Palestine: An open-air museum of colonialism

Palestinian workers - Bethlehem checkpoint (Ahmad al-Bazz - ActiveStills)

Omar Khalifah

Al-Jazeera  /  September 7, 2021

Palestine has been turned, brutally, into a permanent museum of colonialism whose doors should have closed long ago.

 On a recent visit to Palestine (I belong to a category of Jordanian Palestinians who can visit Palestine using an Israeli-issued ID card), a Palestinian friend of mine in Ramallah invited me to drive with him to Bethlehem. Thirty minutes into the trip, we stopped at an Israeli checkpoint, pulling into a huge queue of cars. The place was engulfed by an apathetic silence, perhaps indicative of how normal the situation was for those experiencing it. I, however, felt increasingly impatient, and I asked my friend if it would take too long before we were allowed to move. My friend responded, rather sarcastically, “This is Palestine. You can never predict when to move or to stop. People have lost any sense of what a meeting time means. You arrive when you arrive.”

Welcome to Palestine – an open-air museum of colonialism.

For most people nowadays, colonialism is part of a bygone era. The majority of the world’s population has no first-hand experience of it, and many cannot imagine what it means to live under total foreign control. Today we have museums of colonialism, where people can go to learn about how this form of rule affected natives’ freedoms to live, to move, to speak, to work, and even to die peacefully. We live (supposedly) in a postcolonial world, and museums of colonialism serve to transport visitors back to a cruel era, granting them a glimpse of the damage this type of governance wrought on native communities.

What if, however, there were an actual place in our world today where colonialism and post-colonialism co-existed? Herein lies the sad, almost incomprehensible Palestinian contribution to the museum industry. If museums of colonialism reimagine the past in a modern setting, Palestine is both past and present – a colonial and postcolonial reality. In Palestine, there is no need to create a museum of colonialism: the whole country functions as such.

At any museum, you can expect to be able to explore different sections on different themes. The same holds true in Palestine – it has various sections, each displaying a different layer of colonialism. There is the West Bank, where you can see illegal Israeli settlements, expropriated land, a separation wall, and a physically controlled population. Then there is Gaza, where open-air museum meets open-air prison, as two million Palestinians have been living under an Israeli blockade for more than 15 years. And if you are more into surveying a surreal case of colonialism, then head to Israel proper and find out how Palestinians who stayed in historic Palestine after the foundation of Israel live. There, you will learn about stolen houses, demolished villages, second-class citizens, and institutionalized racism.

Open-air museums seek to give visitors a direct experience of what it was like to live in the past. When I tell foreign friends that settler-only roads surround my tiny village, Burin, located a few kilometres southwest of Nablus in the West Bank, they respond with a disbelieving gasp. For many, it is inconceivable to imagine colonial-era conditions in our time, and yet they have been the status quo in Palestine for decades. People who would like to learn about colonialism need look no further than Palestine. It is colonialism incarnate.

Recognizing 21st century Palestine as an open-air museum of colonialism casts the longstanding Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a different light. During the latest war in Gaza, some supporters of Israel legitimized its use of force by noting that any sovereign state would have reacted similarly to defend itself had it been under rocket fire from another state. Hamas launched rockets into Israeli territory, so this logic goes, and so Israel has a right to fight back.

This repeated argument ignores one crucial reality of the situation: Gaza is not a state. The West Bank is not a state either. In fact, there is no Palestinian state. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is not one between two sovereign states. Rather, it is a conflict between a colonized people and their colonizer.

Framing Palestine as a colonial question is essential to understanding the peculiarity of the Palestinian condition. For many people around the world, Palestine is an enigma. How is it that for so long Palestinians have been stuck in a situation that is seemingly so unchangeable, fixed, intractable? Statelessness, uprooting, refugeehood, and resistance have practically become permanent descriptors of Palestinians. The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis has evolved into a cornerstone of our modern soundscape – something always happens there, except what happens never brings about any serious change to the status quo.

If Palestine is often viewed as a persistent dilemma whose resolution is long overdue, it is because Palestine is more of an anomaly than an enigma. Palestinians have not enjoyed the kind of history that most people in the colonial era have. In most cases, the story of former colonies followed a linear path: colonialism, anti-colonial struggle, and then independence – a new nation-state. This pattern was so forceful and the defeat of colonialism so successful that the last few decades have witnessed the emergence of a powerful new field of intellectual inquiry aptly named “postcolonial studies”. Ironically, one of the grand masters of this field was Palestinian – the late Edward Said.

Not so for Palestinians. Unlike other would-be nations in the Middle East, such as Jordan, Iraq, and Syria, Palestine did not witness an end to a British or French Mandate that would lead to the formation of an independent nation-state. Rather, the termination of the British Mandate of Palestine in 1948 led to what Palestinians view as another form of colonialism.

The Zionist movement, which would form Israel and result in the destruction of Palestinian society and the ethnic cleansing of Palestine (a series of events known in Palestinian historiography as the Nakba, or Catastrophe), has successfully managed to halt the linear progression of Palestinians’ path to self-determination. Both before and after 1948, Palestinians have been struggling to resist first, British and then, Zionist colonialism; realize their dream of a free, independent state; and cast off their own specific, multilayered experiences of imperialism.

Put bluntly, Palestinians have yet to enter the postcolonial world order. As individuals, they live in the 21st century, but as a stateless nation, they are still captive to the pre-1948 colonial moment. This is the anomaly of Palestinian time: as Columbia University professor Joseph Massad characterizes it, Palestine can be understood as a “postcolonial colony”, a region where two periods, two world views, two eras, fiercely collide. This is why it functions as an open-air museum of colonialism – it is at once past and present, with the exploitative policies and practices of colonialism on perpetual d isplay.

It is dangerous to view Palestine as solely a human rights issue – it is drastically more. Palestinians are a living demonstration of what colonialism looks like. They simultaneously belong and do not belong to the postcolonial order. For them, 1948 is not just a memory – it is an ongoing reality, a moment in time that has been stretched to define who they are, and who they are not. Palestine has been turned, brutally, into a permanent museum of colonialism whose doors should have closed long ago.

Omar Khalifah is an associate professor of Arabic literature and culture at Georgetown University in Qatar