The Kites of Jabalia
Shlomo Sand on the image and reality of the conflicts between Israel and Palestine.
Hassan was twelve years old when he fell victim to the bullets of an elite Israeli gunman, in September 2018. He was struck while attempting to launch his new flaming kite, hoping that the wind would carry it east and set fire to the fields stolen from his ancestors by ‘the Zionists’.
Hassan was born in the refugee camp of Jabalia, into a family from Al-Majdal, a place that would in 1948 become Ashkelon. His grandfather had been born in this large Arab city in 1944, but was chased out in September 1950, two years after the creation of the state of Israel. Theirs was one of the last families expelled by the Israeli army from the ‘ghetto’ assigned them (this was what the Jewish inhabitants called the Arab zone); they were put onto lorries and sent to Gaza. His mother and father were both born in Gaza and grew up in the refugee camp, probably one of the most densely populated territories in the world. Hassan’s grandfather would tell him nostalgically about his native town, proudly explaining how they conducted their trade of weaving at home. On a visit to Israel in the 1990s, the old man was able to glimpse the ruins of the Arab town. All that remained was a mosque and the main street, now renamed after a major Jewish leader, Herzl. For several generations, the family had lived in a one-storey house on the corner of this street, which still existed. When the grandfather visited the town, long before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, this house was inhabited by a Russian family.
Throughout his life, Hassan had absorbed his family’s stories about the past. He knew that ‘the Zionists’ had taken away their house and their land. His parents had promised him that one day they would return. Despite overpopulation, poverty and pollution, life was possible in Jabalia, on the understanding that it was temporary. But for this it was necessary to struggle, to not give up. Just as they had got the colonies in the Gaza strip to leave, so they would one day succeed in returning to Al-Majdal. Hassan was one of the first to burn car tyres during the wave of demonstrations in front of the fence, also one of the first to launch kites; his kites were always bigger and more beautiful than those of his friends at the UNRWA school. After all, he was from Al-Majdal, and had to prove it.
This story is totally fictitious. Hassan never existed, and so could never have been killed by an Israeli gunman; he is simply a literary character. Who knows whether Al-Majdal is not also a figment of imagination, whether such a city ever existed? And if perchance it still exists in someone’s memory, its inhabitants were not chased out, they were kindly requested to leave their homes, which they abandoned of their own free will. The town of Ashkelon is the only real fact in this story; it is a modern Israeli city that has received thousands of Jewish immigrants, steadily growing since 1948.
The Israeli residents of Ashkelon, whose southern limit is only seven kilometres from the Gaza strip, do not understand why the Arabs have it in for them, why they dig tunnels, send missiles, and launch incendiary kites and balloons. Why are the Palestinians not prepared to live in peace with their neighbours across the frontier? The schoolchildren of Ashkelon have clearly never been taught anything about the inhabitants of Al-Majdal, and do not know that these were chased from their lands and their homes. But as they are well read in the Bible, they know that this land was promised to them by the Creator and has always been theirs, even when their parents and grandparents lived for nearly two thousand years in Byelorussia or Moldavia. True, their teachers sometimes have difficulty in explaining why Ashkelon is part of the Jewish homeland, given that this southern city was founded by Canaanites before being the successive seat of Philistines, Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Crusaders, then again of Arabs – this time for several centuries until 1948. It has always been possible, however, to maintain new arguments, according to which the country was almost empty of inhabitants when the Zionist pioneers began to establish themselves there in the late nineteenth century, whereas the Arabs only arrived later as immigrant workers. The fact that the first census conducted in 1917 showed that the Holy Land counted 700,000 Arabs and only 65,000 Jews, half of the latter being Orthodox religious anti-Zionists, has totally disappeared from official school textbooks.
A Jewish joke showing a familiar self-derision tells the story of a Jewish mother who says goodbye to her son when he is mobilized in the tsar’s army and sent to the front in the Crimean war. ‘Kill a Turk and then have a good rest’, says the mother. ‘Yes, mother,’ replies the well brought-up son. His mother puts a sandwich in his kit bag, and whispers into his ear: ‘When you’ve shot the Turks, sit down and eat what I’ve made you. Make sure you sit down and rest.’ ‘Of course, mother,’ the young man replies, but he suddenly reflects and asks: ‘What if the Turks kill me?’ The mother is quite astonished, looks at him and asks: ‘Why, whatever have you done to them?’
When we watch the Israeli media, or read Israeli press reports of the endless confrontation, we get the impression of being constantly faced with the descendants of this Jewish mother. The Palestinians are simply the heirs of eternal anti-Semitism. All anti-Zionists are anti-Semites, just like all the Judeophobes of history. That is why they want to take away our eternal homeland, and attack us by all criminal means available to them, even sending children to launch ‘terror kites’.
In 1956, Moshe Dayan delivered a famous speech at the funeral of Roi Rotberg, a member of the Nahal Oz kibbutz established just facing Gaza – a eulogy that has entered the Israeli canon: ‘Let’s not blame the murderers today. Why should we be surprised at their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in refugee camps in Gaza, and under their eyes we have taken over the land and the villages where they and their ancestors lived … We are a generation of colonists, and without steel helmets and guns we will not be able to plant a tree or build a home.’
Dayan was a believer in force, in the worst sense of the term, but he was less hypocritical than the majority of leaders and inhabitants of Israel, past and present. He did not have to wait for the books of Benny Morris or Ilan Pappe to understand the circumstances by which the conflict was created. As chief of the Israeli army’s southern command from 1948 to 1950, he incited and took the initiative in expelling the indigenous inhabitants of Al-Majdal. Dayan understood perfectly well the reasons for the frustration and hostility of the Palestinians, and he never felt the need to invent a mystifying and justifying narrative. The speech he delivered eight years after the Nakba has lost none of its pertinence seventy years later.
Shlomo Sand, professor emeritus, University of Tel Aviv
Translated by David Fernbach from Médiapart, 28 Sept 2018
 Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949, Cambridge University Press, 1987; Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Oneworld Publications, 2007.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]