The Nakba Never Ends

Steve Askin wrote about the exclusion of Palestinians from Israeli “democracy” in 1984. On the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, his reflections are still too relevant.

In These Times Editors

A Palestinian child stands at his family land east of Tubas in the Jordan Valley on June 15, 2020. Photo by JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP

Seventy-five years ago, the Israeli government began an ethnic cleansing campaign that would drive at least 750,000 Palestinians into displacement. For Israelis, this marked their independence. Palestinians, meanwhile, call it the Nakba, or Catastrophe.”

That campaign never ended. Since 1948, Palestinians continue to face occupation and besiegement, which is codified by the Israeli government through the expansion of settlements, executed through policing Palestinians’ daily lives and solidified with constant settler violence. 

Recent democracy” protests are bringing to light the cracks in the concept of Israel as the so-called lone democracy in the Middle East.” In 1984, Steve Askin took a deep dive into why Palestinians just don’t fit into that idea.

In 1984 Steve Askin wrote:

It is a sunny mid-may afternoon. Uprooted fig and olive trees, their spindly roots gently waving in the breeze, litter the hillside I am standing on, a few miles north of Jerusalem. An Israeli construction crew dug up this orchard two weeks ago, then bulldozed half the adjoining wheatfield. The remaining grain is almost ready for harvest.

Abdullah Saloman’s farm died to make way for Giv’at Ze’ev, a planned community for 2,500 Jewish families whose hilltop apartments will tower high above the surrounding Arab farms and villages. The community is named in honor of Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, founder of revisionist Zionism, the movement from which Israel’s ruling Likud Party arose.

Jabotinsky’s followers have, of course, entered into an uneasy coalition with the heirs to the once vibrant socialist-Zionist tradition of the Labor alignment, but bulldozers will continue to aggressively reshape Israel’s future. The new government may slow, but will not halt, the displacement of West Bank Palestinians, a process that began under Labor Party rule, accelerated under Likud and makes the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the 36-year-old Israel-Arab conflict grow dimmer every day.

Likud supports full and permanent incorporation of the occupied territories into Israel. Though the Labor Party supports a territorial compromise” in the occupied territories, it is a compromise acceptable to no Arab governments and few, if any Palestinians. In the past, the dominant position within a divided Labor alignment would have permitted, in exchange for a broad peace agreement, return of about 60 percent of the West Bank to the rule of Jordan. To most Palestinians, this stance is doubly unacceptable: first, because it would legitimize Israeli control and Palestinian dispossession on large expanses of West Bank territory; second, it would transfer the rest of West Bank to the control of a Jordanian government known for its harsh and sometimes brutal opposition to Palestinian nationalism.

The guidelines of the new coalition bar even the limited territorial compromise formerly backed by Labor. Using the biblical names for the West Bank preferred by expansionist Israelis, the agreement specifies that there will be no change in the sovereignty over Judea, Samaria and the Gaza district” without consent from both parties.

From a distance, Labor appears to be the party of peace. And its more conciliatory leaders probably would be — if not hamstrung by more conservative coalition partners — more likely to take the bold initiatives needed to reach a peace agreement with their Palestinian adversaries. But, as I discovered on a visit to Israel and the occupied territories shortly before the July elections, few Palestinians believe that Labor rule can make a difference. To understand why, one must visit those who have been the victims — under Labor as well as Likud — of Israeli policies designed to drive large numbers of Palestinians from the land that once supported their families.

Reshaping Jerusalem.

Grainfields crushed by bulldozers, ancient fruit trees ripped from the ground and tiny villages cut in half by modern highways mark the intersections between Palestinian village life and an expanding ring of densely populated Jerusalem suburbs.

I toured these new settlements with an odd pair of guides: a U.S.-trained Palestinian economist and a journalist who immigrated to Israel from the U.S.

From our first stop at Giv’at Ze’ev, it was a short but roundabout trip to the Arab village below, Al Jib. Short because the new settlement sits partly on land taken from Al Jib. Roundabout because the village has been cut in half — the old road joining the Arab settlements severed — by the new blacktop highway built across Palestinian farms to speed Giv’at Ze’ev commuters into downtown Jerusalem.

