By Dina Matar, Professor, Political Communication and Arab Media, SOAS, University of London
When Palestinians commemorate the Nakba on May 15, they are not only remembering a violent historical event that took place 75 years ago which led to the uprooting of over 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland. Nor just the destruction of more than 400 villages and towns and the killing of thousands others. They are also marking the fact that the “catastrophe” did not end in 1948, but continues in different forms to this day.
What Palestinians call “ongoing Nakba” still generates suffering, destruction of homes and loss of Palestinian lives. They experience it in the continuing Israeli annexation of their land and attacks launched regularly against their homes in Gaza. And they see it in the regular violations of their human rights, both inside Israel and in the “occupied territories” and Gaza Strip.
For Palestinians worldwide, the Nakba is remembered as a traumatic rupture that represents their humiliating defeat, the destruction of Palestinian society and severance of links with their homeland.
The 1948 Palestine war, which led to the creation of the Israeli state, left Palestinian society leaderless, disorganized and scattered. Today, more than 60% of the estimated 14.3 million Palestinians are displaced. The rest are in the occupied territories, the Gaza Strip and Israel, where they have been subject to discrimination and outbreaks of communal violence.
The violence has only been exacerbated by the return to power at the end of 2022 of Benjamin Netanyahu in an alliance with extremist religious-nationalist Israeli factions and ultra-nationalist politicians. The most notorious of these is Itamar Ben-Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party.
The 75th anniversary of the Nakba comes at a critical and dangerous juncture that has seen a relentless escalation in Israeli violent interventions against Palestinians in the occupied territories and Gaza, which began with the unity intifada (or uprising) in 2021.
In 2021, 313 Palestinians including 71 minors were reportedly killed in the Gaza Strip and West Bank (including East Jerusalem) by Israeli security forces. A record high of 204 Palestinians were reportedly killed in 2022, making it the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005.
So far in 2023, 96 Palestinians have been killed during the first four months of 2023. And so it continues.
The unity uprising called for a Palestinian popular mobilization in the struggle against Israel’s settler-colonial rule and practices akin to apartheid. These have been documented and recognized as such by several international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Along with widespread arrests of Palestinians since its launch, Israel has also taken punitive measures against Palestinian civil society. It has designated as terrorist organizations six leading Palestinian organizations at the forefront of efforts to hold Israel to account – including through legal challenges being pursued at the International Criminal Court.
A hidden people
This year marks the first time that the UN has announced that it will commemorate Nakba Day, which also marks the creation of the state of Israel. While the UN move might be seen as a diplomatic coup for Palestinians, it nevertheless serves to underline two interrelated problems.
The first is that Palestinian history, when it is told, tends to be done as part of Israeli history. The second is that the Palestinians themselves – as ordinary human beings – remain a largely unknown quantity in the West.
In March, the BBC aired a two-part television series The Holy Land and Us in the UK. The series explored Israel’s founding by splitting its story into two parallel narratives, separately featuring British Palestinians and British Jews pursuing their families’ connections to the events surrounding Israel’s creation in 1948.
It presented the Palestinian and Zionist narratives as two sides of the same story and the same conflict, repeating the same tropes that suggest it is an equal fight.
The series was referred to as brave reporting because of its use of personal Palestinian testimonies that recalled, in particular, the Deir Yassin massacre by a Zionist militia of more than 100 Palestinians, many of them women and children, in early 1948, weeks before Israeli statehood was declared.
Despite such historical retellings, few people in the West know about Deir Yassin, the Nakba or the events around Israel’s creation, which Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has referred to as ethnic cleansing. Revisiting the formation of Israel, Pappe has documented that between 1947 and 1949, more than 400 Palestinian villages were deliberately destroyed, civilians were massacred and around a million men, women, and children were expelled from their homes at gunpoint.
The lack of Western knowledge about the Nakba is partly because the longstanding narrative surrounding 1948 and the creation of Israel has rested on several fictions – including the idea that the land was empty.
It is also partly because of Israel’s ability to propagate its version of reality in the mainstream media, particularly as historians are forced to tell the story of the powerless by those who victimized them, as historian Rashid Khalidi argued in his 2007 book Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.
In a globalized world linked via diverse media, this has meant that the imagination of Palestine and its people has as much to do with power relationships and strategic alliances as with the degree of visibility and access ascribed to the two parties in the mainstream media.
And there is no doubt, Israel has been ascribed a degree of visibility and access that has made the Palestinians, and the ongoing violence against them, invisible and hardly mentioned in the Western media.
For Palestinians, commemoration and remembrance of the Nakba is not about marking a historical event. It’s about the need to continue telling their stories. Seventy-five years since the Nakba, it is time the whole world watched and listened.
Ryan Rodrick Beiler and Anas Mohammed