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Now more than ever, words matter

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Historian Dr Tomás Mac Conmara writes about his time in Palestine considering recent events in Gaza.

Over recent weeks, as events in Gaza unfolded, I listened carefully to the words of many. Words of Israelis. Words of Palestinians. Media words. Words of an American President. Words of European leaders and of course, words of those in political leadership in Ireland. All these words are important. Words matter and words spoken at such times matter intensely. Words form stories and stories form narratives. Narratives form impressions. When unchallenged, they can sometimes become the truth. For much of the western media, events in Gaza commenced on 7th October. This of course is not the case.

In 2011, after many years of instinctive support for the Palestinian cause, I made the decision to travel there. I had read many books and studied the history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Yet I still understood little. I have always lived according to the principle that to know a place, to know its past or understand its present, one must get as close to the ground as possible. So, to bear witness to Palestinian suffering and to observe for myself, the true reality of occupation, I arranged a journey there, with the help of those involved in Palestinian solidarity. Officially part of a Holy Land tour, I and others, had arranged to be privately taken to various locations where we would be exposed to the daily reality for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. While it was ten days of intense revelation, three experiences, burned their way into my memory. In recent weeks they have played on my mind.

Four days into my stay there, I found myself in the outskirts of Bethlehem, where I sat with a family of Palestinians, invited by their daughter Rania upon her realization of my interest in oral history and memory. Her father, a calm man with a direct but friendly countenance, was a supporter of Fatah. Her mother, a gentle and delicately quite woman, told how her brother was a member of Hamas and had been in jail for fifteen years. One daughter wore the traditional clothing of her Islamic faith while declaring her socialist political outlook. Rania wore her uncovered brown hair down and spoke of her interest in rock music and bands like Rage against the Machine. A very different reality to the characterization of the Muslim family presented often in western media. A happy unity of difference, drawn together through the powerful cohesion of family, in addition to the common and resolute desire for their own freedom and that of their people.

When our meal was finished, I was brought to an adjacent small apartment. In there was the true reason for my visit, the ninety-three-year-old grandfather of Rania. Having explained my work in oral history, it was immediately arranged that I would meet her ‘Seedo’ (grandfather). I first saw his long legs reaching out from the chair where he sat, reading a book. His name was Yousef. He extended a hand as well a broad inviting smile. He could easily have been any of the hundreds of old men I had interviewed since my teenage years in Ireland. But Yousef was born in Palestine. He spoke no English and I no Arabic. Yet for over an hour, through the mediation of his granddaughter, we talked. I listened carefully to his words and although not understanding his language, could easily discern from the way he spoke, the quiet lament, embedded in his voice, words and expression.

He spoke about his childhood when he lived close to his Jewish neighbors. They exchanged gifts, cared for each other’s children, and lived in peace. Then the Zionists came. Then 1948 came. Then the Nakba came. The Zionists, whose radical movement led to the forcible creation of the Israeli state were different to Yousef’s Jewish neighbours. To create the state of Israel, the Zionists destroyed over 530 Palestinian villages. One of those villages, Al-Mirr in the Jaffa district, would later be converted into what is now Tel Aviv. No trace of Al-Mirr now exists, except in the memories and tradition of those whose native place it was, like Yousef. In 1948, approximately 13,000 Palestinians were killed by Zionist forces. Two of those were Yousef’s parents. Two more were his uncles and another, his aunt. More than 750,000 were expelled from their homes during that time. Yousef was just one of those driven from his home. He referred to this time as ‘al Nakba’, the Arabic term for ‘catastrophe’, the word chosen to characterize the moment their history changed. From that moment, until the day I listened to Yousef, he had not seen his home. Yousef’s words matter.

Days later, while moving between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, we arrived at one of innumerable Israeli checkpoints. Buses carrying tourists would not be delayed we were told. Visitors to the public face of Israel would be given a comforting experience. However, those on the bus could easily see that it was different for native Palestinians. They were not waved through. Palestinians on their way to work, had to move to the right of the road and form a long line through a narrow steel pin, whereupon Israeli soldiers would decide if and when they would continue. Before our bus proceeded quickly past this apartheid spectacle, both a man from Belfast and I decided to alight the bus and joined the train of Palestinians. Immediately ahead of us, an old woman in traditional Arabic dress, made her way glacially towards the military checkpoint. We walked slowly behind her. When she finally made her way to the barrier, she was pushed back by Israeli soldiers, who it seemed to me did not even listen to her request to pass. The old woman began to cry and exclaim words in Arabic, while pointing towards the other side of the barricade. We were told the woman was over eighty and came to that checkpoint every day. She was a native of a village called Ein Karem near Jerusalem, which had been taken over in 1948 and had since been denied the right of return. Her vigil to a miliary checkpoint was her daily act of defiance. Her words, we were told were simple and repeated: ‘My eyes burn to see my home’. The old woman’s words matter.

