Remembering the Palestinian Nakba

Nearly 30 years since she had seen her Northern Galilee home in what she called "48 Palestine", Rasmiya Barghouti was finally given a permit by the Israeli military authorities to visit. She decided to take two of her daughters and four of her grandchildren with her.

It took less than three hours to reach Safad, renamed Tsvat by Israel after 1948. The van stopped in front of the white stone home that held her childhood memories. She proceeded to the familiar metal door, where she knocked. A large eastern European woman opened the door; the two argued.

Rasmiya returned to the van, her hardened face wet with tears. Her only words were: "She wouldn't let me in! She still has the same curtains I made with my mother."

They proceeded in silence, as she wept discretely, to lunch at a hotel on Lake Tiberias where her youngest grandchild grew hyper. Instead of imposing her usual military-style discipline on the child, she encouraged him to splatter water and make even "more noise" — a shock to the rest of the family.

The Israeli waiter hurriedly came to the table demanding, in Hebrew, they stop the raucous behavior. It was then that her defiance exploded into cursing the waiter in Arabic. "We can do whatever we please! This is my father's hotel!", she yelled. Until that moment, her children and grandchildren had been sheltered from knowing anything about her dear loss.

Ethnic cleansing

The rage of this Palestinian woman was born out of seeing her childhood home, from which she was forced to leave in 1948, now occupied by a stranger who would not even allow her in. She'd seen her father's hotel, which he was never allowed to vacate, taken over by strangers.

For the first time since her violent dispossession in 1948, she was allowed to visit her homeland, but not to return. Because millions of other Palestinian refugees are denied even such a visit, Rasmiya was considered "lucky".

While Israel celebrates 60 years since its establishment, Palestinians everywhere commemorate the "Nakba"(catastrophe in Arabic) that befell them after armed Jewish militia raided their homes and expelled them.

The exclusionary Zionist vision of creating a Jewish state in Palestine meant the elimination of the indigenous, "non-Jewish" population. In his book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes: "... on 10 March 1948 ... veteran Zionist leaders together with young Jewish military officers, put the final touches to a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine".

Pappe explains how Jewish militias, the future armed forces of the state of Israel, carried out a plan of large-scale intimidation and siege, setting fires to Palestinian homes, planting mines, destroying more than 500 villages and exercising other terrorist activities.

In the end, nearly 800,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes and into refugee camps in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere.

Rasmiya's family was among this wave of refugees. This massive ethnic cleansing completed the first phase of the compulsory "transfer" that the founder of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, advocated in his address to the Jewish Agency Executive as early as 1938. Thus the Palestinians had become the victims of the victims of Europe.

Nakba denialists

Ten years ago, the late Edward Said commented on the "Israel at 50" celebrations: "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 same stubborn refusal to recognise the Palestinian Nakba characterises the "Israel at 60" celebrations today. For Palestinians, denial of the Nakba is tantamount to denying the Holocaust for Jews.

Remembering the Nakba is even more compelling given what former US president Jimmy Carter describes as an apartheid-like system that Israel has built to entangle the Palestinians in a seemingly endless cycle of hopelessness and violence. Israel still denies millions of Palestinian refugees their UN-sanctioned right to go back to their homes simply because they are not Jewish.

Israel continues its 41-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Israel continues to impose its savage blockade on the Gaza Strip.

Israel continues to build its illegal wall and settlements on occupied Palestinian land. And Israel continues to treat its own "non-Jewish" population as second-class citizens.

Can any conscientious person, then, celebrate Israel at 60?

When Israel has made reparations for its shameful past; when it has conformed to international law and universal human rights; when it has ended its brutal oppression of the indigenous people of Palestine; and when it has allowed Palestinians to practice their right to self-determination on their own land, we can all celebrate. Then, even Rasmiya's descendants may celebrate.

[Nasser Barghouti is a Palestinian-American and president of the San Diego Chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Rasmiya Barghouti was his grandmother. Bassemah Darwish is a Palestinian-American who lived in occupied Palestine while teaching at Birzeit University. Originally published in the May 8 San Diego Union-Tribune.]