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  Archive in the International & Palestinian Concept

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

On April eighteenth two thousand and nineteen at twelve in the afternoon Rula Shahwan the director of the Policy and Conflict Resolution Study Center (PCRSC) at the Arab American University facilitated and hosted a talk at the Ramallah campus in cooperation with the Swiss Peace Foundation.  The topic concerning the talk was that of the Palestinian Archive, collective memory and the role it plays for the Palestinian community.  Rula began the presentation with a photo that was taken by a Palestinian journalist in 2007 who captured the devastating image of the archive in Gaza that was thrown away in a dump and cemetery by the Hamas Authorities.  This tragic and profound photo devastatingly illustrates the long history of how Israel, and not just Hamas, purposely facilitated the loss of such precious historical documents, films, ethnographic works and texts and how this has had a tangible impact on the Palestinian collective identity over the past 71 years.  The fragmentation and destruction of the Palestinian history according to Shahwan after 1948 has also had a direct affect on the collective wisdom of the Palestinian community.  The settler-colonial Zionist-Israeli occupation, has purposely dismantled, destroyed and stolen from various Palestinian archives, and historical documents.  This was, and still is an official tactic used by Israel, the destruction shown in the photo was only the latest in a long history of theft and destruction of Palestinian artifacts. This sure tactic of erasure and cleansing by the extensive network of Israeli-Zionist colonial governmental and academic institutions has been an operative method to systematically appropriate Palestinian culture, control the colonial narrative of Israel, and deny Palestinian presence on, as well as access, to the land.       

            Rula went on to explain the direct connection between remembering and forgetting and how the archive plays into this important mechanism of memory supported with the scholarship of Michel Foucault, Maurice Halbwachs, and Aleida Assman.  She carefully articulated how this construction of memory and forgetfulness are a human propensity and not polar opposites.  They are interlinked and this is why societies need archives in order to counteract and keep at bay the state of forgetfulness.  There are many issues that come about with the construction of the archive and because Israel has done such a thorough job at destroying Palestinian archives, they have had the ability to construct the narrative of not only the Zionist-Israeli society, but also that of the Palestinian society as well.  They control the narratives both among themselves, as well as transnationally. Edward Said’s theory on Orientalism as well as Foucault’s theory on hegemonic power were used by Rula to break down how colonial powers such as Israel and the US have used the archive as a site of power.  “Whoever controls knowledge has the power…whoever has the power controls the narrative” (Shahwan 4-18-2019).  Institutions that hold archives can control and hide materials depending on what narrative they want to advance and this in the end is meant to preserve colonial power.  As we can see this was of course done by Israel to the Palestinians for over 71 years, but Hamas, as shown in the photo, also did this in order to establish their rule over Gaza and to help them advance a particular narrative of power and resistance.  Palestinian collective memory is being attacked from external as well as internal forces and this makes the construction of a carefully thought out Palestinian archive that much more difficult and yet urgent.  Rula did end her presentation on a positive note, despite the difficulties and loss that Palestinians have endured and experienced the Research Center at the Arab American University in Ramallah has under her direction worked hard to digitalize Palestinian footage of historical Parliamentary sessions.  The university is working hard to create an archive that can be accessed by academics, officials, and researchers all over Palestine as well as transnationally.  This will not only help to shift the power of the narrative back into the hands of the Palestinians, but it will help to bridge the academic and cultural gap that 71 years of erasure and cleansing has had on Palestinians and Palestine.

            A series of speakers presented after Rula, the first to speak was Ursina Bentele.  She works with Swiss Peace and flew in from Switzerland in order to show us in real time how to use the new database for the archive that she and her colleagues have put together.   This project asserts that creating a “Meta-Structure” for the archive allows for much needed access and transparency among archives around the world that will inevitably allow for a way to facilitate conflict resolution among countries and societies.  Ursina explained that this can happen through a greater visibility of archival material and the ability to access these materials from anywhere, as well as creating new ways of linking and connecting resources and archives transnationally on this database.  If there is no ability for open access then, as we see with the example of Palestine, the people are not only suffering due to the loss of cultural wisdom and collective memory, but have little power in negotiating for conflict resolution because all of the official power lies in the hands of those who own history and the narrative. 

This meta-structure database also allows for the materials to be put in larger and different contexts.  Giving room for comparison of documents in a way that have not been possible previously due the documents existing in different databases and archives transnationally.  Ursina exhibited how Swiss Peace is able to collaborate and works with a number of smaller archives from around the world through this database.  She demonstrated in real time how easy it was to pull up documents that deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on the one hand and documents on Argentina on the other.   The emphasis of this system being a collaboration-based project that links materials together helping to facilitate conflict resolution by creating links between the materials, organizations, persons, and geographical places that had not been available before is turning the archive into a practical tool for conflict resolution and not just a place to house documents for research and academic purposes.  When transparency is upheld and documents are widely dispersed and not hidden among colonial institutions it proves easier to build and make a case against one’s oppressors.  When colonial institutions keep documents, artifacts, and testimonies hidden it becomes difficult to prove any wrong doings, making it impossible to reclaim communal wisdom, memory, and narratives let alone embark on the long journey for justice, conflict resolution, and reconciliation.  Ursina diligently demonstrated how this database opens the door for joint action in memory work and that this make marginalized and oppressed communities stronger in their struggle for justice and community building.  The database holds a variety of texts and artifacts such as testimonies, topography of memory (maps and other important documents that show locations of transgressions) and this gives visibility to places where repressive actions took place, publications, and exhibitions.  This tool opens a level of transparency that can help with the legal, cultural, historical, political, and economical struggles that many oppressed communities find difficult to bring to the international courts without the proper access to the documents that will help them prove their cases.

