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Birmingham, Israel and the Nakba

The Birmingham Jewish Federation is hosting a 60th birthday party for Israel this weekend with a tour of Israeli cities, but there is an undeniable reality that the festivities will likely conceal. As Birmingham residents travel through these cities, they would do well to ask their hosts how many such cities were built on the ruins of Palestinian life.

Most Americans who support the state of Israel seem completely unaware of the fact that when Israel was established in 1948, more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes, with little more than the clothes on their backs.

They were doctors, farmers, students and businessmen, who instantly became refugees. Israeli forces depopulated more than 450 Palestinian villages and urban centers. Most were demolished. In those that remained, Jewish immigrants moved into Palestinians’ homes, cooked in their kitchens, sat under the shade of their lemon trees and slept in their beds, while the dispossessed Palestinians slogged across the hills and valleys in search of a new life.

Palestinians refer to the loss of our homeland as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”). I was 15 years old in 1948, and not a day goes by that I do not remember the tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees streaming into my hometown of Ramallah, which did not become part of the new Israeli state. The woman who later became my wife, Rose Rahib, fled her home in Lydda as a 6-year-old girl. Rose and her family walked in the stifling heat some 30 miles to Ramallah. Her father had been successful in the trucking business and had built his family a fine home. But Israeli soldiers came, stuck guns in their faces and kicked them out of that home, saying “go to Abdullah,” meaning to Jordan, which was then ruled by King Abdullah.

For six decades, thousands of dispossessed Palestinian families have dreamed of returning to their homes. Though the 1947 United Nations’ resolution to partition Palestine allotted 57 percent of Palestine to Israel, by the end of the war, Israel occupied 78 percent of the land. And in its pre-emptive war of 1967, it occupied the rest – meaning the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.

What has happened since then makes the prospect of peace and justice seem a mere illusion.

In the West Bank, Israel has built more than 200 illegal settlements (some big enough to house 50,000 residents), established a 742-mile network of highways intended to serve the Jewish-only settlements, greatly enlarged Jerusalem and called it “the eternal capital of Israel,” and erected a massive concrete wall snaking through Palestinian land, grabbing miles and miles of property and agricultural land, separating home from school, shopkeeper from shop. In Bethlehem, the wall is more than 12 feet higher than the Berlin Wall. Worse still, Israel has built more than 550 checkpoints in the West Bank, rendering commerce and mobility nearly impossible for Palestinians.

Thus, the Nakba continues to this day for the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank who live under Israeli military occupation. Israel employs one set of laws for Jews and another for Palestinians. The “Law of Return” allows a Jew from anywhere in the world to move to Israel and receive instant citizenship, while Palestinian refugees – still possessing keys to homes that were taken from them – cannot.

Today, the Palestinian population worldwide numbers more than 10 million, out of which there are roughly 4 million refugees. All refugees have an internationally recognized right to return to the areas from which they were expelled. However, Palestinians have neither been allowed to return nor offered restitution of any kind.

A brighter future

Perhaps it is because of the progress I have seen in the half-century I have lived in Birmingham – a city whose history is so deeply rooted in the civil rights movement – that I am prepared to look forward to a brighter future in which Jews and Palestinians can live side by side as equals. I remain convinced that if Americans truly understood what the Palestinian people have endured at the hands of Israel – in 1948, in 1967 and today – they would strongly disapprove of their government’s financial and diplomatic support of Israel’s systematic discrimination and oppression of Palestinians.

The words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. echo powerfully for me: “We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

In a city like Birmingham, we should celebrate those working for equality between Palestinians and Israelis, not the state of Israel, which persists in segregation and cruelty.

IBRAHIM FAWAL, Ph.D., of Birmingham is the author of the award-winning novel “On the Hills of God” (NewSouth Books, 2006), which is based on his experience of the Nakba.

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