Resisting colonial erasure of the Nakba

June 5, 2023
Rihab Charida addresses the United Palestinian Workers and the Australian Palestinian Graduates Association. Photo: Peter Boyle

Activist filmmaker Rihab Charida gave the following remarks to a commemoration marking 75 years of Al Nakba (the Catastrophe) hosted by the United Palestinian Workers and the Australian Palestinian Graduates Association in Sydney on June 3. Charida has spent the last five years in Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camps, recording the stories of her elders.

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the Sovereign Peoples of this land we are gathered on today. The First Nations peoples across this continent have continued to suffer unspeakable horrors since the early days of colonisation, when entire communities were attacked and massacres were committed across the continent.

Today we bear witness to the continued deaths of First Nations people in custody, the continued removal of children from their families as well as policies that destroy First Nations communities.

I would like to express my absolute solidarity with their struggle that, at its heart, looks very much like the Palestinian liberation struggle.

The colonists of this land described it as terra nullius — uninhabited. It turns out that there weren’t only people here, but they were one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

In Palestine, they described it as “a land without a people for a people without a land” — despite Palestine being home to a rich and vibrant culture with the oldest continuously inhabited cities and towns in the world where people have lived for thousands of years.

But, like the colonisation here, in Palestine, the false and racist claim of the land being uninhabited, was used to justify the events of the Nakba, that European Jewish colonists had been planning for since the late 1800s and which intensified when they were promised the land by the British in 1917.

The plan to ethnically cleanse Palestine began decades before World War II. Nobody describes these events and the meticulous planning over several decades better than Israeli historian Ilan Pappe in his important book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine.

Pappe describes the way in which Zionist militias disguised themselves as scouts or tourists to gather information for “the village files”. They exploited the generosity of Palestinian villagers and gathered data, photographs and maps — all of which were later used to attack those villages during the events of the Nakba.

The Nakba destroyed 500 villages, with the majority of the population expelled over the border.

Researching the film I am working on deals with the story of the people who were at the receiving end of the brutality visited on them by the forces that invaded their villages and towns.

For Palestinians, the events of the Nakba between 1947 and 1949, was an earthquake that shattered their entire worlds. The majority of the expelled population was peasant-farming communities: our culture was, and is, largely a land-based culture.

While my research focuses on my village, Safsaf, I have come to understand the ways in which the village communities throughout Palestine lived intimately with their environment: a rich organism of towns, cities, villages, hills, springs and valleys and were interconnected.

It’s hard to imagine that their villages, complete with orchards, threshing fields, springs and poems and their entire interconnected world have been erased from the face of the earth.

But what has struck me the most from my research is to learn how much this story has been suppressed.

Take, for example, the visual archives. In 1982, when Israel invaded and besieged Beirut, troops stormed the Palestine Liberation Offices and stole the entire Palestinian National Film and Image Archive.

I don’t need to explain the ways in which those who control the image control the narrative.

While working on the film, I discovered that my grandfather, along with other men from the village, were taken to British prisoner camps in the 1930s and forced to become indentured labourers. They were forced to widen the walking tracks of the Galilee into roads, which would later be used by the military.

The widening of the roads was an important part of the Zionist plans for takeover. The British facilitated this by training the Zionist forces, including giving them reconnaissance, while handing over the institutions of colonial rule.

But the archival trace of these prisoner camps, arguably a significant part of the history of British colonisation in Palestine, is very difficult to trace.

I have spent the last five years in Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camps, recording the stories of my elders.

Those that were old enough to vividly remember the events of the Nakba and the stories of our villages are now more than 90 years old, and very few remain. We are on the cusp of losing this living testimony. When I understood how suppressed our story is, I understood the importance of their testimonies even more.

When Pappe wrote his book, the Israeli archives that were 50 years old were opened to researchers in the late 1990s. Pappe made it in time to access the Israeli archives that were essential for his book.

Soon after that, the Israeli government closed access to these archives and they remain closed until today. Only a few documents remain accessible and certainly not to Palestinians.

Our village, Safsaf, fell during the olive harvest of 1948. Earlier that year, the people of Safsaf were hearing stories about attacks and massacres across the land. The men of Safsaf, all farmers, chipped in what money they had by selling some of their livestock and bought old rifles that they would use in an effort to protect the village, should the invading forces reach them. My grandfather sold a cow to buy a rifle to join the resistance effort.

With the help of the Arab Liberation Army, they built fortified entrenchments beside the eastern meadow. For months they guarded the village from the trenches and watchtowers they built.

In April, the colonists invaded and occupied Safad, the closest town, and from there they launched ground attacks on villages nearby, including Safsaf. Since the fortifications were built on an elevated area that looked down towards an open meadow, taking the village on the ground was going to be difficult and the resistance front prevented three invasion attempts on the village.

However, on the October 28 at precisely 6:18pm, the village was attacked with warplanes. The people of Safsaf, a farming community, had never seen anything like it. The first victim was Mohomad Mahmoud Zaghmout, who was a renowned singer in the Galilee. While his family was picking olives, he was sitting up against the tree. The bomb killed Mohomad and uprooted the tree.

The townspeople then gathered in the largest house in the village. The resistance front at the eastern meadow was broken when military vehicles invaded from the west.

During that night many people escaped through a window. Some decided to stay. The next morning when light broke, the people who had stayed were forced out of their homes and the young men, roughly between the ages of 14 and 60, were taken to the village threshing field and executed in front of their families.

My father, who is here tonight, lost cousins and uncles in that massacre. Every family in our village lost members and it remains an open wound in our community. Those that survived were forced out of our village at gunpoint and most are still living in the Palestinian refugee camps with their descendants.

But the dual injustice is that these crimes continue to be denied.

After 75 years, the right of return for those that were forced out by overwhelming military power has never been implemented despite a solid foundation for this right in international law and basic human values.

The crimes of the Nakba continue. Just last week we heard about the ethnic cleansing of 200 residents from their village, Ain Samiya, in the West Bank.

Every year, we bear witness as Israel rains bombs on the people of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. The massacres continue. The suppression of the story of Palestine also continues.

In recent years, Israeli forces stormed the offices of several Palestinian NGOs stealing all of their data, including back-ups.

Palestinian organisations today operate with several back-ups in several locations to prevent Israeli archival theft. It was not only the film archive that was stolen in Beirut in 1982, but also decades-old research papers, data, title deeds of land in Palestine and other archival material essential to the record-keeping of any people.

To talk simply about these events, to attempt to bring light to these crimes, past and present, is suppressed in a number of forms. The weaponisation of antisemitism has been used to silence Palestinian stories.

As absurd as it is, these are the desperate attempts of a state that is finding it increasingly difficult to balance the performance of victimhood with the reality of colonial aggression in the face of steadfast Palestinian sumud (perseverance).

On the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, as we begin to lose the living testimony of the last generation to have been born in our destroyed villages, it is more important than ever to listen to Palestinian stories and support their struggle for freedom.

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