Na'eem Jeenah
Na'eem Jeenah

On cacti and keys; memory and forgetfulness

Once upon a time, in the northern part of a land known as Palestine, there existed a village called Lubya. The village of Lubya is well-known among the people of that land as the hometown of one Abu Bakr al-Lubyani.

Al-Lubayni was a prominent Muslim scholar of the 15th century who taught Islamic religious sciences in Damascus. Most Palestinians cannot stop talking about the beauty of the Palestinian villages they had come from, but not the people of Lubya which, I have been told, was never known for being beautiful.

Instead, its reputation derived from the ingenuity and intellectualism of its people and their legendary folkloric narratives. The Lubyans, apparently, could keep you going for hours for their interesting stories. Oh, and Lubya was also well-known for its cacti. The cactus, for Lubyans, was not just a plant. They wrote poetry about the cacti, sung songs about them and there are more than just one or two stories of cactus-related quarrels having broken out.

Lubya was attacked in July 1948 as part of the Israeli military’s “Operation Dekel”. The not-so-picturesque village was occupied on July 16 and all 596 houses were razed to the ground. The village was successfully ethnically cleansed and its 2 726 inhabitants were forced to flee and become refugees.

Lubya does not exist any more; its people are refugees. Instead, the Jewish National Fund — the structure of the World Zionist Organisation that is responsible for land acquisition and development for Jews — established a pine forest on the western side of the village. Most of the rest of the village is covered by what is called the “South Africa forest” (a very serious insult to South Africans), because the Jewish National Fund collected money from South African Jews to establish — on the ruins of Lubya — this forest.

But Lubya has not completely disappeared. In between the trees of the forests, one will see rubble from the demolished homes, and cisterns (for collecting rainwater) lie scattered in among the shrubbery. Oh, and of course, the cacti (and pomegranate and fig trees) bear testimony to the tragedy of the forested Lubya.

The destruction of Lubya followed an event a few months earlier that was destined to change the lives of millions of people around the globe. Sixty years ago this month, on November 29 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 181. That resolution partitioned British Mandate Palestine into two states: a “Jewish state” on 55% of the land and an “Arab state” on 45% of the land. This despite the fact that, at the time, Jews made up only 30% of the population and owned only 7% of the land.

Ironically, the only state established on that land has not been a state for the indigenous Palestinian people but the state of Israel, a state for mostly Jewish immigrants. Today, that state covers roughly 80% of the land and has colonised the other 20%. Percentages are difficult to speak of, however, because Israel has, to date, not declared what its borders are. It was a state established, on May 15 1948, on dispossession, murder, theft, colonialism and racism. It still is a state based on dispossession, murder, theft, colonialism and racism.

The months surrounding these two dates — November 29 1947 and May 15 1948 — witnessed a number of brutal massacres, resulting in the murder and maiming of thousands of people. These months also resulted in about 750 000 members of the indigenous population being forced out of their homes and made into refugees. Today, they and their descendants number more than six million refugees.

This month, November, marks the 60th anniversary of that fateful resolution adopted in New York, the resolution that condemned an entire people to decades of misery and to refugeehood. Sixty years later, it is time that the world corrected that injustice.

Next year will mark 60 years of what Palestinians refer to as their catastrophe, or al-nakba. It is time for the nakba to end!

As in South Africa, where black people are requested ad nauseam to “forget the past”, not to “live in the past” or “blame the past”, Palestinians too are constantly told to forget this history, to move on as if the events of 60 years ago never happened, to wipe the slate clean and begin not a new chapter, but a new book. These demands are unjust and contemptible.

Does anyone in South Africa ask Afrikaners to forget the South African War (formerly called the Anglo-Boer)? Or to forget the concentration camps that white Afrikaners were confined to by the English? Does anyone ask Jews to forget the Nazi genocide against them in the middle of the 20th century when six million of their number were systematically murdered? No!

Why, then, should black people forget the crimes of apartheid to which we were subjected? Why should Palestinians forget the crimes of Zionism that they were subjected to (and continue to be subjected to)?

It is true that history is written by the victors, not the victims. The powerful are usually the ones to shape how the story gets told. But memories are not the property of the powerful, to use, abuse, discard and forget at their whim. Oppressed people have long memories; memories are weapons and they are given up only voluntarily.

The next 13 months, for Palestinians, will be a demonstration of just how important memory is. It will be a commemoration of a humanitarian catastrophe and a celebration of six decades of resistance and of remembering.

Palestinian memories are not just in their heads and their hearts; there are also physical manifestations of these memories. Thousands of older Palestinians still have, neatly wrapped in cloth, their house keys with which they locked up their homes before fleeing the Zionist terrorists 60 years ago. Thousands of younger Palestinians, too, have these keys, handed down to them from their parents or grandparents, keys for houses that still stand, occupied by settlers who would prefer that those keys and those memories did not exist.

