One summer day many years ago, I was playing with my siblings and cousins in my grandmother’s tiny garden. Sometimes, when we’re fed up with playing there, we would seek the storeroom nearby. This room, which was constructed a long time ago most probably as a future flat for one of my uncles, was in its structure very similar to the UNRWA rooms in which my grandparents, my aunt’s family, and many others in Dheisheh refugee camp lived. Originally, it consisted of two very wide rooms with a very low ceiling, and a couple of small windows barely letting in any light. The wall between the two rooms was demolished, turning the small “flat” into one large room. My grandparents had enlarged their original UNRWA rooms and used this one as a storeroom. It was full with all sorts of things, from boxes to wood to old chairs. When playing there, we would try and keep to the outer part of the room, the one closer to the door and the windows, and would avoid the inner part, where it was dark and stuffed with many things barely leaving place for one to move freely. I don’t think any one of us children dared looked closer there, because it was full with spider webs and lizards, and it was clear that the boxes there had not been moved in centuries, so you’d see small things crawling around. But sometimes curiosity would get the best of one, causing one to gather their courage and march through the spider webs and the lizards to explore whatever El-Dorado lies hidden. Often, there was nothing interesting to be found: a few old pots and pans, old rugs, nothing really interesting. But on that summer day, daring the spiders and the lizards paid off: In one corner at the very far end of the room there stood a huge iron oven. It was very rusty and that alone made it look extremely uninviting. A number of old boxes lay stacked nearby. My grandmother used to bake bread for us every second day, and for breakfast she would make Zaatar and olive oil bread. This together with hot tea, I believe, was and still is the best breakfast ever. For baking, my grandmother used an electric oven, and although she always spoke of how much she loves bread baked on wood, she didn’t use the one in the storeroom. Anyway, the oven door was blocked by the many boxes stacked in front of it. So, I waited till the others were busy playing outside and started removing the heavy boxes until I was able to open the oven door. Inside, to my surprise, were stacks over stacks of nothing other than books, magazines, and newspapers. I quickly went through them, and it didn’t take me long to realize that these were all stacked here for a reason: I realized I was holding “illegal material” as the Israeli occupation authority would define it. During that summer, I took every possible chance to slip into that storeroom and read this “illegal material”. And I loved it, I loved every single word I read, and if it weren’t for the fact that I feared being caught with it on the way, I would have packed the whole stuff and took it back home to Sawahreh.
This is nothing out of the ordinary in occupied Palestine. Almost every home had a hiding place for the various books, magazines and newspapers. We had one as well, and our hiding place was stacked with our favourite books which were forbidden by Israel. With every passing year, the stack would grow bigger and bigger, that we had to look for new hiding places. And when the Israeli army started raiding our house in search of wanted activists, we had to bury some book and to burn others. The “illegal material” had to disappear.
This “illegal material” is a threat to the existence of the Zionist entity. It is part of the ultimate Palestinian weapon, against which Israel with all its military might has no chance. This weapon is the Palestinian national identity. One of the myths on which the Zionist entity is built is that Palestine was a “land without a people for a people without a land” and that there was never a Palestinian people. When they want to act “humane”, Zionists are a bit “generous” and admit that “few Arabs” did live in Palestine, but only “few Arabs”. Thus, it is essential that the word Palestine and all its derivatives become illegal: There is no Palestine and there is no Palestinian people. And to delete the existence of a nation, they needed to delete what defines it and what makes it a nation. It makes it easy to lie and claim that those “few Arabs” who were living in Palestine came from neighbouring Arab countries and it is there that they should return. But when these “few Arabs” have a distinct identity and culture, it won’t be that easy to convince others of a lie. So, suppressing the Palestinian national feeling and the identity of Palestine was to become a priority, and in order to create a Zionist national identity and ensure its survival, the Palestinians had to be denied their national identity and any expression of it.
