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Re-shaping Palestinian national identity

Despite the frozen ‘peace process’ – or perhaps in part because of it – there have been a number of interesting developments in the Palestinian political scene in recent years. This includes the emergence of new youth-based groups and actions, as well as a growth in coordination between Palestinians on both sides of the ‘Green Line’. With this context in mind, a new initiative by BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights is instructive for the direction of the conversation amongst Palestinian activists.

The Ongoing Nakba Education Centre (ONEC) was launched this month by the Bethlehem-based non-profit organisation, boasting a websiteand Education Centre. At the heart of the project is the participatory website which, in the words of BADIL’s Rich Wiles, “uses multi-media tools to build a significant advocacy resource”.

The site, which is still in an early stage of development, will depend on contributions in order to document stories of Palestinian displacement, using photographs, short films, audio recordings – and covering everything from “photo stories of demolitions” to “oral history interviews”.

The emphasis is on an ongoing project that, while obviously not being able to highlight every story, will grow as a resource that provides networking opportunities for Palestinians and non-Palestinians working in the field. Nor is there any need to be a ‘professional’; BADIL say they will take unedited media to turn into content for the site.

Najwa Darwish, Director of BADIL, feels like there is something unique about the ‘Ongoing Nakba’ project:

“The Education Centre presents the Palestinian story of displacement as one continuous and evolving story spanning several decades. This is the fundamental issue at the root of Palestine’s struggle, yet it is not usually addressed in this way. So by presenting it in this manner, we clarify current Israeli policies by showing how they evolved, as well as their origins”.

Furthermore, having a physical space in a major tourist destination like Bethlehem dedicated to education and advocacy means reaching a large number of visitors, and giving them ideas about possible rights-based events they could do in their own communities or countries.

Nassar Ibrahim, Palestinian author, activist and Head of AIC (Alternative Information Centre), has described ONEC as less of “a research centre in the traditional sense of the word” and more “a centre that aims to raise awareness in order to strengthen political activity on all levels”.

Links and ties

Such a project is not without its challenges: it can only reach its potential if people hear about it, and, more importantly, submit their contributions. Like many similar initiatives, a real test will be to broaden its appeal beyond those activists already comfortable with the political vision behind ONEC.

However, with an emphasis on participation, popular ‘ownership’ and the creation of links and ties between Palestinian victims of displacement as well as those currently struggling against it, ONEC has the advantage of standing out from a host of NGO-based projects in Palestine. Furthermore, the political framework shaping ONEC is one that challenges assumptions adopted by a number of human rights groups with regards to Palestine.

“At least 70 per cent of all Palestinians in the world today are displaced people,” notes Darwish, “and no more than 45 per cent of the entire Palestinian people currently live within the oPt”. The vision behind the project, she says, is a “human rights approach” – something common to a number of Palestinian advocacy initiatives in recent times, including the Boycott Divestment Sanctions campaign.

“It is a vision that works for and demands a rights-based solution in accordance with international law and principles of justice that realises the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people. In its core, it is a justice-motivated approach. It also contrasts with the approach that calls for a two state solution and merely a humanitarian compromise on the refugee question.”

Visitors to the ONEC homepage are immediately struck by the fact that BADIL have based interaction with the website around a map of Mandate Palestine. The reason for this, according to Darwish, is a belief that this is the clearest way to show “the intrinsic links between the various different policies of displacement since 1947″.

Bisan Kassis, Advocacy Officer at the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI) and another attendee of the Bethlehem launch, hopes that unifying Palestinians – whether refugees, Israeli citizens, or militarily occupied – could become “a compass in the re-shaping of our national identity and in working toward our national aspiration of freedom and independence”.

This idea of a compass and a ‘re-shaping’ of national identity suggests that BADIL’s ONEC project speaks to wider trends, beyond this specific website and education centre. It seems appropriate to place it alongside other forms of ‘green shoots’ resistance emerging in sectors of Palestinian civil society: from the harnessing of social media and hunger strike solidarity protests, to the development of the BDS campaign and drive for the democratic revitalisation of the PLO and PLC.

What these various activities have in common is a total disconnect with the strategies and discourse promoted by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad of ‘negotiations’, ‘reform’ and ‘economic peace’. The practical efforts on the ground, small as they might seem by themselves, are indicative of a broader paradigm shift that is taking place. These new directions are still only found at the level of the grassroots and not-for-profits, and it will take some time for it to impact at the level of political leadership. ONEC symbolises a shift that is well underway, one that can only breathe hope into the Palestinian struggle for decolonisation and equality.

First published in Al Jazeera.

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