There was a shortage of suitcases in the aftermath of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut. Stories circulate of how individuals stuffed into bags whatever paper and film they could get their hands on. Keenly aware of the impending doom about to descend on the city, people scrambled to save—or destroy—documents from the offices of the political, cultural and social institutions of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO, an umbrella organisation for several factions working for the liberation of Palestine). In a situation where the possession of documents was incriminating, people buried plastic bags in plant pots or threw heaps of documents down elevator pits. Loaded into suitcases and boarded onto ships, these documents travelled far and wide. Some resurfaced decades later, while others are yet to be found. Most archives, however, remained in place and were either destroyed or looted by the Israeli military. They joined other traces left behind by the uprooted Palestinians, looted by the colonisers and labelled by the Israeli archives as ‘Abandoned Property’.
Abandonment, whether of land or of archival material, is an absurd concept for a people whose main struggle has been to remain or return. Various forms of action—individual or collective, material or symbolic—have aimed at reclaiming and asserting our right to everything that we were forced to leave behind. This is as true for land as it is for material culture. For a people whose very history is an active battleground, the question of archives looms large. How can we write our own history when we are banned from the land, let alone the archive? How can we assemble the patchwork quilt of stories across the many geographies where Palestinians dwell?
Archives are inherently political. Palestinian archives—like other records of peoples engaged in anti-colonial struggle—have been lost, damaged, appropriated, redacted, looted and, in some rare cases, returned. The itineraries of these archives are as telling as their content, and the struggle over them is a microcosm of the broader anticolonial struggle. The archival terrain of Palestine can be understood through three broad sets of processes, each reflecting a different political vision of Palestine.
The first is the erasure, theft and destruction of archives by the Israeli state, military and civilians. Since establishment, Israel has been looting Palestinian libraries and archives, and amassing a large reserve of Palestinian documents, much of it is accessible only to scholars loyal to the regime. In addition, and as part of its systematic targeting of Palestinians wherever they exist, Israel has destroyed a significant portion of Palestinians’ material culture. This continuing archival erasure is reflective of a vision where Palestine and the Palestinians cease to exist. It is an ongoing project of erasure that continues to fail on both archival and political fronts.
The second is the Palestinian Authority (PA)’s archival efforts, or lack thereof. The PA is the governing body in the West Bank, it is largely unrepresentative and widely regarded as a proverbial subcontractor for the Israeli military. It was created in the aftermath of the Oslo Accords in 1993, an agreement that theorist Edward Said described as ‘an instrument of Palestinian surrender, a Palestinian Versailles’. The PA’s archive is reflective of a disfigured, dismembered, and hollow Palestine, it reflects a Mickey Mouse state that fears its people and lives under the coloniser’s thumb. Thirty years later, the Oslo Accords have resulted in a besieged Gaza and a divided West Bank—a set of disjointed enclaves with a veneer of self-governance. The enclaves are divided into areas A, B, and C, with area C (a continuous 60% of the territory) being under full Israeli control. A far cry from a state, the PA has further contributed to segregating Palestinians in the West Bank from their wider extension in historic Palestine and beyond.
The PA’s ‘national’ archive concerns itself only with the records produced in the West Bank enclaves after 1993. It explicitly excludes the majority of the Palestinian people from its official archive. Yet, far from delegitimising the Palestinian people’s rights, this archival (and political) erasure has in fact, further delegitimised the Authority itself. The PA’s archives are nonetheless important, firstly because they contain the administrative and social records of a portion of Palestinians’ history since 1993. Secondly, these sources are crucial for a full understanding of the history of collaboration with Israel. Like its predecessor known as the Village Leagues—Israeli sponsored local governance structures established in 1978—the PA is largely seen by Palestinians as a collaborator entity. This renders its records invaluable for a critical understanding of colonial governance in the twenty-first century.
The third category—an umbrella for a diverse set of practices—are efforts to reassemble Palestinian histories and lineages of resistance. This is reflective of a process of imagining the future of Palestine. The actors involved in this effort are diverse and uncoordinated, ranging from former figures in the PLO to academics, archivists, artists and the general public. They range from grassroots low-cost projects in people’s attics and basements to large and well-endowed projects housed in academic and art institutions. The records collected date back to the turn of the twentieth century and extend from Chile to Japan passing through Palestine. They excavate colonial tactics, revolutions, intifadas and the quotidian life and work of Palestinians everywhere. The majority, however, focuses on the Palestinian national liberation movement starting in the late 1960s and up until the Oslo Accords. These focus on the liberation of Palestine and its intersections with a global anti-colonial moment. They contain analogue and digital material across mediums: maps, films, photos, artworks documents and oral histories. They can be open or restricted, organised or scattered. They tell stories of social, political, cultural, economic and infrastructural labour.
The archival initiatives in this third category excavate a shared fragmented history in search for answers, animated by questions about the very make-up of Palestine and the Palestinians. The answers they may yield have the potential to reshape our collective visions of the future. Just like those who produced them, these efforts are decentralised but not necessarily fragmented, connected as they are by the underlying goal of pushing back the very tide of fragmentation wrought on Palestinians by Zionist colonisation. As the horizon of past political projects fades, these initiatives are part of a trans-geographical frenzy to imagine and produce alternatives. They resemble a subterranean network of mycelium, as the micro-scale operation of the networks’ interconnected parts has a much larger impact on a broader ecological scale.
I do not seek to romanticise archival initiatives and the political imaginaries that underly them, but I am suggesting that we draw inspiration from these subterranean networks. This would allow us to maintain the decentralisation of archives and narratives, prevent the development of a singular, central narrative, allow for interconnected growth and learning, all while remaining alert to the dangers of annihilation and appropriation that is posed by the Israeli colonial authority and its Palestinian subsidiary organs.
Are the efforts to rebuild the archive fuelled by nostalgia for a time when politics seemed more productive? Perhaps, but only partially. In the process of reconstituting archival collections, political meaning is produced. As histories are reconstructed, a political process of collective learning is sustained and enriched. Whereas the above categorisation of three Palestines is of limited purchase when it comes to the collections themselves—as the collections often travel between sites of creation, captivity and erasure—they help us to understand how archives serve as spaces for meaning-making. When Palestinian documents are held in Israeli repositories, they are employed to normalise the status of Palestine as a colony. When these documents are held by the Palestinian Authority, they advance the narrative of a quasi-state. And when those archives are excavated by Palestinian archival fever, they produce a Palestine as an emancipatory material and political landscape for all its people. These new archival projects by Palestinians are attempts to build an alternative political imaginary—or provide others with the tools to do so—at our present moment of great upheaval and defiance.
* A version of this text was first published in the book Ce que la Palestine apporte au monde (What Palestine brings to the world), collection ARABORAMA, IMA/Seuil, 2023.