There is a fine line to take into consideration when undertaking any action for Palestine, in particular when it comes to the dissemination of narratives. It is the Palestinian people’s right and obligation to reclaim and liberate their narratives from the colonial manacles. Which role, therefore, should non-Palestinians assume?
The role of non-Palestinians is to create spaces for the preservation of the indigenous population’s narratives.
As participants in the process of disseminating Palestinians’ collective memory, the role of non-Palestinians is to create the spaces for the preservation of the indigenous population’s narratives. This form of participation requires careful evaluation and positioning. Most importantly, such action must contribute to the Palestinian cause without speaking for, or over, Palestinians. To fall in this trap reinforces the colonial narrative in which the colonized population’s history is silenced and isolated.
Mats Svensson, a Swedish former diplomat, author, and photographer, is conscious of the importance of such evaluation when documenting Palestine from a non-Palestinian perspective. His latest book, “Apartheid is a Crime: Portraits of the Israeli Occupation” (Cune Press, 2020), documents Palestine through photography juxtaposed against different narratives. The result is a profound reflection allowing the reader to observe the stark contrast of Palestinian realities. Svensson’s photography leads the reader to the Palestinian people.
As a former diplomat, Svensson embarked upon his project by clarifying the futility of diplomacy. Diplomats, he writes in the book, “could not call a thief a thief, a murderer, a murderer, colonialism, colonialism, apartheid, apartheid. The only thing that mattered was silent diplomacy. So silent that no one heard it.”
Speaking to Inside Arabia, Svensson notes that the situation is getting worse for Palestinians: “The international community and diplomats do not know how to act when U.S. President Donald Trump stands on the podium in the White House and allows Israel to steal what remains of Palestine. This goes against the international community, against international humanitarian law, against the United Nations—against what we all believe in.”
“A diplomat’s role is defined by balance,” he continues. “In this case, balance between Israel and Palestine. This is often seen in journalism, when the journalist is expected to balance a story about Israel’s actions against Palestinians by adding something about what Hamas has been doing, for instance. However, Israeli and Palestinian actions can only be compared and assessed against international rights and UN conventions. If you want to act in a balanced way, you have to look at the situation from a legal perspective.”
Svensson’s discussion on access to information brings out the contrast between diplomacy and first-hand observations in Palestine: “A lot has been written in secret documents that have been read by only a few people.” Understanding Palestinian reality, he stresses, entails more than documents: “You need to spend time there, with the people. Go behind the Apartheid Wall. You have to leave your diplomatic car, walk through the villages where you can meet people who have lost something small every day since 1947/1948.” This is the diplomat’s job, Svensson says: “It entails doing what you can’t do from Stockholm, Paris, or London. But it will also make you angry, sad, and tired.”
For Mats Svensson, being trusted with imparting the Palestinian narrative is only valid if trust comes from Palestinians.
For Svensson, being trusted with imparting the Palestinian narrative is only valid if trust comes from the Palestinians themselves. “I am the one who has to build up the trust,” he says. “I have to ask myself – ‘Why should a Palestinian person trust me?’ History tells them otherwise. When I represent the international community as a development worker or a diplomat, I have to understand that I represent the negative side of their narrative.”
He recalls walking in East Jerusalem with a friend, to help him with translation. “It did not work,” Svensson explains. “People talked to him, not to me. It was very difficult to create a close rapport. After a couple of days, I started walking along the Apartheid Wall with a friend from a Nordic country. Again, it did not work. People stayed away from us. So, for the rest of my endeavors, I walked alone. In each village, I found someone who could speak English, often women, teachers in schools. The people spoke to me about loss, about a brother on the other side of the wall, a Jewish friend on the other side, the difficulties to access land and to pray in Jerusalem. It was important to give Palestinians the time to talk. A lot of time.”
Time, Svensson says, is necessary for observation and understanding. “You have to sit down and just observe the people near the Wall, or people trying to pass through checkpoints,” he shares. “To see the actions of Israeli settlers, soldiers, and the Palestinian people. You have to be prepared to sit and observe for a long period. This will give you first-hand perspective of the interaction between the occupiers and the occupied.”
“We speak about big losses, about statistics, but it is more important to speak about what Palestinians are losing daily.”
Imparting Palestine entails interminable responsibility, Svensson declares: “We speak about big losses, about statistics, but it is more important to speak about what Palestinians are losing daily. These daily small losses are not picked up by journalists.”
“Palestinian mothers, for example, face this deterioration daily, until one day they realize they have lost everything,” he adds. “It is difficult to document this type of loss, but I think it is very important if we want to understand what it means to be a Palestinian in 2020. Palestinian mothers who have lost everything are now being told by the U.S. president that they need to give away even more.”
In his writing and photography, Svensson does not compromise. With an intimate knowledge of Palestine through speaking with Palestinians, as well as the trust built over the years, Svensson’s main concern is imparting authenticity.
“My relation to Palestine . . . is built through thousands of memories, close friends, and following current events.”
“My relation to Palestine and Palestinians is built through thousands of memories, close friends, and following current events. Everything is interwoven,” Svensson says. “The Palestinian people gave me their time and their stories, which I carry with me everywhere. The situation is worse today than it was when I worked in Palestine. I have decided not to compromise when I write.”
A Palestinian friend and reader from the Palestinian village of Abu Dis is Svensson’s constant critic—a point of evaluation. “He is always in my mind, even when I am giving a talk. This is important; it gives me a filter,” Svensson reflects. “I have to believe that he is fine with what I am trying to say. If not, I would never say it. Some people around me try to dictate what I write and what I should not write. I tend not to listen to them.”
Writing about Palestine, Svensson says, is done because one has to. “I believe I write for people to learn about Palestine, but also to show my friends in Palestine that I am trying to understand what they are going through. This might influence people and make my friends stronger, but I don’t write to create activism, although that might also happen—that people take a stand.”
Svensson again refers to his diplomatic role. “I represent the international community—the powerful section with a lot of resources which we were unable to make use of in Palestine,” he says. “We knew what Israel was doing but we never confronted the criminals. We could say that we disliked what Israel was doing but we always wanted to deepen our relations with them.”
“Palestinians were forced out of their homes, taken over by settlers, just 895 steps away from the US Consulate.”
“Palestinians were forced out of their homes, taken over by settlers, just 895 steps away from the US Consulate and 465 steps from the Swedish Consulate. Blair’s office was just 412 steps away from the Israeli crime. The British were on the other side of the street and the Spaniards, the Italians, the Belgian, the French and the Turks were all very close. It was just one of many houses that were stolen while I was there. But we were unable to stop these crimes.”
“Writing,” Svensson muses, “makes a bigger difference than a diplomatic presence. I never think about whether my writing will influence activism or politics. It will, if the politicians are honest with themselves, if they are willing to pay the price.”
Mats Svensson is the author of:
“Apartheid is a Crime: Portraits of the Israeli Occupation” (Cune Press, 2020)
“Crimes, Victims and Witnesses: Apartheid in Palestine” (Real African Publishers, 2012)
Palestinian Women, Oral History, and the Preservation of Memory
Dehumanizing Palestinians Takes Precedence Over Human Rights in Gaza