Winding down into the village, we spotted a pile of rubble between two houses. A mangled refrigerator was visible among the broken building stones of the house where 20-year-old Tahsir Sha’- alan lived with his mother and three siblings. The Israeli army bulldozers struck after Sha’alan was arrested as a suspect in the killing of a Jewish settler in Hebron, south of Jerusalem. Under occupation rules, Israeli authorities routinely use bulldozers to punish suspected Arab terrorists — people charged with crimes ranging from stonethrowing to murder — before they are tried. (Jews are not subject to this punishment, so bulldozers have not moved against the homes of 27 people arrested as suspected members of an anti-Arab terrorist underground that bombed five Arab buses, used carbombs to cripple two West Bank Palestinian mayors and killed three people in a grenade and machine-gun attack against an Islamic college.)

Imposing though it is, Giv’at Ze’ev is tiny compared with other settlements around Jerusalem. The largest is Gilo, a still-growing maze of apartment buildings towering over the ancient town of Bethlehem on Jerusalem’s southern edge and planned to house 48,000 people. A few stubborn Arab families cling precariously to tiny scraps of land in the shadow of Gilo’s staggered rows of long white apartment buildings.

Mousa Mohammed Salomeh and his family are among those survivors. Their 600 grape vines and olive trees were destroyed to build a Gilo parking lot. Their three connected houses are perched on a narrow ledge between that parking lot and a new apartment building open only to Jewish settlers. About three dozen people live in this four generation extended family compound. An idled bulldozer and its tracks in newly turned earth are an ominous presence just behind the houses.

Seated in the simply decorated, highceilinged living room, we sip from tiny cups of Turkish coffee. A sad smile creases his lips as Salomeh unrolls a 1975 Israeli survey map on which his long-gone fruit trees are clearly marked. Speaking sometimes in Arabic, sometimes in Hebrew, he tells the story of his family, twice displaced.

Until 1948, they lived on a 100 dunam (25 acre) farm in the El-Maliha, a village of 7,000 people on the edge of Jerusalem. They fled, afraid that we, too would be killed,” after the April 1948 massacre at Deir Yasin in which 254 Arab civilians were killed by Zionist fighters of the Irgun Zvei Leumi. The family took refuge in a cave near the village of Beit Jala, where they bought and obtained clear title to seven dunums of land. Here they rebuilt. After the 1967 war, they found themselves again in territory controlled by Israel.

Gilo grew onto their land in 1978. Without warning, construction crews appeared one day to uproot the grape and olive trees. As the destruction began, : Salomeh approached a foreman and askc ed, in his best Hebrew, What are you I doing?”

We have to get this Arab family out of here,” the construction boss responded. It’s going to be difficult, because these Arabs cover themselves in dirt, and they’ll gladly live in dirt.“

Later, Salomeh was told that the land had actually been expropriated eight years earlier under an August 1970 order. (Ibrihim Matir, the Palestinian economist, reports that four Jewish settlements have been built on the 14,000 dunums covered by the 1970 order. Palestinians learn their land was expropriated only when the bulldozers appear.)

Viewed from the Palestinian villages beneath them, developments like Gilo are the symbols and substance of dispossession: stone-walled fortresses, standing on expropriated Arab land. For Israelis who work in the city, they are merely bargain housing: low cost, government-subsidized condominiums 10 or 20 minutes from downtown.

This planned suburban sprawl is the hidden face of Israel’s West Bank land takeover, hidden even from many Israelis. Gilo residents are not like the Gush Emunim — it’s part of Jerusalem and even Peace Now people would live there,” insisted an Israeli acquaintance who became annoyed when I referred to Gilo as a settlement built on occupied territory.

• • •

The building of this Greater Jerusalem began under a Labor government shortly after Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 war. Israel formally annexed Arab East Jerusalem and extended the city limits to include land and a half dozen West Bank villages stretching almost from Bethlehem on the south to Ramallah in the north. Then they began a fast-paced construction drive.

The goal was to build large neighborhoods around the city and thus to make it indivisible,’ ” according to a study by urban planner and former Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meron Benvenisti. Benvenisti, who also served as Israel’s administrator for Arab East Jerusalem, is now a dovish critic of Israeli settlement policies. He says the de facto annexation process is now well advanced in the rest of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, including West Bank villages like Al Jib, which lies outside Jerusalem’s expanded city limits.

