Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Sa’ed Atshan ’06 returned to his alma mater Wednesday evening to give a lecture on the 60th anniversary of Israel’s inception from the Palestinian perspective. Speaking to a full room, Atshan presented an informative history of the events of the past 60 years from his people’s point of view.
Beginning in 1948, Atshan used the example of the existence of Palestinian daily newspapers and Palestinian currency to refute the notion that Palestine was a “land without people.” When the United Nations created Israel, it carved the state out of the British Mandate, Palestine, leaving 48% of the land for Palestinians.
During the war of 1948, which began when Jewish Zionists in Palestine declared their independence after neighboring Arab countries rejected the UN’s partitioning plan, what Atshan considers ethnic cleansing occurred. Five hundred Palestinian villages were destroyed during that year, including his grandparents’ village outside of Tel Aviv. One set of his grandparents fled to Jordan and became refugees there; the other set moved to the West Bank, where Atshan grew up. Today there are still more than five million Palestinian refugees, descendents of those who left their homes as a result of this original partitioning — more than any other single group of refugees in the world.
Two of the policies of the Israeli government that Atshan discussed were settlements and the wall that is being built in the West Bank. The West Bank, originally set aside for Palestinians after the war of 1948, has been under Israeli occupation since the war of 1967. Settlements in the West Bank are built after Palestinian homes are bulldozed to make way; Atshan brought up the case of peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by a bulldozer in 2003 while wearing an orange shirt and waving her arms in front of a Palestinian physician’s house.
The wall being built by Israel inside the West Bank in a zigzag fashion cuts Palestinians off from their own neighbors, a point Atshan illustrated by a picture showing two streets less than a hundred feet from one another that have been separated by the wall. Between this wall and the checkpoints that Palestinians have to go through to get anywhere within their own territory, Palestinians are experiencing an apartheid that is worse even than the South Africans experienced, Atshan quoted Nelson Mandela as saying.
It is conditions such as these that make daily life so difficult for ordinary Palestinians to live their lives that led to both the First Intifada of 1987 and the Second Intifada of 2000, said Atshan. The First Intifada was relatively peaceful, characterized by symbolic rock-throwing on the part of Palestinians and met with an Israeli “break their bones” strategy. The Second Intifada, however, was much more violent, with suicide bombings that Atshan recognizes as morally wrong. The Israeli government uses these bombings to justify their occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, even though they have occupied those territories since before the first suicide bombing, Atshan pointed out.
Concluding his lecture on a positive note, Atshan briefly discussed the things that gave him hope. Interestingly, the organizations and movements that he mentioned – such as the refusal by some Israelis to perform their mandatory military service and a change in attitudes toward Israel in America that recognize the distinction between anti-Semitism and disagreement with Israeli policy – all were Israeli or American, not Palestinian.
Well-received, Atshan’s lecture struck a balance between providing information and history and a personal perspective on a decades-long conflict that often gets obscured by personal beliefs and opinions.