Aya Maarsawe
Notes and flowers at the site where Aiia Maarsawe's body was found in Bundoora (Image: AAP/James Ross)

“There were no such thing as Palestinians,” declared Israeli prime minister Golda Meir in 1969. “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They did not exist.”

Meir was correct in that historic Palestine was not an independent state but part of the province of al-Sham, or Greater Syria (“the land to the north”). That this supposedly negates the existence of a Palestinian people is another matter, not only because there are references to “Palestine” going back to Aristotle, but because our concept of nationhood is itself a western colonial conceit. Once those arbitrary lines that divided the Levant were drawn up by our good friends Sykes and Picot in 1916, those national identities and aspirations to self-determination crystalised.  

The erasure of the Palestinian people is a project that has been occurring ever since and it embroiled Australia in the most unlikely and tragic circumstances with the murder and alleged rape of Palestinian exchange student Aya Maasarwe early last week.

Initial reports identifying Aya as an Israeli caused confusion for us Arabs since we immediately recognised her Arabic name. Once her Palestinian identity had been affirmed and protests were made on social media by Palestinian and other Arab media workers, the situation only got more confusing. Some subsequent reports and radio bulletins stuck to “Israeli”, others referred to her as an “Arab-Israeli” and still others as an “Arab citizen of Israel”. Some preferred to wipe their hands of the mess altogether; one writer for The Age revealed on Twitter she’d initially identified Aya as a Palestinian student only to see this had been edited to “international student” after publication.

Let’s be generous and attribute this to an attempt to avoid making a mistake or “take sides” and so sidestep charges of biases. There is still the fact a deliberate edit took place indicating a conscious decision to omit Aya and her family’s status as Palestinian citizens of Israel — their own preferred designation — rather than check directly with the family.

This bias of omission is perhaps one of bias’ more insidious forms, first because it is often not malicious but overly conservative. If journalists omitted references to Palestine and the family’s Muslim faith out of fear they’d be accused of bias or error, then by default this omission functions as bias regardless of intent since it maintained the erasure of the Maaraswe family’s Palestinian heritage. The status quo doesn’t need action, only silence.

Second, the bias of omission is exceedingly difficult to challenge as its invisibility can easily make the person posing the challenge seem like the unreasonable one; the more pleas we made to the media to acknowledge her Palestinian identity, the more we were accused of trying to hijack her death.

Attempts at squashing the truth by claiming it is standard to state country of citizenship rather than ethnic identity belies the fact Israel is not like other nations in a crucial way: “Israeli” to most people is synonymous with “Jewish”.

This erasure may seem harmless to non-Arabs, but to Palestinians and to a lesser extent Lebanese and Syrians who have also lost land and loved ones to wars with Israel it is a tool of silencing and appropriation. Denying the existence of a people, the existence of a community tied to a place and a history, just as Golda Meir did all those years ago, is a symbolic violence that suspends Palestinians in a permanent present: no past to claim and no future to envision.

It is tacit endorsement of Israel’s policy of not just figuratively but literally erasing Palestine.

Over the years, Israel has taken to naming itself the creator of some of the Levant’s most iconic foods. Falafel, tahini, hummus, and even shawarma have been repackaged as “Israeli”, despite their clearly Arabic names. When Arabs object we are accused of pettiness, jealousy, hate and, naturally, of politicising food, as if renaming them Israeli wasn’t itself a political act. As we’ve watched Israel slowly consume the West Bank and tighten its stranglehold on Gaza, as we’ve seen it claim the Golan Heights from Syria, and wage war on Lebanon, and as we watch in disbelief as Israel transgresses Lebanese and Syrian air space at will, dropping strikes on a whim while taunting its Arab neighbours on social media, we’ve become well acquainted with a sinking feeling that this claim to our food, this erasure of its Arab origins, is a stepping stone to the erasure of us.

Most especially the erasure of Palestinians.

Being Palestinian is not why Aya died but it has everything to do with how she lived, how she is mourned and how she will be remembered. And yet, as Palestinian poet Sara Saleh wrote on Twitter, “Even in death they Occupy and colonise her identity.”

Aya Maarsawe’s family thought she was catching a break. Away from being a second-class citizen. Away from the violence wrought by occupation, annexation, endless war, and the screaming sirens of impending strikes. Somewhere she could be free. That they could survive the Nakba — the catastrophe — of 1948, that they could survive the barrier wall and the separation from their kin in the West Bank; that they could survive all that only to find their daughter could not survive six months in Australia is a tragedy so immense it is incomprehensible that anyone would choose to make their pain worse. Our media has.

Arabs know why Aya’s identity was erased. Apart from the obvious — Palestine is political and by definition Palestinian bodies are politicised bodies — we Arabs have long known white people struggle to feel empathy for us. They may feel pity, which is why they want to “save Syrians” and “save Rahaf” and “save Hakeem” from the clutches of other evil Arabs, but they can’t seem to identify with us.

With her murder coming amidst a horrific wave of similarly brutal attacks against young women at a time when women are more vocal about sexual assault than ever, it is understandable Australians would want to identity with Aya. It is devastating that they had to whitewash her in order to do so.

At the same time, according to Israeli media, the murder was initially treated in the press and by the Israeli government with a resounding “meh”. For a week the family was not contacted by authorities inside the country. There were no substantial public statements or public grief at the loss of this “Israeli citizen”.

That it took a week of scrutiny for the Israeli authorities to extend their condolences to the family is shameful. That those of us who objected to her erasure were accused of politicising her death is inexcusable. That this erasure compromised the accuracy and fairness of the reporting since the family’s Muslim faith and Palestinian traditions had to be downplayed or omitted to maintain the extraordinary pretence is close to unforgivable.

Although a number of media outlets did eventually adjust their coverage, many others have not. I am certain that in our collective grief and numbness we have not yet grasped the magnitude of the injustice enacted on Aya’s memory, on her family, and on her Palestinian community through the stubborn refusal to accept her as the person she was, choosing instead to turn her into an image of what a “perfect victim” should look like.

Palestinians exist. Aya Maarsawe was a young Palestinian woman that shined as bright as Bethlehem. She always will. Allah Yarhamha.

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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