[News] Resisting the Nakba

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Fri May 16 11:55:26 EDT 2008

Resisting the Nakba
Joseph Massad, The Electronic Intifada, 16 May 2008


(<http://nidal48.com>Nidal El-Khairy)

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.

Zionist racism

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.

* The writer is associate professor of modern Arab politics and 
intellectual history at Columbia University in New York. He is author 
of The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.

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 

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