Fifty-nine years is a long time to wait to return home, yet the Palestinian refugees have waited, and waited resolutely. However, despite every international law that recognises their right to return home, despite the universal consensus that has affirmed that right over 130 times in the UN, despite the humanitarian organisations that urge their return, despite the reams of authoritative papers and books documenting their 1948 existence, dispossession and displacement, and despite the global grassroots movements protesting their plight, the Palestinians have been left out in the cold. In fact, they have been living the catastrophe that saw them uprooted from their homes and homeland in 1948 ever since.
Today, there are 7.2 million Palestinian refugees. That number has escalated considerably from the original 750,000 Palestinians who fled in terror in the events leading up to the declaration of the new state of Israel on 14 May 1948, as well as in the weeks and months after. As the years slipped into each other and the world did nothing, Israel acted as if it had no responsibility for this despairing mass of humanity. Instead, it launched a devious campaign of myths and lies to convince a world still smarting after the revelations of the Holocaust in Europe that these refugees were really a nomadic people drifting in and out of desert land with no attachments at all to that place. This then became the barren land gifted by God to the Jews and so was born the catchcry “a land without people for a people without land”. Perhaps the world forgot the reason for the 1947 UN Partition in the first place.
Yes, there were Palestinians there. But, they were not prepared for the attacks on their civilian life by the Zionist terrorist groups the Haganah, the Irgun and the Stern Gang the highly organised and illicitly-armed Zionist insurgents who had infiltrated Palestinian society during the British Mandate period. They attacked without warning and without mercy both the English who controlled Palestine and the Palestinians. Villages and towns were raided and people terrorised and killed. Out of these groups, the founders of Israel were able to create a substantial military force which they increased by recruiting Jewish men and women from overseas. When war was officially declared by the surrounding Arab states on 15 May, Israel was more than ready to take on the weak and disorganised Arab armies which operated with no real central coordinating command. Like the Palestinians, they themselves had only just emerged from colonial occupations. However, the subsequent armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab states did not include the Palestinians even though the haggling done by both sides was over Palestinian land. It was then that Israel succeeded in acquiring 78 per cent of Palestine instead of the 55 per cent given to it under the 1947 UN Partition. From that moment, Palestine officially ceased to exist. It was a monumental betrayal of Palestinian rights by the Western powers and their own Arab neighbours. The Palestinians – both inside and outside of Palestine – were put in limbo and have remained so to this day.
Remembering al-Nakba exposes the lie of Israel’s beginnings, and brings the whole modern day conflict between Israel and the Palestinians back to the unresolved problem of the refugees. They are the crux of the conflict the 1948 expulsion gave Israel territorial integrity of most of the land and the 1967 expulsion allowed Israel to control the remainder. Today, expulsions, transfers and prohibitions are creating a new generation of refugees. In this way, al-Nakba is being constantly perpetuated. The longer Israel can draw out the conflict the more it can create “permanent” facts on the ground that would make it difficult to displace the Jews without outrage. That in itself raises the inequity of the Palestinian refugee situation because there is no outrage for them. Shame on a world that finds it easier to accept that 750,000 Palestinians never really lived in a land called Palestine than to be troubled by the 59-year forcible uprooting of a people from their homes and land to make way for a purely Jewish state.
The Palestinian al-Nakba has been extensively researched and documented by Israeli scholars whose works add weight to the Palestinians’ own narrative. UCLA history professor Professor Gabriel Piterberg says “There’s no question that there was substantial expulsion in 1948. I call it ethnic cleansing, and I am not the only Israeli to do so. People were removed from their homes, massacred, raped and lost their property on the basis of ethnic belonging . . . because they were Palestinian-Arabs.” Israeli Professor Ilan Pappe is another academic who has recently written an eye-opening book on the subject “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine”. Lest anyone think that this has no relevance today, there is good precedence for remembering the victims of crimes against humanity. Jewish Holocaust museums, films and books are still proliferating around the world with no suggestion being made of laying the past to rest after more than 60 years. Remembering al-Nakba for the Palestinians is as important to them as remembering the Holocaust is for the Jews. The only difference is that the Palestinian refugees are a living reminder not only of Israel’s past crimes, but of the crimes Israel is carrying out today. It is time to end the catastrophe.
SONJA KARKAR is the founder and president of Women for Palestine in
Melbourne, Australia. See www.womenforpalestine.com