Today marks the 67th year since the creation of the State of Israel. For Israelis, this day will be filled with celebration: fireworks will light up the sky, people will sing and dance in the streets and Israeli pride will be omnipresent. For Palestinians, today marks the 67th year since the Nakba or “the catastrophe” in Arabic, a period of mass exodus and expulsions.
Many Israelis deny the Nakba in favor of the hegemonic, yet nonsensical Zionist narrative which posits that Palestinians voluntarily left their homes to live in refugee camps. In the words of Palestinian National Initiative Leader Mustafa Barghouthi, this falsehood prevents Israelis from recognizing that the birth of their State came at the expense and suffering of another people. Denial of the Nakba is arguably one of the most fundamental roadblocks toward peace in Israel-Palestine; without the Israeli government’s acknowledgment and claim to responsibility for its past — and on-going — atrocities, one cannot conceive of any genuine effort to resolve the conflict.
A common misconception held about historic Palestine is that it was “a land without a people.” After Jews were systematically exiled, massacred and persecuted from European countries during World War II, many understandably looked to the Zionist movement as a means to collectively strengthen their religious identity. Political manifestations of this ideology compelled some Jews to seek to establish a homeland as a safeguard from the ethno-religious persecution and anti-Semitism they had been experiencing for centuries. Zionists appealed to the British government and then to the United Nations for this request. Despite objections from the Palestinians, the United Nations passed the 1947 Partition Plan granting Zionists approval for the establishment of a settler-colonial state, which necessitated a grab for territory and the elimination of the native population.
May of 1948, the year immediately following this injunction, marked the beginning of the Nakba. According to the Institute for Middle East Understanding and numerous other scholars, approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes between 1947 and 1949– many were violently driven away, others fled in panic. Zionists armies committed 33 massacres, the most deadly being Deir Yassin in which over 100 civilians were murdered, among them many women and children. Five hundred Palestinian villages and towns including schools, mosques and businesses were demolished in an effort to prevent the indigenous people from returning. The former director of the Israeli army archives, Uri Milstein, has stated that “in almost every village occupied by [Israelis] during the War of Independence acts were committed which are defined as war crimes, such as murders, massacres, and rapes.”
After Israel officially declared its independence on May 14, 1948, Jews from every corner of the globe continued migrating en masse to the new State. All the while, militant Zionist groups refused to cease confiscating Palestinian land, crossing far beyond the boundaries of the State stipulated in the U.N. Partition Plan.
The Nakba is the root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this fact in and of itself renders its denial arguably the most fundamental obstruction to peace in the region today. It is the mass trauma of Palestinian expulsion, loss of life and loss of property that is often positioned at the center of Palestinian collective memory. Without acknowledging this context, one simply cannot understand the events that continue to transpire in the region beyond racist rationales of innate hatreds or backwardness, shallow stories of retaliation or basic arguments over “right” to the land.
The Nakba is also the source of the unresolved Palestinian refugee problem. According to a recent estimate by the U.N., there are over five million Palestinian refugees living in the diaspora. Under international law Palestinians have a “recognized right to return to areas from which they have fled or were forced to leave, to receive compensation for damages, and to either regain their properties or receive compensation and support for voluntary resettlement.” Yet, the Israeli government refuses to recognize this right for fear that doing so would threaten Israel’s identity as a (discriminatory) Jewish state.
Even more disconcerting are the intentional measures taken by the Israeli government to erase the Palestinian narrative. The vast majority of Israeli schools are not permitted to teach their students about the Nakba. Israeli lawmakers have even attempted to take away funding from schools that mark its occurrence. Recently, the Israeli government enacted the “Nakba Law,” which legalizes the imposition of harsh fines on any individual who mourns the Nakba on Independence Day.
Collective denial of the atrocities perpetrated against Palestinians in 1948 allows the Israeli government to maintain its false claim to historic Palestine. As a result, many Israelis grow up simply not knowing the history of the land on which they were raised. Former Israeli settler Tzavia Their recently described her journey to consciousness in the foreign policy blog Mondoweiss and exposed the fallacies of the narrative she was taught.
“We learned how the Holocaust survivors came to rebuild their lives in Israel,” Their said. “The fact that the Europeans committed these horrible crimes and that the indigenous in Palestine were the ones paying for it, did not cross my mind.” According to Their, Palestinians were described as primitive cowards or cruel people who deserved their misfortune. She explained that the Zionist narrative wholly rid the Israeli government of its responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe.
Commemoration of the Nakba is crucial, not only because it is the root of the conflict, but also because it helps upend the myths that legitimize Israel’s ongoing persecution of Palestinians. The occupation, the expansion of settlements, the denial of equal rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and other violations of international law are minimized and circumvented in the mainstream media. In contrast, any mention of Palestine is almost always coupled with talk of rocket fire and suicide bombs. The fact of the matter is that this violence was not born out of thin air, nor was it initiated by Palestinians. Portrayals of the conflict that fail to recognize the historical context from which it originated are unequivocally disingenuous. Acknowledging the Nakba is a necessary step toward achieving a just solution in Israel-Palestine.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons