Tuesday, 15 May, marked the 70th anniversary of what the Palestinian people term Youm al-Nakba, or the Day of Catastrophe. The Nakba is the defining event that formed and solidified the Palestinian liberation struggle.
Between 1947 and 1948, more than 750,000 Palestinians – about half of the Arab population in Palestine at that time – were forced out of their homes and land by the Zionist militias which went on to form the core of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). As part of this calculated act of ethnic cleansing, the militias dynamited and bulldozed 531 Palestinian villages in an attempt to ensure that the Palestinian refugees would never return.
Unlike the aftermath of most other wars, the refugees in this case were systematically denied their right to return to their homeland, Palestine. Today, they and their descendants number at least 5.2 million people in the Gaza Strip, West Bank and the surrounding Arab countries.
The state of Israel was declared unilaterally by the Zionist movement in British-occupied Palestine on 14 May 1948. In long-debunked Israeli and Western mythology, the narrative was that Israel – the brave little David to the huge Arab Goliath – only wanted to live in peace with its neighbours, but the nascent state was invaded by Arab armies, unprovoked, the very next day. The historical reality is very different.
The truth is that by the time some Arab states reluctantly intervened on 15 May, the Zionist militias – the Haganah, Irgun and Lehi – had led a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing, expelling as many of the indigenous Arab Palestinians from the country as they possibly could. In his seminal book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappé points out that almost a quarter of a million Palestinians had already been expelled by 14 May 1948, well before the Arab armies intervened.
So the traditional Israeli narrative is essentially a lie.
This is a very brief sketch, but to learn more I recommend reading Pappé's book, as well as another seminal text, Expulsion of the Palestinians, by the brilliant Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha. Both books are based largely on declassified Israeli government documents in the original Hebrew, but also draw on Palestinian and other Arab primary sources.
Why do these historical events still matter today? Primarily because of one simple fact: seventy years down the line, the Palestinian refugees have still not been allowed to return home. They have been systematically blocked from returning to Palestine by the state of Israel, with the support of its backers in the West.
Furthermore, as outlined by Joseph Massad – probably the world's foremost Palestinian intellectual and academic – the Nakba is not merely a historical event, but an ongoing process. The ranks of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons are added to year after year, decade after decade, thanks to Israel's relentless ethnic cleansing.
Many Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods today – in the West Bank, and in the south of present-day Israel – are systematically targeted by Israeli occupation forces for demolition, using spurious pretexts. In their place are built illegal settlements, which are either exclusively, or predominantly, for Jewish Israeli settlers.
The Nakba is thus an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing; a daily reality for Palestinians. However, they have never given up hope, and have continued to struggle against the Catastrophe for the past seventy years.
Today, more than 1.3 million UN registered refugees live in the Gaza Strip alone; it is one of the world's most densely populated territories, with a total population that has now reached almost 2 million people. Moreover, for the past eight weeks, tens of thousands of them have taken part in a massive popular movement demanding their legitimate right to return home to Palestine as it was before 1948. The unarmed demonstrators have headed for the Israeli occupation army's fence along the nominal "border" between the Gaza Strip and Israel.
The "Great March of Return" protests have successfully brought the plight of the Palestinian refugees back to the world's attention, but at the cost of thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties. The march culminated in last week's massive demonstration against the fence. Israel responded to these peaceful civilian protesters by massacring more than 60 people in one day, including seven children. Added to the victims of previous weeks, the death toll stands at more than 100 Palestinians.
The response has been so bloody – with Israel's Minister of Defence making the outrageous claim that there are "no innocents" in Gaza – that even some of Israel's supporters in Britain are beginning to be embarrassed enough as to distance themselves from the increasingly toxic Brand Israel.
Two of the dead Palestinians were journalists, and 12 were children, including 14-year-old Mahmoud Ibrahim Ayoub. Reservist Israeli Brigadier-General Zvika Fogel confirmed in an interview on Israeli radio that the army's snipers had deliberately targeted Palestinian children. He said that for a Palestinian "child or anyone else" who gets anywhere near the Gaza occupation fence, "his punishment is death."
Despite the IDF's propaganda claims on social and mainstream media alike that the protesters are "violent rioters" only one Israeli has been reported as being mildly injured. No Israelis have been killed. In a swiftly deleted tweet, the IDF claimed that "everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed." At a stroke, therefore, it admitted committing premeditated war crimes against an unarmed, civilian demonstration, wherein protesters were seeking their basic human right to return to their homeland.
Despite such crimes, the long term historical trends seem clear: popular Palestinian struggle – backed by global solidarity – will ultimately defeat Israel's apartheid regime. The Palestinian marchers in Gaza are only calling for their right as enshrined in international law.
The facts are clear, so it's time for our politicians to drop their mantra that Israel has a right to defend itself. However, Israel hasn't been acting in self-defence over the past few weeks; its war crimes and crimes against humanity are indefensible. A good start in putting an end to its current impunity would be a full, two-way arms embargo.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.