Immediately after the 1967 war, the Israeli occupation authority started pursuing policies to undermine the concept of a Palestinian people and a Palestinian identity. A very strict censorship was imposed on the life of every Palestinian and any form of expressing Palestinian culture was prohibited. Print material was censored and needed the approval of the Israeli army for publication and distribution. Homes and bookshops would be raided and entire libraries confiscated. The way the Israeli occupation reacted to books, one would think that these books included instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail or how to build a nuclear reactor, when in fact most of them, like those in my grandparent’s storeroom, were of a literary nature; novels and poems. The “illegal material” was not solely Palestinian, but the greatest part was written by Palestinians. The ban didn’t stop with magazines, newspapers and literature; a number of history and geography books were also declared “illegal”. Through censorship, the Zionist entity’s aim was to control what a Palestinian is allowed to read and what not, starting from an early age to accompany a Palestinian all his/her life. Being in charge of education in the “Occupied Territories”, the Israeli military could censor school and university education. On the cover of our school textbooks was the heading: “the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria” – there was nothing civil about it, but only the Israeli army would have the insolence to claim it is a “civil authority” and only an army-entity would have the insolence to claim it is peace-loving- and this “civil administration” aka Israeli army would decide which textbooks are a threat to the security of the Zionist entity and which are harmless (see for example Order concerning Use of Text Books (West Bank Region) (Amendment no’ 1) (No’ 183), 1967 or Order concerning Use of Text Books (Amendment no’ 2) (West Bank) (No’ 812), 1979). Many books were banned from use in all educational institutions including kindergarten and private educational centres. Anyone violating this ban would be imprisoned for 12 months or fined with 2500 Israeli Lira or both. Some of the banned textbooks included: Arabic Grammar (parts 2 and 4), Principles of Rhetoric, Elementary Literature (parts 1 and 2), Literary Texts, The Complete History of Literature (parts 2 and 3), Selected Texts, History of Arabs and Muslims, History of Old Civilizations, History of Europe in Middle and Modern Ages, Modern History of Europe, The Arab World, Modern Arab History, Modern Europe: Its cultural and political development, History of the Crusades, General History: the Civilizations of the Ancient and Middle Ages, Geography of the Arab World, Economic Geography, The Arab World in Africa, Guide to Drawing the Maps of the Arab World, General Geography, Geography of Arab Asia, Geography of Arab Africa, The Palestinian Cause, The Arab Society, The Jordanian Society, Principles of Islamic Religion (parts 3 and 4) and many others (see Order concerning Use of Text Books (West Bank Region) (no’ 107), 1967). Any university wishing to receive scientific or educational periodicals for its library had to apply for the approval of the military authority, which was in many cases refused.
In addition to censoring textbooks, thousands of books were banned. Bookshops and kiosks needed the approval of the Israeli military before they were able to import any publications and sell them, and any publications that were not approved were considered “illegal material” for which the owner would be arrested, charged with dealing with or the possession of “illegal material” (see Order concerning The Bringing and Distribution of Newspapers (West Bank Region) (Amendment no’ 1) (No’ 110), 1967). The punishment for bringing and distribution of this “illegal material” was 5 years in prison or a heavy fine of 1500 Jordanian Dinar or both (see Order concerning The Bringing and Distribution of Newspapers (West Bank Region) (No’ 50), 1967 or Order Concerning Bringing and Distributing Printed Material (Amendment no’ 3) (Judea and Samaria) (No’ 862), 1980). The Israeli military commander had the right to order the distribution of certain publications, and disobeying the order would be imprisoned for 1 year or fined 1000 Israeli Liras or both see Order concerning Sale of Official Publications (West Bank Region) (No’ 133), 1967. It wasn’t only the publications imported from the outside world that was censored and needed the approval of the Israeli military, but also local publications. Several magazines and newspapers published in Jerusalem, Haifa or Nazareth were banned in the West Bank and Gaza. Some were banned permanently; others would be banned from distribution for short or long periods of time according to the “crime” committed by the newspaper or the magazine, such as publishing an article that was banned by the Israeli censorship. Palestinian newspapers and magazines published in Jerusalem faced a very strict censorship, where even ads needed the approval of the military before they could be published.
Because of this censorship and because one would get arrested for owning the “wrong” book, many were rare. People considered themselves lucky to be able to get one of these books and when they were safe at one’s home, they were staked either in the hiding place, or buried somewhere. When visiting my grandparents during the holidays, I remember how there were no books or newspapers to be seen anywhere. But, then all of a sudden I would see one of my uncles sitting with a book in his hands, or another with a newspaper. These would later disappear into nowhere as they appeared from nowhere. Also, unforgettable were the summer mornings when we would all be gathered for breakfast, then someone would knock on the door, one of my uncles would go to check and would come back with one of those “illegal” newspaper. I believe almost every family in the refugee camp got a copy of it as we did. We would all then gather around the grown-ups and wait for our turn to read the newspaper. But what most of us raced to see was the caricature of Naji Al-Ali. Then discussion will start before the newspaper disappeared to never be seen again.
