Israel and the Nakba

Chronicle of dispossession and resistance

THE STATE of Israel began its celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of its birth on May 8 with great fanfare, including the traditional torch-lighting on Mount Herzl, military and air force displays, laser shows, fireworks, concerts, celebrity parties, and barbecues.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Arab inhabitants commemorated the event in a different way, visiting villages that were destroyed in Israel’s “war for independence.” As part of an alternative commemoration, Palestinian families marched to the site of one of these destroyed Arab village, Saffuriya, whose 5,000 inhabitants were forcibly driven out by Zionist armies in 1948, and a forest planted in its place. Israeli police attacked and broke up the peaceful procession. According to Jonathan Cook, a left-wing journalist living in Nazareth, “Mounted police charged into the crowds, while stun grenades and tear gas were liberally fired into fields being crossed by families.”

These contrasting commemorations highlight how Israel wants to obliterate the real history of 1948, as well as how poorly the Palestinians are cooperating. When the UN recently used the word “Nakba,” Danny Carmon, Israel’s deputy ambassador to the UN, complained that the term “is a tool of Arab propaganda used to undermine the legitimacy of the establishment of the State of Israel, and it must not be part of the lexicon of the UN.” Why is Israel so concerned to suppress the use of this word?

Nakba—Arabic for catastrophe—is the word Palestinians use for Israel’s so-called war of independence. In November 1947 the UN partitioned British-controlled Palestine, granting the Zionists, who had been slowly colonizing the region, 55 percent of the land (the most fertile areas), though Jews were only a third of the population and controlled only 6 percent of the land at the time. Zionist forces used partition as a signal to move into action. In 1948, well-armed Zionist forces, numbering over 50,000, launched a war to ethnically cleanse the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.

The terror campaign they launched was part of a well-prepared and organized plan. Under Plan Dalet, led by David Ben-Gurion, who later became Israel’s first prime minister, Zionist forces were directed to carry out the “destruction of [Palestinian] villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those populations centers which are difficult to control continuously.” A directive to Zionist troops stated, “The principal objective of the operation is the destruction of Arab villages...[and] the eviction of the villagers.”

Selective massacres were used to terrorize the rest into fleeing their homes. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, Zionist forces perpetrated twenty-four massacres of Palestinians, including the now famous Deir Yasin massacre, where Irgun (led by Menachim Begin) and Stern Gang paramilitaries systematically murdered more than 100 villagers. Though Deir Yasin is the most well known of the massacres, it was by no means the worst. The last large massacre in 1948 was committed in the village of Dawaymeh near Hebron, where as many as 455 people—including around 170 women and children—were slaughtered. According to Israeli historian Illan Pappé, “The Jewish soldiers who took part in the massacre also reported horrific scenes: babies whose skulls were cracked open, women raped or burned alive in houses, and men stabbed to death.”

Urban areas were also targeted. The Jewish army commander of the brigade attacking Haifa (the officer later became the Israeli army’s chief of staff) ordered his troops to “kill any Arab you encounter; torch all inflammable objects and force doors open with explosives.” Haifa’s Palestinian residents were so shocked by the attack that they fled without packing any of their belongings. Masses of people streamed to the harbor, hoping to get on a boat. Jewish troops then began bombarding the crowd as it gathered in the market place. The panic-stricken crowd stormed the boats; many were trampled, and many of the overcrowded boats turned over and sank.

Within six months, major cities were emptied of Arabs, and 531 villages were wiped off the map. Zionist forces had extended their control to 78 percent of historic Palestine. Of the almost one million Arabs living in Palestine, 13,000 were killed, 750,000 fled, and 180,000 were left within the borders of the newly declared state of Israel. Of those who fled, two-thirds became refugees in the West Bank and Gaza, and the others ended up in squalid refugee camps in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

While Israeli officials do not often publicly admit the truth of what really happened, there are moments of candor. Moshe Dayan, a Zionist commander during the ’48 war who later became chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, told an audience in 1962:

We came to this country, which was already populated by Arabs, and we are establishing a Hebrew, that is, a Jewish State, here. Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you, because those geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books, not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahal arose in the place of Mahalul; Gevat in the place of Jibta; Sarid in the place of Tell Shaman. There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

The “vision of a purely Jewish nation-state,” writes Pappé, “had been at the heart of Zionist ideology from the moment the movement emerged in the late nineteenth century.” David Ben-Gurion told the senior members of his Mapai Party in 1947 that “Only a state with at least 80 percent Jews is a viable and stable.” Later in the same year, he told the Executive of the Jewish Agency that for Palestinians not to become a fifth column inside the new Jewish state, they must either be arrested or expelled. “It is better to expel them,” he concluded. But that goal was only partially achieved in 1948. Israeli policy since then has been directed at completing its goal. In that sense, the Nakba—the forcible expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland—has really never ended.

In the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli Defense Forces expelled another 325,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. In the next ten years, an average of 21,000 Palestinians per year were forced out of Israeli-controlled areas. Since then, Israel has continued to build settlements in the West Bank with an eye to seizing control over more and more land, while Palestinians are being squeezed into smaller and smaller pockets. According to a UN report, almost 40 percent of the West Bank is now off limits to Palestinians, crisscrossed with Jewish-only roads, settlements, and military bases. “Israel has methodically broken the remainder of the territory into dozens of enclaves separated from each other and the outside world by zones that it alone controls (including, at last count, 612 checkpoints and roadblocks),” author Saree Makdisi writes in the Los Angeles Times.

