Israel’s relentless expansion of settlement and ethnic cleansing exposes the reality for Palestinians — the Nakba never really ended.

Illustration by Mel Haasch

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On 15 May 2023, Palestinians mark seventy-five years of the Nakba or ‘catastrophe’. The day will commemorate the events in 1948 that saw over 750,000 Palestinians driven into exile and over 500 Palestinian towns and villages erased from the map.

But it will also recognise the reality of the ongoing Nakba — the process of dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and colonisation that led to a system of oppression across all of historic Palestine. That system is now being acknowledged by international civil society as constituting an apartheid regime.

Here in the UK, the Nakba will be marked by a national march in London organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign — an annual act of solidarity which, this year, carries an even greater urgency. That’s because in October, Israel elected the most far-right government in the history of the state, one which is intensifying the assault upon Palestinian rights.

Following a year in which Israeli forces killed more than 170 Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, more than in any since 2005, the new Israeli government has escalated this brutal violence. Sixty-three Palestinians were killed in these territories in the first two months of 2023, more than one per day.

In March, gangs of Israeli settlers descended upon the Palestinian village of Huwara near Nablus in the West Bank and set it ablaze, injuring dozens of villagers and killing one of them. This act — which many, including Israeli media commentators, described as a pogrom — happened as Israeli forces watched on.

Just a few days after the events in Huwara, Bezalel Smotrich, finance minister in Netanyahu’s far-right government, declared that the town should be ‘wiped out’. This essential task, he said, was being left to settlers as private citizens — but needed to be carried out by the state.

Settler Democracy

The attack on Huwara — and its endorsement by a government minister — has been widely condemned. But media efforts to portray such acts as ‘unprecedented’ and a function only of the extremism of the new Israeli government are wide of the mark. While we are seeing an intensification of violence, it is far from a departure from the norm.

This ‘exceptional’ narrative has been central in the recent large-scale protests in Israel by those who consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum. Those protests have also been mirrored by similarly unprecedented public critiques here in the UK from liberal Zionists, who are usually reluctant to criticise Israel publicly.

While these voices highlight aspects of Israel’s assault on Palestinian rights as part of the lexicon of charges against Netanyahu’s government, they tend to frame attacks on Palestinians as a subsidiary. The overriding concern is the onslaught against Israeli ‘democracy’ due to far-reaching plans for judicial, social, and cultural reforms.

It is certainly true that this new government has attacked rights that have been enjoyed by Israel’s Jewish citizens, but for Palestinians, we must be clear, Israel has never been a real democracy. As the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) National Committee recently argued, the reconfiguration of Israel’s settler colonial regime that is beginning to take shape simultaneously consists of a difference in kind for Jewish Israelis but a difference in degree for Palestinians.

Recently, prominent British-Jewish figures such as Margaret Hodge and Simon Schama — who are vocal in their support for Israel’s ‘untrammelled’ right to exist — have voiced concerns about Netanyahu’s government. But their criticisms bear careful examination.

Following a visit to Israel, Hodge described spending time in Sheikh Jarrah, where she ‘sat in the garden of a 20-strong family of Palestinians, who had also lived in their modest home for three generations and who were now threatened with eviction by Jewish Israelis’. This sympathy for Palestinians is encouraging, but it framed forcible displacement as if it was a new development that was tied only to the far-right government.

This obfuscates the reality that Palestinian families have led protests against efforts to displace them from Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem for over a decade — including under so-called ‘moderate’ Israeli administrations. And it poses a further question: where is her condemnation of the 750,000 displaced from their homes in order to found the state of Israel? Or the thousands upon thousands displaced since, many from East Jerusalem?

Unfortunately, what appeared to appal Hodge was not the ongoing reality of ethnic cleansing. Instead, it was the sight of a government minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, setting up a gazebo as an office in front of the family’s home in order to taunt them daily with the reality of their imminent expulsion. This, one must presume, is ‘a step too far’. But it is actually just the latest in more than seventy-five years of forcible expulsions, which are celebrated by Israel.

Liberal Illusions

In another recent article in The Observer, Simon Schama is quoted expressing dismay at the ‘complete disintegration of the political and social compact’ that he claims underpins the state of Israel. He goes on to voice a concern that the new government is putting Israel at risk of becoming a ‘nationalist theocracy’.

The notion that Israel is departing from what were once democratic foundations is only plausible if you are wilfully blind to Palestinian history, the devastating destruction and ethnic cleansing on which the state of Israel was founded, and the series of laws introduced after its establishment to deny Palestinians the right of return and their collective right to self-determination.

Schama is keen to point out that his criticisms are ‘not a betrayal of Israel’, but rather ‘a passionate declaration of support for the enormous number of people’ who feel ‘anguished’ by the new government. However genuine this sense of anguish, it does not bestow the right to whitewash history and peddle fantasy in its place.

Sadly, such comforting fantasies are the hallmark of liberal Zionism. How else could Margaret Hodge describe the brutal displacement of 750,000 people as ‘the dreams of the post-war idealistic Zionists who sought to build a new Jerusalem in the Middle East’? It is telling that, seventy-five years after the Nakba, such statements still find their way into liberal newspapers.

Let us remember the real history. Israel’s establishment entailed the geographic division of Palestine and its erasure from the world map. In 1948, the Gaza Strip fell under Egyptian administration and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was annexed by Jordan, while Palestinians who managed to remain on their land in Israel were placed under military rule for nearly two decades and denied equal citizenship with Israeli Jews.

