Israel’s Ongoing Nakba
The offensive continues to meet Palestinian resistance
May 15, 2023 marked 75 years since the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when roughly 750,000 Palestinians. Some two-thirds of Palestine’s Arab population were forced to flee their homes over the course of Israel’s creation in 1948.
Three-quarters of a century later, the number of Palestinian refugees is eight million and counting, including those displaced in 1948 and 1967. These distressing numbers make Palestinians the largest and oldest unsettled refugee population in the world.
Although regarded by many as the “original sin” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and officially designated as one of the core unresolved issues of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Palestinian refugee problem has long been sidelined by Israel, the peace process agenda, and worse, even by Palestinian leaders themselves.
Why has the international community allowed the Palestinian refugee problem to go unchallenged for so long without tangible solutions? Clearly, the question of Palestinian refugees is innermost to the issue of a just peace in the matter of Palestinian-Israeli peace.
There are imperative lessons in history that the 1948 Nakba offers to vulnerable Palestinian communities today. Yet powerful nations including the United States and the entirety of Europe want to cancel the issue out of the negotiations as if refugee lives do not matter. Special culpability lies with Europeans for theirs is the location of the holocaust, now transferred by the Jews to the Palestinians.
For the Palestinian people, 75 years of Nakba coincides with over seven decades of subjugation by Israel, characterised by occupation, apartheid and colonial policies and practices. The international community and a hapless United Nations are chronically crippled when it comes to meeting obligations and responsibilities under international law.
Their failure to locate accountability and protection has resulted in the continued support of a shallow and biassed peace process incapable of bringing about peace with justice. The longer things are dragged out; the Palestinians remain unwavering in demanding their most fundamental rights to return and self-determination. Their dogged resistance grows with creativity and obduracy.
Israel, however, is not really interested in imposing social amnesia about the events of 1948, but rather aims to shape and control Palestinian memory. Neve Gordon, Professor of International Law at Queen Mary University of London writing in ‘Al Jazeera’ notes that Israel wants the Palestinians to remember the Nakba but not to commemorate it.
That is some contradiction! How can a human community erase such a traumatic memory? Gordon observes how “it is also an ongoing process characterised by lasting forms of state-sanctioned violence. It is something that Zionist forces continue to practise. Indeed, every time a Palestinian is executed by Israeli soldiers or a home that took years to build is demolished; this specific act of violence not only shocks, but also summons the memory of the Nakba.
“Israel’s strategy to create new memories of violence among Palestinians and thus ensure that the Nakba remains a constant presence seems to contradict its official policy of denying it ever occurred…Israeli officials and pro-Israel activists have repeatedly rejected the term, calling it an “Arab lie” and a “justification for terrorism”. The Israeli authorities have also sought to eradicate any public references to the Nakba”.
The permanence of the Nakba was made quite apparent when in February, Jewish vigilantes carried out a pogrom in the Palestinian town of Huwara. Instead of condemning the crime, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Finance Minister, complained that state forces rather than private citizens should be erasing Palestinian villages.
The strategy is apparent. Israel violently asserts that Palestinians remain preoccupied by the Nakba. At the same time, however, the state makes every effort to bar Palestinians from determining how they remember this history in public and hence they impede commemorations of the Nakba.
This paradoxical policy, wavering between memory and commemoration, where the ongoing Nakba is replicated and the second is banned, is a critical module of the settler-colonial logic which aims to violently erase the history and geography of the native people in order to justify their displacement and replacement by settlers. The containment of the Nakba as an historical event worthy of commemoration is part of Israel’s effort to capsize the history of colonial dispossession.
Israel’s fear is that Nakba ceremonies will undermine the Zionist narrative that presents Jewish settlers as perpetual victims of Palestinian violence and reveal, instead, the horrific forms of violence that Zionist forces deployed in 1948 and are still deploying to achieve their goal.
Today, at least 8.26 million of 12.7 million Palestinians are forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of Israel’s ongoing policies of population transfer, annexation and colonisation. Israel has persisted in its denial of reparations, refusing forcibly displaced Palestinians the right to return, restitution, compensation and guarantees of non-repetition as articulated in numerous United Nations resolutions.
