Throughout their struggle for freedom, Palestinians used anniversaries as opportunities to proclaim moments of collective unity, and to reaffirm their commitment to what they had historically referred to as the ‘constants’ of the Palestinian struggle.
These ‘constants’ include the Right of Return, as enshrined in international law, for refugees who were forcibly expelled from their Palestinian homeland nearly 70 years ago. But, this Right of Return is rooted within a deeper Palestinian context and narrative — the war of 1948. The Oslo Accords of 1993 have tried to change this reality. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) agreed to limit the conversation to a discussion of a two-state solution. Since then, every event, no matter how consequential to the current conflict, has been discarded as if irrelevant.
Driven by its sense of political expediency, the PNA has defaced the Palestinian narrative, thus those demanding the honouring of the Right of Return are perceived by Israel, the US and its Western allies, and sometimes by the PNA itself, as radical and extremists.
Palestinian anniversaries are not simply dates that merely commemorate past memories, tragic or otherwise, but are an expression of Palestinian identity that is yet to be co-opted by political ‘pragmatism’.
In fact, 2017 has particular significance. While historians mark May 15th as the day when Palestinians were expelled from their homeland in 1948, in reality, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians began in earnest in 1947.
The tragedy, which remains a bleeding wound until this day, started 70 years ago. June of this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the 22 per cent of historic Palestine that was not seized by Zionist militias in 1947-48.
Another notable date, November 2 is starkly remembered as the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. While the roots of the Zionist campaign to claim Palestine as a Jewish state go back much earlier, the document signed by British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, was the first official commitment made by a major world power to facilitate “a national home for the Jewish people.”
The British made their infamous ‘promise’ even before the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine and most of the modern Middle East, officially capitulated in the First World War.
A few years after the declaration was made, Britain was entrusted by the League of Nations in 1922 as the caretaker of post-Ottoman Palestine, mandated to lead the country, like other Arab regions, towards independence.
Instead, Britain worked to achieve the opposite. Between 1922 and 1947-48, with direct British assistance, Zionists grew more powerful, forming a parallel government and a sophisticated and well-equipped militia. Britain remained decidedly pro-Israel after all these years.
When the British mandate over Palestine officially ended in November 1947, that parallel regime simply moved in to fill the vacant space, claiming territories, ethnically cleansing most of Palestine’s Arab population and, as of May 14, 1948, declaring as a reality — the State of Israel.
The following day, May 15, has since been recognised by Palestinians as the day of the Nakba, or the catastrophe of war and exile. Nearly 500 Palestinian villages and many cities and towns were depopulated, seized or destroyed, making an estimated 800,000 Palestinians refugees. These anniversaries are important simply because the political context surrounding them is unprecedented.
The United States government has abdicated its long-term commitment to the so-called ‘peace process’, leaving Israel to decide the course of its own action. The ‘peace process’ was certainly not designed to create favourable outcomes for Palestinians, but was part of a larger design to formulate a ‘solution’ in which Palestinians were to be granted semi-autonomous, disconnected, mini regions to be called a state.
Now that pipe-dream is over — Israel is expanding its illegal colonies at will, constructing new ones and has little interest in adhering to even the US-envisaged ‘negotiated agreement’ paradigm.
In the meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains visionless. Although politically defunct and practically impossible, the PNA still insists on the two-state solution formula, wasting precious time that should be geared towards arranging a future that is predicated upon coexistence in a shared land and a joint future.
It is important that Palestinians are freed from the stifling discourse which rendered the Nakba of 1947-48 extraneous, and mould an alternative narrative in which only the Israeli occupation of 1967 matters.
Indeed, the official Palestinian discourse has been quite confusing and consistent for some time. Historically, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was forced to concede under American, and sometimes Arab pressures, and alter its demands over the years. The greatest of these concessions was in 1993 when the PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, which redefined Palestinian rights around specific UN resolutions 242 and 338, discarding everything else.
Not only was this an act of folly, but also a strategic mistake for which Palestinians continue to bear the consequences to this day. Existing now are several Palestinian depictions of the history of their struggle against Israel, while the truth is that the only way of understanding the so-called conflict starts with Zionist colonies in Palestine and British colonialism 100 years ago.
The strange thing is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is himself sending mixed messages. While he seemed disinterested in contextualising the struggle of his people back to the Nakba 70 years ago, his authority announced that it will be suing Britain for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Britain, on the other hand, had brazenly announced that it will be ‘celebrating’ the 100-year anniversary of the declaration, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the guest of honour.
The country that facilitated the ongoing tragedy in Palestine blatantly refuses to acknowledge the atrocities it committed one hundred years later.
Israel is experiencing no moral awakening either. Aside from the small school of Israel’s ‘new historians’, Israel continues to hold onto its distorted version of history, much of which was constructed in the early 1950s under the guidance of then Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Compelled by pressures, fears and lack of vision, the Palestinian leadership failed to grasp the need to hold onto and explain these anniversaries which combine as a road map towards a stable, unified and sensible discourse.
Political expediency aside, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 cannot be appreciated without understanding its dreadful consequences which played out in 1947-48; and the Israeli occupation of the remaining 22 per cent of Palestine is entirely out of context if read separately from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.
True, 2017 is burdened with significant and tragic anniversaries, but these dates should not be used as opportunities to protest in fleeting movements of solidarity. They should offer the chance to re-articulate a unified Palestinian discourse that crosses ideological and political lines.
Dr Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story.