Dr Basem Naim
The Palestinian people and their supporters around the world have just commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (“Catastrophe”). For the first time since it started, the UN has also commemorated this painful event.
The Nakba, though, was not a single historical event. It was originally spread over two years from mid-1947 to mid-1949, as the catastrophe of the creation of the Zionist state of Israel befell the Palestinian people. That was a period filled with cruelty, brutality and terrorism, during which a prosperous homeland was shattered; people were displaced; and the dream of an independent Palestine evaporated. It was a nightmare that the Palestinians still face.
Historians, including Israelis, affirm that the horrors that the Palestinian people went through during that period were part of a scheme approved by the leadership of the Zionist movement in preparation for the announcement of the State of Israel. During that period, the Zionist terror gangs destroyed over 530 Palestinian villages; took control of more than 700 villages, towns and cities; and displaced more than 750,000 Palestinians, around 50 per cent of the total Palestinian population in Palestine. The Zionists used brutal, organised terrorism to achieve their aims; innocent people were killed, including pregnant women who were, it is recorded, often bayoneted to death; homes were blown up and set on fire; and farms and wells were destroyed.
Palestine before the Nakba was not, as the Zionists claim, “a land without a people for a people without a land”. On the contrary, Palestine and its people had a vibrant civilization and a deep social and cultural heritage. Sadly, though, those who have accepted the fake Zionist narrative about Palestine include most recently Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. This was obvious in her speech about Israel’s independence. She repeated the lie that the Palestinians were basically waiting for the Zionists to come along and “make the desert bloom”. That’s another Zionist myth. The German politician should have known better than to believe the narrative of the occupiers of a land and persecutors of its people.
She praised the Zionists for establishing a country with a political system built on freedom, democracy and the defence of human rights. However, this false narrative does not stand up to the most basic scrutiny. History confirms that before its colonisation by the Zionists Palestine was a prosperous country with vibrant education, health, agriculture, industry, tourism and sports sectors.
Haifa and Jaffa were among the largest and most used ports in the region. They competed with other international ports in terms of their civil and commercial traffic. Haifa had a huge oil refinery.
The Arab Bank was established in Jerusalem in 1930, and has become the largest banking institution in the Arab world. Indeed, it is one of the largest in the world.
Researchers have noted that between 45 and 50 Palestinian newspapers were published before the Nakba, in addition to magazines covering agriculture, engineering and industry, to name but a few specialisms. The Palestinians established and operated the second radio station in the Arab world after Egypt, broadcasting from Jerusalem.
Palestine had theatres and cinemas across the country, especially in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa. The most famous was Al-Hamra Theatre and Cinema in Jerusalem.
The Palestine football team was one of the first national teams in the region, and was recognised by FIFA in 1929. The team participated in the 1934 World Cup tournament in Italy.
The first women’s association in Palestine was established in 1903, in Acre, and was headed by Nabiha Al-Mansi. The first Palestinian Women’s Union was established in 1921, with the support of Emilia As-Sakakini and Zalikha Ash-Shihabi. In 1924, the Women’s Renaissance Association was established in the city of Ramallah, where Palestinian women were involved in political, cultural and social activities.
From the 1930s onwards, the Palestinians sent hundreds of teachers, doctors and nurses to emerging countries in the Gulf, and contributed to their development in many other fields, not just medicine. The first ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the UN, Ahmed Al-Shugairi, was a Palestinian, and the constitution of the modern UAE was written by a Palestinian. Palestinians contributed to the establishment of many Arab newspapers and radio stations after their displacement from their homeland.
In terms of agriculture, Britain’s Peel Commission in the 1930s reported that Palestine was the world’s leading exporter of citrus fruits. Other crops were also exported, including wheat, olives, bananas and watermelons. Most of the country’s agricultural land — 95 to 99 per cent — was managed by Palestinian farmers.
Palestine was most definitely not a desert with no people just waiting to be colonised by Zionists. This was the thriving land which faced the ethnic cleansing known as the Nakba.
