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.