The Nakba 72 Years On: The Current Status of the Question of Palestine

On the establishment of Israel 72 years ago, over 700,000 Palestinians were mostly expelled from their homes, villages, towns, and cities and made refugees inside Palestine, neighboring Arab countries, and elsewhere. In 1967, Israel expanded further into Palestinian land when it occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip and about 300,000 more Palestinians were dispossessed. Today, as Palestinians memorialize their ignominious Nakba, or catastrophe, Israel––with tacit acceptance by the Trump Administration and weak protests from the Arab world––prepares to annex some 30 percent of the occupied West Bank and extend full Israeli law over its illegal settlements there. In the meantime, Palestinians, in what is left of the occupied territories, continue to live under a brutal occupation while their compatriots inside Israel suffer from second-class citizenship status.

Since 1948, Palestinians, the Arab world, and the international community have put forward many strategies to redress the original loss of land and rights; however, they were unable to reverse the downward slide on display today. As Israel succeeded in militarily controlling the entire land of historical Palestine, the Arab world has gradually relinquished its responsibility to Palestinian rights and the quest for an independent state. Two neighboring Arab states––Egypt and Jordan––have reached separate peace treaties with Israel, preferring to prioritize and safeguard their own national interests, while the rest of the Arab political order is currently on its way to normalizing relations with Israel. Over the years, the Palestinians themselves have resorted to both armed struggle against Israel as well as peace negotiations, yet they failed to realize their national rights in an independent state on their own land. Numerous Arab, American, and other proposals for Middle East peace since the 1970s have also run aground. A so-called “peace process” between the Palestinians and Israel has been unsuccessful because of a seriously skewed balance of power between the two sides.

But with all the failures and setbacks and despite the current conditions of occupation and dispossession, resolving the question of Palestine equitably and redressing Palestinian rights remain essential for Middle East peace. Palestinians today are even more defiant and determined to fight for their human rights, their right to an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital, and for full equality with Jews inside Israel. To be sure, the Nakba’s commemoration every year is an occasion for reaffirming Palestinian rights and a reminder that a noble cause is never forgotten as long as there are those who believe in it and are willing to work toward the Palestinians’ quest for justice.

To shed light on the question of Palestine as the world marks the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) asked a group of its research fellows and associates to reflect on the different aspects of this milestone. Their opinions and perspectives are below.

How has the question of Palestine developed since 1948?
Khalil E. Jahshan, ACW Executive Director

Protracted international conflicts, in general, tend to evolve and develop their own identifiable characteristics and internal dynamics over time. Those usually interrelated characteristics are a function of the durability, complexity and often intractability of such conflicts. The Palestine problem is not an exception to this rule. In the 72 years after the proclamation of independence by the state of Israel on May 14, 1948, and the ensuing dismantlement of Palestine as a political and social entity, the Palestinian people—whether forcibly dispersed, voluntarily relocated, or staying put on their land—have struggled on a rough journey characterized by agony, insecurity, and relentless turmoil. Theirs is a multi-phase odyssey that continues to pester and torment the international community in search for a just ending.

The trajectory of Palestinian political history since the beginning of the Nakba can be understood as unfolding in six phases until the present day.

Phase I: During 1948-1967, the Palestinians began their journey as refugees mostly outside their homeland. They relied on the mercy of the international community to meet their basic humanitarian needs and rectify the political injustice—the catastrophe—they suffered. Their reaction was emotional, bitter, uncoordinated, and fundamentally human. They insisted that the establishment of Israel on the ruins of Palestine was null and void, standing firm in their demand to return to their original homes.

Phase II: From 1967 to 1972, the Palestinians began to take matters into their own hands by organizing and embarking on a national liberation struggle for their right of return and self-determination. After the Arab states’ defeat by Israel in 1967, total liberation became the rallying cry of this period among Palestinians, as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) assumed leadership.

Phase III: Between 1973 and 1987, the Palestinian national movement began to fine-tune its political demands based on actual experiences and interactions with friends and foes in the international community. This stage led to the birth of the two-state proposal in the mid-1970s and the subsequent first intifada in 1987. Some analysts refer to this stage as one characterized by signs of ideological practicality and political accommodation.

Phase IV: The period from 1988 to 1993 encompassed a series of peace efforts aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, culminating in the ill-fated and disastrous Oslo Accords. These agreements set in motion a process that failed to achieve its declared objectives and resulted in alienating both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, from the prospects of a negotiated settlement.

Phase V: Between 1994 and 2000, the Palestinians witnessed the dramatic curtailment of their national aspirations. This period resulted in the premature dismantlement of the PLO, its humiliating decline, and its de facto and gradual replacement in 1994 by the localized Palestinian National Authority, which clearly lacked national character, mission, and authority.

Phase VI: The last phase, from 2000 to 2020, represented the stagnation that characterized Palestinian politics and the international search for a political solution. It culminated in the arrival of Donald J. Trump to the White house in 2017 and the subsequent adoption of his Middle East scheme officially dubbed as “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People.” In real terms, this plan clashed in a head-on collision with Palestinian national aspirations.

With the 2019-2020 shift in US policy that imputed a subjective and skewed legality to Israeli settlements and expressed readiness to recognize Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank, the Trump Administration has helped initiate Phase VII of the long frustrated and turbulent political route toward recognition and Palestinian self-determination.

Today, the Palestinians are at the most critical juncture in their modern history. Admittedly, the somewhat arbitrary phases delineated above all posed their own existential challenges for Palestinians as a stateless people with a national movement. However, this new phase heralded the unconventional and unorthodox policies of the Trump Administration, the significant abdication of most Arab governments from any responsibility in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the irreversible radicalization of Israeli society and its insatiable appetite for annexation of Palestinian land, and the emergence of a US-Israeli-Arab authoritarian axis determined not only to defuse and totally neutralize the Palestine cause, but to put an end to a Palestinian national entity and its political aspirations. On May 15, 2020, all these recent developments portend a new and more lethal phase in the Palestinian Nakba, unlike any other faced in the past.

What now for the Palestinians following the failure of the peace process?
Diana Buttu, Palestinian-Canadian Lawyer and Analyst

This week marks the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the creation of the State of Israel in its place. This week will also usher in a new Israeli government consisting primarily of the same individuals as in the past but with a new stated goal: annexation of Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, in violation of international law. In response, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to “tear up” the Oslo Accords. Abbas’s threat is likely an idle one since he has threatened to “tear up” the Accords in the past, just as he has threatened to dissolve the Palestinian Authority and end security coordination whenever Israel commits a war crime or egregious act. This time, however, he would be wise to follow through.

The Oslo Accords established the framework of the “peace process” and, with it, the Palestinian Authority. Although both were intended to be temporary and to last no more than five years, now, 27 years later, Palestinians continue to be saddled with both. It is long past time for both to be laid to rest.

The Oslo Accords and the Palestinian Authority provided the world with the sedative it needed to neglect the Palestinians and ignore Israel’s war crimes. Instead of ostracizing Israel, the international community was able to pretend that Israeli crimes would be undone through negotiations. Rather than pressing for refugee return, the world has been content to focus solely on Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (a mere third of the total Palestinian population).

As Palestinians around the world have moved past the “peace process,” they are demanding—through the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement—that Israel be held accountable for its war crimes. For its part, the international community has continued to urge a resumption of the “peace process,” completely ignoring that it is this process that led to a tripling of the number of settlers in the occupied West Bank. And, as Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as in the diaspora call for a new political leadership, the world keeps ignoring that the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority expired long ago. The international community seems to condone supporting an unelected leadership that has taken measures to control the judiciary, quash dissent, and muzzle the media to maintain its rule.

Tearing up the Oslo Accords would entail finally ending the travesty of the peace process and, with it, the charade of the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian efforts could now focus on building an international movement for liberation and return, rather than a government focused on political recognition, mythical peace processes, and statehood. Palestinians could then direct their attention to pressing Israel for accountability for its war crimes rather than shying away from such crucial actions for fear of angering donors. Palestinians would then hone their efforts on resisting Israel’s policies rather than accommodating its colonial acts. They could also pay attention to rethinking the “two-state” framework that has enamored the international community. This will not be an easy task: Israel’s actions have all but destroyed the Palestinian economy and have rendered the Palestinian Authority fully dependent on the goodwill of donors. Indeed, Palestinians today are worse off than they were when the “peace process” began. This was clearly by design.

