Israelis and Palestinians: Contested Narratives
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Israelis and Palestinians:
Contested Narratives

Introduction

This article aims at confronting the Israeli and Palestinian constitutive clash of national historical narratives and their significance in shaping identities of “self” and “other” in the conflict and in constructing obstacles to conflict resolution. It looks into the historic junctions of decision making and appraises processes that left their imprint on collective memory and perceptions. Some of the major themes and histories are analyzed and explained within their own historical context in order to deconstruct demonized images. It addresses the questions: What is ‘narrative’? Why does the Palestinian narrative conflict and contrast sharply with the Israeli narrative? Why do Israelis and Palestinians object to the national interpretation of the other? Is there a solution to their conflicting claims and is this solution attainable peacefully, and without force and violence? How can we overcome the narrative barrier to conflict resolution and move from a past and present conflictual relationship to a future cooperative relationship?

The article also examines the most controversial central issues of the 1948 episode such as: The ‘Arab Invading Armies’ narrative, the ‘Palestinian Exodus’ narrative, and the conflicting narratives on Jerusalem. The emphasis on the 1948 episode is meant to bring about deeper awareness of the events that have played a role in shaping individual and collective consciousness. It is hoped that the mutual exposure to each other’s narrative insights and perspectives will serve the purpose of further educating us about our own narrative as well as the narrative of the other. [End Page 53]

On Narratives

The issue of narratives raises multifaceted and perplexing questions: What constitutes a “narrative”? Can narratives be useful? What do we want to disseminate through the use of narratives? For whom do we want to disseminate, and for what purpose? Do various national narratives need to conform in structure, content, and detail? What is the role of narrative in shaping the culture and history of a people in conflict?

Our assumption is that learning the personal narrative of the other helps to make us more understanding, and that therefore, personal narratives help to humanize the face of the enemy. We learn from the personal narratives of others about our own narrative. The past decades have seen an explosion of interest in personal narratives. Stories of man and nation have come to be viewed as a basic human strategy for coming to terms with time, memory, change, pain, and conflict.1

The Concept of Narrative

The word “narrative” comes from the Indo-European root “gna,” meaning both “to tell” and “to know.”2 Narratives are an account of events or a series of events, real or invented. They are stories which, unlike most plays and poems, are characterized by the presence of a narrator3 or a human agent who tells and transmits the story.4 In his landmark essay on narrative, Roland Barthes asserts: “Narrative is present in myth, legend, fable, tale, novella, epic, history, tragedy, drama, comedy, mime, painting, stained-glass windows, cinema, comics, news items, conversation.”5

Narratives range from the shortest accounts of events, as in Julius Caesar’s note to the Roman Senate on his victory in battle in 47 b.c.—“Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered)—to the longest historical or biographical works. They also include diaries, novels, epics, short stories, and long fictional forms, such as Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, and non-fiction such as Alex Haley’s saga of an American family, Roots. The formal aspects of narratives include narrative situations, techniques, and modes, and the temporal and spatial organization of events and representation of characters.

The entry of the term “narrative” into the social science lexicon is fairly old, though its entry into and use in political science is new.6 Cutting across many disciplines, narrative is becoming an integral part of various fields in the academy, including history, psychology, sociology, literature, religion, [End Page 54] politics, film, and theater. The concept is even penetrating into everyday conversations.

Narratives are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps one party to a conflict may...