Haifa – Each year on May 15, Palestinians across the world commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe), or the 1948 establishment of Israel that led to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians being displaced from their homeland.
The estimated 1.7 million Palestinians who carry Israeli citizenship and live in villages, towns and cities across the country are no exception. Each year, protests, marches, lectures and other events to mourn their ancestors’ dispossession are held in Palestinian communities across Israel.
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Yet, since 2011, Israeli legislation has made mourning the Nakba publicly difficult for Palestinians and others in Israel. The “Nakba Law” authorises Israel’s finance minister to revoke funding from institutions that reject Israel’s character as a “Jewish state” or mark the country’s Independence Day as a day of mourning.
Although the Nakba Law has yet to be technically implemented, human rights groups and activists say it has a dangerous deterrent effect and is meant to intimidate Palestinians and others who view Israel’s establishment as a day of mourning for Palestinians.
Among those who could be potentially affected by the Nakba Law is Zochrot, an Israeli non-governmental organisation that aims to keep the memory of the 1948 events alive and promotes the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees.
has been used as an excuse to limit freedom of expression. It has a chilling effect.”]
“The Nakba Law is part of an atmosphere to suppress the Nakba narrative and a discussion of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees,” Liat Rosenberg, director of Zochrot, told Al Jazeera. “These are right-wing, anti-democratic efforts [that] continue to create an atmosphere of fear and suppress this issue from the public discourse.”
Back in February, Yona Yahav, mayor of the central Israeli city of Haifa, withdrew municipal funding for a Zochrot film festival about the Nakba. The event was scheduled to be held at the local cinema the week before Israel’s Independence Day, marked this year on April 23, but it was cancelled in the end.
The cancellation in Haifa followed a political uproar that surrounded a similar Zochrot film festival in Tel Aviv’s public cinema in November 2014. The Tel Aviv Cinematheque came under fire from Israeli politicians after it was announced that it would be hosting the three-day film festival.
In an Israeli Knesset session, parliamentarian Alex Miller, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party, called the festival “a pathetic attempt by the Cinematheque to take advantage of its stage to support Israel’s enemies that are looking for every way to undermine our sovereignty”.
Limor Livnat, then the culture and sports minister, asked the Ministry of Finance to withdraw the state’s 250,000-shekel (around $64,000) financial contribution to the Cinematheque.
“It is an unreasonable situation, in my view, when an entity that is supported by the State of Israel enables the holding on its premises of a festival devoted entirely to preaching that the day on which Israel was founded is a day of mourning,” Livnat wrote in a statement, adding that the government should not fund an institution that “encourages debate over what the Palestinians call ‘the Right of Return'”.
Zochrot’s Rosenberg says the law has so far failed and “has achieved exactly the opposite” of its desired effect by sparking a public conversation about the 1948 events. “We can most definitely see that there is a greater space to talk about the Nakba in Israel, but we still have a long way to go. The more legislative attempts to limit the space for discussion [about the Nakba], the greater the public interest becomes.”
Adalah, a Haifa-based legal centre for Palestinians in Israel, challenged the law, but the court rejected its petition in April 2012. The justices ruled that it could not be stricken down before it is actually implemented.
“The declarative level of the law does indeed raise difficult and complex questions,” Israeli Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Justices Eliezer Rivlin and Miriam Naor wrote in their ruling at the time. “However, from the outset, the constitutionality of the law depends largely upon the interpretation given to the law’s directives.”
Pointing to the cancellation of Zochrot’s film festival in Haifa, Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer at Adalah, explains that the law’s true danger lies in its “deterrent impact” on freedom of speech and the possibility of self-censorship.
“Without actually implementing the Nakba Law, [the law] has been used as an excuse to limit freedom of expression,” Zaher told Al Jazeera. “It has a chilling effect.”
Since 2012, Tel Aviv University’s Palestinian student groups have had to hold Nakba Day commemoration events off campus and pay for their own security in order to prevent the university from violating the restrictions set out by the Nakba Law.
Students at Haifa University were also unable to attain a permit to hold a Nakba Day commemoration event in 2014, but they held a small protest. Several participants were suspended for the remainder of the semester and Palestinian student groups were temporarily banned from holding events on campus, a decision that was later overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court.
“Yet our main fear is more about the smaller institutions that will not go to Adalah or the media because they will be afraid to lose their funding,” Sawsan Zaher explained. “Without being implemented, the law is more of a statement to Palestinians in Israel: ‘Don’t mention the Nakba; you have no collective narrative; this is not legal.'”
Zaher said the law “dehumanises and delegitimises Palestinian citizens of Israel” and treats them “as enemies”.
In November, hardline incumbent prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, dissolved the Knesset following uproar over the “Jewish nation-state bill”, proposed legislation that defined Israel as “the nation-state of the Jewish people” and allots Arab citizens individual rights but not communal rights.
In March, Netanyahu’s Likud party garnered a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. Cobbled together with a 61-seat majority, Netanyahu’s new coalition is poised to include several smaller right-wing parties, such as the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party and former Likud member Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party.
“We expect more laws like this in the next Knesset,” Zaher said. “The Nakba Law is just one of dozens and [there are] more to come.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_