Oral History’s Role in Preserving Palestinian History

In this week’s post, Rosemarie Esber discusses how oral history has served a vital role in preserving Palestinian voices during the post-1948 period. Here she recounts some of her experiences interviewing Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

By Rosemarie M. Esber

From cutting funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)—which provides 5 million Palestinian refugees with healthcare and education—closing the Palestinian embassy in Washington, DC, and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the Trump administration’s goal is to impose a solution to the Palestinian–Israeli conflict.

Despite these efforts to silence Palestinian voices, others are amplifying them through oral history projects, including Palestine Remembered, the Palestinian Oral History Archive, and the Nakba Archive. These projects aim to record, preserve, and share the diverse culture, traditions, and history of the Palestinian people, and particularly their first-hand experiences of the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic), a defining period of Palestinian history.

How did the Palestinians become refugees? In 1947, the Jews of Palestine owned 6 percent of the land and were 30% the population. The Palestinian Arabs and other ethnic groups owned the majority of the land and lived in hundreds of towns and villages. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended partitioning British-governed Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states, sparking the 1948 Palestine war, even as Britain rushed to withdraw its military forces and abandoned the country to chaos.

The 1948 Palestine War

I organized my first Palestinian oral history project in 2001 at the University of London during my doctoral studies. I quickly realized that I would not find many Palestinian civilian accounts of the 1948 Palestine war in the British National Archives. In 1944, the Palestinian Arab population was 66% agrarian with a literacy rate of about 15%. Palestinian documentary records were scarce or had been seized or destroyed in successive wars. Oral history became indispensable to record the Palestinian narrative of the war.

I traveled to Jordan with a list of several hundred Palestinian villages and towns. My goal was to interview Palestinian refugees displaced during the last six months of the Palestine mandate, from November 1947 to May 15, 1948, while the British still controlled the country.

Conducting oral history in Jordan posed numerous challenges. I required permission from the Ministry of Palestinian Affairs to conduct research in the camps. Tensions were high in the camps since the Al-Aqsa Intifada was raging in occupied Palestine territories. A Palestinian research assistant from Wihdat camp was invaluable. She reduced the suspicion that I was an intelligence agent bent on harm.

Because of the mass dispersal of the Palestinians during the war, finding individuals from specific locales who could recall the events required me to travel to the official UNRWA refugee camps across Jordan and into many neighborhoods. While most Palestinians readily agreed to my request for an interview, a few were fearful of Israeli reprisals against themselves or their families living in occupied Palestine.

Syrian refugee children in the Wavel camp

I was humbled by the Palestinians who shared their traumatic experiences with me, a graduate student. It was not unusual for families to follow me from one interview to the next to listen quietly to Nakba accounts. My most memorable interview was with an elderly man in Hittin camp. My entourage of interested neighbors appeared unannounced at Abu Mahmoud’s door. He invited all of us into his home, and like many times before, Abu Mahmoud changed into traditional Palestinian clothing—a suit with the kufiyah for the men, and hand-embroidered thobes for the women. The elder Palestinians were testifying to injustice, and I was bearing witness.

The elder Palestinians were testifying to injustice, and I was bearing witness.

Abu Mahmoud started to recount the attack on his village, and then he began to weep. I quickly turned off the camera, and told him we need not continue. He insisted. The interview continued, stopping and starting for several hours, due to tearful breakdowns. It was the first time Abu Mahmoud had shared his story of survival and loss.

From the 225 known villages, towns, and cities that fell to Israeli forces during the first six months of the 1948 war, I interviewed about 135 Palestinians from 75 of the locales. Israeli forces drove over 800,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands during the 13 months of war.

The Palestinian refugees I interviewed reported consistently that the Israelis employed terror, massacres, rapes, and destroyed entire villages to force them from their homeland. Those are the same violent tactics that the Myanmar army has recently used to rapidly expel a similar number of Rohingya civilians from their homeland, which the chief UN human rights official described as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon

The majority of Palestinians in Lebanon are indigenous to or are the descendants of those from the Galilee area of northern Palestine, now Israel. They sought refuge in Lebanon in 1948, and have lived in exile ever since.

Nahr El Bared refugee camp Kindergarten class

In September 2017, I traveled to Beirut with two survivors to commemorate the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Kassem Aini, the Palestinian director of Beit Atfal Assumoud (BAS), organizes the annual international commemoration, which includes visits to many of the 12 refugee camps in Lebanon to meet and talk with refugees.

During the Sabra and Shatila massacre, Lebanese Christian militias murdered an estimated 3,500 civilians, mostly elderly Palestinian men, women, and children, and Lebanese. The occupying Israeli army aided and abetted the massacre, which was also a direct result of the United States’ failure to honor its pledge to protect the camps’ civilians. Professor Bayan Nuwayhed al-Hout, a Jerusalemite, preserved the oral histories of the survivors.

Sabra and Shatila camp residents live off dark, narrow winding alleys crisscrossed with electric wires. The dense camp population swelled with the influx of Syrian refugees. One in four people in Lebanon is a refugee. The smell of sewage permeates the camps, an odor intensified by the heat and humidity. The camps, and much of Lebanon, has intermittent electricity and lacks potable water. The homes are dark and unsanitary, with scant sunlight and ventilation.

In Bourj Al Barajneh camp, we visited the home of Soleiman, who fled Kabri in north Palestine during the 1948 war. He was 8 years old when Israeli forces attacked his village, killed his father, and massacred other villagers. His testimony aligns with my oral histories recorded in 2001. In Shatila camp, Jamila, a young female survivor, told us how her father was murdered during the massacre. Imagine living on the site where members of your family were murdered.

Resilience and Hope

The Palestinians welcomed us with homemade meals and fresh fruits. At Nahr El Bared camp in the north, we watched youth practice the dabke dance. In Rashidieh camp in the south, young Palestinians performed folksongs and dances. Deprived of basic human rights, those young refugees transcended their surroundings through the beauty of their culture.

The Palestinians repeatedly told us, “We want peace, and we want to go home.” As Amnesty International states, “The right to return to one’s own country is based in international law and is the most obvious way to redress the situation of those who are in exile.”

I asked Aziza at the Wavel Camp in Baalbek how I could support the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. She told me, “Tell our story.” And, she added, “Tell Mr. Trump that we are human too.”

In an effort to amplify the Palestinians’ stories in their own voices, my colleagues and I will be presenting our oral history research and films about the Nakba at 70 during four sessions at the OHA Conference in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

Rosemarie M. Esber is an international development professional and gender specialist. She is the author of Under the Cover of War: the Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. Dr. Esber taught oral history methodology as a Fulbright Scholar in Saudi Arabia. She will present her current research at the OHA conference in Montreal on Panel 149: Decolonizing Official Narratives of the Palestinian Nakba at 70.

Media courtesy of the author