This martial rule was a legal framework that would later ensure further systematic discrimination against Palestinians after Israel’s military occupation (and then settlement) of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. These measures have included restrictions on movement, tiered ID systems, limited civil rights, arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment, expropriation of land, denial of the right to work and education, and any number of other conditions which meet the formal definition of apartheid.

While liberal Zionists are currently decrying the political impossibility of a two-state solution, and Netanyahu’s new government is being criticised for threatening formal annexation of the West Bank, it is important to remember that it was elected on precisely that platform — and that Israel has carried out a de facto annexation for years. What is almost more striking is how much continuity there is between Israel’s historic actions and its new far-right government.

Indeed, despite the comforting fantasies that many of us will have consumed about this ‘conflict’, there never was an intention to allow for the creation of a Palestinian state by Israel’s mainstream politicians. The settlement programmes in the West Bank and Gaza were not enacted by right-wing extremists but, mostly, by purportedly left-wing governments that liberal Zionists have regarded as democratic allies.

In fact, Yitzak Rabin — who is lionised as a ‘warrior turned peacemaker’ and whose assassination is frequently depicted as derailing a two-state solution — actually told the Knesset one month before he was killed that his vision was to give Palestinians ‘an entity which is less than a state’. This reality has only been hidden from those who refuse to see it.

Against this background, the danger in the current moment is that liberal Zionist voices like Hodge and Schama will dominate the discourse on how one should respond to Israel’s new government. Their demand is that the only way for Netanyahu and his coalition to be held to account is by supporting the current protests and allying with dissenting voices in Israel. This perspective leaves little room for the concerns of Palestinians.

Failed Moderation

For years, Israel has been shielded from accountability by a discourse that frames the state as a liberal democracy that is, at worst, overseeing a temporary military occupation. But this narrative is only viable for those who are content to render Palestinians invisible.

Those liberal Zionist voices that have been integral to the mainstreaming of this mindset are now confronted with their ideological bankruptcy. It will not be possible to sustain credible support for Israel as a democracy — even a settler democracy that practises apartheid towards Palestinians — once Netanyahu tears up the democratic rights that do exist for Jewish Israelis.

As a result, there is a drive to establish a new narrative that depicts Israel as a democratic society that is currently ruled by an anti-democratic government. This government’s deficiencies must not be addressed by accountability measures in support of international law and universal principles of human rights, but by supporting moderate Israelis who would be alienated by boycott, divestment, or sanctions.

These moderates, we are told, cannot be expected to support accountability measures in line with international law and universal principles of human rights — let alone really ‘radical’ ideas like equality for all those who reside between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

The aim of the new narrative is to allow Israel to return to a status quo in which the rights of Israeli Jews are protected. As for Palestinians, they must be encouraged not to resist but to engage in coexistence projects in which they can learn how to get along better with the same forces who — day by day and week by week — drive them from their lands, deny them their rights, and violently oppress them.

Sadly, Keir Starmer’s approach within the Labour Party is driven by this new narrative and the concerns of ‘moderate’ Israelis. This was brought into stark relief by recent events. Not only did his office refuse to engage with the recent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights which found that Israel was an apartheid state, it actually censured Labour MP Kim Johnson for daring to use that term in the House of Commons.

If the international community is to address the threat posed by the new government in a meaningful way, it must understand what the BDS movement means by the ‘difference in degree’. Netanyahu’s government is a new and dangerous administration, but it is not one that can be met with historical illiteracy. It is an intensification of a process that has been ongoing since the Palestinian ‘catastrophe’ seventy-five years ago.

The answer cannot simply be to address the ‘excesses’ of the current government and return to a normality where Israel is shielded from accountability for its assaults on Palestinians by allowing it again to don the mask of democracy. That mask has slipped for some Western liberals, but it never existed for the millions of Palestinians who have faced displacement, imprisonment, discrimination, and oppression first-hand.

International Solidarity

Here in the UK, there is a different layer of responsibility rooted in the imperial history that laid the foundations for the injustices Palestinians continue to face. The 1917 Balfour Declaration represented an open embrace of a settler colonial project: one which was founded upon the premise of rights based upon ethnic, national, and religious supremacy.

When Britain promised ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine, it could only do so by denying the right to self-determination of 94 percent of Palestine’s indigenous population. This was the original comforting fantasy, and it set the table for the brutality that followed seventy-five years ago, when the British terminated their mandate in May 1948.

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, godfather of the revisionist Zionism that inspires Netanyahu and his government, openly articulated the brutal realities required to fulfil the Zionist project. In his essay ‘The Iron Wall’, written in 1923, he acknowledged that Palestinian Arabs would not agree to a Jewish majority in Palestine, nor indeed should they be expected to do so.

‘Zionist colonisation,’ he concluded ‘must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population — behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.’

Seen in this context, Bezalel Smotrich’s exhortation for Huwara to be ‘wiped out’ is not an aberration or even a departure. It is entirely in keeping with that wave of violence in 1948 which destroyed 531 Palestinian villages and towns and ethnically cleansed their inhabitants, driving many from their homeland forever.

What Palestinians demand of those who want to show true solidarity can be found in the BDS call made in 2005 and repeated by Omar Barghouti in this issue.

It is time to embrace the reality of the ongoing Nakba. It will not end unless Palestinian resistance is supported by determined grassroots efforts across the globe — efforts that can isolate Israel and end our complicit military, economic, and political support for its apartheid regime.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Nakba Day march will take place in London on Saturday, 13 May. You can find more information at palestinecampaign.org.

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