According to Israeli law, any Jew in the world can become an Israeli citizen, whereas Palestinians are legally barred from returning to their home. Israel has had a longstanding policy of issuing, and revoking, IDs for Palestinians in order to deny their right to come back when they move or travel abroad. After its 2005 pullout from Gaza, for example, Israel began classifying Palestinians from Jerusalem and West Bankers who live in Gaza as residing “abroad,” revoking their IDs and barring their return to Jerusalem or the West Bank.

Nevertheless, in spite of all this, Palestinians are today a fifth of Israel’s population (though they occupy only a tiny portion of the land), and are roughly half of the 10.8 million people who live within Israel and the Occupied Territories; Jews now constitute just 48 percent of the total population of these areas. According to population projections, because of the higher birth rate of Palestinians, their numbers will surpass Jews in Israel-Palestine by the year 2010.

There is now constant talk in the Israeli press about the “demographic threat.” The Zionist dilemma—how to keep Israel overwhelmingly Jewish—looms large in Israeli discourse. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed Israel’s fear of a Jewish minority in Ha’aretz, stating, “If the day comes when the two-state solution collapses and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, the state of Israel is finished.”

The “solutions” to this problem vary depending on the party, from calling for Israel to divest itself of territory (Gaza, parts of the West Bank), to “transfer”— the expulsion of the remaining Palestinians from Israel-Palestine. Polls show that a slight majority of Jews favor transferring Arabs out of Israel.

According to Ali Abunimah, when Israel pulled out of Gaza, it “hoped to divest itself of 1.4 million Palestinians for the relatively modest price of pulling out 8,000 settlers. Shimon Peres, then Israel’s deputy prime minister, explained, ‘We are disengaging from Gaza because of demography.’” If Israel can sell the idea that Gaza is a separate “entity,” then, the thinking goes, it boosts the Jewish portion of the population. The problem is that Palestinians are not going to cooperate with the plan. Gaza remains occupied territory, and Palestinian resistance isn’t going to disappear.

Increasingly, the two-state solution appears as little more than a fading apparition. “Continued expansion of Jewish settlements,” notes an NPR report, “the wall and barrier Israel is building in and around the West Bank—what Israel calls the security fence—and the checkpoints continue to slice the West Bank and villages around Jerusalem into separate cantons that undermine chances for a viable two-state solution.” Most Palestinians are now convinced that this strategy, adopted by Yasser Arafat in the early 1970s, is a dead letter. “There is no basis for the two states now,” says Abdul Nasr al Najar, managing editor of the Palestinian newspaper Al Ayam.

One need only look at Israel and the U.S. government’s reaction to the democratic election of a Hamas government in Gaza to understand this. Since Israel’s “disengagement,” Gaza has become a giant concentration camp with one of the world’s highest population densities, surrounded by camp guards—Israeli soldiers—who will not let anyone leave. The inhabitants, half of whom are children, are denied access to clean water, food, sanitation, and electricity. They are subject to constant violence from Israeli armed forces, which attack at will. This collective punishment is inflicted on 1.6 million people without the slightest protest from most world leaders.

The truth is, Israel will not tolerate a viable Palestinian state on its borders. The two-state solution, moreover, never took into account the 5 million Palestinians of the diaspora who do not live in the West Bank, Gaza, or those who live within the borders of Israel. For refugees, any solution to the Palestinian question must include the right of Palestinians to return to the homeland from which they were expelled. And only the construction of secular democratic state for all the inhabitants of Palestine offers all Palestinians a solution that takes into account their full national and democratic rights. where Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Muslims would all enjoy equal rights.

Israelis may hope that their incessant collective punishment against Palestinians will force the latter to relinquish their national aspirations. To Israel’s chagrin, these efforts have only strengthened the Palestinians’ resolve. As Mike Marqusee notes, “for Palestinians, recognizing Israel’s right to exist—as opposed to the fact of its existence—is tantamount to an historical seal of approval on the Nakba.” This is something they cannot and will not do.

As prospects for a two-state solution fade, some have begun to reintroduce the idea of fighting for a unitary, secular state. Khalid Amayreh, a journalist living in the West Bank town of Ramallah, writes, “With Israel continuing the process of annulling whatever prospects still remain for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, many Palestinians are quietly turning to the one-state option.”

An organization called the Palestine One State Forum issued a manifesto on May 15, which calls for, among other things, the right of return and the “creation of a unitary democratic state encompassing Israelis currently living in Israel and Palestinians, on the basis of equality as citizens and justice for all regardless of religion, race or sex.”

These developments are welcome, but they will not be accepted by Israel, whose very survival as a Jewish state depends on preventing a unitary, democratic state with an Arab majority. The success of such a demand will depend upon mass struggle that links the national struggle of Palestinians to the broader struggle of the exploited and oppressed Arab masses regionally.

George Bush, speaking in front of the Israeli Knesset on May 15, told lawmakers that the founding of Israel was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, “Sixty years ago in Tel Aviv, David Ben-Gurion proclaimed Israel’s independence, founded on the ‘natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate.’ What followed was more than the establishment of a new country. It was the redemption of an ancient promise given to Abraham and Moses and David—a homeland for the chosen people: Eretz Yisrael.” In saying this, Bush played his part in helping Israel commit what critics of Israel are calling “memorycide”—the attempt to destroy the memory of the dispossession of the Palestinian people that made the creation of Israel possible and continues to this day.

But the Palestinian people—and we who support them internationally—will not let the truth be murdered.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story