Covering Commemoration in Conflict: Reflections on the 63rd Nakba Commemorations in Ramallah – by Brendan Browne

18 May

Central Rally Ramallah



On the 15th May, Palestinians across the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and further afield gather to collectively remember their Nakba, or ‘Immense Catastrophe’ . The day commemorates the creation of the state of Israel at the expense of the forced eviction of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees from their homes. The right for these refugees to return to land they occupied before 1948 remains one of the most highly charged issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and emotions often run high at these important and symbolic public events.

This year the Nakba Day commemorations have generated global media coverage given the unprecedented levels of violence witnessed at flashpoints on the Syrian & Lebanese borders, in the Gaza strip, in the Shuafat area of East Jerusalem, and at Qalandiya checkpoint, Ramallah. Images of Palestinians involved in the commemorations being shot at with tear gas, rubber coated bullets and on occasion live ammunition have been broadcast around the world.  As part of my research I was in Ramallah attending the Nakba Day commemoration to ascertain the level of factionalism that is evident in the city and to ask questions relating to the role of commemorations as political tools in strengthening unity between factional groups. Having spent the better part of a year developing an understanding of the importance of the Nakba for Palestinians and having lived in East Jerusalem for some 3 months carrying out the preparatory ground work, I was anxious and excited for the day to have finally arrived when I could begin my observations and see first hand what the day was really like.

It would seem that this was indeed the year to be carrying out such work, albeit with the obvious dangers that are associated with conducting work in a conflict zone. The recent Palestinian political reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas meant the issue of factionalism and unity were hot topics of the day. Both leaders were present on a temporary platform erected at Manara Square in central Ramallah demonstrating a commitment to the cause of Palestinian unity in what was a very powerful public display of solidarity. Yet, a split that I had not considered in the lead up to the work, or in the questions that are directing this piece of research, became more evident as the day progressed. This split was not as obvious as it often is between factional groupings that reveal their allegiances through flying separate flags, and wearing factional specific symbols. Rather the split seemed to be generational with younger Palestinians choosing not to march to the Manara Square in central Ramallah and listen to the same political rhetoric they claim to have heard from the perceived elder statesmen of Palestine before. Instead, a significant contingent became detached from the main party and embarked on their own separate procession towards the Qalandiya checkpoint to commemorate in a manner, which they saw fit.

In what appeared to be a snub to the Palestinian Authority who had expressly asked Palestinians not to march on the checkpoint, in excess of 2000 young Palestinian men and women made the 35-minute walk from the centre of the city. Inspired, it would seem, by the recent Arab uprisings in the spring of this year, they sensed the opportunity to seize the initiative and chose the Nakba Day events to publicly call for change. Carrying placards, which call for the implementation of the right of return and flying only the Palestinian National flag, the group moved towards what was inevitably going to be a bloody confrontation with Israeli security forces. The decision to avail of the Nakba commemorations to air their grievances was a calculated and strategic one. It further underscores the power of public commemorations and their highly politicised role in areas experiencing a sustained period of ongoing conflict.

Observing events of this nature, especially in an area where the potential for those attending the public gatherings to be forcibly dispersed, brings with it inevitable personal risks. Unlike members of the press, researchers aren’t afforded the luxury of a bulletproof vest with the letters PhD emblazoned over the chest. Nor are we offered the gas mask that allows photographers to get up close to those at the front of the commemoration without suffering the effects of the tear gas that is supposed to scatter the crowds. In order to get the photographic images that I desired it was necessary for me to time my movements forward towards the group commemorating strategically and at apparent lulls in the action so as to make sure I didn’t get caught by the effects of the tear gas. Needless to say that on several occasions this proved difficult and I had to retreat with stinging eyes and a sore throat! Nevertheless, I managed to get the images I wanted and to successfully make my way back to the relative safe haven of central Ramallah.

At times during the event I felt it was challenging to control my own personal emotions. I found it difficult on occasion not to think of the work as bordering on the irrelevant in the face of such violent clashes and the subsequent fatalities. The theoretical questions that I considered when designing the piece of research in the relative comfort of the postgraduate research room, seemed all a bit distant and removed from the reality of the event. It is suggested that this is not an uncommon feeling for researchers in many areas, including conflict studies, to have. Two days on, I am in a position now to reflect on the event and to temper these feelings with the belief that shedding even a little light on the importance of the Nakba commemorations for Palestinians across the world and being in a position to share the experiences that I have had with a wider audience, academic or not, makes the work worthwhile and in my opinion relevant.

What happens in light of the events on Sunday remains to be seen. In the meantime, the Nakba commemorations continue until the end of May, with educational events and further remembrance services scheduled in a variety of locations across the West Bank and Gaza strip. The potential for serious skirmishes to break out between Israeli Defence Forces and Palestinians involved in the commemorative events remains very real. Some of the main checkpoints, like Qalandiya on the outskirts of Ramallah, have been operating at a reduced capacity and the likelihood of the checkpoints to be closed at any given time remains high. Thus further disrupting the lives of many Palestinians who are fortunate enough to be permitted entry to work within Israel.

For the most part, my attendance at these events is not needed, yet the process of data collection continues by interviewing key figures who were involved on the day and gauging their reaction to the events. The difficulties associated with working in such a volatile and unpredictable region just became even greater after what has been the most important and politically powerful Palestinian commemoration in recent years.

Brendan Browne, 2nd Year PhD Candidate

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4 Responses to “Covering Commemoration in Conflict: Reflections on the 63rd Nakba Commemorations in Ramallah – by Brendan Browne”

  1. zak brophy May 18, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    A very pertinent insight into a Nakhba day of extra special significance. Good observations from the front line. Thanks.
    Zak

    • Brendan Browne May 25, 2011 at 5:26 pm #

      Thanks Zak for your comments, I appreciate them. It was, as I have mentioned, the most suitable time to be here and observing events of this nature. Keep in touch.

      Brendan

  2. John Pinkerton July 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm #

    Hi Brendan,

    Great blog. Only got around to reading it today – looking for some distraction from major desk clear up. Your comment/question about academic study ‘bordering on the irrelevant’ in that context brought me right back to my feelings/thoughts in the early ’70s as a sociology undergrad here at Queens. I was never one for the view that the real sociological critique is the sound of gun fire but maybe trying to work out what it is academics and researchers have to offer is why I’m still here !

    John P

    • Brendan Browne October 6, 2011 at 5:18 pm #

      Hi John,

      Sorry that I only noticed this response now (some 2 months later), Thanks for your comments. Re-reading over this again having been away from the West Bank now for a couple of months, really brought it all back to me. Perhaps it is too simplistic an argument to suggest that the work bordered on the irrelevant in light of what actually took place on the day. Nevertheless, given that you too seemingly have felt this way before, I wonder if there is scope for a broader discussion on this within the school? I would welcome your views on this.

      Brendan

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