One of the most difficult things to grasp in the modern history of Palestine and the Palestinians is the meaning of the Nakba. Is the Nakba to be seen as a discrete event that took place and ended in 1948, or is it something else? What are the political stakes in reifying the Nakba as a past event, in commemorating it annually, in bowing before its awesome symbolism? What are the effects of making the Nakba a finite historical episode that one bemoans but must ultimately accept as a fact of history?
I will suggest to you that there is much at stake in all of this, in rendering the Nakba an event of the past, a fact on the ground that one cannot but accept, admit, and finally transcend; indeed that in order to move forward, one must leave the Nakba behind. Some have even suggested that if Israel acknowledges and apologizes for the Nakba, the Palestinians would forgive and forget, and the effects of the Nakba would be relegated to historical commemorations, not unlike the one we are having this year.
In my view, the Nakba is none of these things, and the attempt to make this year the 60th anniversary of the Nakba’s life and death is a grave error. The Nakba is in fact much older than 60 years and it is still with us, pulsating with life and coursing through history by piling up more calamities upon the Palestinian people. I hold that the Nakba is a historical epoch that is 127 years old and is ongoing. The year 1881 is the date when Jewish colonization of Palestine started and, as everyone knows, it has never ended. Much as the world would like to present Palestinians as living in a post-Nakba period, I insist that we live thoroughly in Nakba times. What we are doing this year is not an act of commemorating but an act of witnessing the ongoing Nakba that continues to destroy Palestine and the Palestinians. I submit, therefore, that this year is not the 60th anniversary of the Nakba at all, but rather one more year of enduring its brutality; that the history of the Nakba has never been a history of the past but decidedly a history of the present.
The meaning of the Nakba
While the Nakba has been translated into English as “catastrophe,” “disaster,” or “calamity,” these translations do not fully grasp the active ramifications of its Arabic meanings. The Nakba as an act committed by Zionism and its adherents against Palestine and the Palestinians has rendered the Palestinians mankubin. English does not help much in translating mankubin, unless we can stretch the language a bit and call Palestinians a catastrophe-d or disaster-ed people. Unlike the Greek catastrophe, which means overturning, or the Latin disaster, which means a calamitous event occurring when the stars are not in the right alignment, the Nakba is an act of deliberate destruction, of visiting calamities upon a people, of a well-planned ruining of a country and its inhabitants. The word was coined by the eminent Arab intellectual Constantine Zureik in his August 1948 short book on the meaning of the Nakba that was ongoing as he wrote it, just like it is as I write these lines.
Since the beginning, the Palestinian people have resisted the racist and colonial logic of the Nakba, through fighting off the colonists in the 1880s and 1890s, in the 1910s, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and on to the present. If Palestinian resistance failed to prevent the massive expulsion of half the Palestinian people and of the outright theft of their entire country, it has succeeded in overthrowing Zionist official memory. Indeed, memory has always been a key component of Palestinian resistance. When Palestinians insist on naming their country, their cities, and their villages with their original names, they are not only resisting the vulgar names that Zionism has bestowed on the land, they are also insisting on a geographic memory that Israel has all but succeeded to erase physically. Zionist cruelty has been such that Israel insisted for 50 years after its creation in denying that the Palestinians even exist as a people, or as a name; that the very name “Palestinians” should not even be uttered. For Zionists, the very name “Palestinian” functions as some magical incantation that could obliterate them at the existential level. They are not necessarily wrong in their impression, for the name Palestinian is itself the strongest form of resistance against their official memory. The name “Palestinian” has also been generative of continuities in Palestinian culture and life, in Palestinian identity and nationality, things that Israel had hoped it obliterated completely and whose survival will always threaten its mnemonic operation of inventing a fictional memory of non-Palestine, of non-Palestinians.
Palestinian counter-memory is in direct confrontation with the Nakba’s achievement of obliterating Palestine as a geographic designation and an affront to the Nakba’s ongoing efforts to obliterate the Palestinians as a national group with a pre-Nakba history. The survival of the Palestinians after the Nakba started, and despite its assiduous efforts to efface them, has made the Nakba a less than successful Zionist victory. It is in this context that Israel’s insistence on calling Palestinian citizens in Israel “Israeli Arabs” is designed to silence their Palestinian-ness. Zionism’s insistence that Palestinian refugees be settled and given the nationality of their host countries is aimed also to erase their name.
