Gaza is again, perhaps fleetingly, in the headlines. An Israeli assassination strike, inevitably inflicting civilian casualties, led to rockets being launched towards Israel and waves of Israeli bombings. Palestinians in Gaza have been under an Israeli land and sea blockade for 16 years. A very simple fact about Gaza that is rarely mentioned is that it is overwhelmingly a community of refugees; 70 per cent of its population live in refugee camps. Many were expelled from areas in today’s Israel just on the other side of the electrified, highly surveilled and fiercely guarded prison-like fence surrounding the enclave.
This adds a particular poignancy to recent commemorations of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba – “the Catastrophe” – the term Palestinians use to refer to when they were expelled from their homes between 1947-49 to create a Jewish majority in the new state of Israel. Of the approximately 750,000 who were expelled, many were driven to Gaza.
Israel has attempted to divide and separate the Palestinian collective into manageable silos. A unified Palestinian reality is deconstructed into, as Israel would have it, the problems of Gaza, the West Bank, an Arab minority within Israel and refugees (with Arab states being blamed for the failure to integrate rather than Israel for preventing their return). That is the legacy of the Nakba.
It is almost impenetrably counterintuitive for Israelis, as well as for many in Jewish communities across the world, to think of that period after 1945 as one in which the Zionist movement was perpetrating a crime rather than as a time of recovery from the atrocities and devastation of the Holocaust. A time in which the broken pieces and remnants were being restored and Jewish life was being reconstituted – primarily in that new state of Israel.
At the same time Palestinian acknowledgment of the enormity and tragedy of the Holocaust cannot negate the Palestinian experience of the Nakba, absolve those who perpetrated it, or ignore the price still being paid by Palestinians. Palestinians were not only physically uprooted and prevented from returning to their land and homes, entire villages were erased and over time those properties were seized by the state. The same processes continue to be deployed in Jerusalem in the West Bank to this day. The Nakba has never been sufficiently recognised, let alone made whole.
Palestinians tend to be far more aware of Jewish and Zionist history and narratives than vice versa. Historically this is not unusual in deeply asymmetrical relations of coloniser and colonised. Ultimately, though, sustainable peace will require Israelis to interrogate their own history and that of the Palestinians – including the Nakba. That is true also for third parties seeking to advance peace.
Israel’s continued expropriation and dispossession of Palestinians, settlement expansion, refusal to de-occupy and accept genuine Palestinian sovereignty rendered the two-state Oslo option moot. An Israeli friend recently confided to one of us that she had watched the Derry Girls TV series through sobbing eyes, being of the same generation as those Irish youngsters, glimpsing a path Israel had not taken. Continued adherence to the peace process maintains a fiction, acting as cover for the denial of Palestinian equality, rights and freedoms.
Looking to the future means looking at the reality of sharing this one political space which Israel has recreated, including who can live in this land.
In dismantling the structures of occupation and discrimination established by Israel there will have to be an acknowledgment that the Jewish-Israeli presence is not going anywhere. It will be an equal but not privileged part of any future political dispensation. Likewise, equality for Palestinians will apply not only to those residing in this one space reality, it must also address the rights of refugees, including reparations and return for those who seek it.
However, righting the wrongs of either the past or the present are not on the Israeli political agenda. Israel has gone from denying that the Nakba happened, to justifying it as a necessity, to now (among certain political circles) threatening another mass expulsion of Palestinians. The current governing coalition is primed with cabinet ministers who openly agitate for a second Nakba, inspiring the violence of settler militias, often under the protection of the Israeli military.
Israeli willingness to end its human rights violations against the Palestinians is only likely to emerge if it is held accountable and recognises there is a cost for its policies.
Ireland can help Palestinians and Israelis out of this morass if it is ready to lean more into accountability and to be a more robust voice in Europe and beyond in challenging impunity in the face of Israel’s international law and human rights violations. Belatedly ending all trade with Israel’s illegal settlements is a not unreasonable place to start.
Zaha Hassan is a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Previously she was the coordinator and senior legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team during Palestine’s bid for UN membership, and was a member of the Palestinian delegation to Quartet-sponsored exploratory talks between 2011 and 2012.
Daniel Levy is the president of the US/Middle East Project and a former Israeli negotiator with the Palestinians at Taba under prime minister Ehud Barak and at Oslo B under prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.