Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The Paper Trail of a Liberation Movement

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

The Paper Trail of a Liberation Movement

Article excerpt

In March 1986, a lieutenant named 'Isa from the Algerian military accompanied Samih Shubayb, head of the Archives and Documents Section at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Research Center, to a Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) base in the Algerian desert. Lieutenant 'Isa pointed to rows of white boxes covered with tents and said, "This is the Palestinian archive."1 Little did he and Shubayb know that the collection of documents would still be there, its contents unknown and inaccessible, nearly three decades later.

The PLO's Executive Committee established the Research Center on 28 February 1965, shortly after the organization's establishment in May 1964. Founded under the PLO's first chairman, Ahmad Shuqayri, the Center served as the organization's official knowledge producer and record keeper. In addition to its knowledge production function, the Center had a mandate to "collect old and contemporary documents relating to the Arab-Zionist conflict, continue collecting documents emanating therefrom, and organize means of benefiting from these documents."2 This article is an inquiry into the curious fate of the PLO Research Center's archive. It reconstructs how this archive was lost, and tells the story of why it was never repatriated. It highlights Israel's seizure of Palestinian stores of documents, and the Palestinian leadership's abandonment of their own records. It also addresses the ramifications of this archival loss for writing Palestinian history. In analyzing these ramifications, the article turns to the archive established under the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the wake of the Oslo Accords.

On 13 September 1993 PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords. The ensuing process established the limited writ of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza, under the auspices of the PLO leadership that had returned from Tunis.3 A process of institution building followed and, in 1994, the PA established the Palestinian National Archives as its official storehouse of records.4 This article interrogates the difference between the pre-1993 archive and that of the quasi-state. It explores the distinction between two archivally constructed Palestines and the metamorphosis of the national movement from a liberation project into a state-building enterprise. The article reveals the stakes of silencing one archive and championing another in shaping the boundaries of the production of modern Palestinian history.

The first section of this article discusses the literature on the modern archive, looking closely at the creation of liberation movement archives. The second section tells the story of the PLO Research Center archive from creation to loss. The third and final section places the loss of the Research Center archive and the creation of the Palestinian National Archives in the context of the institutional shift from the PLO to the PA. It is beyond the scope of this article to analyze the histories of the PLO and the PA in their totality or the overlapping web of actors, power constellations, and alliances that have defined each institution over the course of half a century. Instead it will focus on those internal dynamics and transformations that are relevant to the story of the Research Center archive.

Archive, History, and Power

The archive has a capital "A" . . . It may represent neither the material site nor a set of documents. Rather, it may serve as a strong metaphor for any corpus of selective forgettings and recollections.

Ann Laura Stoler5

This article does not deal with the PLO Research Center archive as a set of documents that contain historical truth about the PLO. It rather interprets the archive as an institution of validating knowledge, what Ann Laura Stoler refers to as a system of collecting and forgetting that provides the documentary basis for certain truth claims.6 The article analyzes the journey of the archive against the backdrop of the archival turn, an analysis of the archive not as source but as subject. …

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