Only in 1948 did Zionist Jews take control by force of arms of 78 per cent of historic Palestine to establish the settler-colonial state of Israel. Until the rest of historic Palestine was occupied by Israel in 1967, the Zionist state’s development was largely confined to the Palestinian cities of Haifa, Jaffa, Beersheba, Ramla, Lod, Ashdod, Majdal, and Nazareth.
All the new cities that were built after the establishment of the state were on the outskirts of the historic Palestinian cities or an expansion of some of their neighbourhoods, as was the case of Tel Aviv and Netanya, for example. They were concentrated in the coastal and central regions, in less than 20 per cent of the total area under their control.
The rest of occupied Palestine, including the Negev desert and Galilee in the north, had a limited Jewish presence hardly worth mentioning. That is why successive right-wing governments have drafted and implemented settlement plans for such areas.
What does the Nakba mean for the Palestinians? It was not, as most people believe, a short episode in history that the Palestinian people went through during the establishment of the State of Israel, full of pain, suffering, brutality and displacement. The reality is that the Nakba is ongoing, and such awful conditions and hardships continue in a deeper and more systematic way even as I write.
Ever since 1948, the Zionist leadership has developed a scheme to control the Palestinian people; thwart their ability to resist and reject Zionist occupation and brutalities; and destroy any opportunity for them to dream of a better future based on freedom, independence, dignity and the legitimate return of the refugees and their descendants to the homes and land from which they were ethnically cleansed.
The first part of this scheme was to turn the remaining Palestinian-populated areas inside historic Palestine into ghettos that are separated completely from each other. They are subjected to racist laws, unlike the Jewish population in the same areas. This is the reality of the Zionist state, which has been deemed by international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Israel’s own B’Tselem to have crossed the legal threshold for apartheid.
More than a million Palestinians have been arrested, tortured and otherwise brutalised since the 1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, including thousands of children, women, the sick and the elderly. Thousands of homes and institutions have been demolished illegally, and thousands of acres of land have been stolen and handed over to fanatical Jewish settlers to build new outposts and colonial settlements, all of which are illegal under international law.
Hundreds of thousands of trees, especially olive trees, have been uprooted, destroyed or burned. Natural resources, especially scarce water supplies, have been seized by the Israeli occupation authorities and are now controlled for the benefit of illegal settlers.
Today, more than 76 per cent of the area of the West Bank is under full Israeli control which, for the Palestinians, means deprivation of freedom of movement and potentially deadly threats when trying to go about their everyday activities; the destruction of the local economy due to the difficulty of importing and exporting goods; and daily armed incursions of Palestinian towns and villages by occupation forces and illegal settlers who terrorise innocent civilians.
The narrow coastal enclave of the Gaza Strip has been under a suffocating Israeli blockade for more than 17 years. It has turned the territory and its 2.3 million inhabitants, 60 per cent of whom are children, into the largest open-air prison in the world. Some have even called it a latter-day concentration camp.
Moreover, the seven million Palestinians in the diaspora are deprived of the most basic rights and are exposed repeatedly to persecution and oppression in many countries. They are deprived of their legitimate right to return to their land, a right extended to all other refugees driven from their lands during periods of war and other armed crises. The Palestinians in the diaspora are also excluded from the political processes in the occupied Palestinian territories which determine their future.
This situation is unsustainable. If the Palestinians continue to be denied their political and civil rights, freedom, independence and the right to self-determination and return, there will never be any security or stability for anyone. The issue of Palestine is the central issue for all Arab and Islamic peoples, not only the people of occupied Palestine.
The international community that created this problem must assume its full and effective responsibilities to resolve it. Until such time that a just solution is found, the world must protect the Palestinians from the Israeli occupiers, and ensure that they are able to live a decent and safe life. It is no longer enough to hear some comments and remarks by international figures without practical steps being taken to stop Israel’s aggression, end the conflict and hold war criminals to account.
The UN resolution to commemorate the Nakba for the first time was a step in the right direction. However, it is not enough. We need to put an end to this catastrophe and resolve the conflict in a way that achieves justice, peace and security for all.