Nakba Walks

[this post originally appeared on Jadaliyya and was re-posted by AnthroBoycott as part of a series of reflections composed by Palestinian anthropologists in commemoration of Nakba Day, May 15, 2015]

by Rhoda Kanaaneh, Columbia University

I remember when my first daughter, then just six years old, accompanied me and a group of family and friends during one of our summer visits for a short hike in the hills surrounding my home village of Arrabeh in Israel.  A high barbed-wire fence that encircled the Jewish settlement of Hararit soon interrupted our path.  Perched upon her grandfather’s shoulders, my daughter asked about the obstruction we had to circumnavigate. I remember her astonishment when I explained to her that the barbed wire surrounded a settlement where only Jews were allowed to live.  I had walked around this fence many times as I grew up in Arrabeh (and remember hiking the area before the fence appeared), and its circumference grew with me.  I had of course long been cognizant, along with fellow Palestinians, of the ridiculous injustice of the settlements.  But viewing Hararit through the eyes of my New York-raised child and witnessing her incredulous surprise at the existence of such a thing (“But that’s not fair!”), reminds me that this is the reaction people around the world would have were they to see what she had seen.

Hararit was built on land expropriated from my village and from the neighboring Palestinian village of Dayr Hanna.  A number of settlements had been planned to encircle us in the Galilee and therefore to dilute a population pocket of Palestinians in northern Israel and, in the state’s language,  “Judaize” the area.  These settlements were initially conceived as agricultural ones but the massive Palestinian Land Day protests in 1976 forced state authorities to shift away from some of their agricultural plans that would necessitate even wider land expropriations.  The Misgav string of settlements instead included a number of bedroom communities for Jewish professionals commuting to the city of Haifa.  Hararit was actually settled in the early 1980s by several dozen Jewish families dedicated to Transcendental Meditation!

Hararit is not only encircled by a high fence and barbed wire, but is connected to its neighboring settlements and then to the main highway to Haifa by a network of roads that bypass the Palestinian villages in the area. Raja Shehadeh’s beautiful book Palestinian Walks describes a similarly transformed landscape in the hills of the West Bank that makes the idyllic itineraries of his youth increasingly impossible.  The roads Raja must contend with are more strictly enforced as Jewish-only roads and the settlements surrounding his walks are more violent.  People around the globe have become more familiar with the apartheid rules enforced in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  But my village of Arrabah and the colonial settlement of Hararit are within the 1948 borders of what is termed Israel proper.  It is apartheid within the part of the state declared a democracy.

During fieldwork for my last research project in the Galilee, I met Khalid Sawa’id, a Bedouin who lived not far from my family’s home, on his ancestral land in Kammaneh.  In the early 1980s, Khalid’s house and land became engulfed by the establishment of the Jewish settlement of Makhmunim, which was trying to evict him and his family and demolish his home. In 1988, Sawa’id applied to be admitted as a member of the settlement, promising to sell them his land in the process.  He hoped that his seven years of military service in the Israeli army would help his case.  But Khalid was rejected. The head of the committee of Makhmunim, a leftist by Israeli standards, told a local Hebrew newspaper that “despite all our friendship with Khalid, it would not be a natural situation if he lives with us.”

On walks with my daughters around Arrabeh, my family and I must remember to pack our ID cards.  We are required by law to produce them when asked by police or “border guards” (deep within Israel’s borders) that racially profile us—a job made easier for them by the nationality entry stamped on our IDs (“Muslim” in this case). As Israeli citizens of the wrong sort, we are considered suspicious if we come too close to Hararit and its network of roads.  On summer moonlit nights, we have tried to take evening strolls to escape the heat of my parent’s home in the valley.  We make sure to pack our required IDs and to keep an extra distance from Hararit, though it’s hilltop location enjoys the best breezes.

This segregation was set in motion on a large scale in 1948 with the war cleansing the area of the great majority of its Palestinians. But this process has been enforced upon the remaining Palestinians and expanded on a daily basis since then—through land expropriations, municipal de-development, and strangulation by Jewish only settlements (to name just a few of the ways the Nakba is ongoing today).

We continue to walk though, including the yearly march of return.  This past April, Palestinian citizens of Israel walked to the remains of the ethnically cleansed village of Hadatha.  Palestinians are unrelenting in our insistence on continuing to march and struggle for equality.  But so are Israeli governments unrelenting with their insistence that the state be of and for the Jews.  A friend I spoke to described a mixture of excitement and inspiration by the march of return, woven with a simultaneous sense of powerlessness and despair.  The latter is brought home by the recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling on Umm al-Hiran village, that allows the state to, as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz headline puts it, “Replace Bedouin Village with Jewish One.”

One of the glimmers of hope on the horizon of the many Palestinian walks is the growing solidarity with us embodied in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.  This month my cousins and friends will insist on commemorating the Nakba, including at Haifa University, despite the Israeli law that bans such peaceful commemorations, and despite the fact that students were severely penalized for such activities in the past.  But they will take these steps knowing that a growing international community supports their struggle for justice.  My daughter, now a high school student in New York, recently participated in demonstrations insisting that “Black Lives Matter.”  Protesting militarized police brutality in ghettoized communities in the United States does not sound far afield from what my relatives do in Israel.  My daughter and I were excited to see on social media the photo of the demonstrator arrested in New York for protesting injustice in Baltimore wearing a Palestine t-shirt.  Such solidarity invigorates our walks near Arrabeh, Hadatha, Umm al-Hiran and around the world, walks that will one day dismantle the barbed wires.