The remaining one third of non-displaced Palestinians, spread across Mandatory Palestine, is subject to ongoing policies of forcible displacement by Israel.
Over the years, Israel has led a soiled campaign accompanied by its closest ally, the United States, to terminate the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). Israel’s campaign to delegitimize and render UNRWA in-operational is not its first attempt to adopt political ‘white-mail’ (the word otherwise used is ‘blackmail’ in racist terms).
Because it is centred on voluntary contributions, UNRWA the organisation is subject to the whims and fancies of contributors. This, in turn, has made UNRWA organisationally vulnerable to political pressures and interference.
Commencing 1992, a historical call-back and analysis of Israel’s demands and United States’ conduct from the outset of the Oslo ‘peace Process’ will reveal an organised and targeted strategy designed to eradicate the fundamental rights of Palestinians in general, and the rights of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons in particular.
This strategy is intricately linked to the gradual demise of UNRWA, which serves as a reminder of the international community’s failure to find a viable solution for the world’s largest and longest standing displaced population.
On December 6 2017, US President Donald Trump announced Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, becoming the first state in the world to recognize Israel’s unlawful annexation of the city. International consensus over the past seven decades has rejected claims by Israel to sovereign rights over the city of Jerusalem and has condemned Israeli measures that have sought to alter the character of the city as having no legal validity, as reaffirmed by numerous UN resolutions.
Moreover, the declaration signifies a change in policy regarding final status issues which directly affect the conflict. These U.S policies vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees, UNRWA and Jerusalem show a clear bias in favour of Israel, rendering the U.S. unfit to play a mediating role in peace efforts.
The Palestinians have not been sitting on their hands while all this has been happening. With the unremitting lack of just and durable solutions, they organised marches demanding the right of return in the 1990s.
The March of Return has been organised by Palestinians in Israel annually since 1998, each year taking place in a different village forcibly depopulated during the Nakba. In the Gaza Strip, the Great March of Return has seen thousands of Palestinians protesting for the realisation of their fundamental rights and the end of the eleven years closure of the Gaza Strip.
The 2018–2019 Gaza border protests were, perhaps, the most significant of these marches. There were a series of demonstrations held each Friday in the Gaza Strip near the Gaza-Israel border from 30 March 2018 until 27 December 2019, during which a total of 223 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces.
Israel met the protests with lethal force. The willful killing and injuring of unarmed protesters were a flagrant violation of international human rights law and constituted a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It also constituted a crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, principally to self-determination and reparations for forcible displacement, cannot be ensured by the humanitarian and political approaches currently deployed by the international community, which are based on an immense imbalance of power and lack any foundation in international law. Colonial hypocrisy is killing Palestinians.
Any just and durable solution to the Palestinian Question must begin with the adoption of a rights-based approach. Failure to do so will maintain a status quo in which international protection is absent, and in which Palestinians are condemned to a fate of acute hardship and further displacement.
The passivity of the international community not only impacts those who have already been displaced, but also encourages further displacement as Israel continues to enjoy impunity for systematic and grievous violations of international law. Under a new, far-right government in Israel, there has been an increase in extremist policies targeting Palestinian civil rights and a widespread effort to expand illegal settlements in the West Bank. Israel has formed its most extremist government to date.
The Palestinians did not run scared. By the end of October 2022, armed resistance against Israeli incursions was mostly concentrated in Jenin and Nablus. But Palestinians on the ground quickly changed that. The resistance is already more militant and wider. From the farmers of the South Hebron Hills under attack by settlers to the armed groups of Jenin Camp facing nightly raids, a new wave of West Bank resistance is building
“The Lions’ Den is a group who has emerged since the murder in July of a Palestinian youth by Israeli forces. The daily killing of young Palestinian men and children by the Israelis and the powerlessness of the PA to protect its citizens has led many Palestinians to self-organise.
The Lions’ Den has attracted support not just in Nablus but across Palestine. They have been set up as a non-partisan and non-sectarian group who aim to unite Palestinian factions under one banner. Their sole aim is to fight the occupation,” wrote Mary McGregor in 2022. McGregor is a political activist and the convener of the Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association (DNTA).