Israel’s final admission a decade ago that there was a Palestinian people would come at the price of reducing the Palestinian people to one-third of their total number. In signing Oslo, Israel compromised with a collaborationist Palestinian leadership, wherein the price the Palestinian Authority would pay for Israel’s agreeing to name West Bank and Gaza Palestinians with their proper names was the de-Palestinization of the rest of the Palestinian people. In return, the Palestinian collaborating leadership, under the guise of the Geneva Accords, has agreed to multiply Israel’s Jewish population by a factor of three, wherein Israel would be recognized as the state of all Jews worldwide and not of the Jews who live inside it, let alone the Palestinian citizens over whom it rules.
But this arrangement has failed. Hard as it tried to legitimize itself, the Palestinian Authority could not but be seen for what it is: the creation of the Israeli occupation, an authority which in its structure and logic is not unlike all colonial puppet regimes in Asia and Africa serving their masters, not excluding the Judenraete (Jewish councils) that the Nazis set up in occupied Poland’s ghettos to run Jewish life, collect taxes, and run the post offices, inter alia; or the Bantustans that apartheid South Africa set up as alternative homelands. The Palestinian Authority’s attempt to acquire the power of naming the Palestinian and Jewish peoples failed as much as Israel’s attempts before it. Palestinians continue to insist on their name and on their inclusion in a Palestinian nation, while non-Israeli Jews insist on not joining Israeli nationality, no matter how much they may support Israel. The politics of naming is the politics of power and resistance. The power to name creates fictional histories against material realities. While Israel has succeeded in imposing physical and geographic realties, its attempt to obliterate historical memory has failed. Palestinians are always standing in the way of its falsification of their history and its own.
The Nakba is now
Ever since the Nakba came to describe the tumultuous actions of 1948, an ongoing struggle has raged to define it as a past and finished event rather than an unfinished present action. This is not an epistemological struggle but a lively political one. To identify the Nakba as a past and finished event is to declare its success and insist on the irreversibility of its achievements. It is to insist that there is no longer a struggle to define it, nor a successful resistance that stands in its way. It is to grant it historical and political legitimacy as a fact of life, but also to endow all its subsequent effects as its natural outcome. Thus the struggle of Palestinian citizens of Israel today, according to the Zionist narrative, is not a normal anti-colonial struggle or one that demands national or ethnic or civil rights, but rather an “abnormal” struggle to reverse the Nakba.
That Israel has upwards of 20 laws on the books that institutionalize Jewish religious and racial privilege in rights and duties over non-Jewish citizens is presented as a normal consecration of the Nakba, which Palestinians continue to refuse. Indeed, some Israeli leaders, most recently Tzipi Livni, have suggested that Palestinian citizens of Israel should leave to countries that would grant them national rights instead of remaining in Israel where they will always be denied equal rights as part of their ongoing Nakba. Palestinians are often reminded that “much greater” peoples than they have opted for self-displacement from countries that denied them rights to a country that granted them rights, namely European Jews themselves who came to visit the Nakba upon the Palestinians. If Palestinians in Israel want to remain in Israel, they must accept the normalcy of the Nakba and must acquiesce in their new status as mankubin who cannot and will never have equal rights with Jews. Their refusal of the effects of the Nakba is what makes Palestinian citizens of Israel want to reverse its effects by calling on Israel to repeal its racist laws and become an Israeli, rather than a Jewish, state. Israel and now President Bush insist that the effects of the Nakba must be accepted by all Palestinians. That the Nakba transformed Palestine into “the Jewish State,” Palestinians are told, is not reversible and no amount of civil rights activism or national struggle will undo this major achievement. Palestinian citizens of Israel however seem unconvinced and continue to resist this irreversibility. Their plight, according to Israel, however, is not caused by the Nakba but by their insistence on resisting it.
It is also said that the Palestinian refugees languishing in camps for 60 years are like all other refugee populations, with which the world of the 20th and 21st centuries is filled, borne out of war. Their problem does not lie with the Zionist actions of 1947-1948 that expelled them from their homeland but rather, Israel insists, with the post-1948 refusal of Palestinians and Arab countries to accept the Nakba as irreversible and settle these poor refugees in their host countries. The refugees, Zionism insists, suffer not because of the Nakba but because they refuse to accept the Nakba and to accept themselves as mankubin.
