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The Catastrophes of Today and the Catastrophe of 1948 in Syria

Yarmouk Camp in Damascus is today unrecognizable even to those who knew the camp’s every alleyway and corner. The rubble, the ruins of bombed buildings, tired and hungry people, and haunted alleyways and streets are the painful remains of a shattered community. Yarmouk is not the only Palestinian locality in Syria, of course, but it was in many ways the Palestinians’ social, cultural, political, and even symbolic heart. It has therefore become emblematic of the catastrophe of the Palestinians in Syria whose communities may neither survive nor heal.

Whatever remained of the camp after the exodus of its people in December 2012 continues to be leveled in the wake of the April 2015 appearance of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters as yet another armed group in and within its vicinity. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) is today only able to distribute aid to the camp’s environs. A relief worker with access to the environs of the camp privately noted that of the estimated 18,000 who remained in Yarmouk following the December 2012 exodus, only 2000-4000 now remain. The Qadsayya suburb of Damascus, where many Yarmouk families have been displaced to, has a market that reminds one of the previous bustling markets of Yarmouk’s Lubya Street, I was told by a former resident of Yarmouk in Beirut. Lubya Street, named after a village in the Tiberias subdistrict of historic Palestine, is today a devastated and sniped shadow of its former self, destroyed sixty-four years after the destruction of its namesake.

Qadsayya is no longer a safe haven from the war, like most areas meant to be safe havens in the Damascus and the Rural Damascus Governorates. Nothing new, a friend in Qadsayya told me. The “problems” have also arrived here, and the area is under lockdown. People cannot leave, as rents have skyrocketed and landowners are asking for a year’s rent in advance. A year later, she tells me that they no longer know how things are and do not keep up with word-of-mouth news; they simply try to get on with their lives. I would eventually ask her about the new Lubya Street in Qadsayya, and she sends photos of it that are worlds away from the Lubya Street of Yarmouk. She tells me that it is in fact a sight that makes her cry: zinc shacks erected by the people of Yarmouk in order to sell rationed vegetables and secondhand clothes.

It is from the in-between of the imagined and the actual “Lubya Street” of Qadsayya and the Lubya Street of Yarmouk that I frequented daily all those years ago that I must now think through memories and histories of the 1948 Nakba in Syria. These memories also need to be thought from the in-between of images of what remains of Lubya Street in Yarmouk and memories of Lubya in Palestine. What does it mean to think through Nakba memories of communities shattered in Palestine in 1948 three and a half years into the beginning of their shattering anew in Syria? And what implications does this have for Nakba memories and histories in Syria before and after 2011? The Palestinian refugee communities of the Syria that made their Nakba memories and histories possible no longer exist as they did prior to 2011 and continue to be devastated. While this has clear implications for the meanings of the catastrophe of 1948 in light of the new catastrophe, I can neither write a conclusion to the unfolding tragic events nor a conclusive summary of the new meanings of the Nakba in post-2011 Syria. In what follows, I think through the catastrophe of today and the catastrophe of 1948 by moving between the past and the present. This is the past that made memories of 1948 possible, and this is the present marked by a catastrophe that is being made legible through an insistence by the post-Palestine generations, displaced within Syria and beyond, that it far exceeds the Nakba of 1948.

***

I accidently ran into an acquaintance from Yarmouk Camp in Beirut two weeks after the appearance of ISIS as a new actor in the camp. He shared photos of Yarmouk’s Palestine Street, which is no longer a street at all, and related the names of the unquantifiable number of armed leaders and groups within and around Yarmouk. He also described the realities of life in the greater Damascus metropolitan area for those who, like him, remained within a patchwork of armed groups- and regime-controlled areas. I interrupt to remind him of the research project that I undertook all those years ago. I note the far-removedness of talking about memories and histories of 1948 now compared to the days in which we would we spend numerous evenings in Dar al-Shajara in Yarmouk Camp discussing Palestine, memory and the return. These evenings were shared with a number of common friends and acquaintances who are no longer with us, I remarked as I recalled their names. He insists that all those active in community relief efforts like himself have not given up on the patriotic education of community members, but that the priorities have now changed. Peoples’ everyday worries revolve around making ends meet, getting aid and, above all, getting out of Syria. What does it mean, he tells me, when the Nakba for people has been transformed into the return to a limited geographical locality like Yarmouk Camp?

The Nakba has always been a historically- and politically-contingent signifier, whether expressed through its Arab and Palestinian universes of discourse, or through first, second and third-generation Palestinian refugees’ memories, histories, narratives and the very possibility of their communities as such. That the Nakba has today gained different meanings and significations for Palestinians in light of the Syrian war therefore comes as no surprise.