The Nakba at 75 International demands sustained local resistance. What does the international community have to do? Pressure must be intensified. People who seek justice must call out Israel at every opportunity.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement does influence the apartheid Israeli state and it should be supported unequivocally. Many people have become reluctant to speak out for fear of charges of antisemitism, and Palestinians fear that the world is forgetting them.
Resistance requires courage and costly solidarity. For, if we do not take the risks for justice, ‘Karma’ could well follow each human being for her/his indifference to the Palestinian condition.
“Dundee City has been twinned with Nablus since 1980. A delegation from Dundee-Nablus Twinning Association arrived in Nablus a week after the storming of the city.
“In the run-up to the visit, we were constantly debating whether we should go, given concerns for our own safety. We also did not know if we would get to Nablus given the siege. However, we decided to try to get through, feeling that there was no more important time to show solidarity with our sisters and brothers there.
“Getting there proved to be relatively easy, the blockade having been partially lifted at that point. Our short time there, however, threw into sharp focus the brutal, all-pervasive nature of the occupation as well as the amazing resilience and determination of those in occupied Palestine.
“The trauma of the recent killings was evident in everyone we met. This was my third visit to Nablus but even though I had been caught up in gunfire and tear gas at the Huwara checkpoint on a previous trip, I had never felt such tension in the city as I did this time.
“Military drones were constantly overhead. Overnight gunfire was a relentless feature. The destruction in the old city was sickening. Cars and buildings were pitted with bullet holes.
“The people, understandably, were hyper-vigilant, particularly as undercover Israelis had flooded the city prior to the attack. We were “checked out” by organised Nablusi youth who were part of the resistance. Phone trees warned locals of imminent attacks.
“We met the father of one of the young men who had been “collateral damage” and visited the graves of the martyred youth. Heartbreak was only matched by determination to end the occupation.
“In discussions with our contacts, any lingering hope of a two-state solution had evaporated. It was clearly seen as a nonsense with the question constantly being asked: what kind of state the Palestinians would have and who would control it? With more than half a million settlers in the West Bank, no one believes that Israel will give up stolen Palestinian land.
“The settler activity is increasing. Apartheid roads, exclusively for settlers and Israelis, are being further improved, leading to comparatively luxurious settler towns. Often these towns and roads are built by Palestinian labour working to feed their families. Israel is increasingly seeing the Palestinians as a slave class.
“Settlers constantly harass Palestinian farmers, destroying or stealing their olive trees. They pollute their farmland by diverting sewage into their fields. Their aim is to drive the Palestinians off their land. House demolitions also continue. It is hard to see what’s going on as anything other than a slow, deliberate genocidal process. This was echoed in extremist Israeli chants during the election of “Kill the Arabs! Burn the Arabs!”
“The list of daily intimidation, humiliation and persecution of Palestinians is endless. Of course, there is also the situation in Gaza (an open-air prison) and in Israel (the ’48). All of this makes the resistance even more remarkable and heroic.
“Palestinians resist in many ways. The NGOs we visited, SEEDS and Witness Centre, offer training opportunities for young people. Project Hope coordinates international volunteers in the city and refugee camps. The refugee camps in Nablus coordinate activity for young people and disabled groups. Music, poetry, song, dance embroidery, ceramics and painting are all forms of resistance. They are testimony to the enduring humanity of the Palestinians.
“An-Najah University is rated in the top 50 in the Arab world. The people of Nablus refuse to submit to Israeli occupation. Like so many people in struggle around the world, the Palestinians deserve better leadership. There are movements within to change the PLO and transform the Palestinian Authority. This is being spurred on by activities of the Lions’ Den group.
“International pressure must be intensified. The recent elections in Israel can only indicate an even more hard-line approach towards the Palestinians.
“We must call out Israel at every opportunity. The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement does influence the apartheid Israeli state and unequivocally we should support it. Many people have become reluctant to speak out for fear of charges of antisemitism, and Palestinians fear that the world is forgetting them. Our trip was important in showing that international solidarity will continue until Palestine is free”, wrote McGregor.
Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator and a human rights activist.
Cover photograph- APA Photographs