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St. Louis Palestinians mark Palestine's catastrophe

St. Louis Palestinians mark Palestine's catastrophe

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More than 60 Palestinians in Gaza have been killed by Israeli snipers while Israel celebrates its creation and the U.S. moves its embassy to Jerusalem. Why are Gazans prepared to face such peril on Israel’s “independence” day? Why the anger at the U.S.? Here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s not complicated. It begins exactly 70 years ago. Readers might not know that these events strike at the hearts of thousands of Palestinian St. Louisans.

The Hebrew expression for the Holocaust is the Shoah. The irony is not lost on Palestinians that the Arabic translation of shoah is nakba. Palestinians refer to their shoah as the Nakba: the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes as a result of the creation of Israel in 1948. This uprooting continues to this day. Israel’s policies have always been supported by the U.S. However, no U.S. president — Republican or Democrat — has ever gone so far as to defy international law by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Until now.

Like Palestinians everywhere, St. Louis’ Palestinian community commemorates their losses and their commitment to the justice of their cause.

On Palm Sunday, April 25, 1948, my father’s uncle Edmond drove to the family house in the Ajami neighborhood of Jaffa, Palestine. In a panic, he urged the family — brother Abdallah, sister-in-law Julia, and nephews Elias (my father) and George — to jump in the car and head for the hills. Zionist forces had shelled Edmond’s house from the direction of Beit Yam. Abdallah resisted. “How can we abandon everything?” Julia prevailed. “Are you going to sacrifice the lives of your two sons?” Elias and George made a pact. They left their jackets on a table in the sitting room and promised, “We’ll be back in 15 days.”

They never did retrieve those jackets.

Jaffa’s residents fled following reports of the massacre of Palestinian villagers in Deir Yassin on April 9. My father remembered Zionist forces warning, “Leave or you’ll meet the fate of Deir Yassin.”

The expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 was followed by another wave of displacement when Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. Israel continues to confiscate Palestinian land for the construction of Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank and Israel. The Nakba grinds on.

Palestinians do not ask for pity. We have a long history of nonviolent resistance, which is why we remain steadfast after 70 years. The mainstream image of Palestinian resistance may be that of the terrorist. But, most Palestinians reject violence — not because they don’t have a right to resist occupation but because grassroots, mass protest is more effective.

In 1936, a Palestinian general strike against the British lasted six months and forced a change in colonial policy. On March 30, 1976, Arab citizens of Israel were shot protesting land confiscation in Galilee, an event known as Land Day. In 1987, a spontaneous uprising led by women endured an Israeli “break bones” policy. In 2005, Palestinian civil society organizations launched the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, transforming public opinion about Israel in Europe and North America.

Palestinian defiance of Israeli oppression is unstoppable. On March 30 of this year — the 42nd anniversary of Land Day — Gazans launched a six-week March of Return. Israeli snipers have since killed over 100 Palestinians who approach Israel’s boundary line separating them from the homes they were forced from 70 years ago.

The Palestinian community of St. Louis is part and parcel of their national community in Palestine and the diaspora. They embraced St. Louis as a new home fleeing expulsion, land confiscation and occupation in their homeland. They hail from cities like Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus and Ramallah-Bireh; from villages like Dura al-Qar’, Beitin, Deir Dibwan, Burqa, Ramun, Bir Nabala, Beit Sahur and Aboud; from the Jalazone refugee camp where they landed in 1948 after expulsion from Lidd, Ramla and Jaffa and the destruction of the villages of Beit Nabala and Lifta. Did you know Beitin is home to the Arches Market and the most Cardinal fans per capita in the eastern Mediterranean? Today they live and work in the city from downtown to Delmar and from Florissant to West County.

They made history Tuesday under the leadership of the St. Louis chapter of American Muslims for Palestine when shopkeepers and business owners publicly marked the tradition of popular mobilization by staging a symbolic general strike.

Nakba Day will thus be knit into the rich cultural and historical fabric of our city.

Steve Tamari is a professor of Middle East and Islamic History at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

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