In just under a year’s time, Palestinians will mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, the 1948 Catastrophe that marks their expulsion from Palestine. More than 750,000 Palestinians, most of the then population, were forcibly expelled by the Jewish militias of the organised Zionist movement, the same sectarian forces that went on to form the nucleus of the Israel Defence Forces.
Contrary to the Israeli propaganda which held sway in the West for many years, the Palestinians did not leave voluntarily or because “the Arab leaders told them to”. As has by now been well established and admitted by even right-wing Zionist historians like Benny Morris, the Palestinians were expelled either at gunpoint or out of fear, after hearing about the many massacres of civilians that the Jewish militias had carried out in neighbouring towns and villages.
This was an act of ethnic cleansing on a grand scale. It was an attempt (though not ultimately successful) to remove the entire indigenous population of a country to make room for a more ethnically “pure” sectarian state: Israel.
Unlike many other wars where refugee status is usually temporary, the Palestinian refugees have been systematically blocked from returning to their homeland by Israel, as have their descendants. The so-called “Jewish state” does not have room in its colonial vision for too many Arab babies.
The myth that Palestinians “left voluntarily” during a “war” deliberately distracts observers from this central, brutal fact. The propagandistic Israeli refrain that the Palestinian refugee problem was caused by the “invading Arab armies” is nonsense; it’s a lie. Of the 750,000 Palestinian refugees created between 1947 and 1948, as many as 300,000 (according to Morris in The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, page 262) had already been expelled by Zionist terror groups before the Arab armies intervened belatedly in an attempt to stop the massacres.
Israel celebrates the Nakba as “Independence Day”, but the so-called “independence” of the state of Israel is a total misnomer. The concept of self-determination does not apply to settlers intending to create a colony in a land already populated by an indigenous people. That was and is the reality on the ground in Palestine.
Indeed, the Israeli propaganda line that Zionism is “the basic expression of the national identity of the Jewish people” (as pro-Israel group the Jewish Labour Movement claims) is a modern invention. Zionism, from its inception right up until the present day, has always been a settler-colonial movement, one which sought to appeal to the imperial authorities that dominated Palestine, first the Ottomans and then the British.
In 1902, Theodor Herzl, the “father” of political Zionism, wrote to the notorious British imperialist Cecil Rhodes appealing to him to endorse “the Zionist plan… to settle Palestine”. The plan “doesn’t involve Africa, but a piece of Asia minor, not Englishmen but Jews… How, then, do I happen to turn to you?… Because it is something colonial.”
It is significant that Herzl used an anti-Semitic trope that Jews cannot really be “Englishmen”, something that he and today’s emergent far-right in Europe and America would surely agree on, but with which we should have no truck whatsoever. Zionism has always been an anti-Semitic movement, dependent on such vile racism to justify its own racist state.
The Nakba is no mere dry historical question. The fact that the Palestinian refugees have never been permitted to return home, and that Palestinians throughout the region have suffered wave after wave of further expulsions (usually, but not always, at the hands of Israel) means that this is very much the contemporary reality.
The continuing plight of the Palestinian refugees and the slow, ongoing ethnic cleansing by Israel of those Palestinians who still live in historic Palestinian are two closely linked issues; they are at the heart of the current conflicts in the Arab world. There can be no resolution of any until these two matters are resolved.
Not all of the millions of UN-registered Palestinian refugees will want to return to Palestine; many have made their lives in neighbouring countries or overseas by now. However, many of them will, and all demand their right to return. It is, after all, nothing less than a basic human right, endorsed by numerous UN resolutions down the decades. Furthermore, it is an individual right and cannot be bargained away collectively, as some within the Palestinian leadership have sought to do.
In May, on the 69th anniversary of the Nakba, the excellent project Visualising Palestine released a new infographic which illustrated clearly the practical feasibility of the refugees’ return to Palestine.
Israeli propaganda about return claims that it would mean the “destruction” of the state, but there is no practical reason for it not to go ahead peacefully. Although Israel stole and destroyed many of the homes of the Palestinians they had ethnically cleansed and driven out from their homeland, research shows that most of the land they took in this way remains empty and could therefore re-house returning Palestinians.
The issues of stolen properties and war crimes would have to be resolved in a way that holds the Israeli authorities accountable for the crimes they have committed; justice must prevail, after all. There is no reason, though, that return could not happen in a way which respects the human rights of all who live in the historic land of Palestine, Arabs and Jews alike.
For all of these reasons, and because of the more fundamental search for basic justice, the refugees’ return to Palestine is a must.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.