I am a Palestinian-American and have lived the majority of my life in the U.S. For the past year, I have been living in Palestine to learn about my personal history and that of my people. The following is a reflection written on 15 May 2014, the sixty-sixth anniversary of Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe”:
I awoke this morning and began the day like any other. I prepared myself for work and left home to walk along Star Street in the old city of Bethlehem. I passed women in hijabs sewing garments, as they always do, bakers pulling bread out of flaming ovens, as they always do, and shop owners sitting beneath hanging Palestinian scarves and dresses waiting to offer their “very best prices” to the variety of tourists that visit the city, as they always do. Nothing was different today, and I thought nothing of it.
I arrived in the office, parroted my normal greetings to coworkers, and made a cup of coffee, as I always do. But then a thought stirred in me, or rather, a memory. I noticed the date, May 15, the anniversary of Al-Nakba, “The Catastrophe.” Sixty-six years ago 750,000 Palestinians, half of the total indigenous population at the time, fled or were forcibly removed from their homes as a burgeoning Jewish state came into being through cunning and violence.
Zionism is a movement that began at the end of the nineteenth century, which nationalized the Jewish people and declared Palestine their rightful homeland. Proponents of Zionism successfully motivated the Jewish colonization of Palestine, and, by end of the Second World War, Jewish immigrants constituted one-third of the area’s total population. Under the leadership of David Ben-Gurion, who went on to become Israel’s first Prime Minister, these Jewish settlers sought to capture and control as much of Palestine with the lowest number of remaining Arabs as possible.
On 10 March 1948, the Zionist leadership implemented its Plan Dalet to ethnically cleanse the country. The mass expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine was not a spontaneous consequence of retaliation or war, but rather a premeditated, coldly calculated program that had been formulated as an official Zionist strategy as early as 1937, eleven years before Israel was established. Israel’s second Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, made the Zionists’ intentions clear: “We have forgotten that we have not come to an empty land to inherit it, but we have come to conquer a country from people inhabiting it.” Prior to any conflict between Zionist forces and the Arab world, over 300,000 Palestinians had already been expelled from their homes and were subject to searches, seizures, executions and massacres such as that of Deir Yassin, a village of nearly 700 people, where Jewish paramilitary forces killed over one hundred men, women and children. Due to the fact that most of Palestine’s leadership had been destroyed or expelled and their defensive capabilities disabled by the British in response to the 1936 Arab Revolt, Palestinians were left severely vulnerable to Zionist opposition.
Amid the conflict, Ben-Gurion announced the independence of Israel on 14 May 1948, the day before Al-Nakba and the British Mandate’s expiration. Every year Israelis celebrate this day with nationalistic fervor much like Americans on the 4th of July. Since the state of Israel operates according to the lunisolar Hebrew Calendar, their Independence Day fell on May 5 this year. I was in an Israeli city on the 5 and witnessed the celebration firsthand. I had gone out for a run, not aware of the day’s significance, but soon found myself amid a myriad of waving Israeli flags and a large crowd gathering in the city’s center. There was a giant stage set up, music was blaring, and a large screen displayed Hebrew words set on a fluorescent Israel-themed background. It was clear that the day was special, and everyone took part in making it so.
Yet today, the most profoundly significant and tragic day in Palestinian history, I walked through Bethlehem without witnessing a single sign suggesting the date’s importance. I have lived in this city for nearly a year now, and, aside from the holidays, this day has been indistinguishable from the rest. The more I thought about this, the more it appalled me. I spoke briefly with my boss about my thoughts, and, adding to my disheartened mood, he shared a story about young Palestinians, only a few years younger than me, who did not know what Al-Nakba meant. I immediately perceived the implications — the story of Al-Nakba is not being taught in Palestinian schools, nor are many parents relating it to their children. Palestinians are failing to preserve the identity of their people, which can only be known through the context of their history.
The gravity of this failure is reflected by the direct influence Al-Nakba has on Palestinians every day through its long-term consequences. Without knowing about Al-Nakba how is a child in Palestine meant to understand the 25-foot concrete wall that surrounds his city and, upon completion, will stretch 403 miles around his country? Or that this “country,” his home, is only partially his? That over 200 hundred Jewish settlements, with more being built everyday, full of people speaking a language he cannot understand, and military bases throughout, prevent him from walking across half of his land? How can he comprehend the refugee camps nested in his city; where have these refugees come from, and why did they leave? Or why he cannot visit his cousins in Israel without a special permit? Why is he separated from them in the first place?
