We Need to Talk about Palestine … Again

On the 73rd anniversary of the Nakba (‘Catastrophe’), Sarah Peterson reviews the tortured history of modern Palestine.


The Nakba followed the UN partition of Palestine on 29 November 1947, the war of 1947-9, the withdrawal of British troops on 14 May 1948, and the declaration of the state of Israel the following day.

Nakba Day is celebrated on 15 May to commemorate the loss of the Palestinian homeland, the dispossession of Palestinians, their destruction of their villages, their expulsion and flight from their homes and land, transforming them into permanent refugees. Around 700,000 Palestinians, around 80% of the Palestinian population of that time, were driven into exile. Palestinian society was destroyed by the creation of the State of Israel. The 150,000 Palestinians who remained, and their descendants, became the ‘Israeli Arabs’.

This is the historical context missing from so many discussions whenever the question of Palestine is raised. The conquest of further land during subsequent wars has brought many more Palestinians under Israeli control. That is why the areas conquered during 1967 and other wars are called ‘the Occupied Territories’.

So there was an original division of land following the British ‘Mandate’ (colonial rule), then there was the 1947-9 war which seized the majority of territory “designated” to the Palestinians and then another war in 1967, in which Israel seized additional land including the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip under control of Jordan and Egypt respectively following the 1947-9 war. .

Colonial-settler states

The belief that Palestine was ‘a land for people for people without a land’ is quite simply not true: the area has been inhabited for millennia, though it was not a separate state, but part of the Ottoman Empire. The idea of an empty land only makes sense if you do not think of the indigenous people as ‘people’.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire (aided and abetted by European colonial powers), much of the region came under the control of the British, the French, and their local proxies. This is how the kingdoms of Jordan, Saudi-Arabia, and other Arab states came into existence.

In general, colonial-settler states get control over land by removing or eliminating indigenous peoples. Thinking of other colonial-settler states (e.g. the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand), this happened because the existence of the indigenous population threatened the “legitimacy” of the claims of settlers to land and resources.

In no case where a colonial-settler state has been set up has the indigenous population retained control over their land and resources; their elimination and removal is central to the project. Invariably, the surviving indigenous people find themselves evicted to ‘bantustans’ or ‘reservations’ in parts of what was formerly their land, or dispersed to neighbouring states or elsewhere.

This differs from historical colonialism, where the indigenous population is left intact to serve as the workforce for the colonial government. In the case of colonies, it is resources that the colonial empire wants and the people living there are the means to ensure they are made available (often through slave labour).

What do those colonies and colonial-settler states have in common? It is the belief that they have the right to claim the land and resources of another group of people. This is done through warfare and terrorism against the native population to quell opposition.

Racism is at the core of justifications for these actions, and the indigenous population is portrayed as uncivilised, unable to control their own resources; they are treated as non-human or at the best as children. If the indigenous were viewed as people, how could their extermination been justified? The objectification of human beings justifies the actions of the white settlers or the creation of a colony.

This is the situation in Palestine. There are clear similarities with what happened to various groups and nations of Native Americans in the US as its territory expanded. The US is built on the genocide of Native Americans, of the indigenous population, and the forced labour of African slaves. So when we discuss ‘Manifest Destiny’ and the spread of the US from the original East Coast colonies westward, we are talking about the dispossession and extermination of Native Americans. The whole history of the US, and the trauma of Native Americans and Black Americans, is based on racism and colonialism; that is the core nature of American history.

The Palestinians still living in Israel are involved in a struggle over civil rights as they remain citizens of Israel. Those in the Occupied Territories or living in neighbouring countries are not citizens of Israel and their rights are framed by Human Rights, International Law, and International Humanitarian Law.


Nation State law that defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people was passed in 2018. In many senses there is nothing new. But while apartheid existed in fact, it did not exist in the law. The new legislation has formally legalised apartheid in Israel, codifying what already existed in terms of the unequal treatment of Israeli Arabs.

Israel is now officially a state only for Jews, destroying fantasies of a democratic state for all ‘citizens’, including Druze, Christian, and Muslim Arabs and Bedouins. It enshrines in law these people do not have equal democratic rights. The bill was contested in the Knesset and has come under severe criticism from Jews outside of Israel, as it demolishes any claim to legitimacy as a multicultural and democratic state.

