By Mohamed Harees –
“We must do everything to insure they [the Palestinians] never do return … The old will die and the young will forget.” — David Ben Gurion, the national founder and the first PM of Israel(1948)
Every story of ethnic cleansing is heart breaking. Many have been forgotten, driven much by hatred and unsettling prejudices. Every year on May 15, Palestinians around the world mark the Nakba, an Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” and refers to Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine, its exiling of Palestinians and making them into refugees, its dispossession of Palestinian property, its destruction of Palestinian cities, towns, and villages, and its attempt to erase the existence of the Palestinian people from its homeland 75 years ago, in 1948.
This act of ethnic cleansing however did not end in 1948; it continues even today in the form of Israel’s ongoing systemic theft of Palestinian lands to build illegal settlements in pursuance of its racist nationalist policies, denying the internationally-recognised legal right of return of more than 7 million Palestinian refugees who are defined as people displaced in 1948 and their descendants. It is thus not a matter of history but an ongoing catastrophe facing the Palestinian people on a daily basis, inside and outside Palestine under the settler colonial Zionist project, and the occupier continues the project of killing, destruction, home demolitions, land confiscation, mass imprisonment, siege on Gaza and an ongoing series of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Nakba generation might have passed, but their children continue to fight for freedom and return.
The 75th anniversary of the Nakba thus comes at a critical and dangerous juncture that has seen a relentless escalation in Israeli violent interventions against Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza, which began with the unity intifada (or uprising) in 2021. A record high of 204 Palestinians were for example reportedly killed in 2022, making it the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005.So far even in 2023, 96 Palestinians have been killed during the first four months of 2023. And so it continues. The unity uprising called for a Palestinian popular mobilisation in the struggle against Israel’s settler-colonial rule and practices akin to apartheid. These have been documented and recognised as such by several international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Nakba Day, inaugurated in 1998 by Yasser Arafat, is generally commemorated on 15 May, the day after the Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). This year marks the first time that the UN has announced that it will commemorate Nakba Day, which also marks the creation of the state of Israel. While the UN move might be seen as a diplomatic coup for Palestinians, it nevertheless serves to underline two interrelated problems.The first is that Palestinian history, when it is told, tends to be done as part of Israeli history. The second is that the Palestinians themselves – as ordinary human beings – remain a largely unknown quantity in the west.
The Nakba was not an unintended result of war. It was a deliberate and systematic act necessary for the creation of a Jewish majority state in historic Palestine, which was overwhelmingly Arab prior to 1948. The Nakba was a deliberate and systematic crime of ethnic cleansing, committed by Zionist militias and later Israel, against the indigenous Palestinian people around 1948 to make room for a racially supremacist settler-colony. Internally, Zionist Jewish leaders used the euphemism “transfer” when discussing plans for what today would be called ethnic cleansing. Zeev Sternhell in an article in Haaretz says,“Racist nationalism wasn’t invented by Hitler, but grew gradually out of the rightist revolution that began washing over Europe. This radical nationalist approach is Netanyahu’s ‘West,’ in which he finds the legitimacy for the colonialist policy of annexation and oppression, which he has been orchestrating since he rose to power.”
That this catastrophe occurred is an incontrovertible fact, affirmed by Israeli historians like Benny Morris, Tom Segev and Ilan Pappe, and was recently documented in the movie “1948: Creation & Catastrophe” (www.1948movie.com) through the words of those, Israeli and Palestinian, who lived through it. The tragedy of two peoples struggling on one land was captured, in a letter written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who described what he found when he returned to his village, al-Birweh (one of the lost Palestinian villages) after al-Nakbah. “… When [I returned] to my original village, al-Birweh, I found only the carob tree and the abandoned church, and a cowhand who spoke neither clear Arabic nor broken Hebrew”.
Overall, the Nakba in 1948 and its legacy remains one of the most intractable and thorny issues in ongoing peace negotiations and continues to shame humanity and prick its conscience, more than seven decades on. Palestinian history and narratives are filled with the individual and collective pain of forced expulsion at gun point and after seven and half decades of struggle, the conflict has not abated. Israel’s arrogance, detestation of international law, ‘ongoing contempt for the world, the bragging and bullying’ have all reached unprecedented heights.
It was treachery of the worst kind when Britain and the United States failed to keep their promises of protection that saw over 700,000 Palestinians were fleeing from their homeland 75 years ago when the Nakba happened. The great powers of the day took sides and plumped for a criminal regime, a mafia state that has continued to unleash atrocities on innocents. It was the original sin. The Zionist regime has never paid the price for its excesses, and the international community should collectively hang its head in shame for letting them get away with such impunity. All the uprooted who have been banished to distant lands are still seeking justice as the world has moved on to bigger conflicts, looking the other way, searching for deadlier foes when the chief among the violators is right here – in Israel, which has transformed from an aggressor into a terrorist state. Numbers do not lie. Palestine was overwhelmingly Palestinian at 94 per cent in 1946 before the purge, now only 15 per cent live there. Close to seven million of them live in foreign refugee camps today.
