The Palestinian Nakba will be 75 years old on 15 May. Palestinians all over the world will commemorate the “Catastrophe” when nearly 800,000 of their ancestors were driven at gunpoint from their homes and land, and 500 of their towns and villages were wiped off the face of the earth in the ethnic cleansing that started in historic Palestine between late 1947 and mid-1948.
The depopulation of Palestine carried on for months; in fact, for years after the Nakba was supposedly ended. But it has never actually ended. To this day, Palestinian communities in East Jerusalem, in the southern Hebron hills, in the Naqab Desert and elsewhere, are still suffering the consequences of Israel’s quest for demographic supremacy. And, of course, millions of Palestinian refugees remain stateless, denied their basic political and human rights.
In a speech at the “UN World Conference against Racism” in 2001, Palestinian intellectual Dr Hanan Ashrawi described the Palestinian people aptly as “a nation in captivity held hostage to an ongoing Nakba.” Elaborating, Ashrawi described this “ongoing Nakba” as “the most intricate and pervasive expression of persistent colonialism, apartheid, racism and victimisation.” This means that we must not think of the Nakba only as an event in a fixed time and place.
Although the massive flood of refugees in 1947-48 was a direct outcome of the Zionist ethnic cleansing campaign as devised for “Plan Dalet”, the plan officially ushered in a greater Nakba, which continues to this day. “Plan Dalet” (the letter “D” in the Hebrew alphabet) was initiated by the Zionist leadership and carried out by the Zionist militias with the aim of emptying Palestine of most of its native inhabitants. They were successful in doing so, while paving the way for decades of violence and suffering, the brunt of which continues to be borne by the Palestinian people.
In fact, the current Israeli occupation and entrenched racist, apartheid regime imposed in Palestine are not simply the intended or unintended outcomes of the Nakba, but also direct manifestations of a Nakba that never truly ended.
It is widely acknowledged, though sadly unfulfilled, that Palestinian refugees, regardless of the specific events which triggered their forceful displacement, have “inalienable” rights under international law. UN Resolution 194 makes it legally impossible for Israel to flout these rights. Indeed, UNGA Res. 194 (III) of 1948 resolved that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” This must be carried out, according to the UN, by “Governments or authorities responsible.”
The government “responsible” in Israel moved quickly to shelter itself from any blame or responsibility. “Top secret” files retrieved by Israeli researchers and reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, include a file labelled GL-18/17028. The document demonstrates how Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, attempted to “rewrite history” soon after the first and major phase of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was completed. To achieve his aim, Ben Gurion chose the most scandalous of all strategies: he blamed the Palestinian victims. Why, though, would the victorious Zionists concern themselves with seemingly trivial issues such as narratives?
“Just as Zionism had forged a new narrative for the Jewish people within a few decades, [Ben Gurion] understood that the other nation that had resided in the country before the advent of Zionism would also strive to formulate a narrative of its own,” said Haaretz. This “other nation”, of course, are the Palestinian people.
The crux of the Zionist narrative on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine was thus predicated on the drummed-up claim that Palestinians had left “by choice”, even though it was becoming clear to the Zionists themselves that “only in a handful of cases did villages leave at the instructions of their [local] leaders or mukhtars.”
However, even in these few isolated cases, seeking safety elsewhere during times of war is still not an offence, and should not cost a refugee his/her inalienable right to return to their land. If the bizarre Zionist logic becomes the standard in international law, then refugees from Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Sudan and all other war zones would lose their legal rights to their property and citizenship in their respective homelands.
However, the Zionist logic was not intended just to challenge the Palestinian people’s legal or political rights; it was also part and parcel of a greater process known to Palestinian intellectuals as erasure: the systematic destruction of Palestine, its history, culture, language, memory and, of course, people. This process was reflected in early Zionist discourses decades before Palestine was emptied of its inhabitants, wherein the homeland of the Palestinian people was perceived maliciously as a “land without a people”. The denial of the very existence of the Palestinians was expressed numerous times in the Zionist narrative and continues to be employed to this day.
All of this means that 75 years of an ongoing Nakba and the denial of the very fact of the enormous crime by Israel and its supporters require a much deeper understanding of what has happened — and continues to happen — to the Palestinian people.
Palestinians must insist that the Nakba is not a single political point to be discussed with Israel or bargained away by those claiming to represent them. “The Palestinians have no moral or legal obligation to accommodate Israelis at their own expense,” wrote famed Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta in reference to the Nakba and the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees. “By any standards, Israel has such an obligation to correct the monumental injustice it has committed.”
Indeed, the Nakba is an all-encompassing Palestinian story of the past, present and future. It is not only a story of victimisation, but also of Palestinian sumud — steadfastness — and resistance. It is the single most unifying platform that brings all Palestinians together, beyond the restrictions of factions, politics or geography. The Nakba has come to define the collective Palestinian identity.
For Palestinians, therefore, the Nakba is not simply a single date to be remembered every year. It is the whole story, the conclusion of which will be written, in time, by the Palestinians themselves.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.