Today marks the 65th anniversary of the historic ethnic cleansing of Palestine by the Zionist movement, and the establishment of the State of Israel on the rubble of hundreds of emptied, destroyed villages.
Nakba Day continues to grow in prominence as a time for remembrance and protest, an alternative history to the narrative of Israeli ‘independence’, and a reminder that the ‘miracle’ of a Jewish state was actually realised through the historically familiar methods of expulsion and colonial erasure. But this is more than just an anniversary or commemoration. In three important ways, the Nakba is not simply confined to the history books.
First, the Nakba is a defining event. Many potted histories or summaries of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” cover 1948 with a sentence like this: ‘The State of Israel declares independence and is immediately attacked by its Arab neighbours’. The Palestinian refugees emerge in the narrative as if by magic, or as a vague consequence of war.
Yet the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is the heart and soul of the Palestinian people’s struggle. This is how a landscape was obliterated and communities destroyed; homes, schools and mosques disappearing under rolling explosions, citrus groves and fields of crops separated from their owners. Palestinian lives are shaped by the Nakba, from refugee camps and fragmented families to destroyed livelihoods and murdered loved ones.
The Nakba is how a Jewish majority was established in the first place, and thus it is no wonder that many people wish to consign it to ‘the past’. For just as its impact is felt deeply in Palestinian society so also the Nakba is a defining event for Zionism and the State of Israel – the inconvenient truth that turns myths to dust, the reminder of – in the words of Meron Benvenisti – ‘what lies beneath‘. Nakba denial is commonplace, a history covered up by distortions and counterfactuals in the same way Jewish National Fund forests were planted over the rubble of Palestinian villages.
Second, the Nakba is also an ongoing event, and not just in the sense that the Palestinian refugees still await return and restitution. The Nakba is a past and a present, a continuous and developing process of Zionist colonization. You can see it in the discriminatory and colonial logic of the land regime and planning laws inside the pre-1967 lines, designed to maintain Jewish spatial hegemony and guard against the threat of the land being ‘lost’ to its indigenous people.
The admission committees that exclude Palestinians from the kibbutzim and moshavim built on top of ethnically cleansed villages. The ‘look out‘ communities built by the state and the Jewish Agency in the Galilee in order to ‘break up’ areas of Palestinian territorial contiguity. Zionist forces often described Palestinian villages in 1948 as simply enemy bases to be cleansed. How little has changed, when the existence of Palestinian communities is seen as a threatening presence to be fragmented and watched over by Jewish citizens.
Catastrophes are experienced daily by Palestinians in the south Hebron Hills, Jordan Valley and East Jerusalem, when the bulldozers and soldiers arrive to demolish homes and shelters. More catastrophes are planned, in the name of ‘development’, ‘security’ or even ‘tourism’ – like in the Negev where, 65 years after soldiers pushed them into the ‘Fence’, Bedouin Palestinians face another mass expulsion.
Third, the Nakba is a paradigm-shaping event. Palestine is not about 1967, warring tribes, a family dispute, or religious fundamentalism. It’s not about negotiations over a border dispute or ‘confidence-building measures’. It’s about settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing, about the establishment of an ethnocracy and the exclusion of an indigenous people. Decades before Oslo, before the first red-roofed settlement on the West Bank hilltops, before Hamas and the Quartet, the Catastrophe happened.
Having a Nakba-defined paradigm is not about ‘intransigence’ or wishing an impossible return to a long-lost past. It is about understanding the roots of what has unfolded over the decades – the establishment of a state for one people at the expense of another, the maintenance of a regime of privilege for some while excluding others to the point of destroying their very existence in the land. It is in the roots where we search most fruitfully for an answer: equality and return, a decolonized space and state that welcomes back and does not expel.
Finally, as a defining, ongoing, and paradigm-shaping event, the Nakba is also therefore, an urgent call to action. The Catastrophe must end.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.