The third experience which has remained deeply embedded in my memory was a protest I attended in a place called Bil’in, west of Ramallah. There, we joined many others who had come to support Palestinians. There we approached an Israeli settlement. There we were fired on by Israeli soldiers. There we stood beside brave Israeli Jews who opposed their state’s occupation of Palestine. There, a Brazilian woman was shot in the face with a rubber bullet close to where I stood. There I met Ahmed. He was a thirty-two-year-old Palestinian, who each Friday walked towards that settlement in protest. After the turbulence and violence of the protest was over, Ahmed told me how part of the settlement we had just observed, fortified by Israeli military and filled with Israeli settlers, had once been his father’s farm. The land had been forcibly taken from his father who was killed during the episode, some fifteen years previously. The common bond of farming and that simple and relatable injustice created a connection with Ahmed, which we maintained through email over the years. In January of this year, I discovered that Ahmed was shot dead by Israeli soldiers in front of his son near his home in Ramallah. He was the thirteenth Palestinian killed in the first fifteen days of 2023. This was ten months before events on 7th October. Ahmed was a young man. He was the son of a murdered father. He is now the murdered father of a son. His death joins seamlessly with the countless thousands in Gaza, which result not from any event on 7th October, but from the continuing occupation and the willingness of the global politic to allow and in many ways, enable its perpetuation. Ahmed’s words matter.


In April 2022, I listened to the words of the then Taoiseach and current Tánaiste, Micheál Martin, as he was unequivocal in his support for Ukraine. On behalf of Ireland, he declared to President Vladimir Zelensky, ‘we stand with Ukraine’. He later was defiant in Kyiv, asserting he would ‘make no apology for speaking the truth about Russia’s immoral and illegal war’. Just eighteen months later, as the number of Palestinian children in Gaza blown apart by Israeli bombs reached over 5,000, Micheál Martin was pointedly less strident in his choice of words. Diplomatic language would be better we were told. The use of unequivocal rhetoric applied to encourage Ukraine’s resistance of a month-old Russian occupation, was markedly absent when it came to Palestine’s right to resist a near eight-decade oppression. The Tánaiste is of course joined by his Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and all government Ministers, who ‘unreservedly condemned the Hamas attack’, while they were ‘deeply concerned’ about the Israel bombardment of Gaza. Words matter. They matter when they are arranged into statements by western political leaders that frame the violence as symmetrical. There is no symmetry of experience between an occupier and the occupied. No symmetry between one of the world most powerful military machines, operating with outright immunity, and those who they have the power to starve at will.

With this explicit double standard echoed by western political leaders, one can only infer that the lives of Palestinians mean less to certain political leaders, including our own. Words matter. The focus of western words on events of October 7th are deliberate and revealing. Such concentration of the events of that day, belie the reality that before the seventh day of October, there was a sixth. Following this inversion of the Gregorian calendar reveals seventy-five years of days, back to the Nakba, each day an experience of occupation, in the name of Israeli security.

History, the Roman philosopher Cicero declared, is the teacher of life. My experience as a historian has shown me that very little remains truly lost to the past. Statements made and positions taken by political leaders in 2023 will echo throughout history. The inability of those in power to summon the conviction to confront the reality of a patently brutal and deliberate slaughter, will reverberate across time. When such cowardice of words is aligned with a hypocrisy that has never been so explicit, the nature of the historic moment becomes even more profound. We have witnessed all forms of masks slip and all arrangements of words fail to conceal the reality of a double standard at the heart of western politics.

That double standard underscores a deep and profound malady and only contributes to Israel’s siege mentality, delaying the inevitable realisation that one day must come. The root-cause of the seemingly inexorable violence is and always has been, the illegal occupation of Palestine territory as reflected in UN Security council resolution 2334. There is one but practical and ethical alternative to the Israeli state’s apparent determination to wipe out Palestine. That is a recognition of their humanity; their essential quality as human beings and their right to self-determination. This will come with a recognition that the same shackles that imprison Palestinians are also the fetters that tie Israel to a future with no peace, if peace is what they want.

Until there is a single standard in international relations and until the outrage of western political leaders is applied equally on behalf of Palestinians as it is on behalf of Ukrainians and Israelis, then the suffering of all will continue. Until then on every level – moral, political, or diplomatic, the words of these leaders only damage. But they will be remembered.

Yousef is now dead. So too is likely the old woman at the barricade. Their memories of a free Palestine in their youth vanish with them. It is a gripping reality that soon, there will be no Palestinian on earth, who will have ever lived a day of freedom in their lives. Not one man or woman, from the age of seventy-five to the babies now struggling for life in Egyptian hospitals, or those under rubble in Gaza have lived one day of freedom. Not one day. Like every human being, they were born with the right to dignity, the prize we are told is the preserve of every human in the twenty-first century. Yet it is denied.

I will never forget my experience in Palestine, where being closer to the ground helped me understand the resolute determination of its people. In that ground today are buried almost 15,000 new victims of an old injustice, each burial, planting seeds of memory that for generations will endure. The use of words to bury the truth behind their deaths will be remembered. Words matter.