The need for a Palestinian history from below

It’s time for Palestinian intellectuals to reclaim their people’s narrative and write a Palestinian history from below.

Palestine Iconic Ramzy Baroud op-ed Reuters
The collective memory of the Palestinian people must focus on what it means to be Palestinian, what they stand for as a nation, and why they have resisted for years, writes Baroud [Reuters]

The 1993 Oslo Accord is a critical juncture that shattered the cohesiveness of Palestinian discourse and weakened and divided the Palestinian people. However, it is not too late to remedy this through decisive and concentrated efforts that overcome the challenge of a Palestinian political viewpoint beholden to self-seeking political aspirations and competing factions.

In the absence of a Palestinian leadership populated by the Palestinian people themselves, intellectuals must safeguard and present the Palestinian story to the world with authenticity and balance. The clarity and integrity of the Palestinian story has been damaged and divided by Palestinian Authority (PA) tactics which remove Palestinian refugees’ right of return from their political platform.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, of the Fatah party, has actually stated that he has no interest in going back to Safad, the Palestinian town from which his family was expelled in 1948!

Such an attitude is expected from the so-called moderate Palestinian leadership, whose language and political outlook is still bound by the limits of Washington’s long espoused “peace process”; however, this kind of political pragmatism has ravaged the Palestinian narrative, distancing it from the on-going struggle of the Palestinian people.

Palestine is not a story of factions – they are but a by-product of a tumultuous and multifaceted history of colonialism and resistance, foreign political and ideological influences, and the fierce competition of various social movements.

Of course, it would be remiss to blame the misrepresentation of Palestine solely on Palestinian leadership – it is also the result of a domineering Zionist narrative that seeks to erase reality.

A history of resistance and the “self”

Essentially, the story of Palestine is the story of the Palestinian people, for they are the victims of oppression and the main channel of resistance, starting with the creation of Israel on the ruins of Palestinian villages in 1948. If Palestinians hadn’t resisted, their story would have concluded right then and there, and they too would have disappeared. 

Those who admonish Palestinian resistance, armed or otherwise, have little understanding of the psychological ramifications of resistance, such as a sense of collective empowerment and hope amongst the people. In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth”, Jean-Paul Sartre describes violent resistance as a process through which “a man is re-creating himself”.

And for 70 years, Palestinians have embarked on this journey of the recreation of the “self”. They resisted, and their resistance in all forms moulded a sense of collective unity, despite the numerous divides that have been erected amongst them.

A new articulation of the Palestinian narrative is necessary now more than ever before.


Relentless resistance, a notion now embodied in the very fabric of Palestinian society, denied the oppressor the opportunity to emasculate Palestinians or reduce them to helpless victims and hapless refugees. The collective memory of the Palestinian people must focus on what it means to be Palestinian, defining the Palestinian people, what they stand for as a nation, and why they have resisted for years. 

Time to move away from intellectual elitism

A new articulation of the Palestinian narrative is necessary now more than ever before. The elitist interpretation of Palestine has failed, and is as worthless as the Oslo Accords. It is no more than a tired exercise in empty clichés aimed at sustaining American political dominance in Palestine as well as in the rest of the Middle East. 

The Great Man Theory, which stipulates that all-powerful individuals shape history, is an embarrassment that has far too long defined how Palestinian discourse has been relayed. Portraying Palestine through this lens is a stain on the forehead of many intellectuals. 

This is reductionist discourse which has marginalised the Palestinian people, their suffering and their heroism for decades, instead favouring well-dressed Palestinian negotiators speaking pompously of a “peace process” and “painful compromises”, as if it is acceptable for the rights and freedoms of an entire nation to be reduced to a bargaining chip.

The truth is vastly different from such media distortions. The peace process is dead, but the Palestinian people are still resisting; unsurprisingly, the people are mightier than a group of self-centred individuals. Grassroots resistance is not constrained by the frivolous politicking of Abbas or any other actors.

Abbas and his men have not only muzzled the political will of the Palestinian people and falsely claimed to represent all Palestinians; they have also robbed Palestinians of their narrative, one that actually unites the fellahin (peasants) and the refugees, the occupied and the shattat (diaspora), into one distinct nation.

