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Palestinians have been subjected to systematic violence and displacement in a process similar to that suffered by other victims of European colonisation. Key to challenging it is reclaiming Palestinian history, for which this book is important, argues Bernard Regan.

Nur Masalha, The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory (Zed Books 2012), 250pp.

It is a fact that the word ‘Nakba’ remains largely unknown to much of the world; for others it is just the name given by Palestinians to the events of 1948. Its significance to the Palestinians is of course much greater and Nur Masalha’s new book begins to redress this and should be read by everyone who wants to appreciate the Nakba’s multi-layered character and understand the way in which the Israeli state, its army and agencies like the Jewish National Fund worked and are continuing to work assiduously to erase any record of the Palestinians from their homeland.

As Masalha says: ‘The Palestinians share common experiences with other indigenous peoples who have their narrative denied, their material culture destroyed and their histories erased or reinvented by European white settlers and colonisers’ (p.88). What might shock the reader is the systematic nature of this process which has been inflicted on the Palestinians. The book details some of the massacres which took place, many after fighting had finished. One example is the city of Lydda in 1948 where, inside the town, between 250 and 400 men and women were gunned down, just one amongst a long list of ‘white flag’ war crimes. Towns and villages were destroyed and their names changed, mosques were turned into bars and restaurants, theme parks and nature reserves were developed on Palestinian lands. The object quite literally was, and is, to wipe the Palestinians off the map.

Many academics perpetuate the myth that there are no Palestinian archives. The truth is that many Palestinians records have been destroyed, books burnt and archives plundered, in Beirut and Jerusalem to name but two cases. In acts of what Masalha, and others, have called ‘memoricide’, the aim is to remove all evidence of the Palestinians’ presence in the land, substituting for it a synthetic history of Jewish continuity. The expression ‘history is written by the victor’ has almost become a cliché, but in contrast to these one-sided and highly partisan accounts, Masalha explains the importance of the role of oral history in recapturing the past. He rightly asserts the validity of this process as way of regaining authorship of Palestinian history. It is an important way for the victim or subaltern, to regain their voice.

There is much to commend in this book, not least his critique of the Israeli ‘new historians’. This group of historians had emerged by the early 1990s, and initially at least could be described as ‘post-Zionist’. Masalha analyses the different approaches adopted by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé in particular. The three, once friends, have long since parted company with Pappé once describing Morris as a ‘Zionist fascist’ (p.203). Differentiating between Morris and Shlaim on the one hand and Pappé on the other, Masalha points out that Morris and Shlaim write as though everything began in 1967 and the events of 1948 belong to another time.

Their weakness he identifies as stemming from their inability or refusal, unlike Pappé, to accept the nature of the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Zionist forces. Morris’s subsequent claim that the problem was that the Zionists did not go far enough in 1948 has to lead to his work being put under a more rigorous scrutiny. Shlaim’s work however has not been subject to a similar process of evaluation and although far from the position of Morris, it suffers from the fact that it considers the contenders of 1948, the Zionist terrorists and the Palestinians, as engaged in a symmetrical struggle for liberation.

Masalha’s work is a major contribution to redressing the gaps in our understanding of the Nakba and the way in which it is presented in the west. Palestinian history did not begin with the ‘new historians’. Nur Masalha’s work and that of the large number of Palestinians historians that there are deserves to be much more widely read and appreciated. Begin by buying this book.

Tagged under: Palestine Middle East
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