art of resistance, Lebanon, Palestine

Shatila, Still An Open Wound.

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Just two weeks ago I visited Beirut, the city I’ve been waiting on for so long. Being there, my big wish was to explore Dahiyeh, the southern part of the city. I’ve realized it is an area totally separated from the rest of the city, an area in which the oppression and segregation of Shiites and Palestinians continues.

What really struck me was the visit to Shatila. I thought I was well prepared for it. After all, I did read all of those books and articles, I’ve listened to numerous lectures, watched movies… I knew what the world of Waltz with Bashir looked like, I knew the streets on which the characters of De Niro’s game were walking on, I knew all about the piles of bodies from the Gate of Sun, I knew about the dirt Beirut’s elite refused to see – like Lamia Ziadé wrote:

“But we still want to think that our country is the Switzerland, the Paris, the Las Vegas, the Monaco and the Acapulco of the Middle East all in one, and what’s more, we want to enjoy it. From the cafe terraces of Raouche or Ain Mreissels, where we sometimes go for a banana split, we can’t see the Shiite ghettoes or the Palestinian camps. And when we wear sunglasses we can’t spot all the dirt.”

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Well, atleast I thought I knew… Coming to Shatila made me realize that nothing can really prepare you for it. Most of the things we know about Shatila are connected to the massacre of Sabra and Shatila (1982) and the War of the camps (1984 – 1989). Since all of those events took part during the Lebanese civil war I think our brain tends to put them in the “past” department. But there is no “past” departments in Shatila, everything spills into present.

The most tragic thing is not that nobody was really brought to justice for the horrible crimes committed in Sabra and Shatila more than three decades ago, the most tragic thing is that people still live there – in refugee camps, in dirt, poverty and desperation.

I was standing on the place where the massacre was committed, a small area of orange and brown dirt, thinking how it wasn’t until recently that a small memorial plaque was put to commemorate the victims. It seemed so unfair – for this place to look so everyday like, to feel so ordinary, a patch of land close to a small building, where chickens and turkeys sometimes come out to have a walk.

But that is what also makes it symbolic on so many levels – this suffering that goes on, continues and deepens, but still goes somewhat unnoticed, still gets perceived as a normal state of things. That is what Palestinian people understand the best, hardly anybody can relate to it as much as they can – life of suffering continuously followed by ignorance, by status quo.

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In Shatila, more than twenty three thousands of people live in the area of one square kilometre. There are families of fifteen living in small room for years. Camp was built in 1949, and in the first years refugees lived in tents. In 1949 that piece of land was rented by UNRWA on a 99-year lease which proves it was known already at that point that the Palestinian refugees will stay outside Palestine for a long time.

In the 70’s, when many of the refugees lived in Shatila for more than twenty years, they started building first houses and small buildings. With time, people expanded the houses, doing it mostly themselves – which is a problem because the constructions in the camp are quite cheap and poorly made, and it feels like everything could just collapse one day. The very sad thing is that, if something like that happened, the world probably wouldn’t care.

I asked the translators that were with us in the camp if they had ever been in this part of the city before. They were Lebanese and lived in Beirut. They said this is their first time, adding that they hope it’s also the last.

In discarded Shatila, the view of the sky is prevented by the intricate web of electricity cabels, connecting all of the buildings and houses. Everybody is stealing electricity here, and a man recently died due to a dangerous encounter with the web of cables. But it’s nothing new here, people already got used to such stories.

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There are special educational issues in Shatila connected to the school in the camp, financed mainly by UNRWA. Lovely people from the Association Najdeh explained to me how every year there is a battle about the finances for the next school year and UNRWA claims they are not able to finance it anymore.

At the moment there are around fifty students in every class and next year there might be more – due to budget cuts. Activists from Najdeh tell me that the big shift happened after the Oslo Accords, when UNRWA decided to focus more on the West Bank, while the Palestinians in Lebanon were left almost forgotten.

Health service is also on the long list of the things not functioning well in Shatila. “Panadol for everything” is already a famous saying in the camp beacuse it illustrates the situation well. The only help people get is mainly connected to food – certain amounts of flour, rice, oil, gas. But there are almost no efforts to move beyond the relief phase.

There are also a lot of Syrian refugees in Shatila nowadays, but also some of the Lebanese refugees who arrived to the camp during the Civil war. At the moment, there is still around one thousand people in the camp who have been there since 1949. They’ve spent their whole lives there and welcomed their old age there. I cannot even begin to imagine what their life was like, but I am sure it took enormous amounts of strength and resilience to survive through all of that, to still find a reason to live and look forward to every new day.

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Some of them still keep the keys of their houses in Palestine, together with the small things they took when they were leaving – every year on Nakba day they take it out of their drawers, under their pillows and from their walls. They sit and talk about their memories and the right of return. But it seems like the world keeps on laughing in their faces.

Palestinians really have it the worst in Lebanon. They cannot get the citizenship, they cannot work, or own a property. Basically, all they can do is to be in a refugee camp, and/or turn to criminal or radical activities.  As we walk through the camp, I see children playing with small wooden planks on the dusty streets, pretending they have guns and are in a war, behind a house that has Rachel Corrie graffiti painted on it.

In every corner there is a small dedication to Arafat, a relic from a long time ago – when Arafat was still young and cool, when he stood for something.  The flea markets we pass by are modest, people are trying to sell whatever they can to earn some money. There is garbage in all colors everywhere, and the smell is far from nice.

I gaze up to the sky and think about the children we met at the Centre for psychosocial support. I think about the way they showered us with smiles and joy. They are children like all children – same in the way they treat the world, but different in the way world treats them.

What will happen with them when they grow up? What can happen with somebody who grows up in this environment? Walking on these streets it is easy to understand how one can turn to radicalism – when your life doesn’t have a purpose, you might wish to find it in your death.

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That’s the south of Beirut, separated by another Green line, still unnamed and not very much talked about. Beirut, a city that sleeps above the ancient Rome, still doesn’t like to learn from its mistakes.  Like the lyrics say – Make me forget myself, I want to be like Beirut. But the thing is – we’ve all forgotten too much, and some days it seems like all we do is forget.

//all photos © Ivana Perić, MER//

If you find issues in Shatila important, please see more about Association Najdeh  and the work they do in Shatila and in other camps.  You might ask them how you can help. Because there’s always something we can do and a way we can help. Hey, maybe you can collect some money among your friends and donate it to Najdeh?

Or you can try to inform the people in your country about this, protest and put pressure on your government to do something about Shatila and other camps (and Israeli – Palestinian conflict)? Or you can maybe even go to Shatila for couple of weeks and volunteer? Maybe you could teach English, or prepare some creative workshops? These are just some of the first ideas I had. Whatever you do, it’s important.

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Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape.

Today is the 67th anniversary of the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. In a poem written forty years after he fled his village, Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali described that evening of the catastrophe:

We did not weep

When we were leaving

For we had neither

Time nor tears

And there was no farewell.

We did not know

At the moment of parting

That it was a parting,

So where would our weeping

Have come from?

occupied pal/Nakba, photo via Occupied Palestine/

To mark the 67th Nakba anniversary, I am posting an excerpt from Ilan Pappé’s essay The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape. This essay can be found in the book After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine.

Pappé writes about Nakba denial in 20th century (in Israel), and the way it changed in 21st century. I think it captures the essence of Nakba issues today – today we all know about Nakba, we know what happened and how it happened, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that differentiates us. What’s being done with what we know is what we should focus on.

Nakba Denial and the Israel/Palestine Peace Process

“Even before the U-turn in American pulic opinion after 11 September 2001, the movement of academic critique in Israel and the West and its fresh view on the 1948 ethnic cleansing was not a very impressive player on the local, regional or international stages. It did not in any way impact the Israel/Palestine peace agenda; and Palestine was the focus of such efforts at exactly the time when the fresh voices were heard. At the centre of these peace efforts were the Oslo Accords, which began rolling in September 1993. The concept behind this process was, as in all the previous peace endeavours in Palestine, a Zionist one.

Hence, the peace process of the 1990s, the Oslo Accords, was conducted according to the Israeli perception of peace – from which the Nakba was totally absent. The Oslo formula was created by Israeli thinkers from the Jewish peace camp, people who have played an important role in the Israeli public scene ever since 1967. They were institutionalised in an ex-parliamentary movement, ‘Peace Now’, and had several parties on their side in the Israeli parliament. In all their previous discourses and plans, they had totally evaded the 1948 issue and sidelined with the refugee questions. They did the same in 1993 – this time with the dire consequences of raising hopes of peace as they seemes to find a Palestinian partner for a concept of peace that buries 1948 and its victims.

It is noteworthy that the potential partners withdrew from the process twice at the last moment; ultimately, they could not betray the Palestinian Right of Return (nor is any leader empowered to do so, as the right is an individual one). The first was Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. He was later followed by Abu Mazen in the various, admittedly much less significant, attempts to reach a solution  with the Israeli governments of Olmerr and Netanyahu.

AlNakbaExpulsion3/Expulsion from Ramie, November 1948. Photo via Desip/

When the final moment came, and the Palestinians realised that on top of not witnessing a genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there was no solution offered for the refugee question, they rebelled in frustration. The climax of the Oslo negotiations – the Camp David summit meeting between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat in the summer of 2000 – gavethe false impression that it was offering the end of the conflict.

Naive Palestinian negotiators located the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands, but this was rejected out of hand by the Israeli team, which succeeded in enforcing its point of view on the summit. To the Palestinian side’s credit, we should say that at least for a while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to attention of a local, regional, and, to a certain extent, global audience. Nonetheless, the continued denial of the Nakba in the peace process is the main explanation for its failure and the subsequent second uprising in the Occupied Territories.

Not only in Israel but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it was necessary to remind those concerned with  the Palestine question  that this conflict entailed not only the future of Occupied Territories, but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their homes in 1948 (and indeed from the whole area that was once Palestine). The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issues of the refugees’ rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

The Nakba had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a Pandora’s box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue; this ‘danger’ was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a position was formulated, no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to dicuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Ehud Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The mechanism of denial therefore was crucial not only for defeating counter claims made by Palestinians in the peace process, but, more importantly, for disallowing any significant debate on the essence and moral foundation of Zionism.

The struggle over Nakba denial in the 21st Century

When the twentieth century came to an end, it seemed that the struggle against Nakba denial in Israel had had a mixed impact on the society and its politics. The appearance of the ‘new history’ and a far more concentrated effort to protect the Nakba memory by the Palestinians in general, and those within Israel in particular, did crack the wall of denial and repression that surrounds the Nakba in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue towards the end of the Oslo peace process.

As a result, after more than fifty years of repression, it became more difficult for Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this relative sucess  has also brought with it three negative reactions, formulated after the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The effect of these reactions is still felt today, and it characterises the state of the Nakba denial in Israel in this century.

45190f/An early refugee camp. Late 1940s, Palestine. Photo via Jacobin/

The first reaction was from the Israeli political establishment, led by Ariel Sharon’s two governments (2001 and 2003), through the Ministry of Education, to expunge the actual history of 1948 from the education system. It began systematically removing any textbook or school syllabus that reffered to the Nakba, even marginally. Similiar instructions were given to the public broadcasting authorities.

The second reaction was even more disturbing and encompased wider sections of the public. Although a very considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academiccs ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they were nonetheless wiling to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The idea of ‘transfer’ entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the best means of dealing with the Palestinian ‘problem’.

Transfer was and is openly discussed as an option when the captains of the nation meet annually in one of Israel’s most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Intersdisciplinary Studies in Herzliya. It was openly discussed in the early twenty-first century as a policy proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their government. It is openly advocated by university professors and media commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. As the very end of the last century, the leader of the majority in the American House of Representatives openly endorsed it.

There was a third reaction that followed in the footsteps of the renewed denial and worse disregard for the Nakba; this was the appearance of a neo-Zionist professional historiography of the war, some of it written by a former new historian. This U-turn was led by Benny Morris, formerly one fo the most important new historians of the 1990s. Murris has not changed his narrative: Israel was still in his eyes a state that was built with the help of ethnic celansing of the Palestinians. What he changed was his moral attitude towards that policy and crime. He justified it and did not even rule it out as a future policy. This justification appears also in his latest book on 1948, aptly called 1948: every means is justified in a war against a Jihadi attempt to destroy the state of Israel.

Morris’s retraction was typical to the whole professional historiography of the 1948 war in Israel in the twentieth century. As I have shown elsewhere, the pattern in the new century is very much the same. The facts that the ‘New Historians’ exposed about 1948, in particular those concerning the depopulation of the indigenous people of Palestine, are not doubted any more.

What changed is the total acceptance of the moral validity of this policy. In many ways, the professional historiography in Israel once more regards 1948 as the miraculous pristine moment of the state’s birth.”

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