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Amnesia and fragmentation in the narrative of Israel’s occupation of Palestine

The fragmented nature of mainstream media coverage distracts from the unbroken continuity of the Nakba and Israeli apartheid

Middle EastHuman RightsMedia

A Palestinian youth placed a flag on the Israeli Separation Wall during a protest marking nine years for the struggle against the wall in the West Bank village of Bil’in, February 28, 2014. Photo by Oren Ziv/GroundTruth.

There’s nane ever fear’d that the truth should be heard
But they wham the truth would indite!
—Robert Burns

Sitting under the monument of Scottish poet Robert Burns on Nakba Day in Montréal, amid the thousands of protesters who marched from the Israeli consulate just days after Israel began bombing Gaza, I spoke with a Palestinian man who quietly came over to sit and set down his flag for a moment. Muhammed (whose name is not Muhammed) was impressed with the convergence of three protests into the day’s energetic demonstration. Yes, thousands were out. Yes, the energy was inspiring. But he brought up a familiar observation, an undercurrent that is usually expressed in whispers and back-channels. Decade after decade, the chants and the slogans are the same. Year after year, throngs of protesters come out, shout, take pictures for social media, and then go home—or simply carry on shopping. Something is missing, he said, just barely lowering his voice.

Without a coherent narrative, Canadians who are not already familiar with Palestine’s history or the persistence of Israeli apartheid cannot fully understand the depth of suffering, fatigue and anger felt by generations subjected to Israel’s continuing attacks on civilians, homes, schools, refugee camps, and the media. Without it, we cannot care enough to treat the issue of Palestinian displacement and oppression under Israeli occupation as not only a political issue but also a humanitarian one.

Despite the symbolism of the brutal attacks by the Jewish extremist group Lehava on Muslim worshippers in East Jerusalem during the holy Ramadan season, and the accompanying evictions in Sheikh Jarrah, and the bombing of residential buildings and civilians in Gaza, these events make it into our headlines precisely because of their sensationalism.

As many have pointed out, the displacement of Palestinians in East Jerusalem is but a continuation of Israel’s colonization of Palestine that began with the creation of the Jewish state. Apartheid lives long after headlines have declared one or another victory, and discomfited politicians praise this or that ceasefire. But the fragmented nature of mainstream media coverage serves Israel’s narrative well, distracting from the unbroken continuity of the Nakba and Israeli apartheid, and making it difficult for the Canadian public to grasp the magnitude of Israel’s battering of human dignity.

This is a further assault on Palestinians’ right to exist wherever they want to exist—an issue that has been elided even in some progressive discourse that focuses narrowly on the national question. This right applies regardless of where the boundary of Palestinian existence is drawn, whether a Palestinian lives in Hebron or is considered an Arab Israeli living in Tel Aviv. The reality of apartheid persists not only when Israeli authorities rain bombs on Gaza or evict families in East Jerusalem, but also in the everyday labour of Palestinian workers: manufacturing in aluminum factories that were constructed in violation of international law, printing ballots in Karnei Shomron for an election in which they can’t vote, or packaging food for Israeli companies while Israeli settlers and soldiers raze Palestinian olive orchards again and again and again.

Of course, Israeli companies shrewdly vaunt how they extend the hand of opportunity to Palestinian workers, while years of reports condemn the exploitation of Palestinian workers inside Israel. Palestinian labour that made up one-fifth of the Israeli construction labour force in 2019 is reported to have generated “around two-thirds of the sector’s $35 billion contribution to the Israeli economy.” Even recent vaccination campaigns were motivated by just how indispensable Palestinian manual labour is to the Israeli economy, as opposed to any sudden Israeli revelation of conscience in the face of the global pandemic.

Coverage of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza typically leaves readers—viewers and witnesses—to interpret body counts, concealing the disproportionate brutality of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilian buildings behind numbers: May 14 - “Death toll rises as violence rocks Gaza, Israel and West Bank;” May 15 - “Death toll from Israeli strikes on Gaza Strip climbs to 139;” May 16 - “Gaza death toll nears 200 amid surge of Israeli raids;” May 17 - “Israel air strikes kill 42 Palestinians, rockets fired from Gaza.” Scores and lopsided death tolls.

Palestinians collect their belongings from under the rubble of a residential tower, which witnesses said was destroyed by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on August 24, 2014. United Nations photo by Shareef Sarhan/Flickr.

Israeli aggression has consistently been presented as isolated “conflicts:” Operation Defensive Shield, Pillar of Defense, Summer Rains, Autumn Clouds, Days of Penitence, or as in Israel’s bombings of Lebanon in 1993 and 1996, Operation of Accountability and Operation Grapes of Wrath. As if these military operations were not in reality part of a continuous campaign. Politicians offer similarly episodic responses: “Canada calling for ceasefire as Israel-Palestine fighting escalates,” as if the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” begins and ends with the chest-beating of Hamas. “Palestinians claim victory in ceasefire as Israel issues warning to Hamas,” as if the word victory has any meaning while civilian lives are taken by Israeli bombs, Palestinians are systemically deprived of fresh water, while essential Palestinian infrastructure is destroyed and the West Bank is contaminated by the dumping of toxic waste.

