The Nakba Is Now

The Nakba Is Now

With the explosion of Israeli violence this last week, Palestinians are experiencing a level of terror that is both new and painfully reminiscent of the terror of 1948.


As the present crisis sweeps with ever greater violence across all of the territory over which the Israeli state desperately tries to project its power—from Acre in the north to Gaza in the south, and from the coastal cities of Haifa and Jaffa to the hills east of Jerusalem—a new set of political circumstances is coming into sharp focus.

To begin with, the violence this time is not just taking place—as it so often has in recent years—in absurdly lopsided “exchanges” of fire in and out of Gaza, pitting home-made Palestinian rockets against the large-scale devastation that only a modern army and air force can inflict. It is also taking place across what Benjamin Netanyahu recently referred to as the “second front” in cities long under Israeli control. Mobs of Jewish supremacists, sometimes protected and sometimes actively assisted by state security forces, have been terrorizing Palestinian citizens of the state: smashing their shops, marking the doors of their houses, breaking into their homes, dragging them from their cars and beating them savagely in the street. Such events are routine across the West Bank, where settler violence against Palestinian residents—carefully documented and tabulated each week by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—is protected by the Israeli army and invariably goes unpunished by the state. But, especially on this scale, such unbridled violence is more unusual on the other side of the 1949–67 armistice line, in cities like Haifa or al-Lydd.

Clearly, for an ever-increasing number of Jewish Israelis, the “enemy” is no longer simply Hamas or Islamic Jihad, or even the Palestinians living the misery of military occupation in Jenin or Nablus or in the open-air prison that is Gaza, but also the second-class citizens of the state itself, who have long been seen as a “demographic threat.” With his carefully calculated talk of a second front, Netanyahu is doing his best to capitalize on this attitude, but it would be naive to blame him for originating it, as so many do when they bemoan the state’s rightward turn in recent years—as though the putatively left-leaning politicians of the past were innocent of such attitudes, or as though official Israeli racism were only a recent phenomenon, rather than one hard-baked into the institutions and apparatuses of the state from the moment of its inception.

That moment of inception (to which Palestinians refer as the Nakba) is what we have been reliving this week, coincidentally on the anniversary of its commemoration: an inception that was never really—and will never be—completed, but that has continued in fits and starts ever since 1948. It is no coincidence that survivors of the Nakba have been saying that the sight of anti-Palestinian pogroms in the major cities this week has brought back all the trauma they experienced in 1948: The terror of such pogroms is exactly what drove them into the sea in Jaffa or Haifa, or on the bitter march to exile in Lebanon or Jordan. But the spectacle of racial violence that has swept across cities from Acre to Jerusalem does not just look uncannily like Israel’s primal scene: It reminds us that we are still living that same moment of origin—and that we have been all along. The Nakba is now. It always has been.

The current crisis began, after all, with the renewal of attention to a long-standing Israeli attempt to expel Palestinian families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem that fell to Israeli forces in 1967 and which the state claims as part of its “eternal” capital (that shrill claim to the eternal is the telltale sign of Israel’s paranoid sense of its permanent unsettledness). As in countless other areas across the land, a group of Jewish settlers has been using legal proceedings (or, to be precise, the proceedings enabled by the Israeli legal system, which is totally at odds with the requirements of international law) to try to take over Palestinian homes and turn their occupants, already refugees, into refugees twice over. That process was on the verge of leading to yet another set of expulsions last week; indeed, it may have been buried in the headlines about rockets and bombings, but it was in protest against those looming evictions that Palestinians started marching.

The events in Sheikh Jarrah are so important because they represent a microcosm of the entire conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, going all the way back to that primal scene of 1948. The removal of Palestinians and their replacement by Jewish settlers has been going on, sometimes on a large scale, sometimes on a small scale—family by family, household by household—for over 70 years. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been forced from their homes over that period, which have subsequently been taken over by Jewish settlers or simply obliterated, their rubble planted over with forests intended to make them disappear. The Sheikh Jarrah evictions would have represented the addition of just one more drop to a sea of such forced displacements.

The reason that there is a conflict at all is because one group of people has for 70 years been seeking to lay claim to territory occupied by another, and to remove them by any means necessary. In the past, that tended to be at the point of the bayonet or in the wake of a massacre or pogrom; today, it’s more likely to come in the bureaucratic form of a court order issued by a legal system—the very embodiment of the banality of evil—that institutionally and systematically privileges the rights of Jews over those of Palestinians.

