A Palestinian woman mourns near the bodies of Palestinians killed in Israeli strikes on houses, at Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, December 7, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Literary critics call it the ‘absent presence’, a post-structural theory mostly associated with Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida (a term which also coincidentally happens to be the title of a diwan by the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish) aimed at pointing out how the ‘absence’ of the writer’s voice in a text leaves that text open to misinterpretation, in contrast to the ‘presence’ in face-to-face interaction.

In short, isolate a narrative from its historical context — effectively what gives soul to that narrative — and you leave it barren, shallow and meaningless.

Here’s a case in point that highlights how the dominant voices in the mainstream media in the United States, engaging the Palestine-Israel conflict, will continue to lack needed depth and relevance so long as they are not anchored in that context.

On Friday night, after I had exhausted everything CNN had to show and tell about the plight of the more than 1.8 million Gazans who had been “ordered” to evacuate their homes in the north of the Strip, marching stoically to find a sheltering refuge in the South (call it Gazans’ own Trail of Tears), I turned to Scripps, the 24/7 “US News and the Latest World Headlines” news outlet.

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One dimensional vision

Del Walters, the news anchor (winner, according to the station’s website, of several news Emmys and “dozens” of other awards for his “investigative reporting”), that night hosted a guest on his show, an expert in Middle Eastern Studies, who was there to answer seemingly seminal questions about that plight.

At one point in the interview, Mr. Walters asked: “And why doesn’t the Egyptian government open its border to all these unfortunate people seeking refuge?”

His question, asked in an exasperated, accusatory tone of voice, was clearly intended to imply that government leaders in Egypt lacked the compassion to help Gazans in need of refuge.

There you have it. The one dimensional question here clearly betrayed the news anchor’s ignorance of the historical context that underpinned Egypt’s refusal to allow a mass of Palestinian refugees to enter the country — ignorance that Egyptian leaders, like other Arab leaders, are in touch with their history, that they have long memories still of the time in 1948 when another generation of refugees, close to a million, fled or were expelled from their homeland and sought seeming temporary refuge in the surrounding countries, only to be prevented by Israel from returning.

And Israel at the time refused to allow them back despite repeated UN General Assembly resolutions that called for their repatriation — indeed even despite pleas by then President John F. Kennedy to have “few of them” return on “family reunification” grounds.

When the guest edified his news anchor host on all that point, Mr. Walters appeared amazed at what he had just discovered, much in the manner, I thought, that Molier’s character, Monsieur Jourdan, appeared amazed at discovering that he had been speaking prose all his life.

Palestinians carry a child killed in the Israeli bombardment on Rafah, Gaza Strip, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Image Credit: AP

Waiting for Godot

Historical context. Yes, I say, the absence of its presence in the public discourse will render any debate over the Palestine-Israel conflict hollow. And no one has shown himself more astutely cognizant of that fact than UN Secretary General Anonio Gutterres.

On Oct. 24, roughly two weeks after the bombing of Gaza began, Mr. Gutterres told the UN Security Council that the Hamas attack on Israel, which he condemned in the strongest terms, “did not happen in a vacuum” — that, in short, it should be seen in a needed historical context.

“The Palestinian people have been subjected to 56 years of suffocating occupation”, he told the 5 permanent and ten non-permanent members of the powerful international body. “They have seen their land devoured by settlements and plagued by violence, their people displaced, their homes demolished [and] their hopes for a political solution to their plight diminished”.

That is the historical context, Mr. Gutterres was telling the international body, that is needed when we talk about Palestinians in our time — a people who have continued to mourn, then intermittently rebel against their condition for the last 56 years — and did so because they saw no closure to the anguish that defined their lives.

Diaspora Palestinians will take that context further, back to their refugee exodus from Palestine in 1948. Seen from that prism, the tragic past of these Palestinians — many of whom, along with their descendants, continue to live in refugee camps today, waiting for Godot, i.e. the implementation of UN resolutions relating to their human rights — will unspool vividly right before our eyes.

Meanwhile, there’s no adjective in Hell’s lexicon that could qualify the consequences of Israel’s assault on Gaza and the unspeakable horrors its population are being subjected to.

It seems as if many of us, with our minds already numbed, have ceased to turn away in nauseated disbelief at what we are witnessing. And what we are witnessing is the exposure of human beings there to the caprice of the inhuman.

What we are witnessing in that strip of land, I say, is a little people who, as we speak, find themselves able neither to comprehend nor to master the workings of their historical destiny, a theme that, tragically, had dominated the ethos of my own generation’s era during our own Nakba 75 years ago.

Earlier this week, as Israeli forces started their invasion of southern Gaza, nearing the major city of Khan Yunis, Israel warned civilians there to evacuate — except there was nowhere left in the Strip for them to go.

When will all this end on a note of grace for the tormented people of Palestine?

— Fawaz Turki is a noted academic, journalist and author based in Washington DC. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile