Martijn van Gils is a Masters student of Comparative Literary research at Utrecht University, The Netherlands. His research interests are postcolonial literatures and cultural memory and trauma. Along with Malaka Mohammed Shwaikh, a Palestinian award-winning human rights activist and writer, he co-authored an article on Palestinian Cinema in the latest issue of the Asian Affairs Journal.
Throughout the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Palestinian people have faced fundamental obstacles in making themselves visible to the world. Questions around Palestinian invisibility have found their way into several academic studies in more recent years – including in my own paper, which has just been published in this journal. In this blog, I wish to discuss this issue of Palestinian invisibility. What does it mean to say that Palestinians are ‘invisible’? How has this issue developed throughout history? And how might we address these issues? What does it even matter to begin with? It is of course impossible to do full justice to such a complex topic within the scope of this blog; this piece should therefore be seen as an introduction.
The ‘invisibility’ of Palestinians has multiple dimensions; that is to say, Palestinians have historically been (1) ignored in the planning of a Jewish state, (2) denied a link to the land they inhabited, (3) forced into exile, (4) construed as backwards people and terrorists by official propaganda. I will cover each of these briefly.
Most will have seen the phrase which referred to the Zionist project as “a people without a land going to a land without a people”. The actual use of this phrase was limited and has often been exaggerated, but there is nonetheless significance in its usage. During the early stages of planning the Israeli state, the phrase formed part of an effort to de-legitimate the presence of Palestinians – if not completely render them invisible. As said, the use of the phrase itself was limited, and there is also debate on the precise meaning of the phrase. Many or most of those who supported the emergence of a Jewish state were certainly aware that there were people living on the designated land. Some critics assert that the phrase referred to Palestine as a land not identified with any specific nation. This is true in the context of the late nineteenth century and until long afterwards. But even if this was the intended interpretation of the phrase, it still crucially paints Palestinians as ‘not a factor’ in the planning of the Jewish state.
Moreover, other efforts ensured that the existence of Palestinian peoples was very much ignored. The subject of the inhabitants of the land was frequently ignored in discussions on the emerging Jewish state. Even if they were aware of their existence, the subject was at various points simply avoided. Additionally, imagery which presented the land to others often stemmed from earlier European photographs or travellers’ descriptions, which constructed a selective representation of the land in which Palestinians played no role. All such initiatives contributed to the Palestinians remaining in the background of people’s minds in consideration of a Jewish state. The role of the “land without a people” phrase is limited in this, but it has come to stand symbol for the general processes of ignoring the Palestinians and practically rendering them invisible.
Whenever the Palestinian people were acknowledged as existing, they were often denied a legitimate relationship to the land they inhabited. Palestinians’ relationship with the land was often projected as one in which they were merely temporary holders of the territory, awaiting the return of the Jewish people. Moreover, the land was portrayed as if it had been left uncultivated and desolate by the inhabiting Palestinians. Some of the urban material culture was perceived as part of biblical heritage and thus appropriated. Much of the rural culture in the areas, however, was ignored, as it was not an authentic part of the romantic biblical imagery of the land. These factors all contributed to the de-legitimation of the presence of the Palestinians, and thus also justification of a Zionist settlement.
Beyond this early stage, in which the Jewish state was just a concept or an emerging project, the issue of Palestinian invisibility took on more complex forms. Following the start of the Arab revolt in 1936, the British authorities imposed an expansive set of emergency regulations onto the mandate. These laws were deemed necessary for the security of Israel. Key terms which are employed here are ‘emergency’ and ‘security’, as representations of Israel’s situation have for long been reliant on such terms. Even today, Israel is in a permanent ‘state of emergency’. The implication of such terms is the effects it has on public perceptions of Palestinians. As is elaborated upon in my paper, the term ‘emergency’ is usually employed to denote sudden, unpredictable events which require immediate action through any means. Using this term ignores the agency of Palestinians, and the often self-defensive nature of their resistance to the re-allocation of the land. It also justifies harsh, often violent measures of suppression.
