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Home > News & Analysis > Analysis
Nakba at 60
George Bisharat, IMEU, May 15, 2008

Palestinian children attend a rally marking the 60th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba in the West Bank city of Tulkarem. (Mouid Ashqar, Maan News)
Sixty years ago, with Israel's establishment, Palestinians entered a nightmare from which they have never awoken. By joining Israel's celebration of its sixtieth anniversary, President Bush neglects this crucial reality, and underscores our government's insensitivity to Palestinian rights.

Israel's founders didn't simply plant flags in an empty country. Instead, they coveted a state where close to a million Palestinians outnumbered Jews two to one and where Jews owned only 6% of the land. A Jewish state could not be established in this milieu. Exploiting Palestinian opposition to the United Nations partition plan, Zionist militias, and later Israeli troops, forcibly exiled about 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and homeland, or terrorized them into flight. Israeli historian Benny Morris documented twenty four massacres of unarmed Palestinian civilians in this period.

Palestinians refer to the violent destruction of their society as the Nakba ("catastrophe" in Arabic). Each May for six decades, Palestinians worldwide have mourned the Nakba, as if it were a discrete historical event. In fact, the Nakba has never really ended. Instead, the mass expulsions of Palestinians upon Israel's founding were only the first and most convulsive phase in a protracted process - the displacement of native Palestinians in favor of Jewish settlers. Long ago, Zionists set out to conquer Palestine "dunum by dunum, goat by goat" (a dunum is the local unit of land). This necessarily violent process continues today.

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In its initial years, Israel consolidated control over lands belonging to exiled Palestinians by barring their return. Thousands of Palestinians were shot simply for trying to retrieve belongings from their homes or to harvest their crops. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were razed, while others, emptied of their Palestinian residents, were populated by Jewish immigrants. Smaller scale expulsions continued even after the 1948 war ended - for example, Israeli troops forced the residents of the village of al-Majdal across the border into the Gaza Strip in 1950.

Laws were passed to expropriate Palestinian refugee lands and to guarantee permanent Jewish control of them. Those Palestinians who had escaped expulsion were placed under military government; their were lands seized too. Government officials implemented plans to "Judaize" the Galilee region in the 1970's, disrupting contiguity between Palestinian towns and villages by interposing new Jewish settlements.

Today, a similar process is underway in the Negev desert, where some 80,000 Bedouin Palestinians live in unrecognized villages that receive no water, electricity, roads, or other government services. That will not be true, however, of new Jewish settlements slated to replace them.

In June 1967 Israel expelled up to 350,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. Since then, every Israeli government, regardless of ideological bent, has seized Palestinian land in the West Bank and handed it to Jewish settlers. The tools of dispossession have since shifted from the spectacular violence of war to the mundane, daily violence of grinding military occupation.

Jerusalem has been ringed with Jewish settlements designed to wall the city off from Palestinian towns in the West Bank. Palestinians, meanwhile, are penned into diminishing land reserves.

Israel's discriminatory practices, within its borders and in the Palestinian territories, are not accidental, nor are they justified by security. Rather, they flow from the goal of creating a Jewish state in a land that was not, and is not, exclusively Jewish.

Yet Palestinians have endured every pressure to abandon their country with patient determination. Today, Palestinians living within Israel, the West Bank , and the Gaza Strip are approximately equal to the number of Israeli Jews. They have not ended the Nakba, but neither has Israel succeeded in crushing their aspirations for freedom. In effect, Israel/Palestine has become a single functioning polity, albeit one in which only Israeli Jews enjoy full political rights. The question is: will this condition, tantamount to apartheid, be allowed continue, or will genuine democracy emerge in Israel/Palestine based on equal rights?

President Bush, who has championed democratization of the Middle East, should either refrain from participating in Israel's celebration - or, better, use the occasion to urge the value of equality on our ally. Peace will not be realized until the Palestinian Nakba ends. The Nakba, in turn, will not end unless ethnic exclusionism is repudiated. The Nazi holocaust -unspeakably cruel as it was - did not grant Israelis a permanent license to discriminate against and oppress another people. Rather, Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews must live together under a regime of equal rights for all.

George Bisharat is a professor of law at University of California Hastings College of the Law. He writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.

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