But it wasn’t only books, magazines and newspapers that were illegal. Being caught with a leaflet in your bag or pocket, which were also “illegal materials”, would get you a beating, a fine or imprisonment. Also posters needed the approval of the Israeli military and were considered illegal if they contained anything remotely representative of “Palestine”. You were allowed to hang a poster of the Swiss Alps in your sitting room, but not one of the Palestinian map or with the inscription: “Free Palestine”, or even of Palestinian martyrs. During one military raid on our home, the military commander ordered us to remove the poster of a Palestinian martyr that hung on our bedroom wall. It was just a poster of a young man, with no guns or slogans or whatever, but nevertheless we were ordered to remove it. Posters of martyrs on walls of houses or shops would be ripped off and shredded to pieces. Israeli soldiers would raid condolence tents and remove any Palestinian flags or posters found there. Graffiti was also “illegal”. The Israeli army would storm the house or the shop with the graffiti on its walls, often at midnight, and make the owners come out and paint the graffiti away. They would be shouted at, insulted and sometimes beaten. It was another way to intimidate people in the hope of making sure that the next time when someone tried to pain graffiti on their walls, the owners would prevent them, but it never worked. When massacres were committed by the IOF, whether in Gaza, Nablus or Hebron, Palestinians everywhere would hoist black flags on their houses as a sign of mourning and solidarity. Sometimes even these flags of mourning would be ripped off.
Publications were not the only threat to the existence of the Zionist nuclear power.
In 1967, the Israeli occupation authority outlawed any display of Palestinian national identity or symbols. Everything that had to do with Palestine or symbolized it was outlawed whether it was the Palestinian flag and its colours or whatever use of the word Palestine and in whatever context. The word “Palestine” itself, whether in Arabic, English or Hebrew, was considered illegal and writing “Palestine” was considered a criminal offence. School children would be shot at and arrested for carrying the Palestinian flag or even for singing about Palestine. Students were arrested and imprisoned for six months or more or heavily fined for wearing T-Shirts with the word “Palestine” or for writing “Palestine” on walls. The Israeli military Order concerning Prohibition of Incitement Activities and Hostile Propaganda (West Bank Region) (No’ 101), 1967) prohibits raising distribution Palestinian flags and the carrying, printing or distribution of political symbols, pamphlets, posters or booklets. Anyone violating this ban would be imprisoned to up to 10 years or fined with 2000 Israeli Liras or both.
This ban included the prohibition of any art work of “political significance” and any artwork comprised of the four Palestinian national colours. Palestinian artists were told by the Israeli occupation authority to paint devoid of any political meaning and were forbidden from using the four colours of the Palestinian flag too closely, i.e. a Palestinian artist was not allowed to paint a flower field using the colours red, green, white and black. Often, even when an artist would avoid the “direct and noticeable” use of these colours, he/she would nevertheless be “committing a felony”. In this way, many artists were arrested or placed under house arrest. The IOF would storm the only art gallery in the West Bank at the time and storm artists’ houses and confiscate paintings and make arrests. Any reproductions of “illegal” Palestinians painting were not allowed and often confiscated and destroyed. But this never stopped Palestinian artists, and they would continue to use these colours, even if in a faint, subdued form.
A Palestinian flag means an identity, means a nation, means an existence that Israel was doing its best to erase. That is why Palestinian flags were illegalized, and that is why symbolism became important and grew stronger. What we were not allowed to say openly would be said indirectly using symbols mainly through arts, music and literature. We write, draw and sing of olive trees because they represent our steadfastness on our land. We write, draw and sing of orange trees because they represent Haifa, Yafa and the Palestine we all yearn for. We write, draw and sing of poppies because they represent our struggle and the sacred Palestinian blood sacrificed so Palestine can live. We write, draw and sing of keys handed down from generation to generation because they remind us of the homes and the lands waiting for us to return to. And we love red, black, white and green because they scream: We Are Palestine.
