Palestinian Nakba: Forever a memory

On 63rd anniversary of Israel’s foundation, the Palestinians’ “catastrophe”, the occupying state dashes hope of justice.

Palestinians commemorate Nakba in Gaza Strip -
Many Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, taking only their door key with them. It has since become a powerful symbol of refugees’ right to return, even though most of the buildings have long since been destroyed – or had Israeli families move in [GALLO/GETTY]

Palestinians around the world are marking the anniversary of the Nakba, the catastrophe that occurred when the state of Israel was established in 1948.

The scale of the devastation was overwhelming: four in five Palestinian villages inside the borders of the new state were ethnically cleansed, an act of mass dispossession accompanied by atrocities. Around 95 per cent of new Jewish communities built between 1948-1953 were established on the land of expelled, denationalised Palestinians.

Referring to these refugees, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion famously said that “the old will die and the young will forget”. In fact, rather than “forgetting”, the Nakba has become one of the central foundations for activism by Palestinians – and their supporters – around the world.

Why is the Nakba such a strong framework of analysis and action? Because rather than being an isolated historical event, it is an ongoing process of dispossession and colonial settlement. Over 60 years ago, actions taken by Israel’s military and policies adopted by the legislature were designed to effect the transfer of land from Palestinian to Jewish ownership, removing as many of the former as possible.

Since then, right up to today, this is the same logic at work in Israel’s regime over Palestinians between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Just recently it was revealed that Israel had denied residency rights to 140,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, in what Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described as a “demographic policy” whose “sole purpose is to thin out the Palestinian population”.

One of the mechanisms Israel used to expropriate Palestinian land was the British Mandate-era “Land (Acquisition for Public Purposes) Ordinance”. In 2010, the Knesset passed an amendment to this law that “confirms state ownership of land confiscated under this law, even where it has not been used to serve the original confiscation purpose”. The Nakba is not finished.

The Nakba continues as Bedouin Palestinian citizens watch their homes demolished to make way for Jewish settlement and forests, and as Palestinians are kept off 77.5 per cent of the Jordan Valley, part of what Human Rights Watch has called a “a two-tier system for the two populations”. This continuation of policies informed by the “spirit” of 1948 (in the words of Gideon Levy) is how Palestinians understand what is happening to a fragmented population, from al-Arakib to the hills of the West Bank.

A Nakba-shaped analysis is a corrective to the discourse promoted through the official peace process, a framework of “negotiations” between “two parties” over a territorial “conflict”. Liberal Zionists too, ignore the Nakba – beyond patronising displays of “empathy”; they need the Green Line of 1967 “so as to render all that lies beyond it as temporary conquest”, exempting them from having to confront “the historic legacy” of the ethnic cleansing in 1948.

The centrality of 1948 is being embraced as part of a language and mode of resistance by Palestinians around the world. The fight of Palestinian citizens of Israel as a discriminated, segregated minority has evolved over the years – from emphasising “rights” to challenging the very legitimacy of a Jewish state. The BDS call, endorsed and driven by Palestinians under military occupation, aims to bring an end to the injustices that began with the Nakba.

This is what makes the Israeli government, and its apologists, so nervous: they know that 63 years on, contrary to Ben-Gurion’s prediction, not only have subsequent generations of Palestinians remembered the Nakba, but their ongoing struggle for justice and equality is now understood and supported by growing numbers around the world.

Ben White is a freelance journalist and writer, specialising in Palestine and Israel. His first book, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, was published by Pluto Press in 2009, receiving praise from the likes of Desmond Tutu, Nur Masalha and Ghada Karmi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.