The importance of the Nakba prior to 2011 lay in the ways in which its memories’ temporal and spatial referents provided the symbolic contours around which the possibility of communities would crystalize from the ruins of the devastation of 1948. The way that it is being invoked today by the post-Palestine generations in Syria points to its meanings being implicated in a reverse process. The Nakba is in many ways now also about the destruction of the sixty-five year old Palestinian communities in Syria that were constituted anew in the wake of 1948. The near universal insistence by the post-Palestine generations that this catastrophe far exceeds the one of 1948 is rooted in the fear, perhaps even reality, that unlike 1948, this devastation may now be final given the relentlessness of the Syrian war.

Another important meaning of the Nakba prior to 2011 in Syria was implicated in the ways in which Right of Return Movement (RoRM) activists tied the Nakba’s memory and the imperative to remember with political claims. These claims refuse the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) institutionalization of the separation between liberation and return through its moribund Oslo statist project. What this means is an insistence that the liberation of Palestinians from Israeli military occupation in 1967-occupied Palestine is not possible without the implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees to their lands in historic Palestine, or present day Israel. The Oslo Accords transformed Palestine into the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In addition, liberation and return have become about the “right of return”, and this right has become negotiable and limited to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). This reality continues to be seen as not fulfilling the refugees’ political rights and aspirations. Israel has in any case consistently refused to allow the refugees to return regardless of to where this return is supposed to take place.

The linking of memories of the Nakba and pre-1948 Palestine more generally with the imperative to remember in order to return by RoRM activists through memory mobilization was a strategy that RoRM activists used to mobilize in their communities. This mobilization was ultimately a political project formulated in a national arena of contention. This political project both contested the Israeli state’s settler-colonial division of historic Palestine into different geographic, political and legal areas, and first the PLO’s, and later Palestinian Authority’s (PA), complicity in this. Although RoRM activism may have been substantially curtailed or suspended as a result of the Syrian war, what activists did through community-based mobilization continues to provide the possibility of thinking beyond the failed two-state solution that is today a cover for the Israeli settler-colonial status quo. This is because their political vision allows for the consideration of the Palestinians’ settler-colonized and stateless present synchronously. This synchronous present is represented by the refugees denied the right to return to their lands, which became a part of the Jewish state in 1948, because they are not Jewish. It is also represented by the second-class, non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of the Israeli state that defines itself as a Jewish state. Finally, it is also represented by the noncitizens living under a five-decade brutal military settler-colonial regime allowing limited self-rule in a minority of areas under the authority of a complacent, unrepresentative and corrupt leadership in the OPT.

The memory/return matrix at the heart of RoRM activists’ mobilization of Nakba memories could therefore be read as a radical political project that calls for the decolonization of the Israeli state. The Israeli state is today to all intents and purposes one settler-colonial state that rules over all Palestinian communities who remained within the borders of British-ruled Palestine. It is radical because it dares to think beyond what the PLO or PA can ever offer by way of a coherent anti-colonial liberation project. It is also radical as it refuses Israel’s divide and conquer settler-colonial status quo that it has imposed upon all Palestinian lives since the Nakba. It therefore provides the room for the imagination of alternative futures in which fragmented Palestinian communities under Israeli rule or in exile could finally be allowed to live as equals alongside Israeli Jews in a non-sectarian democratic state framework.

What are the implications for these alternative futures when the return today has had to be re-prioritized, as related through the chance encounter with the acquaintance from Yarmouk in Beirut? When the return to Palestine has to be put in a back seat given the war in Syria and the urgent need of return to Palestinian camps and communities in the face of the relentless destruction of both? These questions are neither meant to absolve the Israeli state from the crimes that it committed in 1948 nor deny that, according to international humanitarian law, refugees have an enshrined right to return to where they come from if they wish to do so. Nor are they meant to absolve Israel of its primary responsibility for the blocking of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return or of the ability of Palestinians to live as equal citizens alongside Israeli Jews in Israel and its constituent OPT. Indeed, these amplify the need to acknowledge Palestinian refugees’ rights and Israel’s obligation to provide restitution at a time when all exists have been closed to them in Syria.

With that said, these questions are also meant to provide an opening for a thinking beyond this logic of recognition, as the latter has clearly not been able to translate the right of return into reality. This is not to deny that the demand for acknowledgement, justice and restitution for the crimes of the 1948 Nakba from the Israeli state continue to be important. Rather, it is to underscore that the Israeli state, as the power wielding party against a stateless Palestinian population, has simply refused to cede this recognition since 1948 while Palestinian refugee communities have been devastated as a matter of fact in different Arab countries: Lebanon, Kuwait, Libya, Iraq and now Syria. In addition, Palestinians within the OPT and Israel have been subjected to unchecked military belligerence and colonial brutality. To be sure, the US, European Union, Arab states and the PLO have all been complicit in Israel’s refusal to recognize its historical and contemporary injustices against Palestinians, to implement the right of return and to end the occupation. In view of these different factors, how can one begin to think through moving beyond a recognition whose structural realities have allowed Israel to continue with its denial and violence as well as the de facto repeated destruction of different Palestinian communities both within Israel and the Arab world?