Btselem (the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) argues:

The Nation State basic law, enacted in 2018, enshrines the Jewish people’s right to self-determination to the exclusion of all others. It establishes that distinguishing Jews in Israel (and throughout the world) from non-Jews is fundamental and legitimate. Based on this distinction, the law permits institutionalised discrimination in favour of Jews in settlement, housing, land development, citizenship, language, and culture. It is true that the Israeli regime largely followed these principles before. Yet Jewish supremacy has now been enshrined in basic law, making it a binding constitutional principle – unlike ordinary law or practices by authorities, which can be challenged. This signals to all state institutions that they not only can, but must, promote Jewish supremacy in the entire area under Israeli control.

In January 2021, Btselem published an article entitled ‘This is Apartheid’. It explains how apartheid exists in Israel due to the differential treatment of Palestinians and Jews in all areas under Israeli government and military control. This includes: areas defined after the 1948 war (citizens of Israel); areas taken in the 1967 war, that is, East Jerusalem, where ‘permanent residents of Israel’ can live and work there, the West Bank, which is under military control with minimal political rights, and the Gaza Strip, from which Israel has withdrawn but keeps under permanent blockade.

Control over Palestinians is maintained in 4 ways:

1) Immigration is for Jews only;

2) Land is taken from Palestinians and given to Jews, crowding Palestinians into enclaves;

3) Restrictions are placed on the movement of Palestinians;

4) Palestinians (approx. 4 million) living in the Occupied Territories are denied access to political participation.

The Btselem article concludes:

Yet in public discourse and in international law, apartheid does not mean an exact copy of the former South African regime. No regime will ever be identical. ‘Apartheid’ has long been an independent term, entrenched in international conventions, referring to a regime’s organising principle: systematically promoting the dominance of one group over another and working to cement it.

The Israeli regime does not have to declare itself an apartheid regime to be defined as such, nor is it relevant that representatives of the state broadly proclaim it a democracy. What defines apartheid is not statements but practice. While South Africa declared itself an apartheid regime in 1948, it is unreasonable to expect other states to follow suit given the historical repercussions. The response of most countries to South Africa’s apartheid is likelier to deter countries from admitting to implementing a similar regime. It is also clear that what was possible in 1948 is no longer possible today, both legally and in terms of public opinion.

Given the constant annexation of more occupied territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, there is no possibility of a two-state solution, as there is rapidly shrinking land upon which it could be built. So the insistence of President Biden and other international leaders on a two-state solution is meaningless and almost delusional.

What has led to the latest violence?

One of the strangest things that happens whenever conflict erupts in Palestine is that the overall context disappears from the discussion and even things that have occurred literally one week before are forgotten in mainstream media reports and government statements. It is as if everything that has happened simply vanishes and all we are left with is how the Palestinians have triggered a conflict.

So let us bring things into context. The latest struggle does not begin with rockets being sent into Israel from Gaza. It begins a bit before. It started with an area called Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, with the threatened eviction of Palestinians from this neighbourhood (seized, remember, in the 1967 war).

These Palestinians refugees were settled in East Jerusalem in 1957, when it was part of Jordan. Generations of Palestinian families have been living there and have the deeds to their properties. The issue concerns a case that is winding its way through Israeli courts and has now reached the Supreme Court (with judgement expected on 10May, days before the anniversary of the Nakba). The area had been bought by a Jewish Agency from the Ottoman Empire and then resold to Jewish settlers; so the Palestinians living there are considered ‘squatters’.

This is not a ‘real-estate dispute’. It is a continuation of the dispossession of Palestinians from their own homes and land. Moreover, since this is occupied territory, it is debateable (an understatement) whether Israeli courts have jurisdiction over it. Twenty-seven other Palestinian families are involved in a similar legal dispute. This is not an isolated incident. It is part of a process that has been ongoing since Israel conquered East Jerusalem during the 1967 war. According to Tareq Baconi,

Since 1967, Israel has revoked the residency of more than 14,500 Palestinian Jerusalemites, carried out extensive home demolitions (more than a thousand housing units since 2004), severely under-allocated municipal funds for Palestinian areas, and built a wall that integrates Jewish settlements outside the city’s municipal borders into Jerusalem while excising four Palestinian neighbourhoods that are within the municipal boundaries.

So, this is part of a long-term process wherein territory under occupation is incorporated into Israel. The continued expansion of Jewish owned and controlled settlements into Palestinian occupied territory is not only happening on the West Bank; it has been happening in East Jerusalem as well. Moreover, the court system of Israel is an active participant in this continuing seizure of Palestinian land and the destruction of Palestinian homes.