Initially under Labor, but with new harshness since Likud came to power, Israel has evolved a dual legal and political system for the occupied territories, according to Benvenisti.

An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Jewish settlers are governed by Israeli law and receive all the benefits of the Israeli welfare state. West Bank Palestinians, more than 700,000 of them, are denied the economic and civil rights protections of Israeli law.

These Palestinians live under a military administration that enforces a confusing mix of Jordanian laws, 40-year-old British Mandate emergency regulations and more than 1,000 occupation edicts. Similar rules apply to nearly 500,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, a densely packed 10 by 40-mile sliver of Mediterranean coastal land that was captured from Israel.
Viewed from the Palestinian villages beneath them, developments like Gilo are the symbols and substance of dispossession.
Militant settlers.

West Bank settlers are the most realistic of all Israelis,” insists soft-spoken Shiffra Blass, a spokeswoman for the Council of Jewish Settlements. You will find that there are those who identify themselves as liberals who don’t want to live with Arabs, while we are living among the Arabs,” she explained last May, when I visited her at Ofra, a 700-person Gush Emunim (bloc of the faithful) settlement. Her home, though only about 10 miles northeast of Giv’at Ze’ev, presents a very different aspect of Israeli West Bank settlement. Instead of urban relaxation for commuters, it offers a militarized enclave of the spiritually committed. As in all such enclaves, the men are reserve or active duty soldiers authorized to carry and use their weapons.

For Blass, the only legitimate claim to this land is set forth in the Bible. She therefore rejects the term occupied territory” and speaks instead of the Jewish land of Judea and Samaria that Israel rescued from domination” by Arabs.

Relations with surrounding communities are tense. Ofra’s nearest neighbors are Palestinian villagers who say the settlers stole their land. According to Matir, the settlers seized 350 of the settlement’s 400 dunams of land, and at least 400 fig trees. Ofra’s site was vacant government land on which the Jordanians had started building a military base before 1967, says Blass, who insists that the religious ethic of Gush Emunim is to only settle land that is not cultivated.“

Like Mousa Mohammed Salomeh, Blass speaks passionately of her attachment to this land and bitterly of past terror. The 1929 riots in which Arabs killed 67 Jewish residents of Hebron, the May 1948 defeat and death of Jews defending the Etzion Bloc kibbutzim south of Jeru­salem are vividly implanted in her psyche. Unlike Salomeh, she was not present for these events that shape her consciousness. Born in Wisconsin, Blass came to Israel in 1972 for religious Zionist reasons.“

What is the difference, I ask Blass, be­ tween her passion for this land and that of a Palestinian who yearns for the farm he lived on before 1948?

The difference is that one nation has roots in the area that are true and deep. The other’s roots are very recent. The Jews, she says, have returned to our ancestral homeland. No other nation can you point to and say they have been· thrown out of their land and kept their sense of nationhood for 2,000 years. The fact that I was born in America is an interesting part of my personal history, but it doesn’t tell me where my homeland is. We have an unmistakable similarity to the people who were here 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. We may be wearing jeans but we still say the same prayers, follow the same religion, speak the same language, are part of the same culture.“

While Blass speaks of cultural continuity with the ancient past, I am struck by the extent to which these settlers have planted a little piece of modern America or Western Europe on the inhospitable West Bank soil.

Remove the armed guard at the gate and the fence topped with barbed wire, and Ofra’s prefabricated detached homes – their well-watered front lawns cluttered with toys and bicycles – would present the archetypal image of a modest income U.S. commuter suburb. Like all West Bank Jewish settlements, no matter how small, it is connected by bus to an m:ban center, Jerusalem.

Of course, without the guard and the fence, Blass would not feel safe in a small Jewish community surrounded by hostile Arab villagers. She could not calmly sit in a rocking chair, chatting with me and holding her youngest infant, while the other four children play outside, occasionally running in to raid the refrigerator. Ofra residents would not feel secure while they cultivate crops or work in their computer software business.

A few days before my visit, 27 settlers, including some key Gush leaders, were arrested as suspected members of the anti-Palestinian terror underground. All week, Israeli journalists had been quiz­zing Blass about those arrests. By now, she was so well prepared for the inevitable question-doesn’t Gush’s expansionist ideology make it a breeding ground for violence-that she raises the issue before I do.