Experiencing one of their lowest points in history, Palestinians now are divided, leaderless, lacking vision, and removed from the world stage. The charades of the Oslo process and the Palestinian Authority have led to this outcome. To be sure, there should be no illusion that Palestinians have been defeated. They would do well to begin working on shaping their destiny now and reshaping their liberation movement; otherwise, the failed peace process will not be history, but their legacy.

What is the status of final status issues?
Yousef Munayyer, Non-resident Fellow, ACW

The core issues to be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians, often referred to as final status issues, had long been the center of peace process discussions. Among them are the issues of Jerusalem, the settlements, borders, refugees, water, and security. Many of these were identified in the Oslo Accords II of 1995. Of course, these agreements have become obsolete and little more than a part of the historical record of the question of Palestine. The Palestinian state they were supposed to yield never came to fruition and the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem only deepened over this time. Still, the issues identified from the Oslo Accords have continued to be key areas for successive negotiation episodes and frameworks, including the Camp David talks of 2000, the Road Map and Annapolis talks of the George W. Bush Administration, as well as the efforts led by George Mitchell and John Kerry of the Barack Obama Administration.

Across this time, these issues have been unilaterally negotiated by Israel either outside of peace talks or as part of them. The unilateral imposition of changes on these issues has been most pronounced during the administration of Donald Trump, which has coincided with the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.

The political affinity between these two leaders has made it possible for Israelis to choose how to proceed on these issues. The question of Jerusalem, for example, was notoriously “taken off the table” by the Trump Administration when it recognized Israeli sovereignty there. While the status of Jerusalem has been removed from the conversation by Trump, the Israelis have continued to build in occupied East Jerusalem as well as to de-Arabize the city through various methods like home evictions and demolition and residency revocation. Likewise, with settlements: the Israeli government continues to build extensively in the West Bank and has done so with nearly no objection from Washington. These changes have paved the way for the next step, which is the annexation of large swaths of the West Bank by Israel, a move that has been approved and blessed by Trump and his team. Similarly, the Trump Administration has sought to strengthen Israel’s hand vis-à-vis the refugee issue by attacking the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), cutting its funding, and criticizing how it counts refugees—a precursor to erasing the refugee issue altogether.

Importantly, however, these final status issues are a function of a two-state framework aimed at partition and based on the principles of international law regarding occupation. With annexation of at least part of the occupied West Bank on the horizon—a move that should put to rest the hopes of those increasingly diminishing believers in the two-state solution—what is actually considered a final status issue might be changing. If the paradigm of partition fades away and is replaced by one of integration into a single state, whether in the near or long term, it makes little sense to speak of where to draw borders, swap territory, or divide Jerusalem. The salience of other final status issues would remain, including refugee repatriation and compensation, the status of the settlements, and the distribution of water. Additionally, a shift in paradigm could bring new issues to the table, including constitutional provisions around citizenship, representation, and power sharing between Israelis and Palestinians.

How do Nakba denial and memoricide impact Palestinian refugees’ right of return? 
Tamara Kharroub, Assistant Director and Senior Fellow, ACW

The events of 1948, the start of the Nakba, mark the destruction of historical Palestine and the ethnic cleansing and permanent dispossession of the Palestinian people. This was planned and implemented by Zionist militias through violence, terror, psychological warfare, expulsion, demolitions, land and property confiscation, massacres, and rape––among other horrific methods of population transfer and demographic engineering––to make way for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Although this was a major event of global significance and the central traumatic experience that shapes the Palestinians’ current realities, constituting the core of Palestinian national identity and collective memory, the Nakba has not been officially recognized by the international community to this day.

There are 5.5 Million Palestinian refugees registered by UNRWA. This number only includes those residing in the UN agency’s countries of operations, displaced in 1948 and 1967, and those who need assistance. Some research centers estimate there were more than 7.1 million Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons as of 2010, although most figures do not account for Palestinians who took refuge in other Arab countries where UNRWA does not operate or in other parts of the world, nor do they include Palestinians currently being forcibly displaced in Israel, East Jerusalem, and the occupied West Bank.