            Fawaz Salameh was the third presenter of the talk, and he expressed the difficulties he has had in trying to connect and unify archives across Palestine.  He outlined the political, and social strains that have made it impossible to get the Palestinian Authority to realize just how important it is to do the work that Ursina had previously outlined, but with the archives across Palestine.  He noted that each archive is small and is not interconnected with any of the others.  Each is run by a different organization or person who will have their own rules as to who can access the archive. This current state for fragmentation makes it difficult for researchers, academics, or other people to access the texts and artifacts inside these important sites.  In many ways the Palestinian archives reflect the fractures and divisions that Palestinian society has struggled with due to the fact that Palestinians have been living in a state of homelessness and have been separated from their villages, cities and towns since 1948.  Most in the West Bank and Gaza are refugees twice over, and this is not to forget the Palestinians living in refugee camps in neighboring Arab states, or those living in diaspora transnationally.  This dislocation compounded with the theft of Palestinian historical documents, artifacts, films, and so forth by Israel has created a state of collective amnesia that experts like Fawaz and Rula are trying desperately to combat. Fawaz took the time to go into depth into all the layers of this complex and difficult problem, his talk further highlights the importance of working collectively to rebuild the Palestinian Archive into an interconnective and collaborative project that will help to bring the multivocal collective narrative and memory of Palestine into a place where it can be accessed by the masses and used to influence academic research, governmental and international policy, as well as seek justice.  This archive or network of archives will be an important key to place power in the hands of Palestinians to stand as equal partners in their own internal as well as transnational process of conflict resolution.

            Lastly Ursina’s colleague Corsin Blumenthal gave a presentation on how the archive can help to deal with the past in a different capacity than that of the Meta-Structure Database.  He discussed how the archive can be used to serve what he called “Transitional Justice”, which as he defined as, “dealing with a violent past or abuses in order to ensure accountability and to achieve justice which can lead to peace.” (Blumenthal 4-18-2019).  Here Corsin used the work of Jacque Derrida to put forth the notion that the question of the archive is not one of the past, but one of the future and for the promise of tomorrow.  These archives are meant to help societies deal with the large-scale transgressions and abuses of the past (as well those that are still currently taking place).  To make sure, through the transparency of the archive, that accountability is achieved and that this will hopefully lead to a form of reconciliation.  There are four distinct activities that are facilitated to deal with the past according to Corsin.  The first being, “The Right to Know”, which is defined as truth commissions, investigation panels, documentation, archives, history books, and missing persons.  The second being the “Right to Reparations”, which he defined as the process of rehabilitation, compensation, restitution, memorials, public apologies, commemorations, and educational materials.  Thirdly there is “The Right to Justice” which entails actions such as civil law suits and dispute mechanisms, international tribunals, domestic and hybrid courts, witness support and protections, and monitoring of trials.  Lastly there is the “Guarantee of Non-Recurrence” this process takes on the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former combatants, institutional reform, and democratic control of the security sector as well as vetting are all a part of this last phase in the four steps that Corsin and his colleagues at Swiss Peace put into place in order to help bring justice to brutalized communities.  These four steps promote and uphold the rule of law, affirm that there is no impunity for anyone, work to reach reconciliation, and most importantly the prevention of future abuses.

 The archive’s role in this process of transitional justice is not a small one.  As Corsin gave example after example it became clear that archives become a tool to create dialogue, establish counter-narratives, and document various perspectives regarding incidents concerning a conflict.  The archives that he helped the marginalized and oppressed communities in South America build became a strong source of evidence, a space where people could research and become educated about the conflict, exhibitions are created inside these archives to help local artists, academics, and community members to express and display the evidence of the abuses they suffered and build their own narratives and collective memory.  Archives, as Corsin emphasized in his presentation, become the symbolic remembrance of the injustices of the past.  This is done through the ability to facilitate dialogue between two or more parties because the archive presents the documents that forces everyone to come together and be accountable for what took place. 

            After these dynamic and contemplative talks there was a robust and interactive discussion about how to think about these models when it comes to dealing with the complex situation of Palestine and her archives.  There was intense conversation about how despite the move to create more transparency and accessibility to these archives through partnerships and new structures of archival databases by foundations such as Swiss Peace, there is still the issue of regulation and laws dealing with accessibility of important documents from governments transnationally.  Despite the setbacks, pitfalls, legal restrictions, and complex issues that researchers, academics, and experts find themselves grappling with, this talk brought up many tangible ways in which not only to envision the Palestinian Archive and its role within a fractured and occupied society, but how to functionally put into practice a space where the past and the present are brought together in communication under the ownership of a collective Palestinian people.   Where Palestinians from all fields and levels of society can start to think about the process that will help them reach justice, even if it is on the symbolic level of the archive.  Where a collective process of healing, construction of a collective identity, and the protection of a collective memory will be able to stave off the ravages of 71 years of erasure, cleansing, and forgetfulness.  A space where power is shifted out of the hands of the powerful and brought back to the new home of the Palestinian narrative, that of a decolonized and collaborative Palestinian Archive.