The ban didn’t stop us from making Palestinian flags, carrying them in demos and marches or even filling our books and copybooks with the Palestinian flag, the map of Palestine and all sorts of Palestinian symbols. People who stood first line in a demo and were holding the flag or those who were tying a Palestinian flag to a mast or a tree or hoisting it on a wall or a high building were shot at by Israeli snipers aiming to kill. Nevertheless, Palestinian flags would be flying everywhere and the soldiers would be in frenzy, shooting at the flags in an effort to get them down as if the Palestinian flags were nuclear missiles aimed at the Zionist entity. There were times when they would force people, sometimes children, to climb trees or electricity masts and get the flags down. Alone in 1988, Ayman Farhoud (13 years old), Khalil Jamzawi (18 years old) and Nidal Abu Shomer (17 years old) were killed by an electric shock when the IOF forced them to climb electricity masts and remove Palestinian flags. Also, anyone caught with a flag or anyone found with flags stacked in their home would be beaten, arrested and imprisoned. The flags would be confiscated and shredded into pieces. But this never stopped us nor frightened us. We only searched for ways to make a Palestinian flag and to carry it close to our hearts. One time, I remember we needed a flag urgently for some last-minute activity we planned for Land Day, and since it was impossible like today to go to a shop and buy a flag and there was no way to get one in time by other means, we tried first making one out of coloured papers, but it was not as good as a real flag. So we went through our wardrobes and chose some clothes with the four colours, cut them and spent the night sewing. During the first Intifada, and despite the ban on the four colours of the Palestinian flag, Palestinian women started sewing clothes in the Palestinian national colours. Palestinian embroidery, being another symbol of Palestinian identity, was at the time not only a means of living for many families, but also a form of protesting the Israeli occupation. Palestinian women would knit blouses using the four national colours of Palestine, or would stitch Palestinian traditional dresses, shawls and cushions with the various symbols of Palestine, including the olive tree, the keys, and even the Palestinian flag and map. My mother made such blouses for my sister and me and each time we went to Dheisheh refugee camp, these blouses were the first things to be packed. We knew that the Israeli soldiers were too stupid to notice the symbolism in these blouses, so we would walk in the refugee camp and pass the Israeli troops wearing them. We felt proud and strong: you have your guns and we have our flag. It was a sort of protest, a sort of resistance: You won’t allow us to carry the Palestinian flag without shooting at us, we will carry it on our bodies every single day and you won’t be able to stop us. It is worth mentioning that it was during this first Intifada that Palestinians waving slices of watermelons (with their four colours) as a symbol for the Palestinian flag would be arrested by the IOF.
Not only did we challenge the IOF by wearing the symbols of the Palestinian identity on our blouses, we knit them on handmade bracelets. We would spend long hours making these bracelets, decorating them with the word “Palestine”, the Palestinian flag, the map of Palestine, Handala or even the abbreviation of the Palestinian liberation movements with which we were affiliated. These bracelets were very popular to wear and to give as presents for your friends and people you liked, and some would wear three or four. But, again, as with the books and the flags, these tiny bracelets were seen by the IOF as a threat to the fifth strongest army in the world. We used to hear stories about the Israeli army stopping cars and asking drivers and passengers to reveal their wrists in search of these bracelets, pupils would be stopped on the way to school and searched for such bracelets. And if you happen to be caught with one, the bracelets would be practically ripped off of your wrist, causing pain and bruises. The funny thing was that the more bracelets the Israeli soldiers destroyed, the more were produced. We wore the bracelets showing our political affiliation with pride, and we would take them off when the soldiers were nearby because political affiliation meant a long time in prison, up to 7 or 8 years, sometimes even longer. Being offered to join a liberation movement, even if one declined, meant being locked up inside Israeli jails for 2 to 3 years. It is well-known that torture is a standard procedure inside Israeli jails: Children and adults would be tortured and forced to confess to things they didn’t do or confess on others. Some would confess that someone is affiliated with this or that party or that someone was asked to join a certain liberation movement, and whether it was true or not or whether the person accepted or refused to join played no role, that person would be arrested and imprisoned.
