Thursday, January 15, 2009

Returning Time to Gazans

Oren Yiftachel
[Prof. Oren Yiftachel teaches political geography and urban planning at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba]

The sights of death and destruction from Gaza are devastating, and the residents of southern Israel are under on-going bombardment. The situation is suffocating, saddening and infuriating. In such a time it may be difficult to look beyond the violence, but this may be necessary to understand what is transpiring in front of our eyes.

An aboriginal author once said, during the struggle for native rights in Australia: "wherever national territory advances, our time is killed, but it also has a strange habit of returning after death."

It may seem far removed, but this insight can help us fathom the war on Gaza. Beyond the carnage, brutality, and screaming children, we can also see it as the continuation of the Israeli territorial project which has adopted a consistent and cruel goal – the erasure of Palestinian time, that is, the full recent history of this land. This erasure, needless to say, is aimed at destroying Palestinian space, in what Palestinian professor Sari Hanafi calls ‘spaciocide’. With this destruction comes the annihilation of political powers, those existing by right, and not as a result of some Israeli 'generosity'.

Accordingly, one may look at the current invasion to Gaza not only as an 'operation' to stop Hamas' rockets; a pre-election effort to boost popularity by cynical Israeli leaders; nor an attempt to re-establish Israel's deterrence following the failure of the second Lebanon War of 2006. This invasion and destruction of Gaza is neither only a colonial attempt to 'create a new political order' among neighboring nations, or an imperial (American-Israeli) push to control insurgent Arab societies. The current attack on Gaza is of course all these, but also – and most importantly, another step in the long-standing project of silencing, fragmenting, breaking and annihilating Palestinian history and collective existence. The erasure project is conducted by nearly everybody in Israel – politicians, artists, the media, university researchers and intellectuals.

Against these efforts of collective forgetfulness, let us remember that history: the Gaza Strip is a small region covering only 1.7% of historic Palestine. It was created as an entity following the 1948 war, known as the Nakbah (Palestinian disaster), during which some two thirds of Palestinians refugees were driven out from what is now Israel, with 150,000 of them joining the 60,000 Arabs already residing in the area. The armistice lines were drawn between Israeli and Egypt, with the refugees trapped on the 'wrong side', and prevented from returning to their villages. In the meantime, Israel destroyed nearly all Arab villages from Jaffa to Beersheba, appropriated all Palestinian land and allocated it to the dozens of Jewish towns and settlements built around Gaza.

The refugee population in Gaza today amounts to more than a million (over two thirds of the Strip's population). Its spatial conditions have worsened dramatically, with overcrowding, poverty, lack of services and a growing regime of geographic constraints. Israel's conquest in 1967 eased for a while the sense of siege, but following the first Intifada, and further since the Oslo Agreement, Gaza was cordoned once more, cut off from the rest of the Palestinian Territories and the world, and surrounded in 1994 by a massive 'security fence', ironically as part of the 'peace process'. Gaza became a large Palestinian Ghetto, or as notable Gaza Eyad el-Sarraj quipped: "the largest jail in the world.".

This is the background for the rise of Hamas, which offered an alternative to the failed Oslo accords under which the promise to peace turned into a Palestinian 'Via Dolorosa'. Hamas refused to believe the promise of 'two states for two nations', which has become an empty slogan, enabling the endless continuation of Jewish settlement and Israeli colonial occupation. Hamas also gave voice and political weight for the refugees by appointing Ismail Haniya - - resident of the Shati Camp, as its first Prime Minister. This move was conducted against a corrupt Palestinian political elite, trapped within the Oslo framework, which prevented it from dealing with the refugee issue, thereby silencing again the recent history of this land.

True, the shelling of Israeli towns by Hamas should be condemned as an act of terror, and as a disastrous political strategy with grave consequences to the Palestinian people. But beyond this, we should understand it as a desperate attempt to remind the world, Israel, and even the Arab world, that the refugee problem is still alive – an open wound awaiting to be healed by the forces that created it -- first and foremost Israel.

Against this on-going cry, Israel typically decided to escape engaging with the issue, and is now conducting a campaign of state-sanctioned terror, against Gazan society. Hence the brutal violence that aims to divide, cut, kill and injure. But even tones of bombs and piles of 'cast lead' cannot silence the echo of history. Israel's mighty military power is weak politically and morally and will not prevent the return of native time, even after its pronounced death, as predicted by the Aboriginal author.

The moral is clear: the genuine cessation of violence must pass through the return of time to our public and political life, that is, the opening of a genuine debate over the history that created and maintained Gaza and other Palestinian ghettoes controlled violently by Israel. Without that, we may realize time and again that our enormous military power buys no genuine security. During such a debate, the refugee issue will be foremost on the agenda, but it will also have to engage with the Jews' own history of dislocation and disaster, and the making of a safe Jewish place in an Arab Middle East.

The return of Palestinian time, therefore, is necessary for the recognition of Jewish time, and for the two nations to find a way to coexist in their common homeland. Hence, we must replace territory with history as the core of Palestinian-Jewish engagement, and thereby enter, perhaps, a time of reconciliation.

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