For activists in Palestine and around the world, the annual commemoration of the Nakba – the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Jewish militias before and during 1948 – provides an opportunity to refocus and reenergise. It serves as a reminder of the historical distance traversed while acting simultaneously to highlight that still-faraway objective: justice in Palestine.
For the Palestinians themselves, May 15 is a day of remembrance, marked by sombre ceremonies and cultural rites. It is a day that magnifies our joint responsibility to maintain and recommit to our century-long struggle to overcome Zionism. It is a day for teaching and reflecting, for underlining our responsibility to future generations.
Yet, it would be wrong to regard May 15 as a memorial marker only. The tragic fact is that the Nakba has never ceased to occur; Jewish-Israelis continue to ethnically cleanse Palestine. The settlement project in Jerusalem and the West Bank is one outward manifestation of the drive to populate the entire land with Jews, but there are others. Laws that prohibit the unification of Palestinian families on both sides of the Green Line, housing policies designed to prevent the growth of Palestinian communities, and the enforcement of the geographical division of the West Bank and Gaza each serves to indict Zionism – a force that continues to animate Jewish-Israeli society.
A Jewish majority
What happened to the Palestinians from 1946 to 1949 was inevitable. The Jewish militias’ ethnic cleansing programme was a political decision borne of a desire to create a democracy of Jews in a geographical space inhabited by millions of Palestinians. Zionism, an aggressive, colonial form of Jewish nationalism in Palestine, possessed an irresistible logic that compelled its adherents to orchestrate that necessary cleansing. For the Ashkenazi Jewish settlers from Europe, the supremacy of a continental way of life and the acute desire to manufacture a Jewish-majority state justified the undertaking well before the Nazis perpetrated their genocide in Europe.
For people like my grandparents, it meant being forced from their homes by Europeans and into refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians in the northern part of the country were internally displaced and subjected to decades of martial law. Today, they are second-class Palestinian-Israelis.
The Jewish conquest and mass expulsions developed in different ways across the country. For people like my grandparents, it meant being forced from their homes by Europeans and into refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Many Palestinians in the northern part of the country were internally displaced and subjected to decades of martial law. Today, they are second-class Palestinian-Israelis. Natives who inhabited the eastern part of the country were also cast out into the West Bank and beyond. Their descendants in the West Bank, together with the Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem, are the contemporary subjects of Tel Aviv’s apartheid regime.
The widespread use of terror, violence and atrocity by Jewish militias against Palestinian peasants, Bedouins and urban elites has produced the world’s most durable conflict and protracted refugee crisis – one that will remain unresolved so long as Zionism continues to be a viable political force in Palestine.
But it also constituted a catastrophe for humanity’s collective global heritage. Ancient cities like Jaffa, Acre, Lydda and Haifa were shorn of their authentic human element and reconstituted – facsimiles with stilted character. After the Nakba, Palestine is a bizarre agglomeration of Vienna and Soweto on the Mediterranean.
A time to forget?
It’s been 66 years since May 15, 1948, and many of the refugees who experienced the relentless and merciless march of Zionism across Palestine have died. Others were too young to remember the anguish of loss and displacement, but the trauma was seared forever onto the Palestinian cultural memory. Refugees across the Occupied Territories and in countries around the world shared and retold stories about their experiences. Over time, those tales have been rendered in literature, film, poetry and other cultural markers. Now they act to bind the Palestinians to one another, preventing us from becoming a fragmented people across six continents.
Still even the most emotionally potent stories lose power. The Nakba’s role in shaping the course of Palestinian history would be little more than a narrative wellspring today were it not for the fact that the ethnic cleansing has continued into the present. What need for memory or a fetishised past when the now is darkened by an apartheid menace? The Judaisation of Jerusalem and the West Bank – the siege on Gaza – these are the Nakba.
And that’s the reality of Palestine and the Palestinians. The past is present and memory lurks in the shadow of every advancing bulldozer or leering Israeli soldier. The Nakba was a moment in history. But it was also the grand finale to the first act of Zionist settlement in Palestine. The second act – a 66-year drag – is now ending on the wingtips of the Obama presidency. And for the first time the Palestinians stand a chance at occupying the proscenium. Their truth is being told and their voices are being heard. The world awaits their narrative. How will they end this story?
Ahmed Moor is a Palestinian-American who was born in the Gaza Strip. He is a Soros Fellow, co-editor of After Zionism (Saqi Books 2012) and co-founder and CEO of liwwa.com.