‘Israeli student killed in horrific attack in Australia’. ‘Family prepares for funeral of Israeli student killed in Australia’. ‘Israeli-Arab female student murdered in Australia laid to rest’ ... And so the headlines went.
The bad news here, reported by different media outlets, was of course about 21-year-old Palestinian student Aiia Massarwe, killed in Melbourne on January 16 while on her way home after a night out with friends, and about how last Wednesday her family and friends walked in a funeral procession through the streets of her hometown of Biqa’a Al Gharbieh, before her body was laid to rest in a tree-lined cemetery and an imam prayed, “May God stay with you and raise you to heaven in peace, dear Aiia”.
Yes, indeed, may the Lord do that. Such a young life, with such promise, should not be so senselessly snuffed out.
But as we read these news reports, where Aiia was identified as an “Israeli-Arab”, we find ourselves confronting an anomaly: It’s bad enough that Israel generically dismisses Palestinians, essentially those who managed to stay put in their homeland after the Zionist state was grafted on Palestine in 1948, as Israeli-Arabs — a dismissal whose malicious intent is to rob them of their identity — but why would the western media evince the same bias? Search me!
You want the truth? These alleged ‘Palestinians in 1948 areas’ are Palestinians who resent being called Israeli-Arabs, not just because they are Palestinians who find the moniker offensive, since it separates them from other Palestinians, but because Israel itself accepts them neither as Israelis nor as citizens, as its recently legislated Jewish Nation-State Law would attest. The law, passed in July last year, defines Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people”, proclaims that “the right to exercise national self-determination is unique to the Jewish people”, establishes Hebrew as the only official language of Israel, and asserts, if you need more apartheid icing on the cake, that Jewish colonisation of Palestinian land is a “national asset to be encouraged and promoted”.
Each of these claims is blatantly racist on its own terms, but taken together, they amount to a declaration that Palestinians living in Israel, who represent one fifth of the population, are not citizens but mere outliers.
Palestinians are Palestinians, trust me on this one, whether they live in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza or, as victims of the brutal uprooting of 1948, in various diasporic locales in the Arab world and beyond, and they suffer the same — from rule of the gun as an occupied people in the former and from otherness as a stateless people in the latter. Recall how Palestinians in the media were dismissed in the 1950s as nameless, faceless “Arab refugees”. Yet, the more dismembered their homeland and the more assaulted their identity, the more adept they become at defining, projecting and maintaining their sense of peoplehood. And, as a reaction, the more heterogeneous Jews from Europe, the Middle East and Russia sought to become a homogeneous state, with a communal sense of reference, the more they concurrently sought to reverse that process. And recall here, equally, how in 1969, Golda Meir, the then Israeli prime minister, assured the world that “there’s no such thing as Palestinians”, thereby raising very serious doubts about the professional skills of her optometrist.
In a way, you can’t blame the media for misunderstanding what and who Palestinians are, and how these people’s identity-construction occurs not only as attachment to place but as attachment to shared sensibility as well. After all, Palestinians are stateless in a world of nation-states, and the response of ordinary people, journalists included, to statelessness — what it really means, how it really feels — is limited by their political imagination as citizens of a state.
Palestinians are Palestinians, I say, and that identity is indivisible. We speak the same, we sound the same and we employ the same idiom, the same metaphor and the same vernacular in our use of language, whatever part of the world we inhabit, and such argot, like formal language itself, is not just a currency of rational exchange, but a stylised way of communicating that stands in a vital, reciprocal relationship with felt reality.
Thus, like Gertrude Stein’s rose, a Palestinian is a Palestinian is a Palestinian, which conforms with the “law of identity” in logic, that states that each “thing” is identical with itself and we cannot use the same discourse — in this case, the same name — while having it signify different meanings, thus introducing ambiguity into that discourse.
Aiia Massarwe was not an Israeli-Arab, but a Palestinian who had lived in her ancestral patrimony, a patrimony now ruled by Israel, which had foisted the name on her and on close to two million other Palestinians.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.