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Letter from Birzeit, #8: Studying the Nakba

October 17, 2013
by Maya Rose Goldman Maya Rose Goldman is a third-year student at the University of Chicago, where she studies Human Rights, Anthropology, and Arabic. After a visit to Palestine in the Spring of 2012, she became passionate about understanding the situation in the Occupied Territories and the relationship between Israel and Palestine. In August, she returned to the West Bank to study at Birzeit University, from where she has been writing these letters.

Back at the University

October 4 Big news: the student strike finally ended about five days ago, so we were able to return to the university for classes on Monday! It’s pretty exciting to really be on a university campus, surrounded by thousands of students (there are about twelve thousand at Birzeit). What I really want to share today is some experiences I’ve had in my social sciences classes this week, both of which are taught by the same teacher: Sa’d Nimr (fun fact: his last name means tiger). First, I’d like to talk about my Palestine Question class from Wednesday, when we talked about the situation of Palestinian refugees from 1947/1948, 1967, and beyond. Sa’d’s presentation was filled with quotes and images that I think really need to be read and seen. First is a quote from ex-Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (PM 1948-1954): “If I were an Arab leader, I would never sign an agreement with Israel. It is normal; we have taken their country. . . . There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They see but one thing: we have come and we have stolen their country. Why would they accept that?” And then there’s Golda Meir’s version (PM 1969-1974): “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people . . . It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist.” (Statement to the Sunday Times, June 15, 1969.) Our reading for Wednesday was basically two chapters filled entirely with peoples’ personal stories from 1947-1948. It’s easy to talk about the Nakba in numbers, but it becomes personal and real and emotional when you bring in real stories and accounts of what happened. People spoke about being forced from their homes and into the streets with only what they had on their backs, and then forced to march for miles and miles on a road on which people sometimes died. When I read about that, I was reminded of the 1830 Trail of Tears, during which tens of thousands of Native Americans died. We spoke about UN Resolution 194, from December 1948, which declares that all refugees have the right to return and deserve compensation. The UN told Israel that if they complied with this resolution, it would be accepted as a member state. Israel agreed, and despite the fact that every single year it continues to ignore this resolution or address the situation of refugees, every single year its membership status is renewed by the UN. This class just reminded me how inconsistent and frustrating the UN can be. How can they keep renewing Israel’s membership while simultaneously having a branch in Palestine to aid the refugees? How can they acknowledge the human rights abuses in the latter act while ignoring them in the former, both at the same time? On that note, I also find it ridiculous that because the UN didn’t decide to protect the human rights of refugees (in addition to being responsible for their education, food, and health in UNRWA refugee camps) until 1951, this decision does not apply to all of the Palestinian refugees from before that date (you know, the 750,000-900,000 from 1947-1948). And then there’s intense propaganda from Israel saying that the Palestinians weren’t forced from their homes, but instead chose to leave voluntarily. palestinians-leaving-hands-upMy teacher said: “Here are the Palestinians ‘leaving voluntarily’ from their homes, just putting their hands up for the fun of it. How stupid.” And a student in the class who didn’t understand his sarcasm said, “Why are they stupid?” My teacher responded, “I’m trying to be funny. Of course they had their hands in the air because Israeli soldiers were pointing guns at them.” I know the quality of this photograph isn’t great, but I wanted to illustrate the forced exodus of Palestinians that reminded me a bit of the Trail of Tears. lebanese-campWe also talked about where Palestinian refugees went, and which countries were best and worst for them. Lebanon, for example, granted citizenship to the few Christian Palestinians who entered the country, but the Muslims were put into refugee camps — which were especially devastating due to the war with Israel and later the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Here is an image from a Lebanese refugee camp: Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were also prohibited from working in seventy-four professions, confining most to jobs in construction, agriculture, or street sweeping. Also, if a Palestinian refugee left Lebanon, even if only for a day trip, he/she could not return unless he/she had obtained a reentry visa in advance. Ben-Gurion later said of the refugees that Israel had to do everything in its power to make sure they didn’t return. “The old will die and the young will forget.” But no one is going to forget this, and no one is going to stop fighting for the right to return. I also want to talk about what happened in my Modern Arab Thought class the following day. Sa’d had mentioned to us before that he was in prison for eight years, but yesterday he actually spoke to us a bit about his experience, which was astonishing. He told us about how he spent almost all of his time reading, because there was nothing but time. “I read all of Dostoevsky’s works in fourteen days.” I don’t even know how — or if — that’s possible. One student then asked him how he was able to get books in prison. At this he laughed and said, “Well, that’s a complicated story.” But he told us anyway. First he explained the difference between jails in the West Bank, which are governed by military law, and jails in Israel, which are governed by Israeli law. Because of these two different legal systems, books were only legal in Israeli jails — and then only books that had received the stamp of approval. Sa’d explained that sometimes, prisoners in the West Bank jails would have to go to the hospital, which was in Israel. What the Israeli prisoners would do was take a book and write the entire thing out in extremely small and abbreviated writing on that very thin parchment paper, and they could usually manage to write about 20 pages of a book onto one double-sided piece of parchment paper. So they could fit a whole book on a few pieces of parchment paper, which they then folded into very very small squares and then wrapped tightly in plastic. They would then get these to the West Bank prisoners who had come to the Israeli hospital, and they would swallow the small papers before they left to return to the West Bank jails. Then they’d wait to poop them out, and because the papers were wrapped in plastic they were able to wash the plastic and then unwrap it to access the clean and in-tact parchment sheets. They would then rewrite the stories onto normal paper in proper format, and when they got a hard-boiled egg, they would roll it over fresh ink from the approval stamp on another book and then roll the egg onto the book they had just transcribed to transfer the stamp and fool the guards. HOW UNBELIEVABLE IS THAT?? I have no other words to express my reaction. I think my jaw was just hanging open the entire time Sa’d was describing this long process to us. “And if anything went wrong and the Israelis found the paper or the book before we stamped it, all of that hard work would be lost.” Click here for all Maya’s Letters from Birzeit.