While it is common knowledge that a majority of the population of the Gaza Strip are refugees, it is less well understood where they came from. The shocking reality is that many of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip are a few miles away from the land of their ethnically cleansed former villages, across the border fence in southern Israel. Like so much else with Palestine, you can’t understand Gaza if you don’t understand the Nakba.
To give a few examples. In 1948, most of the Palestinians of al-Majdal had fled in fear by the time the Israeli army took the town. In November of that year, around 500 were expelled to Gaza. But during 1949, a good number of Palestinians managed to return. Those remaining Palestinians were “concentrated and sealed off with barbed wire and IDF guards in a small, built-up area commonly known as the ‘ghetto‘”.
The ethnic cleansing of al-Majdal was completed between June and October 1950. And if you haven’t heard of al-Majdal before, I’m sure you know the Israeli port city built in its place: Ashkelon.
Or take the village of Najd, whose inhabitants cultivated citrus, bananas, cereals and orchards. They were expelled by Israeli forces in May 1948 and you can find Palestinians from Najd in Jabaliya refugee camp. The Israeli city of Sderot was founded on its land.
An AFP article from 2008 illustrates the links between 1948 and 2012, and how the Nakba never finished:
When Israeli soldiers razed his village of Najd during the Jewish state’s independence war, Yussef Abu al-Jidyan fled to a Gaza refugee camp where he has now lived for 60 years. But he has never lost hope of returning. Since 1948, he has lost his home three times in Israeli military operations. The latest was in March when the Israeli army came with bulldozers and levelled houses in Jabaliya refugee camp in the besieged Gaza Strip.
One final example: the village of Simsim. Ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1948, most of its population also lives in Jabaliya camp, just nine miles away. A kibbutz now holds village land, with ruins located in a “nature preserve”. Israeli organisation Zochrot published a booklet on the village, in which the author writes:
“The Qassam rockets fired from Gaza by the Palestinians reach the villages and lands from which they were expelled in 1948. The Qassams are fired at the roots. The roots of the conflict.”
These roots are not limited to the area around Gaza – they also go to the Galilee where Jewish development town Upper Nazareth sits overlooking the famous Palestinian city.
During the recent attack on Gaza, Upper Nazareth’s mayor wrote to the Interior Minister to declare the city of Nazareth to be “hostile” to the state, adding:
“If it was in my hands, I would evacuate from this city its residents the haters of Israel whose rightful place is in Gaza and not here.”
The mayor has form; in 2010 he commented:
“Just as Ben-Gurion and Peres said in the 1950s that the Galilee must be Jewish, we say the same about Nazareth Illit: It must retain its Jewish character.”
The back story of Upper Nazareth is instructive about the colonial present of the Middle East’s “only democracy”, a town created in the 1950s on land expropriated for the “public interest”:
In 1953, a government official acknowledged that “making Nazareth a partially Jewish city” would be “a colonising act with difficulties”, but its importance was also clear. The director of the IDF Planning Department said that the role of Upper Nazareth would be to “emphasise and safeguard the Jewish character of the Galilee as a whole”, while according to the Northern Military Governor, the final aim of the settlement was to “swallow up” the Arab city through “growth of the Jewish population around a hard-core group”.
Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ben-Gurion wrote in 1957 that Upper Nazareth “must be a Jewish town that will assert a Jewish presence in the area”. Today, while Upper Nazareth’s 50,000 inhabitants occupy 42,000 dunams (4,200 hectares), down the hill in Nazareth, 70,000 Palestinians are forced into just 14,000 dunams (1,400 hectares): four times as crowded.
This is just one example from a regime of systematic discrimination that has developed and been maintained by Israeli leaders from Ben-Gurion to the likes of Deputy FM Danny Ayalon, who recently declared that “settling the land is highly important” and means “creating a Jewish hold in [the Negev and Galilee]”.
Framing events in Gaza in the colonial context is vital for understanding the nature of the violence, as well as the separation and sealing off of the territory, a microcosm of fragmented Palestine. The colonial paradigm brings the focus back to the Nakba, to the foundational act of ethnic cleansing and ongoing policies of exclusion. It is a reminder that the answers for Gaza are the same as those for Jerusalem, the southern Hebron Hills and the Galilee: decolonisation, implementation of the Palestinian people’s rights – and international sanction of Israel until such a goal is realised.
Ben White is a freelance journalist, writer and activist, specialising in Palestine/Israel. He is a graduate of Cambridge University.