Palestine: The catatrophe that never ended

May 16, 2009

Israel calls it the anniversary of independence. But for Palestinians, May 15 commemorates terrible ethnic cleansing.

On May 15 this year, Palestinians commemorated 61 years of Israeli apartheid — including continued ethnic cleansing and decades of military occupation.

In 1948, Palestinians experienced what they describe as al Nakba, ("The Catastrophe"). That is, the formation of Israel on 82% of Palestine via the violent expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and land.

In al Nakba, 60% of Palestinians were expelled. More than 500 towns were destroyed.

The ideology of Zionism, which supports a Jewish state in historic Palestine, arose in the late 19th century in an attempt to give the Jewish religion the aim of nationhood. Zionism's aim was summarised in the slogan: "A land without people, for a people without land."

Conceived of as a solution to the anti-Semitism Jews faced for centuries in Europe, Zionism remained a small minority movement among Jewish people until the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.

With the support of Britain, the goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine was legitimised with the 1917 Balfour agreement.

The declaration's author, British conservative politician Lord Arthur Balfour, summarised the view of British imperialism in 1919: "Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 [Palestinian] Arabs who now inhabit the ancient land."

However, limited Jewish migration before the end of WWII and opposition to Zionist aims among Palestine's non-Jewish population impeded the Zionist goal of control over Palestine. This lead to growing support for the idea of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians to secure the country for "Israel".

US academic Norman Finkelstein told US radio program Democracy Now in February 2006: "The central Zionist dilemma was they wanted to create a predominantly Jewish state in an area which was overwhelmingly not Jewish ... I think in 1906 there were 700,000 Arabs, 55,000 Jews, and even of those 55,000 Jews, only a handful were Zionists.

"How do you create a Jewish state in area which is overwhelmingly not Jewish?"

In other words, how do you win a "a land without people, for a people without land", if the "chosen land" is already home to other people?

In the years before the formation of Israel, Zionist gangs, like the Haganagh and the Irgun, were already using violence to try and solve this dilemma.

The group was responsible for attacks on local infrastructure and Palestinian populations. Such groups would later play a significant part in the 1948 ethnic cleansing operations. After the Israeli state was officially formed, these gangs merged to form the Israeli Defence Force.

After WWII, Britain's power over Palestine was slipping just as the Zionist forces began to grow and become more violent. The fascist vigilantes groups grew rapidly with the support of Zionist authorities.

Anti-Zionist Israeli historian, Illan Pappe, told British Socialist Worker in 2006: "Palestinians had hoped for a change of heart from the British. But Britain decided to transfer the issue of Palestine to the United Nations (UN) in February 1947.

"Palestine was the first conflict in which it was asked to mediate in a significant way."

Palestinian hopes for a fair go from the UN were quickly dashed. The UN created the United Nations Special Committee for Palestine, which involved Zionists but no Palestinians.

From the outset, it was biased towards supporting the creation of a Jewish-only state, in which non-Jewish residences would be second-class citizens at best.

Pappe said: "Palestinians had a difficult time presenting the moral side of their demands due to the Holocaust.

"The Western international community was only too happy to evade any discussions about the implications of the genocide in Europe and to drop the problem on Palestine's doorstep.

"The inevitable result of this approach was accepting almost unconditionally the Zionist demands for a state in Palestine."

In 1947, Palestine's Jewish population stood at a third of the total, many recent arrivals. But the Zionist leaders demanded 80% of Palestine for Israel.

"The idea was to uproot as many Palestinians as possible", Pappe said. "From March 1948 until the end of that year, the plan was implemented despite the attempt by some Arab states to oppose it, which failed."

Palestinian villages were turned "into Jewish settlements and recreation parks, but allowing a small number of Palestinian to remain citizens in it".

Israel needed a Jewish majority in Israel to ensure the continuation of Jewish supremacy. Pappe said: "Demography thus became the major issue in Israel's national security agenda. It overshadows any other concern, be it for social equality, democracy or human rights.

"The educational system, the media and the politicians all stress the 'danger' Palestinians constitute for the state's existence and the Jewish citizens' wellbeing."

But many Israelis never hear the true story. The rewriting of history helped justify the continued existence of Israel as an apartheid state.

Israelis who step out of the established framework, attempting to discuss Israel's true history or advocate genuine equality for Palestinians, are quickly targeted by authorities.

Renowned Palestinian-American historian Edward Said in 1998: "I still find myself astonished at the lengths to which official Israel and its supporters will go to suppress the fact that a half century has gone by without Israeli restitution, recognition or acknowledgment of Palestinian human rights … the Palestinian Nakba is characterised as a semi-fictional event … caused by no one in particular."

The untold history is one of a dispossession that began in 1948 and continues today.

In his 1978 book Orientalism, Said explained that for Israelis there was "no trace of Arab individuals with personal histories that can be told ... The Arab does not create existential depth, not even in semantics ... The oriental person is oriental first, and human second."

Today, millions of Palestinians suffer siege like conditions in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Around 1 million live as second-class citizens within Israel's borders. And up to 6 million Palestinians live as refugees around the world — denied the right to return to the homeland they were expelled from to enable Israel's establishment.

In the subsequent 61 years of Palestinian oppression, more towns have been wiped off the map to make way for new Israeli infrastructure. More Palestinian land is taken for illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, accompanied with the ongoing demolition of Palestinian homes.

In Gaza, with the highest population density on Earth, 1.5 million people are still subjected to a medieval-style total siege imposed by Israel. The December-January war on Gaza is further evidence of the lengths to which Israel will go to in its attempts to maintain a Jewish state on the basis of denying Palestinian rights and aspirations.

Yet the country responsible for such crimes is not a "pariah nation". It is greeted with open arms by powerful nations, who provide it with support and arms.

Meanwhile, the elected Palestinian government is denied the right to represent its people even in most of the small piece of land Palestinians nominally control.

Many Palestinians who were expelled from what is now Israel continue to keep the keys to the houses they were forced out of. Israel has tried to destroy the will of the Palestinian people. However, after 61 years, Palestinian resistance continues.

Palestinians see the process of remembering the past as an important part of their identity. Without Israel being forced to recognise and rectify the crimes of the past, the injustices committed against the Palestinian people are bound to continue.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.