On Tuesday, I was among 500 Palestinians from around the US who gathered in the United Nations General Assembly hall. We sat in the very seats where the fate of the Palestinian people had been decided 70 years earlier to the day. We listened to folk music from our homeland, to speeches from the likes of Hanan Ashrawi from the Palestine Liberation Organisation. And we remembered.
As Palestinians scattered around the world marked the 70th anniversary of the Nakba this week, the prospects of a just solution to their cause remain as elusive as ever, yet their resolve to pursue freedom and a return to their lost homes has never been stronger.
I watched in dismay this week as the country where I have lived for nearly 50 years opened an embassy in Jerusalem. As an American, I was deeply distressed by Donald Trump's decision. It removed the US as an independent third party broker and aligned the US squarely with the Israeli camp. By so doing, the US set back the peace process by many years and disqualified itself from having any future role in negotiations. Mr Trump has effectively dealt a death blow to the two-state solution, reversing past administrations' long-established policy and delivering a stinging slap in the face to Palestinians.
He has played straight into the hands of Israel, whose Zionist founders had hoped that years after the takeover of Palestinian lands, Palestinians and the world would forget what happened and eventually accept the status quo. But Israel and its friends were surprised to see each new generation of Palestinians more determined to pursue their right of return than their parents.
At our commemoration concert in New York on Tuesday, there was a sense of determination and resilience, even hope, for the future. Seventy years after the Nakba, Palestinians are more committed than ever before to finding a peaceful solution. What is clear is that the current state of play offers no solution, for either Palestinians or Israelis. Israel’s default status is an apartheid state. It is neither Jewish nor democratic and Israel can never be what it hopes to be. The way it has built settlements means there is no way for a clear separation. Our two fates are hopelessly intertwined.
The scenes of Palestinian civilians being executed in cold blood on Monday as they protested the opening of the US embassy were deeply upsetting to watch. Claims that Hamas was to blame shows how out of touch the Trump administration is with reality. But it was heartening to see the rest of the world – and even US publications which are normally pro-Israel – were not on side. It was a turning point.
Today, 70 years on, Palestinians are peacefully marching by the thousands to send a clear message to the world in general and to Israel in particular that they have not forgotten, and will never forget, what happened in 1948 when they were driven from their homes with the acquiescence of Britain, the aiding and abetting of the US and the silence of the other world powers.
Palestinians like myself dwell in a hybrid state of mind. We are physically and geographically remote, yet having lived so far away for so long, we are suspended between two environments and two cultures. It is a culture of no man’s land. We are not in Palestine and yet our hearts and minds are there.
I lived under Israeli occupation for two years. I was born in Ramallah in 1951, to a family who had been made refugees in 1948. My father had been a successful fruit exporter in Salamah near Jaffa but was forced to leave everything behind. I grew up in austere circumstances. Under occupation, there were curfews and soldiers everywhere but the conditions were nothing like today. The poor treatment of Palestinians, the checkpoints and the indiscriminate attacks have multiplied tenfold.
I left to study in the US in 1969. My personal success and resultant financial security did not provide a replacement for my Palestinian homeland. As time goes on, I realise that despite the cultural no man's land I find myself in, I still feel a strong urge to contribute something to the Palestinian cause, which was why I established the Palestine Museum US, a significant milestone in Palestinian efforts to tell the Palestinian story to Western and American audiences through artistic expression.
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Today, despite a divided and conflicted leadership, the grassroots movement in Palestine and throughout the diaspora is united in its stand against Israel’s apartheid policies and egregious practices, which aim to break the Palestinian spirit and destroy their hopes for freedom and statehood. Millions of Palestinians under Israeli direct and indirect control are terrorised by security forces and rogue settlers, humiliated on a daily basis and deprived of basic human rights.
Very little of this was being broadcast by the media in the US, Israel’s biggest supporter, until last Monday. The American media has long been pro-Israel and has painted Palestinians in a negative light. The average American knows little about Palestine and the Palestinians other than what is seen on TV. The Palestinians need to tell their story to the American public.
On the Israeli side, the myth of a safe homeland for the Jewish people in a land without a people, for a people without a land, continues to be exposed. As Ehud Barak, the former prime minister of Israel, asserts in his recent book My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace, Israel has failed to achieve its dream of ever becoming a European-style democracy. Rather, Israel today is neither Jewish nor democratic as it continues its brutal military occupation of the Palestinians and usurps their indigenous land.
In the midst of the sombre atmosphere, the museum I founded, the first of its kind in the Americas, is a ray of hope. It will celebrate Palestinian artistic excellence and aims to use art, music, literature and other cultural works to tell Americans about Palestinians, their history and abiding presence and their artistic and cultural contributions to the world everywhere they live. The Palestine Museum US also connects the younger Palestinian generations in the United States to their ancestral land through the artistic expressions of the Palestinian struggle for freedom throughout many phases of their history, as they asserted their rights even before the Nakba. New generations are clinging to the cause even more than their parents. It is in their DNA.
Palestine has always been an open society that absorbed and was enriched by many waves of immigration, missionary campaigns and confluences of invasions throughout its history. This centuries-long mixture has enriched the Palestinian culture.
The Palestine Museum US also acknowledges the support of American people who have shown powerful solidarity for the Palestinian cause. The museum’s first commissioned work is a large mural of Rachel Corrie, the young American activist from Olympia, Washington, who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 while she was trying to defend a Palestinian doctor’s house from demolition in Gaza. The mural was hand-painted by Bethlehem-based Palestinian artist Ayed Arafah in vibrant colours, conveying both sacrifice and hope. This artwork symbolises the profound potential of the American people for supporting the Palestinian people.
Our museum in Woodbridge, Connecticut, sends a broader hopeful and expressive message about the future. The museum stands in a building that also hosted the local Jewish Community Centre temporarily while its building was being renovated. This provides hope for the possibility of co-existence of these two peoples and kindles promise for the future of peace in Palestine and sharing of the land—as long as Palestinian rights are fully acknowledged and permanently granted.
Faisal Saleh is the founder of the Palestine Museum US