Nakba denial and the continuing failure to acknowledge the systematic erasure of Palestinian society and identity through violent means are an important way to prevent the articulation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees. This right is internationally recognized by several United Nations General Assembly resolutions, like Resolution 194 (1948), and subsequent ones like Resolution 3236 (1974). Moreover, refugees who fled their homes and properties due to conflict have a right to return that is enshrined in international law. An important example is article 13 (2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). In addition, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ mandate on voluntary repatriation discusses return as the preferred solution; it also views the refugee status of dependents of refugees as based on the principles of family unity and protracted refugee situations. And yet, Palestinians remain denied this right 72 years later, in clear violation of international law.

With close to 70 percent of the Palestinian global population classified as refugees, Israel and the Zionist colonial project have orchestrated a concerted effort to rewrite the history of the Nakba, redefine the narrative around refugees, and erase Palestinian identity and existence. This ongoing memoricide—the destruction of memory and history—and attempts to erase Palestinian history and identity include denying the Nakba, destroying Palestinian towns and villages and renaming them with Hebrew names, demoting the Arabic language in Israel, referring to Palestinians only as Arabs, criminalizing commemoration of the Nakba, banning any reference to the Nakba in education and textbooks as “terrorist propaganda,” punishing institutions that finance Nakba activities, keeping historical documents and archives off limits, and dismembering the Palestinian entity into isolated geopolitical Bantustans.

Additionally, the Palestinian Nakba is systematically excluded from western discourse, whether through the media, education, culture, or officialdom. With Nakba commemoration and education and references to Palestinian dispossession banned in Israel and elsewhere under pro-Israel pressure campaigns, the Palestinian narrative, and especially that of the refugees and their rights, is challenged and even attacked as anti-Semitic and a demographic threat, one that aims to destroy the Jewish state. This new Israeli narrative has been adopted and supported by the Trump Administration, which accuses UNRWA of perpetuating the refugee problem (and defunds it), recalculates the Palestinian refugee population as a mere few hundred, and excludes any right of return from its peace proposal.

In light of the Trump Administration’s policies, the dependence of Arab states on foreign (and US) aid and their inability and unwillingness to exert pressure, the increasing normalization of Gulf states with Israel and their growing disregard for Palestinian rights, the looming Israeli annexation plan, and the failure of international legal mechanisms to enforce international law, a new approach is needed to ensure the rights of Palestinian refugees. This approach must begin with officially recognizing the Nakba as a deliberate historical project whose goal was the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

With the majority of the Palestinian population today living under occupation and apartheid, in statelessness, and under siege, facing discrimination as second-class citizens, in exile, or as refugees, the Nakba is ongoing. The right to memorialization of the Nakba and its ongoing aftermath is not only a human right. It is an essential step in any process of transitional justice and accountability and for a just, lasting, and peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Only when the Palestinian Nakba is officially recognized can there be steps toward a resolution of the decades-long conflict.

How have Arab states influenced Palestinian affairs? What is to be expected in the future?
Imad K. Harb, Director of Research, ACW

Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Arab world has tried to control the development, trajectory, and details of the question of Palestine. At that time, newly independent Arab states were still under colonial rule despite declaring nominal independence. Initially, there was total Arab rejection of the new state and many Arab states were involved in the military campaign to end the Zionist project in Palestine. But that intervention was marred by ineptitude and chaos. What came to be known as the War of 1948 eventually ended in signed truces with the new entity. Two of these agreements still govern border relations and boundaries between Israel and both Syria and Lebanon. Another two with Egypt and Jordan have been superseded by peace treaties with Israel, signed in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

The Arab defeat of 1967 resulted in discrediting the Arab political order and the loss of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Syrian Golan Heights to Israel. What came to be known as the Naksa (setback) of 1967 helped the rise of an independent Palestinian liberation movement exemplified by a restructured and newly led PLO. Following the 1967 defeat, the Arab states found that they had to allow for the development of a Palestinian resistance movement that would try to lead a military struggle against Israeli occupation. But this independence was subject to the geographic location of the social base of this movement and the spatial and political constraints on its freedom of action in Jordan and Lebanon. For their parts, Egypt and Syria prevented the formation of an armed Palestinian resistance movement inside their borders.