But they do. And 2008 will be remembered all over the world as the Year of the Keys, the year to open the door for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, the year of making known that the keys to peace and justice do exist for Palestinians, that peace and justice in the Middle East (or, as many Indian and Pakistani friends prefer to say, “West Asia”) is possible — when the refugees are allowed to return and allowed to open the doors of their homes long colonised.

Palestinian historian Dr Salman Abu Sitta compiled a list of 531 villages and towns ethnically cleansed in 1947-48 by Zionist terrorists — including Lubya; their populations converted into refugees communities. The majority of the people that belonged to these depopulated localities, and their descendants, now live in refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Many villages were razed to the ground, destroyed, in an attempt to remove all traces that there were people who lived on this land, who belonged to the land and who owned the land. But like the cacti of Lubya, they stubbornly insist that they will not be erased from history.

  • Khadija Sharife

    How were the Zionists able to do such a thing without the complicity of the Arabs…perhaps we close our eyes to the Arabs believing that they are innocent of the mark of the Zionist project, but in fact Ibn Saud was one of the first to address the terms of agreement with U.S and U.K.
    Why in fact are the corrupt GCC elements still pulsing in a continent overwhelmingly non-Arab? The only real Arabs in the Middle East are the Yemenis and portions of Arabia. Perhaps too, it is too reduce the role of the Persians and the Levant and over-emphasis Arab control? Maybe the enemy within is a far greater threat then the enemy without.

  • Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

    Na’eem – thanks for this. I learned alot.

  • Bilal

    Livni now wants the Palestinians to forget- to forget the Nakba and even stop using the word!

    In his address at Annapolis, Tzipi Livni said,
    ‘I believe that the solution of two nation states serves the interests of both sides. Not every celebration of ours is cause for sorrow on the other side, and vice versa. I say to my Palestinian colleagues: Do not bemoan the establishment of the State of Israel; establish your own state, rejoice in its establishment and we will rejoice with you, since for us the establishment of the Palestinian state is not our Nakba, or disaster – provided that upon its establishment the word “Nakba” be deleted from the Arabic lexicon in referring to Israel.’

    Nakba will not be deleted from the memories.
    We will not forget!



    What I really admire about you is the way that you so brilliantly combine your roles as spokesperson for The Palestine Solidarity Committee and Director of The Freedom of Expression Institute (FXI). Many people in your positions would end up sullying the reputation of The FXI. However, you have only served to enhance it.
    How do you manage to retain such credibilty ?
    Is it because you were breastfed The Truth ?

  • Steve

    Naeem, there were more Jewish refugees expelled from their Arab homes than there were Palestinians who became refugees.

    Your history is one sided and distorted.

    The problem isn’t your nakba my dear friend. The problem is your inability to sympathise with ‘the other’.

    More so, you also fail to ever sympathise with Palestinian victims of Palestinians. You only holler when they are victims of Jews.

    At least 15 Palestinians, including a United Nations relief worker, were killed today as Hamas looked set to complete its conquest of the entire Gaza Strip….

    Health officials said another 14 protesters were wounded by bullets and brought to the hospital in civilian cars because ambulances couldn’t navigate the heavy fire….

    Muhammad Swairki, 28, a cook for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential guard, was thrown to his death, with his hands and legs tied, from a 15-story apartment building in Gaza City on Sunday…

    Muhammad al-Ra’fati, a Hamas supporter and mosque preacher, was thrown from a Gaza City high-rise apartment building…

    Fatah gunmen began firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City…

    At a hospital in Beit Hanun, three family members with ties to Fatah were killed, and others wounded. Hospital officials reported that the three were being treated for injuries sustained earlier. One was reportedly shot at close range…

    Hamas gunmen attacked the home of a Fatah security official with mortars and grenades, killing his 14-year-old son and three women inside, security officials said. Other Fatah gunmen stormed the house of a Hamas lawmaker and burned it down…

    Jamal Abu Jadian, a top Fatah commander, fled his home in the northern Gaza Strip Tuesday evening dressed as a woman to avoid dozens of Hamas militiamen who had attacked it. When he arrived at a hospital a few hundred meters away from his house, he was discovered by a group of Hamas gunmen, who took turns shooting him in the head with automatic rifles. ‘They literally blew his head off with more than 40 bullets,’ said a doctor at Kamal Udwan Hospital.

    Over the past 2 years more Palestinians have been killed by Palestinians than by Israelis – yet your rhetoric remains the same.



    Your blog has, unfortunately, quickly descended into Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) propaganda. Interesting to consider whether this is what
    The Mail and Guardian hoped would emerge.

    Your biographical details, posted on Thought Leader, predominantly reveal your FXI links. In the circumstances, you should be transparent with your readers…

    How did you get the position of Director of The Freedom of Expression Institute? Was it handed to you by your predecessor Mr S. Vally ?
    Should Islamic activiists, like yourselves, with a narrow political agenda hijack the FXI in South Africa ? If they should, what does it say about freedom of expression in South Africa ? Is it something that must be controlled by you and fellow activists outside of The FXI?
    These are extremely relevant questions because the work of The FXI is potentailly very important. However, you have used The FXI to further your “extra curricular” anti-zionist interests.
    Mbeki’s Zikalala hijacked The SABC and The PSC’s Na’eem Jeenah has hijacked The FXI. What hope is there for freedom of expression in South Africa ??
    In the circumstances, you should resign from The FXI. Of course, it is quiet legitimate for you to attack Israel 24/7 but it is illegitimate to do so whilst working for The FXI.


    Na’eem, you write:
    “Does anyone ask Jews to forget the Nazi genocide against them in the middle of the 20th century when six million of their number were systematically murdered? No!”

    Can you remind your readers that the Palestinian leader, known as The Mufti of Jerusalem, in the 1930’s was a close ally to Hitler ? Can you also remind your readers about the Muslim SS division that was set up to kill European jewry ?

    Why do you forget to mention the above?

  • Khadija Sharife

    Hi Guys

    Lets not forget the root of the current problem: the superimposition of Zionism as a political movement formulated in the bosom of European nationalism –
    lets not forget that never before in history has a people of the ethnic historiography of the land been marginalized by the economics of the situation – the Zionist foot, not to enhance US policy but to destabilize a region using a contrived context that has no bearing or relation to the situation in palestine, utilising religion as a banner to solidify an occupation, whilst the very nature of the occupation as the reification of a thing divorced from religion stands in strict contradiction.
    Lets also not vilify Mr Jeenah simply because he is a man who believes what he is saying and is not morally expedient.

  • John Bond

    Ag Shame, Poor Arab…

    Both sides have suffered over the last 60 years but to be honest, there isn’t much you can do about that now. Each time a Palestinian “Freedom Fighter” attacks Israel, the Jews retaliate and Palestinians get killed.

    This current stalemate is a Jews win, Palestinians lose game. The Israeli’s greatest ally isn’t the US but you Palestinians. I doubt that anyone would deny that each time you fail to step up to the plate and negotiate, things get worse, dramatically worse. You also have less to negotiate for.

    It was Henry Kissenger who said “World politics is not about morality but about power and influence”. You’ve lost almost all your power and most of your influence, (particularly in that glorious 7 day war – you can see I’m an old soldier). The longer you leave it, the less you’ll achieve, the better for the Israeli’s, the worse for the Palestinians.

    I am also always fascinated by this “Zionism” thing, do your Imams feed you that stuff. Maybe it’s time to try to learn a bit about that diverse group of different races that call themselves Jews, and maybe from independent sources, outside the Mosque.



    As an Islamic activist, what do you think about the “teddy bear” case?

    Did Gillian Gibbons insult Islam ?

    Demonstrators, outside the court, shouted that she should be executed. If so, should she be killed by firing squad ? Or stoned to death ?

  • Free expressions

    Jeenah’s Geobbels-piece conveniently forgets that the Arab/Muslim laim is founded on dispossession, murder, theft, colonialism and racism [the word “kaffir” comes from Arabic, from the slave trade) in the 6th century. Or does he feel their is a statue of limitations on the rights of the Jews, who have been in Palestine/Canaan/Judah/Israel since biblical times? The name “Palestine”, used as a derogatory term by the Romans, is derived from the Phonecians and was adopted by Arafat because there WAS no existing Arab nation.
    I assume when he talks about the “indigenous” people he hegates the original occupants claim in favour of the descendents of the 6th century colonists. Of course, if it was not standard Muslim practice to destroy other religions’ statues and places of worship, the Mosque in Jerusalem would not be standing on top of the ruins of the Jewish temple and a lot of bloodshed would have been averted.

    He neglects to add that when “The months surrounding these two dates witnessed a number of brutal massacres, resulting in the murder and maiming of thousands of people.” many of the victims were innocent Jews.

    While freedom of expression is important, this abuse of it is tantamount to shouting “Fire” in a croweded theatre, and makes one wonder whether Cde Jeenah is fit for the post or whether the Institute is just another SABC-type mouthpiece

  • Castor Troye


    In your article there are subtle references to conspiracies of Zionist control, backed by “decisions in New York”, yet one tends to forget the “Zionists” won the 1948 War miraculously with odds of a least 3 to 1 against them. Arab armies were complacent in thinking that it would be easy to wipe Israel off the map. If the so called Nakba is seen as the source of grievance and decline of Arabic culture and the bain of its existence, then it doesnt say much for the Arabic world.

    Secondly Na’eem, I always admire someone who stands up for noble principles such as human rights and free expression (without promoting hatred). Of course, I am rather skeptical when one uses these garments for the sole purpose of criticising only one country or group of people. I would love to see in your next article your opinions on the the rights of free expression for women and homosexuals in Iran and the recent declaration there that purchasing “western” toys is deemed inappropriate by the Iranian authorities. Coming from the FXI, your opinion on the matter would be most relevant, unless of course, you prefer to limit your writings to Zionist horticulture?

  • Andrew

    Ironic that Palestinian mourn the creation of the State of Israel. Without it they would be zero chance of having their own state – today they would simply be Egyptians or Jordanians.