Ibrahim Nasrallah: ‘The Arabs who said they were on our side deceived us’

The Jordanian-Palestinian novelist is pessimistic about peace with a far-right Israeli government and believes the West supports Israel to atone for past sins

Ibrahim Nasrallah
Jordanian-Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah at the Arab House in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez
Óscar Gutiérrez

Ibrahim Nasrallah, a Jordanian novelist and poet of Palestinian origin, says some readers of his novel, Time of White Horses (2007), have tried to locate Al Hadiya, the fictional town where the story unfolds in the years before the Nakba (the “catastrophe” in Arabic, after the newly established state of Israel expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their lands). Although some thought they were close to finding Al Hadiya, their efforts were unsuccessful, of course. In an interview at the Arab House in Madrid where he presented the Spanish-language edition of his novel, Nasrallah said Al Hadiya (“the quiet place” in Arabic) is a symbolic representation of the essence of the Palestinian question.

Nasrallah is a notable figure in Arab culture who won the prestigious International Prize for Arab Fiction in 2018 for his novel, The Second Dog War. The tragic problem of Palestine led his family to abandon their home in the Gaza town of Al Bureij 75 years ago, eventually settling in the Jordanian capital. However, their hearts still belong to Palestine.

Question. In Israel, some argue that the Nakba expulsions never happened or were justified by the 1948 war declared on Israel by Arab countries.

Answer. Several Israeli historians, including Ilan Pappé, have researched this matter extensively and acknowledged it was ethnic cleansing. Arabs are not the only ones who describe it as such.

Q. Your parents told you that they were forcibly expelled?

A. Yes, it’s our family’s story. I wrote Time of White Horses because I wanted to reclaim my homeland, which the Israelis took from me. Through this novel, I aimed to reconnect with my childhood, my parents, and my grandfather’s past. These were experiences I didn’t personally live through, but felt compelled to share with everyone.

Those who commit such injustices lie for their own benefit. In recent weeks, we have heard numerous Israeli lies, and we are not alone in calling them out. According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, many of the casualties on October 7 were caused by an Israeli helicopter firing upon the music festival. Initially, Israel reported 1,400 deaths, which was later revised down to 1,200.

Q. Over 75 years since the Nakba, we are once again witnessing the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. How does it make you feel when you see this?

A. The Nakba has been an ongoing tragedy. As long as there are people suffering from the loss of their homeland, the Nakba continues, echoing what transpired in 1948. It includes the plight of those who yearned to return, but couldn’t, the restriction on Palestinians visiting their villages, the occupation of historic Palestine in 1967, the imprisonment of millions of Palestinians, the destruction of millions of olive and other trees, and the current situation in Gaza. Let us hope to avoid another such devastating experience in the future.

Ibrahim Nasrallah
Ibrahim Nasrallah at the Arab House in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez

Q. You have lived in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, giving you a good understanding of the long-running conflict with Israel. Do you feel more distant from Palestine than ever before?

A. The Palestinian question is very serious. Many Western countries, including the United States and the European Union, support Israel to atone for past sins. And the Arabs who said they were on our side deceived us. Palestinians have always stood alone, which explains their remarkable resilience. If this ever weakens, it will lead to their ultimate downfall.

Q. Which countries in the region do you think should get more involved?

A. When I say the Arabs deceived us, I’m referring to the armies they sent to Palestine in 1948 that were subservient to British colonialism. The British issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which played a significant role in supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. So, how could these Arab armies effectively fight the British in 1948? How can the Arab regimes allied with the United States fight Israel today?

Q. The October 7 attack by Hamas was barbaric. How do you explain that level of violence?

A. Israeli propaganda presented it that way, but little was said about the extensive Israeli violence in Gaza and the West Bank for decades. The events on October 7 were a result of the suffering endured by Palestinians at the hands of Zionists for over a century. It’s crucial to remember that Palestine is under occupation. Israel severely limits its water, electricity, medicine and healthcare. With a population of 2.3 million, Gaza is effectively the world’s largest prison — it was a pressure cooker ready to explode.

The relentless violence against Palestinians had to come to an end eventually. Had the circumstances in Gaza been different, the events of October 7 might have been avoided. You should read the letter written by one of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas. I was moved by her description of how her daughter felt like royalty in Gaza. But the Israelis keep on killing and show no signs of stopping. It’s time to stop demonizing the Palestinians.

Q. In our collective imagination, Palestine is a land engulfed in perpetual conflict, a stark contrast to its literary heritage.

A. I once remarked that for Israeli writers to make an impact on the global stage, they only need to draw upon their tragedies, while Palestinian writers must bury theirs. This reality is disheartening. Israeli writers enjoy abundant opportunities in theater, television and print media, where their voices are rarely silenced. Conversely, my literary agent laments the arduous efforts we Palestinians must make to secure publishers and connect with readers.

Q. Hamas is an extremist militia, just as the Israeli government can be described as ultra-nationalistic. Do these two entrenched positions feed off each other?

A. In every war, it is the human beings who suffer the most. We must not overlook the fact that Palestinian lands are currently under Israeli occupation. According to international law, individuals under occupation have the right to self-defense. Of course, if the U.N. were to ever declare slavery as a human right, we would certainly stop in disbelief [Laughs].

Q. Can peace truly be attained between these two sides?

A. We have a terrifying far-right government in Israel, so peace will be very difficult. Hamas is not even in the West Bank and they are killing Palestinians there every day. In the last 50 days, 7,000 people have been detained in the West Bank [the Palestinian Prisoners Club estimates that over 3,200 were arrested in that period]. We already know that when radicals come to power, they do not willingly step down because they always want more power. [Israeli National Security Minister Itamar] Ben Gvir is calling for the formation of a new army of Israeli settlers, which shows their unwillingness to retreat. Those who support democracy are willing to make changes and step down, but those who claim a divine right to control others are not. My optimism is fading as long as this far-right government stays in power.

Ibrahim Nasrallah
Ibrahim Nasrallah at the Arab House in Madrid.Claudio Álvarez

Q. Are countries in the region like Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia making every effort to achieve peace?

A. No, I believe they are merely fulfilling a role assigned to them by someone else.

Q. Who is that someone?

A. They play roles that align with the interests of the U.S. At times, it may seem like Turkey is stepping up, but when tensions ease, it usually reverts to begging Israel for help and trade relationships. Egypt has been unable to open up the Rafah border post, which has contributed to the ongoing siege of Gaza. The countries that signed so-called peace agreements with Israel always think very carefully about doing anything. The Palestinians have been abandoned for the past 50 days. Still, we have witnessed a global outpouring of support, with people taking to the streets to demonstrate their solidarity for the Palestinian people. When you are under siege and facing death, knowing that there are people who stand with you brings some sense of solace.

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