Israel’s “independence” celebrations are always underlined by an inescapable subtext; it is also the Palestinian Nakba – catastrophe. As Israelis celebrated their 65th anniversary this week, tens of thousands of Palestinians marched to commemorate their resultant “catastrophe”. For the latter, the memories were especially bitter because this year’s commemoration coincided with the extension of Israeli Nationality Law, which prevents family unification between Palestinians in Israel and their spouses from the West Bank or Gaza Strip. Since its enactment in 1952, Israel has used this law as a blunt instrument to limit the growth of the Palestinian population in the country and prevent the return of the hundreds of thousands who were expelled in 1948. It was not surprising, therefore, that the right of return featured high on the agenda of this year’s Nakba activities.
By staging a return march to the abandoned village of Khabeeza, the organisers wanted to reaffirm their rejection of the fictitious narrative that there was liberation from colonialism in 1948. All that occurred, said Jamal Zahalka of the Balad Party, was that domination by one foreign power, Britain, was replaced by another, Israel. However, the process of ethnic cleansing was not completed with Israel’s so-called war of independence and continues to cast a dark shadow over the lives of the remnant of the Palestinian population who remained in their homes in 1948.
The celebrations revealed a side of Israel that is seldom spoken about and often ignored or concealed. The case of Upper Nazareth is emblematic; the mayor circulated a pamphlet titled, “Upper Nazareth: A Jewish Identity Forever”. The content and tone of the document was so inflammatory that it stirred the ire of not only Palestinians in Israel, but also some Israeli Jews. “No more averting our eyes, no more embracing the law that allows every citizen to live wherever he pleases,” the leaflet intoned. “This is the time to protect our homes.” Ilan Gilon, a Knesset member for Meretz, called on the attorney general to launch a criminal investigation into the “racist policies” it advocates.
In the Israeli context this is hardly a novelty. On July 20, 1975, Maariv newspaper reported that Jewish protestors were threatening to use force to prevent “the transformation of upper Nazareth into an Arab town”. Today, there is not a single school for Arab students in the city although there are more than 2,000 of them.
In a real democracy, such invective would be condemned as a flagrant incitement to racial hatred and discrimination, but this is Israel; that’s the nature of the discourse that runs throughout the fabric of Israeli society.
In the Negev, the municipality of Bir Saba’a announced its intention to celebrate Israel’s “independence” in the city’s historic mosque. Since 1948 it has been closed, denying thousands of Muslims the right to worship in it. The local Arab Land Association decried the latest move as provocative and insensitive.
However, it is not just the denial of the basic right to worship that is fuelling tensions. At every turn negation and denial of the other by Israelis prove to be the rule and not the exception. At Haifa University, officials cancelled an event to commemorate the Nakba this week. Although the organising student body had received permission to hold the event two days beforehand, the Minister of Education, Gideon Sa’ar, weighed in at the eleventh hour and withdrew it, fearing they would distribute flyers which used the word Nakba in the text. If nothing else, this surely confirms that Israel’s discrimination is not confined to the physical presence of the Palestinians; it also includes their history, culture and intellectual life.
There were other notable critics of the Nakba commemoration activities. In characteristic manner the ultra-right former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said it was proof that any agreement with the PLO/PA must include the Palestinians of Israel as well. He has been an ardent advocate of the “transfer” – expulsion by any other word – of Palestinians from Israel. To an outsider this may seem extreme but in Israel this is perfectly acceptable because non-Jewish citizens of the state hold citizenship as a privilege determined by state law, not as their birthright.
Those Palestinians who remained in their homes 65 years ago will not only assert their right to live in their land but will continue to demand their universal human rights, including the right of return for those who were driven out at gunpoint by Jewish militias. Ever-conscious of the fact that states like Israel would use nationality laws to carry out forced exile and deny repatriation, the authors of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights wrote, very deliberately, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and return to his country.” (Article 13) They chose the word “country” to emphasise a place of habitual residence in normal circumstances. The creation of Israel in Palestine in 1948 did not negate the right of Palestinians to live in their native country and land.
The discrimination witnessed today is not the personal bigotry of a few officials like the Mayor of Nazareth or a former Foreign Minister. It is a systemic form of discrimination incorporated into and supported by the law of the land. It is a form of racial discrimination that runs contrary to the values and legal standards of the 21st century. That is why Israel’s “independence” remains a Nakba for the Palestinians.