As for those Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, their problems are certainly not a result of the Nakba but, as Israel insists, of the Arab refusal to accept it. Their problems are born of an international war in 1967 that resulted from the Arab refusal of the Nakba as a permanent fact. If Palestinians and their allies would just accept the Nakba as a past and finished event, the calamities that they still claim befall them would cease immediately.
To insist that the Nakba is a present continuous act of destruction that remains unfinished is to resist acknowledging that its work has been completed. Palestinian resistance is what accounts for the unfinished work of the Nakba and for its ongoing brutality. Israel and its international supporters insist that had the Palestinians accepted defeat and recognized the Nakba, had they accepted their expulsion, their third-class citizenship within Israel, and the conquest of 1967, their calamities would have ended. The reason for the hardship that Palestinians experience, Israel tells us, is that Palestinians have never stopped fighting it.
Palestinians resisted the Nakba in the 1880s, when European Jewish colonists kicked them off land they purchased from absentee landlords and denied them labor on land they had tilled for centuries. Palestinian resistance took the form of a major three-year revolt in the 1930s against British support for Zionists to bring about the Nakba. Palestinians also resisted after the actions of 1947/1948 when most of their land was conquered and confiscated by the racist laws of the Jewish state. Their ongoing resistance to the Nakba in the West Bank and in Gaza, we are still told by Israel and The New York Times, is in fact what invites more Nakbas. If Palestinians would allow Israel to lay siege to them in the largest open air prison in the world called Gaza without resisting it, Israel would not be forced to bomb them and kill their children and destroy their homes, it would only starve them and keep them inside the apartheid wall. If Palestinians would simply accept their status as mankubin, the Nakba, as an unfinished process, would be finally completed. This logic of conquest is not exceptional at all, nor is it limited to the Israelis. Has not the resistance in Iraq more recently stood in the way of the final completion of the mission of the American invasion, which President Bush declared “Accomplished” five years ago? It is Iraqi resistance to the destruction that the Americans visit on Iraq that forces the process of American destruction to continue and the American mission to remain unaccomplished.
But what is it that the Palestinians continue to resist in the Nakba that Israel continues to visit upon them? In short, its effects and its victories. Moshe Dayan once eloquently described the Nakba as follows: “Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You don’t even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don’t blame you, because these geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahlul, Gvat in the place of Jibta, Sarid in the place of Haneifa, and Kfar-Yehoshua in the place of Tel-Shaman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”
The success of the Palestinian resistance to the Nakba has forced a similar process of renaming Zionist and Israeli victories that is now adopted across much of the world, and even, albeit in a much more limited fashion, in the United States. To echo Dayan: Palestinian resistance and victimization replaced Zionist conquests and victories. Many of you don’t even know the names of these Zionist victories, and I don’t blame you, because the Zionist history books and propaganda that once legitimized them are no longer considered legitimate. Not only have these books and this propaganda lost legitimacy, but the Zionist and Israeli victories are no longer recognized as such either. The Nakba arose in place of “Israel’s war of independence,” apartheid replaced “Jewish sovereignty,” the expulsion of the Palestinians replaced “Plan Dalet,” or even the “return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland,” Israel’s institutionalized and legal racism replaced “Israeli democracy,” Palestinian citizens of Israel replaced “Israeli Arabs,” the Palestinian people replaced the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine” as the Balfour Declaration had described them, and Palestinian maftul replaced “Israeli couscous” which continues to try to replace Palestinian maftul. There is not one single Zionist victory in this country that the Palestinians have not resisted and challenged.
Palestinians have resisted and resist the Nakba with steadfastness and a refusal to leave their lands; with strikes, demonstrations, and civil disobedience; with art, music, and dance; with poetry, theater, and novels; with writing their own history and asserting their own geography; with local and international appeals to courts of law, and to the United Nations. Palestinians have also resisted and resist the Nakba with stones and with guns. The denial of the Palestinians’ right to resist (guaranteed and deemed legal by international law) is not however confined to their use of guns, but equally to their use of art, books, music, demonstrations, even of filing UN appeals, of teaching Palestinian history, of narrating the Nakba, or of remembering and commemorating it.
That the Nakba that Zionist planners conceived since the late 19th century included the take-over of all Palestine, the expulsion of all of its native Arab population, and rendering it Arabrein, continues apace. While land acquisitions started in the 1880s and the en masse theft of the country occurred in 1948, Israel has still not been able to take over the entire land. The ongoing confiscation of lands in East Jerusalem and the West Bank today is part of the continuing Nakba. Zionism’s plans to make Israel Arabrein also continue apace. If Israel is unable before international law to expel all Palestinians today, it has devised a clever alternative, namely to place all those it cannot expel inside an apartheid wall that it will call a Palestinian state and make plans to expel those residing outside this apartheid wall, namely Palestinian citizens of Israel, to inside those walls. The end result will indeed be an Arabrein Israel outside the wall. These Nakba efforts are being pursued actively at present with the collaboration of the Palestinian Authority and Arab governments under US sponsorship.
The destruction of more than 500 Palestinian villages did not take place in 1948 but was an ongoing process for years following the Zionist conquest. Expelling the Palestinians off their lands started in the 1880s with a much larger expulsion inside and outside Palestine beginning in earnest in November 1947. It is crucial to remember that Zionist forces expelled 400,000 Palestinians from their lands before 14 May 1948. Many hundreds of thousands more would be expelled in the months and years following, throughout the 1950s, and again since 1967. Expulsions have not stopped. The presence of Palestinians is what provokes Israel to expel them. If Palestinians would accept to displace themselves and leave Palestine, Israel tells them, there would no longer be expulsions. I should point out here that the Zionist insistence on self-displacement is not only directed at Palestinians. Since its inception until now, Zionism and Israel have always recommended and continue to recommend that world Jewry displace itself and come to Israel. Like the Palestinians, most Jews outside Israel continue to resist Israel’s call on them to displace themselves. While Israel is no longer able to force Jews outside its borders to move to it (and there were many times when it could), it has the ability and the will to displace the Palestinians no matter how much they resist.
Resistance is now
Palestinian resistance today is active on many fronts. One of the key campaigns that Palestinians in Israel have mounted recently is to force Israel to repeal its many racist laws. A number of proposals and documents have been issued by Palestinian organizations in Israel to that effect. This campaign must be internationalized. The United Nations and other world forums must be enlisted in the task of forcing Israel to repeal its racist laws. This is not the demagogic attempt to call Zionism racism as the UN had done in 1975 in a sloganeering resolution, but rather to demonstrate how Israel is institutionally racist and that it rules through racist laws that must be repealed.
Palestinians and their allies have also mounted an international campaign of divestment and boycott of Israel until it ceases to be in violation of international law through its continued occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and it stops its ongoing war crimes against them. This is another key campaign that has already scored a number of impressive victories.
This is not to say that Palestinians do not continue to suffer everywhere. The suffering of Gazans has been the greatest in recent years, as Israel punishes them for their refusal of the rule of the Palaestinenserrat Israel and its Palestinian collaborators imposed on the West Bank and tried to impose on Gaza in their attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Palestinian government. Israel’s war crimes against Gazans continue apace but Gazans have had no choice but to remain steadfast and to resist.
But in resisting the Nakba, the Palestinians have struck at the heart of the Zionist project that insists that the Nakba be seen as a past event. In resisting Israel, Palestinians have forced the world to witness the Nakba as present action; one that, contrary to Zionist wisdom, is indeed reversible. This is precisely what galls Israel and the Zionist movement. Israel’s inability to complete its mission of thoroughly colonizing Palestine, of expelling all Palestinians, of “gathering” all Jews in the world in its colony, keeps it uneasy and keeps its project always in the present continuous.
While Israel has used this situation to project itself as a victim of its own victims who refuse to grant it legitimacy to victimize them, Israel understands not only in its unconscious but also consciously that its project will remain reversible. The cruelty it has shown and continues to show to the Palestinian people is directly proportional to its belief in their ability to overthrow its achievements and reverse its colonial project. The problem for Israel is not in believing and knowing that there is not one single place in its colonial settlement that did not have a former Arab population, but in its realization that there is no place today in its imaginary “Jewish State” that does not still have an Arab population who claims it.
That the Nakba remains unfinished is precisely because Palestinians refuse to let it transform them into mankubin. What we are witnessing at this year’s commemorations, then, is not only one more year of the Nakba but also one more year of resisting it. Those who counsel the Palestinians to accept the Nakba know that to accept the Nakba is to allow it to continue unfettered. Palestinians know better. The only way to end the Nakba, Palestinians insist, is to continue to resist it.
Joseph Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. This article originally appeared in Al-Ahram and is republished with the author’s permission.