In 2010, during summer school in Germany, I also visited Berlin. Right at the heart of the German capital is the Holocaust Memorial and Information Center, interestingly, just next to the huge complex of the American Embassy. The memorial stands as a grim reminder of one of the saddest and worst chapters in history, a testimony of the fact of how cruel humans can be.
As you enter the Memorial’s ‘Information Center’ underground, right next to the reception counter, a quote from Primo Levi greets you: “It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.” Levi was an Italian Jew who experienced the incarceration of Nazis at the biggest concentration camp at Auschwitz himself, but was one of the fortunate few who survived to later emerge as one of the most ‘incisive and candid intellectuals’ to narrate to the world what Jews went through during the holocaust. The recorded audio guide helped us navigate different sections of the museum depicting the history and testimonies of the genocide of about 6 million Jews in Europe under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi government during the Second World War. It should be pointed here that the persecution of Jews in ‘Christian’ Europe had not really begun with Hitler but had been going on in Europe for centuries since their exile from Jerusalem.
By the end of the Second World War, the horror and consequent guilt of the holocaust had gripped the Western World, particularly the Germans. In fact in 2010, as I visited the second biggest concentration camp of Buchenwald, I could clearly notice the persisting pang of culpability as many of them broke into tears. Without going into the details of how Aliyah (the act of ascending to Israel) during the first half of the twentieth century one can safely agree on how it reversed the demography – and the history - of the land of Israel. Besides of course the argument of land ‘promised’ to them by God after years of persecution under Egyptian Pharaohs, the holocaust and centuries of persecution of Jews in Europe became the raison d'être for the long held dream of a Jewish national home.
May 15 is celebrated by Israel as Independence Day, but for the Arab population of Palestine, the day turned into Yawm an-Nakba, the “Day of the Catastrophe.” During 1947-48 alone, over 7 lakh Arabs – about 80% of the total inhabitants then - were displaced from their ancestral homes and hundreds of towns and villages inhabited by Palestinians were destroyed. The majority of the population whose forefathers had lived in the land we now know as Israel are now living as refugees mainly in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, etc. – many of them later migrated to USA and other Western countries. Over two million of them still remain stranded in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
Overall, the situation in both these pieces of land remains the same, their density of population is one of highest in the world, they are one of the most under-developed regions and have practically turned in ghettos. Palestinians in both places live under the shadow of unreasonable restrictions and harassment and all international laws are conveniently forgotten as Israel continues to expand its territories and create new-settlements. However, after militant Hamas won the election in 2006 in the Gaza Strip, the situation there has turned to worse as they face blockades from both – Israel on one side and Egypt on the other. Gaza today has been reduced to what many call an “open prison,” where most people do not even get proper drinking water, with consistent attacks, power supply in most areas have been cut, they lack even basic health care as even hospitals are not spared, and most people have not got their salaries for months.
Although no gas chamber has been placed so far, the condition in Gaza, the frustration and everyday humiliation of Palestinians is now being compared to the erstwhile Concentration Camps. Although no exact number is available, since 1936 over 2 million Palestinians are believed to have died in what is clearly an ongoing genocide, over 7 million of them are refugees, and are not allowed to even visit their motherland. Many Palestinians took up arms to defend themselves and their attack on innocent civilians too is equally condemnable, but not all resistance has been violent. One of the most vocal champions of the Palestinian cause was late Professor Edward Said, the founder of post-colonial studies. There are Palestinian writers, poets, artists, film-makers, activists, all of whom resist the occupation through whatever means they are capable of. A woman in a village near Ramallah in the West Bank, plants flowers in empty shells of tear gas.
Hamas may be a part of the problem, but the crisis did not begin with them, and simply accusing them or even finishing them can only temporarily distract from the core issue of not only occupation, but irrational expansion and unreasonable restrictions and harassment. Even in the current crisis, the disproportionate death toll so far (1000 to 43) is the reflection of disparity in propaganda often spread. The international community, including the UN and USA, conveniently prefers to look the other side to later pay lip-service and give aid for purported rebuilding. The timing of the current outbreak is also questionable. While Israel blamed Hamas for the murder of three young boys, it came right after the announcement of new a reconciliation agreement between Hamas and Fatah.
The propaganda machinery has spread a cocktail of nationalistic politics and religion in such a way that in the wake of the current crisis, Israeli politicians now openly call all Palestinians as terrorists and even suggest that all women giving birth to them should be exterminated, while a former military intelligence personnel and academician suggested that Palestinian women should be raped which may act as a deterrent to the militants. We now hear of how young Israelis eat popcorn, drink and cheer the game of shooting Palestinians as ‘sedrot cinema’, while young women are posting nude images of them expressing solidarity with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on “Standing With The IDF” Facebook page.
Thanks to social media, today we are witness to what a human catastrophe means. It’s really sad to see that a section of the people in the country has made it a religious issue and are chanting pro-Israeli slogans, ignoring all concerns flagrant violations of international laws and human rights. What is shocking is that those who suffered the Holocaust (widespread destruction) themselves have been unleashing Al-Nakba (catastrophe) on people who had little to do with their persecutions.
After completing my visit to the Holocaust Information Center, I remember noting in the Dairy kept on the desk right in front of Levi’s quote, “Yes, it’s happening in Palestine.” As the rest of the Muslim world celebrates Eid, there is little sign that Palestinians will have a peaceful celebration.
M Reyaz is a Delhi-based journalist and Research Scholar at the Academy of International Studies. He tweets at @journalistreyaz