By 1974, the PLO won recognition from the Arab world—and the world at large—as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, its freedom to decide what was to become of the Palestine cause was subject to two specific realities and one overarching geostrategic condition. One of the realities was its presence within the geographic boundaries of Arab states surrounding Israel; these states either had a veto on the PLO’s military operations or moved against it in bloody confrontations (as in Lebanon and Jordan) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The second was the establishment by Arab states of pliant factions within the resistance movement, effectively impacting the PLO’s unity and cohesion. As of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the PLO came to contend with a significant factor: the Arab world’s dependent relationship with the United States––by then Israel’s sponsor and defender––and the Arabs’ inability to maneuver outside the confines of that relationship. That the United States considered the PLO a terrorist organization and refused to deal directly with it, until the early 1990s, only gave Arab states more say in Palestinian affairs and in how the issue of Palestine was to be addressed.

Despite the start of direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel following the Oslo Accords of the mid-1990s, Arab states remained the principal conduits for peace proposals and suggested compromises. The Palestinians’ difficult, indeed untenable, status as the weaker party in negotiations with Israel or the United States would always allow Arab states to be involved in resolving the question of Palestine. Today, they do not even appear to want to be involved in addressing Palestinian grievances since many of them are seeking full-on normalization with Israel. Indeed, many Arab states are accepting Israel as a legitimate entity in the Middle East despite its continued occupation of Palestinian land and denial of fundamental Palestinian rights.

Where does annexation fall within the Zionist agenda?*
Marwan Bishara, Senior Political Analyst, Al Jazeera

After a century of unabated settlement expansion, a half century of military occupation, and a quarter century of a dubious peace process, annexation marks a new stage in the evolution of Zionism. Establishing direct Israeli control over most or all of what Israel calls “Judea and Samaria,” i.e., the illegally occupied Palestinian West Bank, has long been the wet dream of the Zionist right.

Contrary to conventional wisdom and diplomatic newspeak, there has also long been an Israeli consensus on permanently holding onto Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank and the Jordan River, come what may. It is a consensus that dates back to at least the late 1960s, one that deepened with the rise of the right in the late 1970s. Everything Israel has done since then, especially its strategic settlement expansion, enforced this consensus, and nothing it proposed or signed ever compromised it. It is a consensus that encompasses the ideological, security, and theological beliefs of most Israelis.

The fact that the ever-shrinking center-left Labor Party is eager to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “annexation government” is a testimony to the depth of this consensus. Indeed, even the two major secular opposition parties, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beiteinu, would have joined the “annexation government” were it not for Netanyahu and his partnership with the religious parties.

Israeli politicians may have differed on how to maintain Israel’s control of Palestinian lands, de facto or through formal annexation, but not on the principle. Most preferred the earlier option until the circumstances became ripe. Even Netanyahu has avoided formal annexation until it became a useful slogan to garner the support of the radical right to win a fifth term. However, American President Donald Trump’s support may have now settled the issue for Netanyahu and the Israeli establishment, turning the slogan into actionable policy.

Well, unless the US president changes his mind again.

Meanwhile, the new Trump boost may help Netanyahu secure his other objectives. Personally, such a move, coupled with US recognition of Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights, will further cement Netanyahu’s own legacy as the founder of a Greater Israel. Politically, the “looming annexation” may help him downplay the “looming trial” and strengthen his position on the right. Strategically, Netanyahu and his backers in the Trump Administration reckon the geopolitical environment is ripe to make the move toward annexation.

The Palestinian and Arab leaders are weak, divided, and ever more dependent on Washington. And the rest of the world, especially the Europeans, who made their opposition heard, are too preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic to resist, let alone prevent, such an Israeli move.

Needless to say, the annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories is illegal and illegitimate. The UN Security Council minus the United States, which has veto power, and the UN General Assembly are also unanimously opposed to it.

But since might is right in the Trump-Netanyahu era, powerful Israel will do whatever it wants and the international community can puff all it wants. Tired warnings by Palestinian leaders against “the end of the peace process” and “the end of security coordination” are met with utter scorn and ridicule in Israel. Likewise, their tepid warning of abandoning the two-state in favor of a one-state solution, as if these are off-the-shelf options, is indeed ridiculous.

It is high time for them to say and do something else, something serious and more effective. And to mean what they say.

* Adapted with permission from Marwan Bishara, “A moment of truth for Israel-Palestine,” Al Jazeera, May 10, 2020, at https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/moment-truth-israel-palestine-200510131140446.html