Evictions, razings, bombings—each one blurring into the next. Already the East Jerusalem evictions have cascaded into those of Silwan. Yesterday it was Sheikh Jarrah. The day before it was Nablus and Jenin. And the day before that it was Iqrit, Jabbul and Lifta. Tomorrow it will be another village like Khirbet Humsa in the dystopically designated Area C.

As for Jerusalem itself, the evictions were simply a continuation of the longstanding segregation of the city, which was divided following the Israeli annexation in 1967 (known as “Reunification”) in which Israel pushed Palestinians and Muslims into East Jerusalem—Zionist authorities being well acquainted with the concept of the ghetto.

In the 1970s, former Haganah representative and British intelligence agent Teddy Kollek served as mayor of West Jerusalem. During that time, he acquired a singular reputation among Israelis for “peacekeeping,” and was held up by literary sycophants like Saul Bellow as being “on excellent terms with Muslim religious leaders.” Kollek, however, had overseen the displacement and demolition of the Moroccan quarter in 1967 to create space for pilgrimages to the Wailing Wall, as well as presiding over the broader displacement of Arabs from the Old City.

As Edward Saïd wrote in 1995, in a lesser known essay “The Current Status of Jerusalem:” “Kollek, along with Moshe Dayan, threw out almost a thousand Palestinians from their ancestral dwellings in the Haret-al-Maghariba, razed their homes, and built the monumental plaza that now stretches before the Western Wall, an area which has become Arab-rein, purely Jewish.” Decrying the lack of a Palestinian narrative and vision for Jerusalem as a strategic failure, Saïd went on to describe this displacement as a carefully calculated project of extending purely Jewish rule and administration over all of Jerusalem that “not only contradicted the city’s history but its very lived actuality, and turned it into what appeared to be a unified, ‘eternally’ central reality in the life principally of Jews the world over.”

Al Maghariba, home to over 130 families before being razed by Israeli forces, at the behest of Teddy Kollek, the mayor of West Jerusalem, three days after the Six-Day War.

Regarding the 1967 evictions of Jerusalem’s Moroccan quarter, Kollek later wrote in a biography, “My overpowering feeling was: Do it now; it may be impossible to do it later, and it must be done.” Kollek’s hasty evictions inevitably prefigured contemporary Israeli operations like the expansion of Orthodox Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, crossing the Green Line from Ramat Shlomo, Har Homa and Ma’ale Adumim as well as Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv, and the subsequent cascade of ambassadorial migrations, from Guatemala to Kosovo.

The parallel is even clearer under today’s reigning mayor of Jerusalem, Moshe Lion, who sees the high-tech sector as an incentive for further development in the city. After members of a far-right Jewish extremist group known as Lehava attacked Muslims in East Jerusalem during Ramadan, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, was described as crediting “Mayor Moshe Lion with quelling the violence that exploded in the city for a few days in April.” Naturally, these “few days” of violence disregard the continued reports such as those by B’Tselem on Israeli raids of Palestinian homes, arrests of Palestinian teenagers, and beatings of Palestinians at checkpoints. No irony is lost in Hassan-Nahoum’s framing of Lion as “quelling” the violence in the manner of Kollek’s “peacekeeping” reputation.

Demolition of Mughrabi Quarter adjacent to the Western Wall, June 1967. Photo by David Rubinger.

Israel’s tradition of ghettoification endures in that, as Ramzy Baroud explains, the Israeli state also continues to displace Palestinian Christians who live in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and elsewhere in the West Bank. Yet we are still having a debate on whether or not Israel is conducting ethnic cleansing.

That settlements like Ramat Shlomo and Ma’ale Adumim are primarily ultra-Orthodox additionally reflect the artificial shaping of Netanyahu’s favoured right-wing electorate, and the continued dispersion of secular Jews who have always been essential to shifting any political status quo in Israel.

A similar tragicomedy colours the occasional bureaucratic flourish by Israeli authorities, such as the eviction of Israeli settlers from its own illegal settlement of Netiv Ha’avot in the West Bank or the “hundreds of hardline Jewish settlers” at Amona—because the illegal Israeli settlements had not received proper authorization from the Israeli state. This farcical self-flagellation goes to show how much the Israeli state truly cares for its privileged Jewish citizenry; as quoted in the Guardian in 2017, Amona spokesperson Avichay Buaron had then lamented, “This is a dark day for us, for Zionism, for the state and for the great vision of the Jewish people returning to its homeland.”