During Ramadan and very close to Nakba Day, the Israeli government closed down an area which served as a gathering space, leading to bottlenecks around the Al Aqsa Mosque (the Dome of the Rock), where Muslims come to pray during Ramadan. This led to clashes between Palestinians and Jews. The residents of Sheikh Jarrah opened their area to host communal iftars (breakings of the fast during Ramadan). The area around the Dome of the Rock became an area standing in solidarity with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah. According to Baconi:

The protests included mass iftar meals and praying as well as instances of shoe, chair, and rock-throwing. Israeli forces responded with sponge-coated bullets, skunk water, tear gas, and stun grenades. Over the weekend, more than 250 Palestinians were injured in Sheikh Jarrah alone. Monday was Jerusalem Day, when Israelis have a parade to celebrate what they see as the 1967 reunification of East and West Jerusalem. Israeli police broke into the Holy Esplanade and desecrated the mosque. Jewish settlers roamed the city streets, wielding machine-guns with the full protection of the state.

This is happening in the middle of negotiations among Israeli political leaders over the next government, following the recent election; once again, the Palestinians become pawns in the situation.

Statements by foreign leaders requesting ‘de-escalation’ – as the Palestinians have control over what the Israeli government and military do – are pointless.

What followed were spontaneous eruptions of solidarity with the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in areas that are officially part of Israel (i.e. west of the Green Line, in Haifa, Lydd, Nazareth, and elsewhere), as well as on the West Bank and in the Palestinian diaspora. These protests have continued. On 18 May, a one-day general strike, accompanied by local protests, by Palestinians across Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza was held.

Following the initial protest, H Hamas got involved and demanded that Israeli military and police leave Sheikh Jarrah and the Al Aqsa Mosque. When that did not happen, they started launching rockets into Israel from Gaza, and the Israeli government responded by bombing Gaza – a densely populated area packed with civilians. According to Al-Jazeera:

At least 192 people, including 58 children and 34 women, have been killed in the Gaza Strip in the past week. More than 1,200 others have been wounded. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli forces have killed at least 13 Palestinians. Israel has reported 10 dead, including two children.

Both Al Jazeera and AP’s media headquarters have been hit; the tower where AP and Al Jazeera were located was notified an hour before the strike to evacuate.

So what does the President of the US do and say? Prime Minister Netanyahu assures President Biden that no non-involved people  in the towers were hit and that ‘the Israeli military is doing everything to avoid harming those not involved’. Following these ‘reassurances’, Biden recognises Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks launched from Gaza, calling for both sides to stand down and negotiate a ceasefire. But this has not stopped the bombing of Gaza. He has not condemned Israeli military attacks on Palestinians.

According to the Independent, Netanyahu has said ‘the military campaign against Gaza’s Hamas rulers will continue ‘with full force’ and warned it will ‘take time to end despite international efforts to obtain a ceasefire’.

The question that needs to be asked is how can the so-called ‘involved’ be separated from the ‘non-involved’ in an area as small and crowded as Gaza. They cannot, because the leaders and members of Hamas that Israel is targeting live there; they are not shielding behind civilians. It is impossible to separate them. Bombing Gaza, by definition, means killing innocent civilians.

It is this context that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib refers to in her speech to Congress (reproduced in full in Jacobin), where she said:

To read the statements from President Biden, Secretary Blinken, General Austin, and leaders of both parties, you’d hardly know Palestinians existed at all. There has been no recognition of the attack on Palestinian families being ripped from their homes in East Jerusalem right now or home demolitions. No mention of children being detained or murdered. No recognition of a sustained campaign of harassment and terror by Israeli police against worshippers kneeling down and praying, celebrating their holiest days, in one of their holiest places. No mention of Al-Aqsa being surrounded by violence, tear gas, smoke, while people pray.

This is why we cannot stay silent in the face of what is happening. We need to talk about Palestine and the Palestinians and their humanity and their human rights. What about their right to self-defence? Why does a colonial-settler state have the right to self-defence when the people under occupation who are fighting against them not have the same right?

As Patrick Gathara says:

UN General Assembly Resolution 37/43 of 1982 which recognised ‘the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity, and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, including armed struggle’.

This is why there were protests all around the world in solidarity with the Palestinians on Saturday 15 May. We cannot stay silent.


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