Seventy-five years after Zionist militias killed 15,000 Palestinians and violently expelled hundreds of thousands from their lands, the Nakba (Catastrophe in Arabic) remains an ongoing, all-encompassing system that affects all aspects of life, Palestinians say.
According to Palestinian experts, politicians and activists, the Nakba has been maintained by Israel with the support of the international community, and by the Palestinians’ own leadership.
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From expanding illegal Jewish settlements to severely restricting Palestinians’ freedom of movement, taking Palestinian resources and arresting Palestinians on a near-daily basis – such policies have become a blueprint for successive Israeli governments.
Israel is taking over not just the land but also the names of towns and cities and is “appropriating the culture and our rights … this is ongoing,” prominent Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi told Al Jazeera from the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah.
On top of decades of Israeli efforts to rename Palestinian towns and villages, a more recent example of this erasure is Israel’s so-called nation-state law. The bill was passed in 2018 defining Israel as the national homeland for the Jewish people while downgrading the status of Palestinians and their Arabic language.
The law – denounced by rights groups as an inherently discriminatory one – considers the expansion of Jewish-only settlements a national value, encouraging and promoting their construction.
Israel also uses religious ideology to justify “settler colonialism, land theft, and annexation – through a system of apartheid and ethnic cleansing”, she said.
The policies heavily affect Palestinians already fragmented by occupation, with some living as “second-class” citizens of Israel, some besieged in the blockaded Gaza Strip, and some subject to Israel’s annexations in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Ashrawi added.
‘Guilty until proven innocent’
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank’s Hebron, where Jewish settlements eat up a significant proportion of the centre of the city, are particularly vulnerable to state-sponsored settler violence and Israeli surveillance.
Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist and founder of the Youth Against Settlements nongovernmental organisation, told Al Jazeera from Hebron: “I don’t feel safe in my house because of the Israeli settler violence and the Israeli army’s brutality.
“They use surveillance and cameras to violate our privacy and to monitor and watch and spy on us all the time.”
Settler attacks against Palestinians and their property are a regular occurrence. From physical attacks to arson and vandalism, many of these incidents often take place under the protection of or in coordination with the Israeli army.
Between 600,000 and 750,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 250 illegal settlements and outposts across the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Israeli settlements are illegal under international law as they violate the Fourth Geneva Convention, which bans an occupying power from transferring its population to areas it occupies.
Israel has entrenched its occupation through the settlements ever since it seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. Successive Israeli governments have invested “significant resources” in constructing and expanding the settlements, according to Israeli rights group B’Tselem, in terms of land they occupy and population.
Palestinians living under the power of Israeli forces and settlers backed by armed troops are deprived of basic services, including ambulances, roads, electricity, and water.
International law bans an occupying power from transferring its population to territory it occupies, yet the status of settlers has remained unaffected. Separate legal systems in place allow settlers to be subject to Israeli civilian law, while Palestinians are governed by Israeli martial law.
“There are double standards … it means we are guilty until proven innocent,” Amro said. “You live in a jail without protection, we call it the continuous Nakba.”
In spite of the many UN resolutions urging Israel to review its discriminatory policies, the international community has failed to deliver justice to the Palestinians for a variety of reasons, according to the interviewees.
Israel is an “extension of the Western colonial system in the region,” Ashrawi said.
“The West sees it as fulfilling its own economic and military security purposes,” she added.
Dana El Kurd, a non-resident senior fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC, agrees. She believes international institutions and organisations are “largely Western focused and US driven”.
The United States wants to maintain a “staunch ally in the form of Israel” to protect its interests in the region, El Kurd told Al Jazeera.
Even as public opinion moves towards more understanding of the Palestinian plight, El Kurd said that “does not immediately get reflected at the level of leadership or policy”.
There is also an inherent sense of “hypocrisy and racism”, Ashrawi said. International law applies if you are “blonde and blue-eyed – but somehow, Palestinians … do not have the same rights,” she said.
Palestinians like Amro believe that unless the international community holds Israel accountable for its crimes, nothing will change.
They should act “according to their principles … not according to their interests”, he said. “Israel will not be able to continue its occupation without the blind support it gets from the international community.”
Israel has enjoyed unwavering financial and political support from countries such as the United States – which has labeled itself as an honest broker in negotiations with the Palestinians – with Israel remaining among the top US military aid recipients in the world.
Arab countries including the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have also normalised relations with Israel, breaking years of consensus among most Arab states that have said any official recognition of Israel is conditional on the end of the occupation of Palestinian territories and establishment of the two-state solution on the 1967 borders.
Among Arab public opinion, Palestine remains a “core issue, an issue of conscience,” Ashrawi said. But there is no “collective will” among various Arab states to support the Palestinian cause because of different regimes and interests, she added.
‘Persist and resist’
Palestinians say their temporary government, the Palestinian Authority (PA), born out of the Oslo Accords, has done little over the years to alleviate their mounting suffering.
A series of brokered peace talks with Israel have so far failed and there has been no real progress towards implementing a two-state solution.
In fact, the PA has played a role in maintaining the occupation, Palestinians say. El Kurd refers to the PA as “a subcontractor of occupation”.
“The PA took a national liberation movement and turned it into a caretaker quasi-governance project that has distracted Palestinians away from their main objective of self-determination,” El Kurd told Al Jazeera.
The PA has always been under scrutiny, in particular for its security coordination with Israel, which has repeatedly silenced dissent, whether against the occupation or the PA and its policies.
The perceived failures brought about by the status quo so far have pushed some young Palestinians to take matters into their own hands. With Israel carrying out near-nightly incursions into Jenin and Nablus, arresting dozens, and killing with impunity, new groups of youths fighting the Israeli occupation have now emerged, unhappy with the perceived failures brought about by the status quo.
“A great deal of research has shown that support for armed resistance is increasing,” El Kurd said.
These new armed groups are “not structured around the traditional political movements, and are very localised, and include members from a variety of political backgrounds,” she added.
Among them is the Lions’ Den – an armed group comprising of young men that has become known for attacks against Israeli soldiers. The group is cross-factional and looks beyond factional disputes to fight the occupation.
But Palestinians remain politically and geographically fragmented, El Kurd said, partly due to the role of the PA.
“To continue to exist, the PA has had to play a polarising and demobilising function, which has been very damaging to Palestinian society,” she said.
Among the PA’s most criticised practices is “security coordination” with Israel. The controversial policy includes sharing intelligence information with Israel about any armed resistance to the occupation and helping Israel thwart attacks. The practice has cost many Palestinians their lives, including 34-year-old Basil al-Araj who was killed in an Israeli raid in Ramallah.
When asked what Palestinians need from their leadership today, Ashrawi said: “We need a change.”
Starting with a new electoral law, Ashrawi believes elections are needed despite them being inevitably “tainted by the occupation”.
“If you want to create a system of governance, it has to be democratic and representative,” she said. “The last thing we need is to oppress our own people.”
Only by revitalising and reshaping the political system will young Palestinians be able to “drive people forward”, she said.
Ultimately, she said, the goal is to remain on the land, and to “persist and resist”.