Remember that the brutality of the Israeli state’s actions is rooted in this ideology of a “return to a homeland” that was used to manipulate an image of Palestinian land as empty and ripe for the taking. That mythology has continued to ripple through the Negev, where the displacement of sparsely populated towns and Bedouin villages has attracted far less media attention over the years, but is essential to Israel’s expansion and militarization of the desert. From the maintenance centre and training base for Lockheed Martin’s F-35s at the Nevatim Air Base to the integration of Silicon Valley companies alongside Yeruham’s City of Training Bases, Israel has long been expanding military bases, technological complexes and mineral processing facilities in the Negev with hardly a peep from the international press.

As much as the sensational headlines reporting “a few days of violence,” it is this absurd banality that forms the backbone of the occupation and shatters Palestine’s own sense of continuity.

Traces of Palestinian life before the Nakba are preserved in collections of British film archives, their memory, at once precious and comical with descriptions of everyday life, sometimes the only remaining proof of Palestinian existence: “Women stand near ancient looking stone walls with bundles of twigs or fire wood”, “Using well in Jerusalem at the Dome of the Rock,” “Men eating. Washing hands.” As Amira Hass pointed out following the bombing of civilian buildings on Al Wehda Street in Gaza, it is the Israeli Interior Ministry that holds the Palestinian population registry. Universities are routinely targeted by Israel, from the bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza in 2014, to the raids on Birzeit University such as those in December 2017, March 2018 or March 2019. Israeli bombs have destroyed bookstores in Gaza like Shaaban Aslem’s Iqraa al-Jadeed and Samir Mansour’s bookshop. In 2018, the Al-Meshal Cultural Center was bombed by Israeli F-16s, demolishing a library, an Egyptian community centre and a theatre.

The Erez Crossing, located at the northern end of the Gaza Strip, on the border with Israel, between the Israeli kibbutz of Erez and the Palestinian town of Beit Hanoun. Photo from Flickr.

Every Palestinian effort to preserve intellectual and artistic vitality and develop cultural and national institutions is targeted for the very reason that it is this living culture that inspires, unites and nurtures a sense of self, belonging, and, ultimately, hope.

Canada remains one of the top arms exporters to Israel and continues to hold illegal recruiting campaigns for the IDF. Canadian science and technology partnerships with Israel’s high-tech market tread the line between dual-use military and civilian applications, making accountability of exports and research partnerships challenging; a case in point is the controversial development of the Guelph electricity grid using Iron Dome technology. The same universities that lately promote agendas of inclusion and diversity, and hand out degrees on post-conflict, apartheid and generational trauma, are invested in weapons companies like BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Meanwhile, for the average Canadian, buying into Israeli apartheid is as simple as buying Israeli mint or oranges at the supermarket.

Yet this same dependency and connectedness of global supply chains has become a potent target for what might be called a workers’ resistance, beyond campus-based activist groups. Where politicians fail to treat Israeli apartheid as a humanitarian emergency, and industry lobbies profit from it, decisive action by Canadian labour unions and interruptions to global supply chains could play an essential role in militant resistance to Israeli apartheid that does more than plaster slogans on social media.

Italian dock-workers in Livorno had the right idea, refusing to load a shipment of weapons headed to Israel in protest to the evictions at Sheikh Jarrah. Activists in the United Kingdom occupied the Leicester-based factory of UAV Tactical Systems, which manufactures drones for Elbit. Here in Canada, we could even look to the protests to LAV exports to Saudi Arabia, when Hamilton activists blocked Paddock Transport International’s trucks in protest to the Saudi war in Yemen. Understandably, this is a little different from a hashtag or an aesthetic Instagram post, or the chants that leave ordinary people like Muhammed yearning for something else—something that works this time.

Perhaps more Canadians would care about Palestinians and their experience under Israeli apartheid if the issue were treated not solely as a question of nationalism for Palestinians to decide on their own terms, but instead to treat it as inextricable from the global struggles around work, gender, housing and environmental justice that transcend national borders. So, on the larger scale of human dignity, what has really been won when the CBC or the Globe and Mail might frame the ceasefire in terms of a victory? What will it take for Canadian media to tell the story that goes beyond those lopsided death tolls, and exposes a fatal betrayal despite decades of reports of Israeli war crimes and human rights violations, abusive labour practices, and daily humiliation of Palestinians? What will it take for Canadians to finally see the defence of Palestinian rights as the urgent humanitarian imperative it is?

Lital Khaikin is an author and journalist based in Tiohtiá:ke (Montréal). She has published articles in Toward Freedom, Warscapes, Briarpatch, and the Media Co-op, and has appeared in literary publications like 3:AM Magazine, Berfrois, Tripwire, and Black Sun Lit’s “Vestiges” journal. She also runs The Green Violin, a slow-burning samizdat-style literary press for the free distribution of literary paraphernalia.

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