To make this clear: While the Israeli courts and the Israeli state routinely enable the establishment of new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, there is simply no mechanism in the Israeli legal system for a Palestinian family to reclaim land or property forcibly taken from them by Zionist settlers or the Zionist state or its auxiliaries, such as the Jewish National Fund. On both sides of the 1949–67 armistice line, the state demolishes Palestinian homes and builds Jewish ones. There ought to be no surprises here: The entire program of the state is, and has always been, built around the project of removing Palestinians and replacing them with Jews. Is it any wonder, then, that Palestinians resist—and that they have been resisting since long before anyone heard of something called Hamas?

But if the lynchings and pogroms taking place in Palestinian communities on one side of the 1949–67 armistice line represent the continuation and extension of the artillery and aerial bombardments pulverizing Palestinian communities on the other side of the line, what that suggests is that the line itself is functionally meaningless. Here it must be stressed that all that that line has ever really denoted is the cease-fire that took place in 1949: It is not an official border of some kind, and Israel has famously refused to declare its borders at all. In other words, it no longer makes any sense to use that armistice line as a way of distinguishing the territory often referred to as “Israel” from that referred to as “the occupied territories.” The same racial violence, driven by the same logic and in the name of the same cause, encompasses both sides of the line, even if it takes quantitatively different forms (the lynching of a single individual over here, the obliteration of an entire neighborhood or the murder of an entire family over there).

From the perspective of an increasing number of Israeli Jews, then, there is no substantive difference between “here” and “there,” this or that side of the 1949–67 armistice line. And while the attitude may be hardening, both enabling and enabled by increasingly right-wing governments, the infrastructure sustaining it goes back to the 1967 conquest, occupation, and colonization of the remnants of what had been Palestine in 1948. And it has been enabled by so-called left-wing governments as much as right-wing ones. For example, the restriction of Palestinian movement among and between the territories captured in 1948 and those captured in 1967, alongside the protection of Jewish circulation within those territories, was a policy instituted in the 1990s—not by the right-wing “hawk” Netanyahu but by the Labor “doves” and “peacemakers” Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

For Palestinians, too, the 1949–67 armistice line has less and less meaning. The uprising that started in Sheikh Jarrah spread easily to the great mosques of Jerusalem. When the state and mobs of Jewish supremacists intervened to suppress that uprising, Palestinian citizens from Nazareth and the coastal cities rallied to the cause of Sheikh Jarrah and Jerusalem, abandoning their cars and blocking the highway when Israeli checkpoints tried to bar them. When Israeli forces stormed the Aqsa mosque, trampling its prayer rugs with their boots and firing smoke bombs and stun grenades at worshippers, Hamas fired rockets from Gaza; when Israel bombed Gaza, demonstrators poured out of the refugee camps across the West Bank. When lynchings gripped the coastal cities, Palestinian youths came down from Jerusalem to reinforce the embattled communities of Jaffa and al-Lydd. And when they saw their people at home being battered and bombed, Palestinians in the refugee camps of Lebanon and in their far-flung global exile rose up in solidarity.

Israel has tried its hardest to separate Palestinians into discrete groups: West Bankers, Gazans, Jerusalemites, refugees, exiles, and the reviled minority inside the state whose enduring Palestinian identity is so unbearable to the state that it calls them “Israeli Arabs.” Indeed, the separations and restrictions that Israel has imposed on the Palestinian people are integral components of its apartheid system. This week’s events remind us that Palestinians do not accept these attempts at colonial divide and rule: They are one people with one homeland, even if they experience disenfranchisement and racial violence in somewhat different forms.

Although unspeakable trauma is being inflicted on an entire people, this is also a moment of clarity. The combination of the savage Israeli bombardment of trapped and shelterless civilians in Gaza and the widely shared videos of pogroms and lynchings taking place in Haifa, al-Lydd, and Jerusalem has stripped the Israeli state project bare of all the layers of denial, equivocation, and mystification with which it has cloaked itself for decades.

The stark reality is there for all to see: You can read any one of those recent reports that carefully document Israel’s method of apartheid, or you can spend a minute watching that widely circulated video of Jewish vigilantes trying to break into a Palestinian family home, the father and son desperately trying to barricade the front door while the younger children scream in terror from the kitchen. The result is the same: the hideous spectacle of a once apparently formidable state project unraveling into the elementary racial violence out of which it was born. The Nakba is now. And that one-state solution about which we have heard so much in recent years is not some far-off possibility but an actually existing reality. The only remaining question is what form that one state should take: apartheid or democracy. Palestinians know their answer to that question—and so do more and more people around the world.

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