Wher­ever we go, what­ever we have achieved, Pales­tini­ans like me can never forget our home­land

The National - News - - FRONT PAGE - FAISAL SALEH Faisal Saleh is the founder of the Pales­tine Mu­seum US

On Tues­day, I was among 500 Pales­tini­ans from around the US who gath­ered in the United Na­tions Gen­eral Assem­bly hall. We sat in the very seats where the fate of the Pales­tinian peo­ple had been de­cided 70 years ear­lier to the day. We lis­tened to folk mu­sic from our home­land, to speeches from the likes of Hanan Ashrawi from the Pales­tine Lib­er­a­tion Or­gan­i­sa­tion. And we re­mem­bered.

As Pales­tini­ans scat­tered around the world marked the 70th an­niver­sary of the Nakba this week, the prospects of a just so­lu­tion to their cause re­main as elu­sive as ever, yet their re­solve to pur­sue free­dom and a re­turn to their lost homes has never been stronger.

I watched in dis­may this week as the coun­try where I have lived for nearly 50 years opened an em­bassy in Jerusalem. As an Amer­i­can, I was deeply dis­tressed by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­ci­sion. It re­moved the US as an in­de­pen­dent third party bro­ker and aligned the US squarely with the Is­raeli camp.

By so do­ing, the US set back the peace process by many years and dis­qual­i­fied it­self from hav­ing any fu­ture role in ne­go­ti­a­tions. Mr Trump has ef­fec­tively dealt a death blow to the two-state so­lu­tion, rev­ers­ing past ad­min­is­tra­tions’ long-es­tab­lished pol­icy and de­liv­er­ing a sting­ing slap in the face to Pales­tini­ans.

He has played straight into the hands of Is­rael, whose Zion­ist founders had hoped that years af­ter the takeover of Pales­tinian lands, Pales­tini­ans and the world would forget what hap­pened and even­tu­ally ac­cept the sta­tus quo. But Is­rael and its friends were sur­prised to see each new gen­er­a­tion of Pales­tini­ans more de­ter­mined to pur­sue their right of re­turn than their par­ents. At our com­mem­o­ra­tion con­cert in New York on Tues­day, there was a sense of de­ter­mi­na­tion and re­silience, even hope for the fu­ture. Seventy years af­ter the Nakba, Pales­tini­ans are more com­mit­ted than ever be­fore to find­ing a peace­ful so­lu­tion.

What is clear is that the cur­rent state of play of­fers no so­lu­tion, for ei­ther Pales­tini­ans or Is­raelis. Is­rael’s de­fault sta­tus is an apartheid state that is nei­ther Jewish nor demo­cratic; it can never be what it hopes to be. The way it has built set­tle­ments means there is no way for a clear sep­a­ra­tion. Our two fates are hope­lessly in­ter­twined.

The scenes of Pales­tinian civil­ians be­ing ex­e­cuted in cold blood on Mon­day as they protested against the open­ing of the US em­bassy were deeply up­set­ting to watch.

Claims that Ha­mas was to blame show how out of touch the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is with re­al­ity. But it was heart­en­ing to see the rest of the world – and even US publi­ca­tions which are nor­mally pro-Is­rael – was not on side. It was a turn­ing point. To­day, 70 years on, Pales­tini­ans are peace­fully march­ing by the thou­sands to send a clear mes­sage to the world in gen­eral and to Is­rael in par­tic­u­lar that they have not for­got­ten, and will never forget, what hap­pened in 1948 when they were driven from their homes with the ac­qui­es­cence of Bri­tain, the aid­ing and abet­ting of the US and the si­lence of the other world pow­ers.

Pales­tini­ans like my­self dwell in a hy­brid state of mind. We are phys­i­cally and ge­o­graph­i­cally re­mote, yet hav­ing lived so far away for so long, we are sus­pended be­tween two en­vi­ron­ments and two cul­tures. It is a cul­ture of no man’s land. We are not in Pales­tine and yet our hearts and minds are there.

I lived un­der Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion for two years. I was born in Ra­mal­lah in 1951, to a fam­ily who had been made refugees in 1948. My fa­ther had been a suc­cess­ful fruit ex­porter in Salamah near Jaffa but was forced to leave ev­ery­thing be­hind. I grew up in aus­tere cir­cum­stances. Un­der oc­cu­pa­tion, there were cur­fews and sol­diers ev­ery­where but the con­di­tions were noth­ing like to­day. The poor treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans, the check­points and the in­dis­crim­i­nate at­tacks have mul­ti­plied ten­fold.

I left to study in the US in 1969. My per­sonal suc­cess and re­sul­tant fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity did not pro­vide a re­place­ment for my Pales­tine home­land. As time goes on, I re­alise that de­spite the cul­tural no man’s land I find my­self in, I still feel a strong urge to con­trib­ute some­thing to the Pales­tinian cause, which was why I es­tab­lished the Pales­tine Mu­seum US, a sig­nif­i­cant mile­stone in Pales­tinian efforts to tell the Pales­tinian story to Western and Amer­i­can au­di­ences through artis­tic ex­pres­sion.

