“The acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist was gunned down in London in 1987. His attackers have never been identified. Naji al-Ali’s cartoons were famous across the Middle East. Through his images he criticized Israeli and US policy in the region, but unlike many, he also lambasted Arab despotic regimes and the leadership of the PLO. His signature character was called Handala – a poor Palestinian refugee child with spiky hair, who would always appear, facing away with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the events depicted in the cartoon. Alex Last has been speaking to his son, Khalid, about his father’s life and death.”
Despite that synopsis, listeners actually hear very little about the substance of Ali’s criticism of Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership and even less about how that may have been connected to his murder. They do however hear promotion of the familiar context-free narrative of displaced Palestinians with no responsibility for or connection to the events that resulted in their displacement.
Erasing the essential words ‘British Mandate’ from his use of the term Palestine, presenter Alex Last introduces his guest:
Last: “Some fifty years earlier Naji al Ali was born in a village in Galilee in 1936 in what was then Palestine. Khalid al Ali is Naji’s eldest son.”
Ali: “The village had Muslims, Christians and Jews and they’re all playing together and sharing things together, I mean, in the village square, so he had a happy life, a normal life.”
The 1931 census shows that the village concerned – al Shajara in the sub-district of Tiberias – had at the time 584 residents: 556 Muslims and 28 Christians – but no Jews. A similar demographic make-up appears in the 1945 census. In contrast to the idyllic impression created by Ali, the villagers of al Shajara frequently attacked their Jewish neighbours in the moshava Sejera (known today as Ilaniya) during the ‘Arab Revolt‘ that began in 1936.
Listeners then hear Last say:
Last: “But in 1948, following the creation of the State of Israel and in the fighting that ensued, at least three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs either fled or were driven from their homes. Naji, his family and the other Palestinian Arabs in their village were among them. They became refugees. Naji ended up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. It was an experience that would define him.”
Contrary to the impression given by Last, the fighting did not break out after and because of “the creation of the State of Israel” but had begun well before that event took place following Arab rejection of the Partition Plan in November 1947. Listeners are not informed of the all important context of the infiltration of the Arab League’s ‘Arab Liberation Army’ into the Galilee in early January of 1948 and the series of attacks it launched against Jewish communities in the region, including the moshava Sejera. The fighting in Naji al Ali’s village of al Shajara actually took place on May 6th 1948 – eight days before Israel declared independence.
The narrative of passive victims with no responsibility for the conflict that saw them displaced is then further promoted by Ali.
Ali: “Being used to your surroundings, being part of the family, the wider villages, this overnight ended completely and that was a great shock. And suddenly [they] became refugees in a tent. There’s no income. They lost their land. They’ve lost their businesses. No end of [in] sight in a way. It was imprinted on them. I mean my father, his main agenda is Palestine. For him, till the last day of his life he wanted to go back to his village, he wanted to go back to Palestine. It’s very straightforward, it’s very simple. He could not see why not.”
A similarly context-free representation comes at 05:05 when Last tells listeners:
Last: “In 1982 Naji was in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps; events which, says Khalid, had a profound effect on his father.”
Audiences are not informed that – despite the impression they may very well have received from Last’s portrayal – the Sabra and Shatila massacres were carried out by a Lebanese Christian militia.
The programme ‘Witness’ purports to provide BBC World Service audiences with “the story of our times told by the people who were there”. All too often, however, we see that when the story relates to Israel, narrative takes priority over history.