Israelis know May 15, 1948 as the day that Israel gained its independence. Palestinians refer to it as the “nakba,” or the “catastrophe” in Arabic. This day symbolizes the exile of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in the creation of the State of Israel. In years past, the anniversary is marked by small demonstrations of Palestinian solidarity. Yesterday, international headlines covered the march of protesters from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem to Israel as they symbolized the “right to return”. Casualties number in the dozens, and the wounded account for many more. This wasn’t your ordinary Nakba Day.
The demonstrations, however, were not unexpected. I mentioned a few months ago that a Facebook group had been created to spread word about a “Third Intifada,” or a calling for another uprising. Facebook eventually took down the original page at the request of people worldwide who cited a number of violent posts as being grounds for removal, only to find that more (almost identical) pages popped up almost immediately. The group called for Arabs and Palestinian supporters worldwide to march towards Israel and unite on May 15, Nakba Day. In response, warnings were issued from various organizations and embassies to prepare for mass demonstrations and potential violence.
I had been getting e-mails and text messages from Hebrew University, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, and family to avoid demonstrations, certain neighborhoods, and “seamline areas” as a safety precaution for weeks. It had already been made (very) apparent to me that I have to stay out of the West Bank, and now the warning had been strengthened. The Arabic classes at Hebrew University ended up scheduling a field trip for May 15, leading my roommates and I to joke that they had scheduled the trip for that day on purpose to ensure that they would know where we were. All of the “Cairo Kids” are taking Arabic, and have gained a bit of a reputation for being “adventurous”. If they had us stuck on a charter bus somewhere, we would surely stay out of trouble.
The warnings to say away from “seamline areas” was also kind of funny- Hebrew University and the Student Village are extremely close to the West Bank, which can be seen on any map that shows the borders of the Occupied Territories. We’re literally surrounded by “Arab neighborhoods,” and yet my program forced us to live in the dorms for “safety reasons”. Some argue that the University itself is in Occupied Territory- Mount Scopus is technically part of East Jerusalem (it’s on land that was under Jordanian rule from 1948-1967, although it was known as “no man’s land”). In addition to this, the University is in Jerusalem, which brings up an entirely new set of issues- it’s contested whether the city is part of Israel. There are a couple of interesting cases where children have been born in Jerusalem to American parents, and the U.S. will only state their place of birth as “Jerusalem,” not “Israel”. But yet, I’m still considered to be doing a study abroad program in Israel. I don’t get it.
Anyway, I did my best to avoid “seamline areas” by staying inside my dorm and going to class at the University, both of which are in a seamline area. All morning, my roommates and I could hear helicopters flying overhead and what sounded like shooting in Essaouia, the “Arab neighborhood” that literally shares a boundary with the University and road that I walk down to go to class. I later found out that the shooting sounds were IDF soldiers shooting tear gas into the neighborhood to disperse protesters, along with flash bombs and non-live ammunition. On the walk to class that afternoon, I found myself recognizing a certain smell in the air- tear gas. When I first left my dorm, I could sense smoke in the air from burning cars and tires in Essaouia. By the time I had gotten halfway to the university, the same thickness and burning in my throat and eyes that I had experienced in Cairo had returned. I ended up walking onto campus with red, teary eyes and a sniffling nose. My Palestinian Islam professor spoke about how he had left Ramallah (a city center in the West Bank) early that morning with his wife and granddaughter to avoid the demonstrations. Over the course of class, we heard a couple more shots fired in Essaouia as the Call to Prayer echoed through the neighborhood and into our classroom.
Later that afternoon, I read through a few news articles to survey the events of the day, and was surprised to find that Hadassa Hospital on Mount Scopus was listed in a couple of reports. I walk past the entrance to the hospital daily on my way to class. Apparently, some protesters had launched firebombs and Molotov cocktails into the back of the hospital earlier that day, which was probably another cause of the smoke that I had smelled that afternoon. Major Israeli news sources, namely Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, and Ynet had all covered the demonstrations, focusing on clashes at the Egypt-Gaza border, Lebanese border, and Syrian border. By the end of the day, BBC, CNN, and al-Jazeera had posted reports as well. One of my professors today cited the fact that this Nakba Day was unlike anything that he had ever experienced before- he had never seen it get such widespread coverage.
By today, things had calmed down in the area, except for a demonstration in front of the university by a group of Palestinian students and another group of Israeli students. All of my professors spoke about the events during class, explaining a bit of the background of the day, the significance of these demonstrations, and what questions arise. My “Radical Coexistence” professor commented that the storming of the Syrian border was unheard of since the Yom Kippur war, and that this was a new strategy: a non-armed demonstration which denied the symbol of Israel’s sovereignty, the border. This basically brought the fundamental message back to 1948, as opposed to 1967. In ’67, the issue was the definition of the West Bank and the withdrawal of Israeli presence from certain pieces of land. 1948 brings about a different discourse, and is what this Nakba Day was about. It goes back to the very foundations of what Zionism is trying to accomplish, questioning how we can be here, and how we can coexist here. These demonstrations were trying to get us to think about the foundations upon which the State of Israel was put. Professor Isaacs went on to state that this moves beyond the basic question of the nature of regimes in the Middle East, which is what has been going on in other demonstrations in the region. Here, we’re going back to basics and asking foundational questions- what does it mean to have a Jewish state in this location? Nobody is sure where things will go from here.
So, it’s been a pretty interesting couple of days. Here are a few links to news sources about the events listed above. Enjoy!
http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=220590 (Issawiya is the same place as Essaouia- just different ways of transliterating the name into English from Arabic)
http://www.immigrationdirect.com/immigration-news/2011/05/supreme-court-to-hear-us-passport-case-involving-jerusalem/index.html (Regarding the birth of U.S. citizens in Jerusalem as opposed to Israel)