You wouldn’t find here any serious advocate of the ideology justifying a violent underground,” she asserted, because Gush Emunim is against violence and against killing.” Only later, when Israeli authorities released the suspects’ names, did I learn that they included three of Blass’ Ofra neighbors.

Self critical Israelis

Israel does not rest easily in its role as a conqueror and occupying power. Each act of violence, repression or expropriation against Palestinians in the occupied territories produces an anguished response somewhere within this intensely self-reflective society. It is not unusual for a newspaper letter to the editor” to say that Jewish terrorism is a cancer and if this disease is allowed to persist, the very life blood of Jewish society will be drained” or for a mainstream public figure like Benvensiti to warn that Israel’s West Bank policies may produce a regime ominously similar to that of South Africa.”

For me it is unbearable that already for 17 years we keep 1.25 million Arabs under military government, bereft of civic and political status,” says Alouph Hareven, a 30-year veteran of the Israeli army and intelligence service. His views are shared by a sizable minority of Israeli Jews.

A smaller group of Israelis raise deeper questions about their government. Rabbi Jeremy Millgram, who coordinates Jew­ ish-Arab student dialog groups at Jeru­salem’s Hebrew University, speaks, though with some hesitation, of wrongs that may be inherent in Zionism. In a highly militarized society he is a selective conscientious objector-unwilling to serve in Israel’s Lebanon war and occupation.

Not that these are easy subjects for Millgram. As a one-hour interview turns into three hours of earnest discussion, he speaks slowly-sometimes pausing at mid-sentence, even mid-word-to re­ phrase his thoughts more precisely.

For most Israelis the Arab population is almost an invisible population. There are certain professions that almost be­ come exclusively Arab: . the building trades, waiters, gas station attendants.“

Moreover, with the security problems we have, Arabs aren’t simply invisible citizens, they are citizens who tend to be suspected An Arab who studies electri­cal engineering at this university can’t get any job in industry, because almost all the industry is either involved with military contracts or would like to be.”

Housing segregation is almost universal. There are certain built-in restrictions to integration. Housing is built for people who are immigrants or for people who have served in the army… But what’s more important than that is really a pattern of habitation. Most Arabs want to live in their villages. In the pattern of modern Zionism, most Jews came and built new communities and those communities were Jewish communities.”

Millgram came to Israel from the U.S. as a teenager. Before his aliyah” in 1981, he thought very little about Palestinians. (Aliyah, literally ascent” in Hebrew, is the journey made by one who comes to Israel to be part of the jewish homeland.) He was attracted by the egalitarian vision of socialist-Zionism, repelled by a war-like and racially divided America.

Now, he sadly finds himself coming almost full circle. In the States I was very much opposed to the war in Vietnam and upset about the black-white situa­tion. And unfortunately, I think we discovered here that those problems have pursued us.“

The Israeli spirit of self-criticism is an important source of hope for change in Israel. Yet it may not be enough. For every hopeful sign, there is.a counten-something- ing source of despair.

Thus, the Jerusalem Post displayed one of Israel’s greatest strengths when it condemned a top government official, Deputy Knesset Speaker Meir Cohen-Avidov, as a man consumed by the racism and arrogance that inevitably infests those who would dominate another people or ethnic group, and squelch their dignity.” Most American newspapers would hesitate to respond so firmly to any utterance, no matter how vicious, by one of our congressional leaders.

But Cohen-Avidov also represents a significant strand of Israeli thought. In the remarks that provoked the Post, he said that a strong hand” must be used when Israel deals with the Palestinians. I’ve lived with the Arabs and know them only too well… I’d tear out the eyes and the guts of the murderers amongst them.” As the Post noted, such evil words have a constituency” and reflect the malignancy that has fastened itself upon the increasingly convulsive public mind.”

This lively and contentious Israeli democracy cannot drift unthinkingly toward apartheid. But there is an even more disturbing possibility: it could, step by step, in political decisions ratified at the ballot box after intense and angry debate, choose the path of repression. Many Palestinian Arabs and some Israeli Jews say this has already happened.
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