RAMALLAH – On a cool and overcast day, a procession of grim-faced people filed silently past pictures of heaps of skeletons piled high, of emaciated survivors with blank stares corralled behind barbed wire, barely clinging to life.
The memorial and museum commemorating the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II could have been in any of the many international capitals where the Holocaust is remembered.
But this time the memorial was taking place in a quite unexpected place: the Palestinian village Ni’ilin, west of Ramallah in the central West Bank, has established the first ever Holocaust museum in the Palestinian territories.
Ni’ilin’s Hamas Mayor Ayman Nafaa later led a group on a Palestinian version of March of the Living through the village’s narrow and winding streets. March of the Living is an international educational program, involving Jewish youngsters spending two weeks in Poland where they march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, which was one of the largest Nazi concentration camps.
Establishment of the Ni’ilin museum was the brainchild of Israeli-Arab lawyer Khaled Mehamid from the Israeli town Umm al-Fahm. Four years ago he established a Holocaust museum in his hometown.
Mehamid approached Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, which provided the museum with pictures and materials in Arabic. Its directors now plan to start holding educational tours for students to the museum.
Mehamid had originally visited Ni’ilin to comfort the Palestinian family of a young boy who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers during a protest.
"I met the mayor and explained to him that the Jews have their own pain and that this is inextricably linked with the suffering of Palestinians today under Israeli occupation," Mehamid told IPS.
Ni’ilin has lost four of its youths to Israeli bullets. Hundreds of the village’s population of 5,000 have been arrested, wounded, and beaten up during protests against Israel’s illegal separation barrier, which cuts through the village, separating farmers from their land.
The building of this wall, which the International Court at The Hague deemed illegal, has meant the confiscation of thousands of acres of West Bank land by the Israeli authorities for the benefit of the illegal settlements.
"Most of the village is dependent on agriculture for a living," Hassan Moussa, a member of Ni’ilin’s Popular Committee told IPS. "Sixty farmers have lost land, 40 of them all of their agricultural fields."
"If you take into account their dependents and their employees, we are talking about 600 people directly affected by the land confiscation," said Moussa.
In an effort to fight the continued expropriation of village land, Ni’ilin villagers, together with Israeli activists and international supporters, have been holding weekly anti-wall protests, which have often ended up violently.
Moussa lost his 10-year-old nephew Ahmed Moussa after he was shot in the head with live ammunition by an Israeli sniper. The boy was not involved in any stone-throwing.
The following day Yousef Amira, 17, was left brain-dead and died a week later after he was shot in the head with rubber-coated steel bullets.
Arafat Rateb Khawaje, 22, was shot in the back with live ammunition last December. The same day Mohammed Khawaje, 20, was shot in the head with live ammunition. He died three days later.
Moussa was arrested last year while escorting the foreign media at a demonstration. No charges were brought against him, and he was eventually granted bail for $800, which has not been returned.
Moussa agrees with Mehamid that it is important for Palestinians to understand the tragedy that befell the Jews in Europe but that also created added impetus for establishment of the state of Israel.
Over 500 Palestinian villages were razed and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were made refugees by the Israelis following the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
This followed the UN’s 1947 partition of British Mandate Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states.
The reaction of the villagers to the museum has been largely positive. "But we have different attitudes here, and some of the people have questioned why we focus on the suffering of the Jews when that is over," said Moussa.
"They say we should instead focus on our sufferingm which is current and unresolved, especially as we are being persecuted by the very same people who were themselves persecuted."
But both Mehamid and Moussa have been quick to explain to dissenters that establishment of the museum is not purely for altruistic reasons but serves the Palestinian cause.
"We believe the Israelis have used the Holocaust for political reasons, to garner the sympathy of the international community," Mehamid told IPS.
"This has been done for both the establishment of the state and for the continued building of settlements and illegal expropriation of Palestinian land and other natural resources," he added.
It is only through understanding the genuine suffering of the Jews, and how this suffering was used politically, can Palestinians fight back on an even playing ground, said Moussa.
"We acknowledge Hitler’s massacre, and in return we would like the Israelis to acknowledge our rights," said Mehamid.
(Inter Press Service)