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Sunday, 23 June 2024
Nakba - past and present

Nakba Day – marked on May 15 every year – is always an occasion to ponder the divisive past of the Palestine-Israel question. Palestinians everywhere are of course intensely aware of it – whether they live in Israel itself, the occupied territories, elsewhere in the Arab world or the wider diaspora.

 That awareness is sharpened by memorial events, statements and articles posted on social media with hashtags like #nakba_72 in English and Arabic – reflecting widespread knowledge of and strong feelings about the issue at the heart of the world’s most intractable conflict.

 The catastrophe of 1948 transcends political differences. Hanan Ashrawi from Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority, sounded as angry as supporters of Hamas in Gaza. “The Nakba ravished the thriving and prosperous Palestinian society, turning the majority of the Palestinian people into uprooted refugees, whose identity and basic rights were denied and whose plight continues until today,” Ashrawi thundered. “It is a collective and cumulative trauma that affects every Palestinian.”

 Key strands of the Palestinian narrative are disputed by Israel and its supporters. In 1917 Britain’s Balfour Declaration promised to create a “national home” for the Jewish people but was preceded by contradictory promises of Arab independence. Palestinian resistance to British rule and the Zionist project remain controversial elements of a bitterly contested history. In November 1947, the fledgling United Nations adopted a plan to partition Palestine; the Jews accepted it but the Palestinians rejected it.

 In recent decades, historical arguments have adjusted the picture in favour of the Palestinians. From the 1980s, when Israel began to open its archives, the academics known as Israel’s “new historians” and others have produced a far more nuanced picture: dismissing the Israeli claim, for example, that invading Arab states called on Palestinians to leave their homes in 1948.

 Ilan Pappe wrote an influential but controversial book entitled “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” – reinforcing a central Arab claim about the circumstances in which 750,000 Palestinians became refugees and 500 villages were destroyed in the wake of the war. Terminology has changed too: Zionism is dismissed these days as “settler-colonialism” and motivated by apartheid. Historic and religious Jewish connections to “the land of Israel” are ignored.

 Still, in the historical big picture, Palestinians were never consulted, by either the British or the Zionists about what they saw as their own homeland (even if that formed part of Bilad ash-Sham, or Greater Syria). Palestinians resisted from the start of the Mandate. The rebellion of 1936-1939, crushed by the British, paved the way for the far greater disaster of 1948. They were also betrayed by Arab states pursuing their own narrow interests.

 Over time, the absence of a solution to the conflict has strengthened the sense of  Palestinian victimhood.  Amjad Iraqi, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, grew up fascinated by stories of his grandfather’s experiences during the Nakba, but now links them to more recent catastrophes. “The war in Syria is displacing another generation of Palestinian refugees from camps like Yarmouk,” he wrote recently. “The blockade and attacks on Gaza are crippling its society and separating them from their compatriots in the West Bank. Home demolitions in the Naqab are dispossessing hundreds of Bedouins from their lands ..despite their supposed protection of Israeli citizenship. The list goes on.”

 Marking Nakba Day conjures up parallels with Israel’s annual celebration of Holocaust Memorial Day. Israeli Jews use that solemn occasion to pay tribute to their six million co-religionists who were murdered by the Nazis between 1939 and 1945. The Shoah (Holocaust) played an enormous part in changing international views of the Zionist enterprise and granting Israel the legitimacy it still benefits from.

 This year’s Nakba anniversary comes at an potentially significant moment: Israel’s new coalition government, led again by the Likud’s Binyamin Netanyahu, is expected to carry out the unilateral annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank – in defiance of international law but emboldened by the Trump administration’s open bias towards Israel and hostility to the Palestinians.

 If that happens, it will be interpreted as a final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution to the conflict. Some argue that hammering that nail is long overdue, that delaying it maintains a damaging illusion that Israel exploits. Supporters of equal rights between the “river and the sea” – to use the increasingly fashionable phrase – however, have no strategy for achieving that goal. National self-determination for both peoples, and their separate identities, remains the only workable outcome. The conflict is not just about the past, but the future.

 “Nakba Day,” in the moving words of Amjad Iraqi, “is ..not just about mourning the pain of 1948. It is about celebrating the power passed on to us by our grandparents, whose stories helped to revive a society when their homeland was almost nothing but a memory. Many Jews in Israel and the diaspora, whose own identity is heavily influenced by the experience of loss and trauma, have yet to recognize those stories, just as many Palestinians have yet to sympathize with the memories of racism, dispossession, and genocide from the grandparents of Jews. Nakba Day should be the time to start ending that denial.”