For the Palestinian people, the Nakba is a collective tragedy whose wounds have yet to heal 68 years later. What we call the ‘Catastrophe’ is not just the destruction of at least 436 villages or the forced displacement of 70 percent of our people, but of our ethnic cleansing at the hands of a colonialist strategy. For reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel must recognize what it has done to the Palestinian people.
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It is time for Israelis to confront reality: when the Zionists came to Palestine, there were another people living here. Over 100 years ago, a Zionist mission was sent to Palestine and their report acknowledged this fact: “The bride is beautiful but she is married to another man.” And this: soon plans to displace Palestine’s population were unveiled. Millions of Palestinians still pay for the colonialist British promise referred to as the Balfour Declaration. No people on earth would have accepted such a clandestine deal, sealing their fate to a foreign power intent on wiping its presence and identity from the land they came from, tilled, and souls returned to.
Unfortunately, Nakba deniers throughout Israeli society continue to use neocolonialist nationalism to rejects the existence of the Palestinian people while redefining traditional constructs of colonialism to justify the systematic Israeli theft of Palestinian land and deprivation of Palestinian human rights.
Palestinians are Arabs who immigrated to Israel. We Jews fended off the attacks by seven Arab armies in self-defense. These declarations deny the very existence of the Palestinian people, continue to justify the atrocities committed against us, and deny Palestinian refugees’ legitimate right of return. However, if Israel aspires to live in peace in the region, it must face its own archival evidence attesting to the past that ties our two peoples together. Even 68 years after the Nakba, Jews are still the minority in historic Palestine. Israel cannot continue to deny what it has done to the Palestinian people, and it’s time it understood that coexistence means acknowledgment.
Israeli historian Tom Segev described in eloquent, yet raw detail the pillaging of Palestinian homes at the hands of the so-called first Israelis in his well-regarded book 1949: The First Israelis. They found the remnants of Palestinian families forced out of their homes so recently that dust hadn’t yet settled on the letters, photographs, and toys left behind – the memories of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees never allowed to return home simply because they were not Jewish.
When Israelis walk in Jerusalem’s Talbiya or Qatamon, can’t they distinguish the Arab architecture from the imported Western architecture transplanted with their arrival to Palestine? What of the Palestinian family names still etched onto the stone doorways underneath the year in which their homes were built in Mosrara? In Jaffa, where only 4,000 out of 70,000 Palestinians remained and are subsequently confined today in the Ajami neighborhood – did these images not provoke the consciousness of 1930’s ghettos in Eastern Europe? Did the librarians of Hebrew University not think twice when they saw the names of the original owners inscribed in beautiful, curved Arabic script on the inside cover of the thousands of books appropriated so as to swell the university’s world-renowned library collection?
The two-part makeup of the Nakba was borne through the destruction of Palestine and the construction of Israel. It encompasses around 350,000 internally displaced Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is seen through a racist legislative framework which legitimized the theft of Palestinian refugee land as enumerated in the Absentee Property Law.
Despite the courageous work of organizations such as Zochrot and local Palestinian-Israeli committees to preserve the memory of the pre-1948 Palestinian society, the Israeli government is determined to erase any indication of Palestinian identity. During the first Intifada Israel outlawed raising the Palestinian flag, singing historic and patriotic Palestinian songs, and even outlawed education. Today, they are pushing legislation to outlaw the mourning and commemoration of the most tragic day in Palestinian history.
We are often accused by Israeli officials of glorifying Palestinians who committed acts of violence against Israelis. Yet nothing is said about the glorification of Zionist terrorists who terrorized Palestinian communities during the Nakba, the perpetrators of massacres such as Deir Yassin, the assassination of UN mediator Folke Bernadotte, or of those honored for their hand in killing Palestinians by renaming Arab streets and squares in Haifa and Jerusalem with the names of these terrorists. In Jaffa, the only standing home of the Al Manshiya neighborhood, demolished in the 1960s in order to erase the memory of this legendary neighborhood, has been dedicated to a museum to the Irgun, a gang best known for its terrorist attacks and bloody actions against Palestinian civilians, particularly in Jaffa.
Nakba represents profound significance. Nakba means that while the right of return of Palestinians is utterly rejected only because they are not Jews, any Jew of the world can become Israeli citizens on arrival. Nakba means a racist Israeli citizenship law that prevents Palestinian families from being united. Nakba means that millions of Palestinians cannot even visit their homeland. Nakba means that a settler continues to build on occupied land while Palestinians under Israeli military control have their homes demolished.
According to some Israeli historians and many Israeli politicians, the Nakba and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was necessary for the creation of the State of Israel. However, it is time to face the realities of 1948 and its continued projections today. For Palestinians worldwide, the Nakba was not merely a day in history 68 years ago, but an entire system of daily forced subjugation and dispossession culminating in today’s Apartheid regime. Israel and Palestine could live in peace and security, but in order to achieve that goal, we need a process of reconciliation. Israel must recognize the Nakba in order to end this era of loss and injustice.
Dr. Saeb Erekat is Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).