Brendan Browne – Postgraduate Research Student on: Returning to the field: Covering the 64th Annual Nakba Commemorations in Ramallah, West Bank, Palestine

24 May

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Every year on the 15th May, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and across the wider Diaspora gather to remember their Nakba, or ‘Immense catastrophe’. The commemorative act is both a moment to remember and reflect on a traumatic and turbulent past, but more importantly an opportunity to deliver a strong political message and to present an image of unity to a broader, global audience. Set against the backdrop of ongoing disputes between the two main political groups, Fatah and Hamas, and taking place at a time when over 1,600 Palestinian prisoners remain on hunger strike in Israeli Jails, the Nakba commemorations provided the ideal opportunity for Palestinians of all backgrounds to come together in a public act of solidarity. Following on from my fieldwork in Ramallah in the spring and summer months of 2011, I returned to Palestine to observe the 64th Nakba.

According to representatives on the National High Committee for the Commemoration of the Nakba, the representative body established to organise the event, the presentation of unity helps to generate a collective sense of solidarity between a group of people who remain divided geographically, politically, economically and ideologically. But in a region where rival factions compete for political supremacy and where the land itself is governed by two different administrations, separate commemorative events are organised by those who interpret the current political situation differently. The day also provides an opportunity for those who believe a more appropriate way to send a strong political message is through skirmishes with their traditional enemy.

During the 63rd Nakba commemoration in 2011,the year of the Arab Spring, members of Hamas and Fatah stood side-by-side on stage in what appeared to be a deliberate show of political unity in front of one of the largest gatherings of Palestinians from cities across the West Bank. In comparison the event this year appeared a fragmented and divided affair and the total number gathered at Arafat Square fell well short of last year’s assembled crowd.   

Rituals of this nature are rarely static, even in spatial terms. The space designated as the central gathering point was different to last year and the parade route taken by some of those involved changed considerably. Such changes further highlight the value and importance of observing events of this nature on more than one occasion. The reasons for the change in venue, for the relatively modest turnout, and for the absence of members of rival factions on stage during the central rally can be speculated upon and may become clearer upon follow-up discussions with those involved in organising the day. However, one thing that can be noted at this stage is the impact of the political climate of the day upon the organisation and structuring of the commemoration –  a theme that has become increasingly important as my research has developed.

Unfortunately, one thing that had not changed from last year was the levels of violence surrounding the event. The issues associated with conducting research in a region famed for its volatility and instability make the data collection process increasingly challenging. However, in returning to the field I was better prepared for what was about to take place on the day. Even small acts of preparation help, such as the fact I had invested in better camera equipment, which allowed me to take clearer images from a safer distance.

My primary concern in returning to Ramallah to observe the Nakba commemorations for a second year was to ensure the validity and accuracy of my own data collection before it is critiqued during the examination process. In returning, I also have been able to reflect on my own development as a researcher. Whereas last year I entered the ‘great unknown’, so to speak, , this year I returned to friends, to an area which I can now navigate my way through with relative ease, and to a place that I have formed a deep attachment to. Such changes have their own effects on my analysis as a researcher.

Some of the mistakes I made and risks I took last year, in my unavoidable naiveté, are important experiences that have assisted me greatly in my own professional development as a researcher. They also give me a greater appreciation of the particular challenges of research in potentially volatile regions on potentially sensitive topics. This ‘reflective’ aspect of the PhD learning curve has in many ways been as important and as steep as that of the empirical work itself. 

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