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Seventy Years Since the Nakba

Despite Israel’s best efforts, the Palestinians have not disappeared.

People look skyward at tear gas being shot from a drone at the border fence with Israel on May 15, 2018 in Gaza City, Gaza. Spencer Platt / Getty

The main objective of the nakba was for Israel to make Palestinians disappear. Expulsion was meant to lead to the dilution of peoplehood. Rights and lands would be forgotten, and Palestinians would face their loss atomized and rightless. The dispossessed would melt into the surrounding sea of Arab poverty and forget their conquered and destroyed homeland. Force was thus meant to cower them into submission and oblivion.

After seventy years, this has failed. Israel couldn’t disappear the Palestinians. There are now more Palestinians in Palestine than ever before, and Palestinian claims to their rights, and attachment to their homeland, remain very strong. Gaza’s mass protests show how Palestinians continue to find new ways of struggling for their just cause. This builds on a long history of mass popular rebellion beginning with the Palestine Revolt of 1936. Palestinians continue to resist and have not given up on their aspiration to live in dignity in their homeland.

Israel refuses to see this reality. It denies the nakba, denies that the 1967 territories are illegally occupied (they’re “disputed”), and denies that it controls all key aspects of Palestinian existence. It blames the victims for everything. Palestinians are responsible for their own suffering and death because they (and the list is long): don’t accept realities on the ground, don’t want peace, don’t recognize Israel, hold on to the past, use human shields, don’t love their children and teach them to hate, support Hamas and terror, are antisemitic, follow a violent religion like Islam.

Such colonial racism and national narcissism has prevented Israel from accepting that Palestinians are human beings with basic (if not equal) human rights. Only Israelis deserve security, independence, and normal lives. Subhuman Palestinians can live on much less. At no point in Israel’s seventy-year history (including the Oslo years) has Israel desisted from propagating this violent worldview — let alone challenging it. The reverse is true.

Like all settler colonies, Israel lives on Project Fear. Public space is infused with hysteria about enemies who want to “kill Jews”: antisemites, hateful Arabs, new Hitlers, and Iranian bombs. After such relentless and daily media onslaughts, it is hard for most Israelis to get any critical distance from their state or army. So the majority does what it’s told and blames everything on the Arabs. More snipers, more bombs, more massacres — as they cheer on.

How long can this situation last? After seventy years since the nakba and even more years of Palestinian struggle, it is impossible to be pessimistic.

Even though Palestinians are more fragmented than ever, more enclaved and dominated, more sealed off from one another, they have a deep conviction that their cause is just and their struggle is right. With every Palestinian killed, with every humiliation, a growing feeling of solidity takes hold. This will not pass. This will not be forgotten. Israel will pay the political costs of its callous inhumanity.

As for Israel, it can never have enough. And it can never run out of excuses, empty justifications, or special pleading. Even the official Israeli left is governed by this logic: there’s always a bloc of settlements they want to keep, always a piece of land where their claims are paramount, and always a sense that the other side is really at fault. Israel’s own sense of victimhood is a blank check to eternally oppress others. And its settlers are drunk on an ideology of Jewish supremacy.

But deep inside Israelis know that the Palestinians are not going anywhere and have to be reckoned with. How much longer can they negate a whole people refusing to give up? How long can Israel’s colonial project be sustained? Nothing is forever. Not even the “eternal Jewish capital.” These are empty words that deny realities of segregation and the instabilities and illegality of occupation.

The ranks of Israel’s global supporters are also shrinking and becoming more extreme. Who believes Israel now and believes in what it does? A crook like Trump whom no one trusts? An antisemitic pastor like Robert Jeffress who believes that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan to create Israel? What a historic insult to 6 million victims to mark Israel’s independence-day celebrations. Are Trump and Jeffress the best Israel can muster today? With such pathetic “true friends,” who needs enemies?

At seventy years since the nakba, hope lies in Palestinian popular determination. Hope lies in a new generation of young Europeans and Americans believing that Palestine is their moral cause. Hope lies in a resounding 80 percent of American Jews being against the US embassy move to Jerusalem. Hope lies in a widespread global sentiment that Israel is a pariah state.

The nakba will end. We shall overcome some day.