, here and now, on the land of our homeland, the only homeland we have."

Of course, many Israelis, convinced that history proves they can live nowhere but in a country with a Jewish majority, express similar sentiments in support of the rightness of their own cause.

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