This is no longer a matter of pretending the Palestinians do not exist – though literal assertions of this type were limited to begin with – but it continues to render them voiceless and misrepresent their plight. Representations of Palestinians have historically been mediated by Israel and its international supporters, which imposes a fixed identity on them in which they are perceived as dangerous. Imagery of Palestinians often presents them as large groups in misery or rage, removing any sense of individuality or even humanity. Furthermore, international media often use language strategically to represent Palestinian violence as the norm. Deaths of Palestinians are often described as stemming from “clashes with security forces”, whereas deaths of Israelis are mostly referred to as acts of terror. Violent acts by Israelis are often dismissed as acts by extremists. Such coverage of the conflict leaves no room for a recognition of the cyclical nature of violence. Moreover, it imposes a fixed, singular identity onto Palestinians.
There has historically been little room for Palestinians to assert their own voices and represent themselves. This is reinforced through the suppression of the production as well as the distribution of Palestinian media and arts. Taking film as an example, as my study focused on this, there are severe restrictions on recording and producing films in the occupied territories. Permission is needed to travel or film in any of them – which allows Israel great freedom in authorising what can or cannot be said and represented. Moreover, Israel has at certain points, as in 1982 during the invasion of Beirut, taken initiatives such as closing down theatres and destroying film archives. In 2003, the Dreams of a Nation film festival took place, which displayed a number of Palestinian films. It was not easy to get this event organised, however; Lila Abu-Lughod has reported on the extreme difficulty of getting a hold of the films due to the above mentioned restrictions, as well as on the fierce opposition to attempts at scholarly reflection on the event afterwards. All these factors make it difficult for Palestinian arts to become visible to the world.
None of the above is to say, of course, that Palestinians have never been able to produce culture, or that these productions cannot be found anywhere. Especially with the advent of the internet, it has become easier for disperse groups of Palestinians around the world to come in contact with each other and share platforms of exchange, and also make these visible to others. This has resulted, for instance, in the Electronic Intifada, an online publication which provides a Palestinian perspective on the conflict. Additionally, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) has done tremendous work in addressing the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict globally. These two efforts, then, are important in keeping the struggle of Palestinians alive in people’s minds; or in other words, asserting their visibility.
Another way of highlighting the conflict, as well as asserting the visibility of Palestinians, is through arts – specifically film, which figuratively and literally make Palestinians and their resistance visible. Particularly documentary films are instructive to those who are unfamiliar with what is happening on the ground. These films are often imbued with emotive content – such as an overarching narrator, as in the film 5 Broken Cameras – to increase their global impact.
It should have become clear from the above analysis that the primary issue at stake in Palestinian (in)visibility is their recognition as a people. Their historically constructed (non-) identities allowed Israel great freedom in creating and expanding settlements, at the expense of Palestinians’ human rights. An assertion of their visibility entails a recognition of their humanity and the need for equal rights. A broader recognition of this would assist in finding greater support for Palestinians on a global scale. It may understandably appear problematic to say that Palestinians necessarily need or want the help of the outside world, as this may seem to erode their own roles in resisting Israeli occupation. A crucial point to remember, however, is how this international support is largely gathered by Palestinians themselves, following their own, unmediated representations of their culture and situation.
Nevertheless, it should always follow that the role of the outside world is primarily to put a degree of pressure on the Israeli government and, so to speak, ‘level the playing field’ in future negotiations, as Israel’s powerful position has historically prevented (truly) fair solutions coming to the table. This is not to say that Israel takes the sole blame for the failure of peace. Both sides have historically at various points shown unwillingness to cooperate or unnecessary aggression. The crucial point here, however, is that as long as Israel is as powerful as it is compared to the Palestinian territories, it is has no proper incentive to give proper regard to Palestinian interests. For this reason, unconditional, even uncritical, international support for Israel should be addressed to find a balance. Although the international community plays a vital role in this, in the end, the Palestinian people reserve the right to discuss their own future with the Israelis, a people whose fate is inevitably bound up with their own.