In Israel, it is at least understandable (although ultimately immoral) that recognition of the Nakba is suppressed since recognizing the date potentially threatens the state’s legitimacy. For example, Israeli law prohibits institutions of higher education from promoting or commemorating Al-Nakba. Although an argument could be made here on why Israel must come to terms with the immense tragedy that stains its national independence, this will be overlooked for now to focus on a greater insult to the lives lost and displaced over half a century ago — the indifference of Palestinians. Why do many Palestinians in Palestine fail to recognize this day?* Why is there not a national day of mourning observed by Palestinians here and throughout the world along with all people who see the ethnic cleansing of Palestine sixty-six years ago for what it is, a crime against humanity?
I rarely become emotional, but as I sat at my desk and asked myself these questions, I started to shake and I could no longer carry out my tasks. All my coworkers were typing on their keyboards, writing emails, completing reports, having meetings, and sipping coffee, as they always do, but this time it all made me sick. I packed up my things, approached my boss, and, through tears, asked to have the day off. We spoke briefly. I left many things unsaid. Then I left for home.
I was frustrated with my coworkers and everyone I saw on the way home for going about with business as usual. But my feeling of pity for them was greater. Here are a people so completely enveloped by the consequences of Al Nakba that its anniversary passes like any other day. Yet every day that passes is Al Nakba, each day is a catastrophe. The apartheid wall expands, illegal settlements are still being built, an occupying force controls the water and electricity, children are imprisoned and placed in solitary confinement (including someone I know here in Bethlehem), and Palestinians continue to be forcibly removed from their land to join the millions who for decades have been barred from ever returning home. I see this reality everyday, but I have been here no more than a year. For the people I sit with in this office, and those I pass each day throughout the city, the aftermath of Al-Nakba has defined their lives. For most, if not all, this reality is normal, and it seems the day that started it all has slipped from memory in the minds of so many.
This normalcy is the greatest threat Palestinians face. The structural violence Israel has imposed on Palestinians is an affront to their human rights and needs to be recognized as such. This is only truly possible by first learning about Al Nakba, by Palestinians reflecting on this day as the primary source of their oppression and considering the ways the tragedy has impacted their families in particular and Palestine as a whole.
It is also incumbent upon the international community to recognize the events of Al-Nakba, who are not least of all culpable for the tragedy and resulting turmoil between Palestine and Israel over the past half-century. This is clear to anyone who examines the negligence of the United Nations in their mediation of a partition plan between the Zionists and Palestinians in 1947. Only through such recognition is it possible to proceed toward a viable plan of reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. Failure to reach reconciliation thus far has been largely due to a misunderstanding of the events surrounding Israel’s manifestation, and so any claim that the struggle in the Holy Land is incorrigible should be reexamined in light of this persistent incomprehension.
Without learning about Al-Nakba, how can Palestinians, or anyone interested in securing human rights, speak against the injustices they face daily? How can the indigenous people of this country fight to restore their dignity against a colonial power that defends its actions under the guise of security? How will peace ever be possible?
*I should be clear that there are of course Palestinians in Palestine and throughout the world that do commemorate Al-Nakba, some of them giving up their lives to do so, such as the two teens who were killed while protesting in Ramallah on Thursday. But Al-Nakba demonstrations tend to be isolated and fragmented events. What I find most troubling is that in Bethlehem, one of Palestine’s largest and most culturally important cities, Al-Nakba passed largely unrecognized. If you were one of the many tourists visiting the city on Thursday, May 15, you would have been wholly unaware of what happened there sixty-six years ago. What’s needed is a nationally recognized day commemorating Al-Nakba that preserves its memory among all Palestinians, informing their identity and empowering their resistance against oppression.
For those interested in beginning or bolstering their education of Al-Nakba and the Palestinian struggle in general, here are some helpful resources:
- Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood
- Walid Khalidi, All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948
- Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948
- Ilan Pappé, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine
- Edward Said, The Question of Palestine
- Avi Shlaim, Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations