Palestinian Studies

2023 Workshop

Julia Gettle

Ph.D. Candidate, Brown University

Political Life in the Shadow Years: Palestinian Popular Mobilization in the 1950s

Salah Salah’s uncle Abu Ali was the sheikh of their clan. After their family’s displacement to Sidon’s Ein el Helweh Refugee Camp, Abu Ali managed to negotiate the use of an unusually large tent in order to continue mediating and addressing grievances and consulting with fellow elders, just as he had done before they were expelled from their village in northeastern Palestine in 1948. (Abu Ali had even insisted that the family carry his immense coffee service into exile with them, in the hopes that he may reconstruct his diwan wherever they were displaced.) Because Salah had received a formal education both in Palestine and in exile in Lebanon, he was frequently invited to his uncle’s tent dispite his youth - not only to serve coffee, which he also did, but above all to read newspapers aloud to his uncle and the usual assemblage of clan and camp elders. The most important of these newspapers by 1953 was Al-Tha’r. The Beirut-based weekly’s call for Arab unity for the sake of Palestinian liberation, as well as its frequent references to the Palestinian Great Revolt of the 1930s and to the dehumanizing conditions Palestinian refugees confronted daily in the camps, sparked lively conversation among the Great Revolt veterans who filled Abu Ali’s diwan. For his part, Salah was so inspired by both the content of the journal and the enthusiastic discussions it provoked that he persuaded the young activist who delivered the paper to bring him to whatever group was producing and distributing Al-Tha’r in Sidon and Ein el-Helweh Camp. It was in this way that the seventeen-year-old Salah Salah joined the nascent Arab Nationalists’ Movement, the Pan-Arabist precursor to much of the Palestinian National Movement’s leftist wing.

By recounting a partial social biography of Salah Salah, this paper seeks to explore the lived experience of Palestinian political organizing in the 1950s, a critical but understudied period in the history of the Palestinian National Movement. Drawn from oral histories, memoirs, and published collections of party papers, Salah’s revolutionary story sheds light on several key dynamics shaping Palestinian political organizing in the decades following the Nakba: the connections between the Palestinian Revolution of the 1950s-1970s and earlier phases of the Palestinian National Movement; the importance of camp life to the character of the post-Nakba Palestinian National Movement; the universality of violent encounters with regional security states in the lives of activists and allies; and the centrality of core elements of daily life, including preexisting social structures and practices and new state and popular institutions, to the rhythms and reach of popular political mobilization. Further, the paper’s social biographical approach allows it to explore how processes that have characterized contemporary Palestinian history, such as recurrent displacement, state violence, and political repression, intersected with everyday lives and the development of popular political movements, illuminating how Palestinian revolutionaries experienced their political activities as part of daily life in a tumultuous time.

Julia Gettle is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Brown University and a Global Islamic Studies Teaching Fellow at Connecticut College. Her dissertation charts a bottom-up history of the post-1948 Palestinian National Movement and the rise and fall of political Arab nationalism through a series of activist social biographies. Her broader scholarship focuses on Middle Eastern political and social movements, authoritarianism and security states, incarceration, displacement, and oral history.