For the suppression of Palestinian cultural identity, the Israeli army controlled cultural clubs, cinemas and cultural performances and events. The gathering of 10 people or more in a certain place for political reasons or what “could be interpreted” as political, joining a gathering or a meeting or a demonstration, encouraging one or calling for one was illegal and was punished with 10 years in jail or a fine of 2000 Israeli Lira or both (see see for example Order concerning Prohibition of Incitement Activities and Hostile Propaganda (West Bank Region) (No’ 101), 1967 and Order concerning Prohibition of Incitement Activities and Hostile Propaganda (Judea and Samaria) (No’ 1423), 1995). Public displays, theatrical plays or even a circus needed the permission of the Israeli military commander. Anyone producing, taking part in or even providing place for such gatherings and displays without prior consent of the IOF would be imprisoned for 3 months or fined with 500 Israeli Liras or both (see Order concerning Public Performances (Censorship) (West Bank) (No’ 49), 1974 or Order concerning Control Over Cinema Films Law (West Bank Region) (No’ 118), 1967). Weddings, literary and cultural events would be raided and often such events organized by universities would be banned. Palestinian weddings were another form of celebrating the Palestinian identity. Before the Intifada, Palestinian wedding would last three days and nights of pure Palestinian folklore and resistance songs and dances. In the afternoons, after everyone had come back home from work, all would gather at the bridegroom’s house which would be turned into an open-air stage. Dabkeh groups from everywhere would be showing their talents one after the other. Young men and women in beautiful Palestinian traditional clothes would be dancing, singing or playing musical instruments. Palestinian cultural and national resistance songs would be heard all night long and till the early hours of the morning. People from nearby and faraway towns, villages and refugee came would come to attend these weddings, for they were Palestinian cultural festivals at a time when expressing you identity was “illegal”. Sometimes, the Israeli soldiers would raid these weddings to disperse the gathering or in search of “wanted” Palestinians. These wedding were a chance for children and youth to know more about Palestinian folktales, dances and songs. It was during such national festivals that I was first introduced to the dances and songs of Jrash, my mother’s original village ethnically cleansed in 1948 by Zionist terror groups. In Sawahreh, similar weddings took place, the difference being that in Sawahreh the songs and the dances were mostly traditional Palestinian folklore. And when the bride or bridegroom happened to come from a faraway town or refugee camp, on the way we would sing Palestinian songs. One very dear memory was a wedding of a cousin of my mothers, whose wife came from a refugee camp near Ramallah. So we made the journey from Dheisheh near Bethlehem to Ramallah via Jerusalem (before Jerusalem became off-limits for Palestinians). As we passed through Jerusalem, we started singing louder and some even started crying. They might try as hard as they want, but they will never be able to uproot us from Palestine or uproot Palestine from our hearts and minds.
A Palestinian national identity would refute various Zionist myths, thus all forms of expressing this identity such as literature, arts and music become a threat. The Zionist entity didn’t want to see any celebration of the Palestinian identity, or any sign of support and solidarity amongst Palestinians and with the outside world. With the beginning of the charade called “peace process”, the Israeli laws of censorship were somewhat relaxed. Nevertheless, the Israeli efforts to eliminate the Palestinian identity and create a rein Jewish entity continue. The Zionist entity thought that with its theatrical move of “generously granting” (according to its Hasbara) the Palestinians a very limited authority in the ghettos of the West Bank and besieging the Gaza Strip, that the Palestinian Cause would become a closed chapter and that the Palestinian national aspirations would be satisfied by Israel’s version of a “Palestinian state”, this being nothing more than an improved version of the failed “Village Leagues” experiment. Today, Israeli attacks on the Palestinian identity and symbols still take place and Palestinian – and to some extent pro-Palestine foreign – activists, writers, journalists and artists are attacked, harassed and arrested in an effort to silence them. What the Zionist entity fears and sees as a growing threat to its existence is the continuation of the struggle and activism in occupied Palestine, the growing support for Palestine and the Palestinian Cause in the world and the strengthened unity and solidarity amongst Muslim, Christian and Jewish indigenous Palestinians in occupied Palestine and elsewhere. Despite decades of oppression and occupation, despite the on-going ethnic cleansing of Palestine, despite all the massacres, the land theft, the colonization, the imprisonments and the deportations, and despite all the war crimes committed by Israel against the Palestinians, the Zionist entity failed in its goal to eliminate the Palestinian national identity and the Palestinian aspirations and hunger for freedom and self-determination. Despite the bans and the threats, we read, wrote and sang of Palestine, we raised the Palestinian flag high and we celebrated being Palestinians in all of occupied Palestine, yesterday, today and will continue to celebrate Palestine every single day. And because the Zionist entity tried in vain to prevent us from writing, reading, singing, expressing and celebrating our national and cultural identity, it is essential that we boycott this entity in every form possible, particularly in this regard to boycott its academic and cultural institutions and its academic and cultural activities and festivals. It is our duty and our responsibility to culturally and academically boycott the Zionist entity until total Liberation.