The Nakba’s roots lay in the emergence of political Zionism in 19th century Europe, when some Jews who were influenced by the nationalism then sweeping the continent concluded that the remedy to centuries of anti-Semitic persecution in Europe and Russia was the creation of a nation-state for Jews in Palestine. As a result, they began emigrating as colonists to the Holy Land, displacing indigenous Palestinians in the process. Despite many Israeli historians whose research shows that the Nakba is not a figment of the Palestinian imagination, but a real tragedy, many Israelis and people induced by Zionist lobbies prefer to ignore it or not believe it. They prefer to cover their eyes and close their ears when it comes to the Palestinian story, the Palestinian pain and the Palestinian narrative. However, the Nakba has a dual meaning today. On one hand, it is about the hundreds of villages that were razed in 1948 and the hundreds of thousands of refugees who lost their homes. On the other hand, as stated earlier, Palestinians continue to suffer the Nakba daily – the separation of families, continuous confiscations of land and settlements choking every Palestinian village and town.
Thus, without understanding the impact of 1948, no serious analysis of present-day Palestinian life could be complete. Materially, the 1948 Nakba shattered Palestinian socio-economic structures: The Arab economy in Palestine was virtually destroyed, and hundreds of villages were emptied of their inhabitants as over one half of the country’s Arabs were uprooted as refugees. After Israel refused to allow the refugees to return, they were forced to reconstitute their lives in exile as best they could while a complete spatial transformation of Palestine’s geography took place that destroyed their villages and all but wiped out the Arab character of the land itself. Politically, the war not only left them without a state as envisioned by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947, but also produced a revolution in terms of political leadership, the echoes of which continue to be felt today in Palestinian politics.
It is thus that the Nakba shaped the way Palestinian socio-economic, political and cultural-intellectual life developed in the past seven decades. Many heated discourses within the Palestinian body politic – such as the refugees’ right of return, securing a geographically-contiguous state, and the ongoing rivalry between the Hamas-led government in Gaza and the Fateh-PLO-PA government in the West Bank – cannot be understood without making references to these historical developments. What happened in 1948 has everything to do with these attitudes and the disputes among Palestinians who stand divided among several different countries, subject to external control and provided with warped understandings of “normal” social development. The international community would do well to keep this in mind rather than merely castigate Palestinians for their quarrels and alleged “lack of realism”.
Nakba is still relevant given that, as the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) points out, it “is the source of the still-unresolved Palestinian refugee problem.” Israel still refuses to adhere to the internationally recognised right of return for Palestinian refugees. Despite its continued relevance, or perhaps because of it, Noam Sheizaf argues in 972 magazine that recently “a trend of Nakba-denial has emerged in Jewish-Israeli political circles”. Yosef Weitz, director, Jewish National Fund Land Settlement Committee (1932-1948) said:“… the transfer of [Palestinian] Arab population from the area of the Jewish state does not serve only one aim–to diminish the Arab population. It also serves a second, no less important, aim which is to advocate land presently held and cultivated by the [Palestinian] Arabs and thus to release it for Jewish inhabitants.”
For 75 years and through to today, Palestinians continue to fight for their freedom and the liberation of their land. They continue to demand their right to live their lives in peace and on their own land, free of humiliation, colonization, racist apartheid, expulsion from their lands and the confiscation of all means for livelihood. For Palestinians worldwide, the Nakba is remembered as a traumatic rupture that represents their humiliating defeat, the destruction of Palestinian society and severance of links with their homeland. The Palestinian issue must be treated as a crime against humanity, and the more we delay finding a solution, the bigger the blot will be on the world’s conscience.
As Professor Dina Matar in an article (conversation.com) says,’Israel has been ascribed a degree of visibility and access that has made the Palestinians, and the ongoing violence against them, invisible and hardly mentioned in the western media. The lack of western knowledge about the Nakba is partly because the longstanding narrative surrounding 1948 and the creation of Israel has rested on several fictions – including the idea that the land was empty. It is also partly because of Israel’s ability to propagate its version of reality in the mainstream media, particularly as historians are forced to tell the story of the powerless by those who victimised them, as historian Rashid Khalidi argued in his 2007 book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness’.
Fortunately, the Palestinian voices that have fought against the official Israeli narrative are now joined by a growing number of Jewish voices and millions of saner voices around the world. It is through a new common narrative that a true understanding of the past can be attained, all with the hope that the peaceful vision for the future can replace the current one – one which can only be sustained through military domination, inequality and sheer propaganda. All the uprooted who have been banished to distant lands are still seeking justice as the world has moved on to bigger conflicts, looking the other way, searching for deadlier foes when the chief among the violators is right here – in Israel. An Israeli bill subsequently established the commemoration of the Nakba Day as a criminal offence, subject to 1-year imprisonment and/or a fine. Trump even supported the Natanyahu’s illegal move to make Jerusalem the capital of Israel.
For Palestinians, commemoration and remembrance of the Nakba is not about marking a historical event. It’s about the need to continue telling their stories. Seventy-five years since the Nakba, it is time the whole world watched and listened. It is in this context that it is imperative for the world, to keep Nakba as a focal point of reference. It is necessary we remember and discuss it as a formative part of the history of the Palestinian struggle while working towards re-gathering global efforts to bring peace and the reality of a homeland closer to a people that have lived in catastrophe for near on a century and long for peace, freedom and security.