It is only when the Palestinian intellectual is able to repossess that collective narrative that the confines placed on the Palestinian voice can be finally broken. Only then can Palestinians truly confront the Israeli Hasbra and US-Western corporate media propaganda, and, at long last, speak unhindered. 

Perhaps most importantly, if the story of the people is to be told accurately and fairly, the storyteller must be a Palestinian. This is not a veiled ethnocentric sentiment, but rather confirmation that facts change in the process of interpretation, as explained by late Palestinian professor Edward Said, “Facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation…Interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is and at what historical moment the interpretation takes place”.

Dr Soha Abdel Kader describes Middle East history studies as generally “bearing the imprint of orientalism”, with limited sources and methodologies used to study the region. The same is true of Palestinian studies. Most notable since the peace process commenced, Palestinian historiography largely neglected ordinary people and remained hostage to narrating the history of the elites, their political institutions, diplomatic events, and their self-indulgent understanding of conflict, whether socioeconomically or conflict-wise.

Among the average Palestinian citizen, however, “history from below” is what captures attention. “Adab al-sijun” (prison literature) has remained a staple in most Palestinian book stores and libraries until this day. “History from below“, in contrast to “the Great Man Theory”, contends that while individuals or small social groups (ruling elites and their benefactors) might prompt certain landmark events, it is largely popular movements that significantly influence long-term outcomes.

The First Palestinian Intifada demonstrated this assertion. Thus, the constant calls for a “Third Intifada” by many Palestinians are not brought upon by a whim; rather, they come from the historical success of such movements from below. 

Palestinians presented as an inconvenience

There are obstacles to these calls for another popular movement led from below. There are the challenges of raising awareness and effective planning, as well as the ruthless attempt by Zionist (as well as many western) historians and institutions to replace the Palestinian historical narrative with their own.

In the Zionist Israeli narrative, Palestinians, if relevant at all are depicted as drifting nomads, an inconvenience that hinders the path of progress – a duplicate narrative to the one that defined the relationship between every western colonial power and the resisting natives, always.

It is incumbent upon us - not only Palestinians, but those who wish to present a truthful understanding of our historic struggle - to reclaim the Palestinian narrative and dislocate the propaganda-driven Zionist on


From the Zionist point of view, Palestinian existence is an inconvenience that was meant to be only temporary. “We must expel Arabs and take their places,” wrote Israel’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. 

This type of brazen discourse has consistently translated to the kind of military aggression that ethnically cleansed nearly a million Palestinians from their land in 1947-48 and continues to drive the colonial settlements enterprise in the Occupied Territories. 

This narrative continues to be championed by historians, media and political scientists without much quarrel. In his 2004 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Israeli historian Benny Morris’ views on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians exemplifies the depth of moral depravity of the Israeli narrative: “I don’t think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands…There was no choice but to expel that population”. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Assigning Palestinian people the role of dislocated, disinherited and nomadic people without caring about the ethical and political implications of such false representations has erroneously presented Palestinians as a docile and submissive collective to be wiped out by those more powerful. 

Nothing could be further from the truth, and Palestinian resistance is the unremitting example of the strength and resilience of the Palestinian people. 

Yes, the fight has been an arduous one. Between the rock of Israeli occupation and Hasbara, and the hard place of Palestinian leadership acquiescence and failure, Palestine, Palestinians and their story have been trapped and misconstrued.

It is time for us to step up. We, as Palestinian writers, historians and journalists, assume the responsibility of reinterpreting Palestinian history and internalising and communicating Palestinian voices, so that the rest of the world can, for once, appreciate the story as told by wounded but tenacious victors.

It is incumbent upon us – not only Palestinians, but those who wish to present a truthful understanding of our historic struggle – to reclaim the Palestinian narrative and dislocate the propaganda-driven Zionist one. The story must now focus wholly on the lives, perspectives and representations of ordinary people – refugees, poor, underclass and working-class Palestinians. It is they who truly epitomise Palestine, not Abbas and his imaginary peace process. 

Ramzy Baroud’s newly-released book ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story‘ tells the story of Palestine through the ongoing struggle of the refugees – Published by Pluto Press, London, 2018 and distributed in the United States by University of Chicago Press)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.