To­day, de­spite a di­vided and con­flicted lead­er­ship, the grass­roots move­ment in Pales­tine and through­out the di­as­pora is united in its stand against Is­rael’s apartheid poli­cies and egre­gious prac­tices, which aim to break the Pales­tinian spirit and de­stroy their hopes for free­dom and state­hood.

Mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans un­der Is­raeli di­rect and indi­rect con­trol are ter­rorised by se­cu­rity forces and rogue set­tlers, hu­mil­i­ated on a daily ba­sis and de­prived of ba­sic hu­man rights.

Very lit­tle of it was be­ing broad­cast by the me­dia in the US, Is­rael’s big­gest sup­porter, until last Mon­day. The Amer­i­can me­dia has long been pro-Is­rael and has painted Pales­tini­ans in a neg­a­tive light. The av­er­age Amer­i­can knows lit­tle about Pales­tine and the Pales­tini­ans other than what is seen on TV. The Pales­tini­ans need to tell their story to the Amer­i­can pub­lic.

On the Is­raeli side, the myth of a safe home­land for the Jewish peo­ple in a land with­out a peo­ple, for a peo­ple with­out a land, con­tin­ues to be ex­posed. As Ehud Barak, the for­mer prime min­is­ter of Is­rael, as­serts in his re­cent book My Coun­try, My Life: Fight­ing for Is­rael, Search­ing for Peace, Is­rael has failed to achieve its dream of ever be­com­ing a Euro­pean-style democ­racy. Rather, Is­rael to­day is nei­ther Jewish nor demo­cratic as it con­tin­ues its bru­tal mil­i­tary oc­cu­pa­tion of the Pales­tini­ans and usurps their in­dige­nous land.

In the midst of the som­bre at­mos­phere, the mu­seum I founded, the first of its kind in the Amer­i­cas, is a ray of hope. It will cel­e­brate Pales­tinian artis­tic ex­cel­lence and aims to use art, mu­sic, lit­er­a­ture and other cul­tural works to tell Amer­i­cans about Pales­tini­ans, their his­tory and abid­ing pres­ence and their artis­tic and cul­tural con­tri­bu­tions to the world ev­ery­where they live. The Pales­tine Mu­seum US also con­nects the younger Pales­tinian gen­er­a­tions in the United States to their an­ces­tral land through the artis­tic ex­pres­sions of the Pales­tinian strug­gle for free­dom through­out many phases of their his­tory, as they as­serted their rights even be­fore the Nakba. New gen­er­a­tions are cling­ing to the cause even more than their par­ents. It is in their DNA.

Pales­tine has al­ways been an open so­ci­ety that ab­sorbed and was en­riched by many waves of im­mi­gra­tion, mis­sion­ary cam­paigns and con­flu­ences of in­va­sions through­out its his­tory. This cen­turies-long mix­ture has en­riched the Pales­tinian cul­ture.

The Pales­tine Mu­seum US also ac­knowl­edges the sup­port of Amer­i­can peo­ple who have shown pow­er­ful sol­i­dar­ity for the Pales­tinian cause.

The mu­seum’s first com­mis­sioned work is a large mu­ral of Rachel Cor­rie, the young Amer­i­can ac­tivist from Olympia, Wash­ing­ton, who was crushed to death by an Is­raeli bull­dozer in 2003 while she was try­ing to de­fend a Pales­tinian doc­tor’s house from de­mo­li­tion in Gaza.

The mu­ral was hand­painted by Beth­le­hem-based Pales­tinian artist Ayed Arafah in vi­brant colours, con­vey­ing both sac­ri­fice and hope. This art­work sym­bol­ises the pro­found po­ten­tial of the Amer­i­can peo­ple for sup­port­ing the Pales­tinian peo­ple.

Our mu­seum in Wood­bridge, Con­necti­cut, sends a broader hope­ful and ex­pres­sive mes­sage about the fu­ture. The mu­seum stands in a build­ing that also hosted the lo­cal Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre tem­po­rar­ily while its build­ing was be­ing ren­o­vated. This pro­vides hope for the pos­si­bil­ity of co-ex­is­tence of these two peo­ples and kin­dles prom­ise for the fu­ture of peace in Pales­tine and shar­ing of the land—as long as Pales­tinian rights are fully ac­knowl­edged and per­ma­nently granted.

I grew up in aus­tere cir­cum­stances un­der Is­raeli oc­cu­pa­tion. Decades later, the poor treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans has mul­ti­plied ten­fold

Alamy Stock Photo

A Pales­tinian Refugee Camp in 1949, one year af­ter the Nakba

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