It is among the most significant of red-letter days. It marks a time of terrible duality: expulsion, loss, despair and anguish on one side, return, gain, hope and fulfilled yearning on the other. The day set in train a series of events leading to one of the most intractable situations in the world today.
On 15 May the day comes around again and – given what is happening in the part of the world where it is commemorated – the probability of renewed and increased dispossession and loss of life is highly likely. Nakba Day – The Day of Catastrophe – is usually commemorated by Palestinians on 15 May, the day after Israeli Independence Day, 14 May.
The Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 set loose a maelstrom of displacement in which Palestinians were uprooted from lands on which they had lived for centuries, millennia even. The coming to being of Israel was the culmination of a process essentially begun with the Balfour Declaration. Issued by foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour on behalf of the British government on 2 November 1917, its one sentence of 67 words read:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
What happened on Nakba Day and afterwards – in which timeframe one must count the 71 years succeeding it – certainly did not live up to the promise that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. The right to access natural resources, the right to land, the right to work, the right to a conventional and fully human life: all those have been severely compromised or completely denied. Palestinians today live in cramped, open-air jails in Gaza and the West Bank.
Protesting at the “living” conditions forced on them, Palestinians gather each week after Friday prayers at the barrier that shuts off Gaza from the world. There, hundreds have been killed, thousands wounded and maimed for life.
The violence has not run one way. Retaliatory rockets have been sent from the Palestinian territories, in some cases killing Israeli citizens and settlers. But the numerical imbalance is massive: hundreds and thousands of deaths and injuries on the Palestinian side, scores at most on the Israeli.
No end is apparent to the cycle of Palestinian protest, Israeli Defense Forces’ reaction, Palestinian rocket fire, Israeli aerial bombardment. As this year’s Nakba Day and Israeli Independence Day approach, there is the very real possibility of the bloodshed escalating. It is a tragedy for men, women and children, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Few have better understood and more sorrowfully captured what has happened in and to Palestine since 1948 than the poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941 to 2008). In the introduction to Unfortunately, It Was Paradise (2003), a selection of Darwish’s poems, the editors of the volume write:
“It is the soul of Palestine that Darwish has made resonant in his work, giving it presence in the midst of suffering and hardship. Moving from city to city, exile to exile, he has written out of a distinctly Palestinian sensibility and conscience, out of the richness of Palestine’s cultural past and a belief in its common destiny. At the same time, he has become a poet and citizen of the world.”
Darwish published more than 30 books of poetry. Among his most poignant lines is one from The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech: “Will you not memorise a bit of poetry to halt the slaughter?”
And then there are these, from We Travel Like All People:
Ours is a country of words: Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone.
Ours is a country of words: Talk. Talk. Let me see an end to this journey.