The occupied Palestinian territories are under the spotlight again following overlapping events: retaliatory attacks from Syria and reported Israeli attacks on Iranian positions inside Syria; the celebrations of extremist Jews on Jerusalem Day; the hullaballoo of the US Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and the Great March of Return of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
They are all current events, but the major event that has shaped Middle East conflicts ever since and ensured that Palestinians continue to suffer is the Nakba, the Catastrophe of the creation of the state of Israel in Palestine in 1948. Today, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba’s 70th anniversary and the ethnic cleansing of more than 700,000 of their fellow citizens from their homeland. Most now live in neighbouring countries and have never had their legitimate right to return to their land fulfilled.
Until the 1980s, the conventional approach of Israeli scholars was to negate the idea of the Nakba as a forced displacement, insisting that the Palestinians fled voluntarily on the basis of orders from Arab armies which promised to get their towns and villages back from the Israelis. To “prove” such claims, Israel even established institutions to challenge the reality of the forced transfer of the indigenous Palestinian population. According to Professor Ilan Pappé, the founding father and first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, provided Israeli academia with necessary archival material to prove that Arabs left their homes voluntarily in 1948. Ben-Gurion picked the Shiloh Institute of Jerusalem at the Hebrew University — now the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University — as the centre for publishing Israeli propaganda.
The Nakba is ongoing
It was Ben-Gurion who set the precedent for his successors to follow by instigating the forced transfer of Palestinians and the agenda to whitewash what was being done. That’s why it is problematic to consider the Nakba as a historical event that took place in 1948. In reality, it was the outcome of several deliberate moves by the Zionists to clear Palestine of its Arab inhabitants to create a homogenous Jewish society; furthermore, it is an ongoing process.
What tanks did in 1948, bulldozers do more silently today across the occupied Palestinian territories. BADIL, the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, categorises the methods used by Israel for the displacement of the Palestinians as land confiscation, denials and withdrawal of residency rights, discriminatory zoning and planning regulations, home demolitions and a discriminatory permit regime.
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
In addition, Israel doesn’t allow the Palestinians to live in a structured way. Since the start of its occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in 1967, Israel has not permitted the establishment of any new Palestinian municipalities on the land that it occupies.
Geography without demography
The main challenge for Zionists since 1948 has been to have demographic superiority over the Palestinians in order to have a “Jewish state”. Their objective was clear: geography but not the demography. The only solution was to clear the land of Palestinians; today we call this ethnic cleansing.
The Transfer Committee was set up by non-cabinet members of the first government of Israel following the idea put forward by Yosef Weitz of the Jewish National Fund’s Land Department. “It must be clear,” he wrote, “that there is no room in the country for both peoples, the only solution is a Land of Israel, at least a western Land of Israel without Arabs. There is no room here for compromises… There is no way but to transfer the Arabs from here to neighbouring countries…”
Israel not only forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to leave their land but has also prevented the refugees’ return. Legislation such as the Prevention of Infiltration Law and military orders 1649 and 1650 have prohibited Palestinians from returning to the occupied Palestinian territories legally. The Israelis see demographic superiority as the only way to maintain the “Jewishness” of their state. The current demonstrations in the Gaza Strip are to fulfil the right to return; Israel’s brutal military response reflects the reality that it will never allow that to happen.
Throughout the whole unsuccessful peace process, two of the main issues have been the status of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees’ right to return; they were always put on the back-burner as “final status issues”. Israel’s negotiators have always prevaricated to ensure that they never actually made it onto the agenda. Yitzhak Shamir, who was the Prime Minister of Israel during the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, admitted that he would like to stall the talks: ‘’I would have carried on autonomy talks for ten years, and meanwhile we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli name for the occupied West Bank].”
Today, almost 70 per cent of all Palestinians live beyond the boundaries of historic Palestine. Those left behind face the very real possibility of having their residency right revoked by Israel, which has the full support of the US, Egypt and some Gulf countries. It thus has no great need to compromise, especially since US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as its capital in December last year; at a stroke, he removed the Holy City from the “final status” agenda.
The Middle East is collapsing under the weight of civil wars and Palestinian rights are no longer a priority for neighbouring states due to their own security concerns. What the Zionists started in 1948 is still gaining momentum for Israel to reach its ultimate goal in terms of geography and demography. The big question is, if Israel has never compromised when the going was tough, is it ever likely to compromise in the name of peace?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.