Today is the anniversary of what we Palestinians refer to as the Nakba, our catastrophe – although a single word cannot begin to explain it, and a single day cannot begin to commemorate it.
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More than ever before, Israel needs come to terms with the horrors it has caused since 1948, by ending its subjugation of millions rather than intensifying its denial and trying to legitimize its persecution. Peace can only come through justice and reconciliation.
This day, in 1948, marks the forced exile of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and lands. Some were subjected to brutal massacres, many fled for fear of their lives. A few managed to stay in what would become Israel. All suffered. Sixty-six years later, all continue to suffer.
The Nakba is a story of fear and intimidation, of denial and persecution, a cruel, unending reality.
Today in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinian families are evicted from their homes due to claims that their property belonged to Jews before 1948, while being forbidden from returning to their pre-1948 homes in West Jerusalem.
In Gaza – one of the most densely populated areas in the world – 1.2 million refugees overlook the open areas of what is now southern Israel. In my own home town, Jericho, there are two refugee camps where thousands continue to live in miserable conditions. In 2014, Palestinian children died of starvation at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria.
Israel, which claims to be a democracy for all its citizens, continues to ban the villagers of Iqrit and Kufr Birem, two Christian villages in the Galilee, from returning to their lands, despite a ruling from the Israeli High Court of Justice on the matter.
This is not the only example of persecution within Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promotion of the “nationality bill,” determining Israel as the Jewish nation-state, is one more in a long line of discriminatory laws against a fifth of Israel’s own population, the original inhabitants of the land. A list of laws which make it not only acceptable, but legally admissible, to discriminate against Israel’s own citizens for belonging to a different ethnic-religious group.
Meanwhile, in the land which Israel has illegally occupied since 1967, settlers and soldiers use similar methods of intimidation and fear to force Palestinians from their homes.
The reality in the West Bank is no less than apartheid, and, in Gaza, out and out siege. Both within occupied Palestine and further afield, those who have been waiting 66 years, with their keys in hand, continue to wait.
Palestine has recognized Israel’s right to exist since 1988. We are not asking for Hebrew not to be an official language or Jewish holidays not to be official holidays. The character of Israel is not for us to define.
But we will not allow any Palestinian to be portrayed as the immigrant or intruder in his or her own land. We were here in 1948: We were here for centuries before that – Muslims, Christians and Jews – all Palestinians. The concept of an exclusively Jewish state naturally entails the denial of the Nakba. It tells us: "This is our land. You were on it illegally, temporarily, by mistake." It is a way of asking us to deny the existence of our people and the horrors that befell them in 1948. No people should be asked to do that.
We will not be complicit in the notion that any ethnic-religious group should have dominance over any other. We will not accept the denial of basic human rights to which all are entitled.
Rather than accepting historical responsibility, rather than acknowledging a painful truth about the birth of Israel and addressing it, as a step toward peace, the Israeli government attempts to wipe the event from history.
In Israel, it is forbidden by law for higher education institutions to promote or celebrate the Nakba. If you can erase the narrative, it is much easier to erase the people. This Israeli government, in particular, is taking extraordinary measures to achieve this. Is it any wonder that we have not managed to reach an agreement at this time?
Today, we remember those who have lost their lives, at the hands of their oppressors, in their quest for freedom and dignity. Despite this, we are ready to live side by side in peace with our Israeli neighbors. We hope Israelis, if not their current government, will move in that direction.
At this point we do not know what the future will look like in terms of a solution, or when it will come. What we know for certain is that we will remain.
Saeb Erekat is a PLO Executive Committee Member and Head of the Palestinian Negotiations Team.
This article was amended on May 15 to reflect the fact that Israeli law only bars institutions of higher education from promoting or celebrating the Nakba.