I’d like to consider these different possibilities by returning to the realities of communities that Syria engendered, these communities’ memories and histories prior to the war in Syria, and the tragic reality of their shattering anew. I visited Rashidieh Camp in the south of Lebanon, the southernmost UNRWA camp in the country in the spring of last year. Sitting in the room of the family of a friend who came to Lebanon from Syria from one of the more remote and war torn Damascus camps, we were by the sea to the west and farmlands to the south. Of course, there somewhere beyond the farmlands, we were also by the source of Nakba memories, histories and Palestinians’ political claims and aspirations. This is the historic Palestine of the people of Rashidieh as well as the newcomers from Syria, the present-day Israel by whom and to which the return has been consistently denied.

Our conversations touched on the catastrophe in Syria and the hardships of those seeking a safe haven in Lebanon, where the family is living in a legal limbo after Palestinians from Syria were blocked from entering the country. I was also told stories of the unhappiness of relatives who finally made it to Europe at the price of being cut off from their families and communities. Historic Palestine, so near yet so far from Rashidieh Camp, was conjured in order to underscore the extent of the calamity in Syria. The catastrophe of today is incomparable, indeed it dwarfs, the Nakba of 1948, I was told. In terms of the available options, hope of return was expressed through prayers for the return of Syria as a country and to homes left behind in it, regardless of whether they’re still standing or in ruins. The northern European promise of access to a life of permanence and banal normality that was so abruptly ended by the war was emphatically no substitute for the dream of the return of Syria and the return to it. Education, medical care, housing, work and a social safety net were, after all, benefits enjoyed by all in Syria.

These are therefore hopes and aspirations of return that give new meanings of the Nakba as past and present catastrophe in light of the Syrian war. They are fundamentally tied to the historical, social and political experiences of the Palestinian refugee community in Syria. More specifically, they are tied to the possibilities and realities that these different experiences in that particular country engendered. Syria allowed for multiple belongings, among them a belonging to the Palestine that informed the narration and transmission of memories of loss in refugee families. At the same time, these belongings were concretely rooted in communities in Syria that were formed as a result of the 1948 Nakba but were nevertheless communities of Syria. It is true that these belongings may have been ambivalent, especially as related by the post-Oslo generations’ sense of both belonging and not belonging in the country. They were nevertheless an important component of what made common memories, histories and realities of shared communities possible. In addition, it is the multiple, rather than the ambivalent, belongings that have taken precedence as a result of the war. In other words, it is as a result of the destruction of communities in Syria, and internally or externally displaced Palestinians’ yearning for these lost worlds, that the dream of the return of the country to its previous self and their return to it are so strongly articulated and gloss over the realities of ambivalence that may have existed before to 2011.

References to the catastrophe of today that far exceeds that of 1948 are therefore being invoked from within these multiple sites of belonging. These are the different and multiple belongings to Palestine and Syria, as evidenced in Nakba memories, histories and communities. They are also different and multiple belongings to a Palestine within Syria, which is the belonging that is now most strongly articulated in light of the war. It is both limiting and short-sighted to translate these belongings into a superficial understanding of the Palestinians from Syria as being really Syrians, which is used as the basis of petty and at times institutional discrimination against them by Palestinians in Lebanon. It is similarly limited and short-sighted to set up the two as competing political demands – the return to Palestine and now Syria – of seeing the latter as taking away from the ultimate patriotic demand for the return to Palestine or as absolving Israel from the Palestinians’ statelessness.

Palestinian communities belonging to both Palestine and Syria, the source of the demand to them, challenge us to think beyond the British and French-colonial era-carved nation-states that have so violently failed in the Arab East. These colonial relics and their consolidation through Israeli settler-colonialism and Arab absolute monarchist or totalitarian republican rule have failed to deliver on Palestinian self-determination. They also fell apart first in Lebanon, later Iraq and now Syria. It is these modern nation-states, which are also the source of the logic of recognition, and their structural realities that have allowed Israel to maintain the status quo while refusing to cede the return.

Palestinians’ different belongings, and their articulations through the shifting meanings of the 1948 Nakba in light of the Syrian war, point to the realities of the Palestinians’ communities in Syria as transcending these colonial and settler-colonial modern nation-states of the Arab East. They are belongings to a historic Palestine whose geography transcends present-day settler-colonial Israel through these communities’ embodiment of the 1948 Nakba. They are also belongings to a Syria that transcends its modern French colonial-carved borders, as most clearly expressed through the invocation of the catastrophes of today and the catastrophes of yesterday in light of the renewed devastation and shattering. They are therefore also belongings to an idea of a Palestine and a Syria of the past, during which their borders did not exist, and of their potential future. The realities of Palestinian refugee communities in Syria as expressed through Nakba memories and histories could be said to embody political potentialities that may have been a product of, but also clearly transcend, the nation-state order left behind by the British and the French in the Arab East.

This is an excerpt from Palestinians in Syria: Nakba Memories of Shattered Communities, and originally appeared on Columbia University Press’s blog.

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