On Monday, the Trump administration broke with more than 70 years of official US policy and the position of the international community by moving its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As if to rub salt in their wounds, it was be inaugurated the day before Palestinians commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (the Catastrophe), when nearly a million Palestinians were displaced and became refugees during Israel’s establishment. In Israel, the Nakba is not only ignored, it is outright denied or even justified. Yet if there is to be peace in this region – and I think it is possible – it begins with acknowledging the Nakba, understanding it, and working to reverse it.
Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, which saw the transformation of half of Palestine’s population into stateless refugees, is not a mere historic event: it has persisted unabated until today. Since 1967, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were either expelled from or denied re-entry when they traveled outside the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, inside Israel’s recognized borders, its policy of “Judaizing” the south and north of the country often result in a quiet transfer of Palestinians through expropriation of land and demolition of villages, as is occurring in Umm al-Hiran today, where an entire Palestinian community is being destroyed so a town for Jewish Israelis can be built in its place.
Today more than six million Palestinians are homeless due to the 1948 Nakba and its subsequent chapters. Failing to acknowledge their rights will not only lead to continued instability in the region but also prevents any lasting peace. By recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump is encouraging Israel to accelerate its dispossession of Palestinians in the city and elsewhere.
Only by revisiting the events of 1948 can one understand the essence of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, as well as the reasons for the failure to solve it. Even if there are still today, despite the clear archival evidence, people who refuse to acknowledge Israel’s responsibility for the catastrophe – the demolition of half of Palestine’s towns and villages and the exodus of 750,000 people – no one denies that the refugees were not allowed to return (in clear violation of the UN decisions and the international law).
The reasons for the expulsion and for the refusal to allow repatriation are the same. From the very onset of the Zionist project in Palestine, the main obstacle for the establishment of the Jewish state was the native population of Palestine. This still remains the problem for Israelis who regard themselves as Zionists, whether they are liberals, socialists or nationalists. The various political groups in Israel differ on the tactics of how to overcome the demographic reality of an Arab Palestinian country. They nonetheless concur on viewing the native Palestinians as a demographic existential threat simply because they are not Jewish.
The Palestinian leadership since the 1980s was willing to compromise on the territorial configuration of Israel, but could never, and will never, lend its consent to the overall Judaization of its homeland. Israeli laws that forbid Palestinians in Israel from commemorating the Nakba, Israeli demands that the Palestinians agree to recognize Israel as a “Jewish State,” – despite the fact that more than 20% of its population is Palestinian – are an insult added to an injury. Israel is an established fact, but so are the circumstances of its establishment on the ruins of Palestine. For Palestinians territorial compromise does not include a license for a global amnesia or the acceptance of Israeli historical fabrications.
The Nakba defines many of the Palestinians who have been totally excluded by the “peace process”. This is particularly true about the younger generations. Whether in Israel, in the refugee camps or in the exile communities around the world, through cyberspace and actual meetings, these young Palestinians are creating a new vision for Palestine. While it is still not complete or articulated as a political program, it has a striking pair of messages: a solution for Palestine has to include all Palestinians and cover all historical Palestine, and it has to rectify the worst consequence of the Nakba by implementing the Right of Return.
The Great Return march in Gaza, which was initiated and led by young people, has generated much excitement and enthusiasm. Many others are engaged in oral history projects, interviewing their grandparents and elders about the horrors of 1948, building models of villages and neighborhoods that were destroyed and imagining how the reconstructed ones would look like after they are finally allowed to return home.
American peacemakers, whether cynical or genuine in their efforts, have consistently failed to understand the essence of the conflict in Palestine. If they ever want to solve it, they need to revisit the dispossession of Palestinians that occurred in 1948 and understand its significance and the fact that 70 years later, Israel continues to systematically displace Palestinians from their homes.
With the collapse of the two-state solution, addressing the Nakba and events of 1948 should become the focus of a peace agenda. This is the original sin of the conflict in Israel/Palestine and it must be dealt with in an honest and just manner if we are ever to move forward.
And we should let this young generation lead us on that path. For them, rectifying what happened in 1948 and subsequently is an issue of human and civil rights and not of retribution, and their vision of the future is of a place where normal human life can be resumed, where it was denied for the last seventy years.