Why Nakba Day Matters

For more than seventy years the Palestinian people have been subject to dispossession and attempts to erase their history and culture – but on Nakba Day, they can say 'we're still here and we remember.'

At the dark heart of ‘the Disaster,’ ‘the Catastrophe,’ ‘the Nakba’, remain the erased actions of the Zionist militias in Palestine seventy-two years ago. This settler-colonial war was driven by a single strategic aim: to rid the land of the ‘native inhabitants’ of Palestine in order to establish a new state for European settlers in their place. Between 1947 and 1948 – while still under the direct rule of the British colonial Mandate – they nearly achieved these aims. By May 15th, the state of Israel had been declared, the British Mandate had ended, and the war was almost a total success.

Through military supremacy sourced by empire, Zionist military operations first dismantled and then destroyed the entirety of the Palestinian body politic – its political, cultural, social, economic, and civic unity, along with our continued presence on and attachment to our land, with its cities and villages; its institutions and buildings, its crops, agricultural conventions and international trade; our schools, rail and post services; the flourishing development of a national poetry, literature and the sciences; its prolific newspaper productions, from Jaffa, Haifa and Ramle to Jerusalem and Gaza city; the flourishing national trade union, club, and societies’ activities and their organising. 

The dispossession of the majority of Arab Palestinians by terror was in full view: military raids and sieges, bombardments and forced convoys, and the many massacres over the spring and summer of 1948. This began an erasure of the Palestinian people which continues as an active policy today. One of its centrepiece achievements was the demolition of nearly 500 Palestinian villages across the country, to deny the possibility of the owners’ return to them. This was the first reply of the settlers to the UN’s resolution of 1949, which both affirmed and called for Palestinian refugees’ rights to return to their homes.

Since that savage severing moment in a people’s collective history, the results of which remain unaddressed today, the Palestinian struggle to return home to Palestine remains the heart of our people’s cause. In the 1950s, the generation who created the Palestinian revolution experienced this forced expulsion first-hand, and indeed are known as the ‘Nakba Generation’. To organise in order to reverse this injustice, to halt the daily cruelty being endured by a people transformed into dispossessed refugees, was the revolution’s core uniting purpose.

In our current post-colonial era, one where I was told: “no one wants to be called a colonialist,” within the currency of diversity and equality (and their accompanying national rights legislation), and a public consensus – however vague– which holds that this very distant period of British colonialism had wrought violence, severe damage, and huge economic distress to hundreds of peoples and continents, how does this single colonial project to destroy the Palestinian people continue as a positive, indeed an emancipatory, enterprise worthy of support? 

The active ingredient of settler-colonialism is its continual mechanism, its noisy engine of expansion, expulsion, and above all its silencing of those being erased, along with the invisibility of its practices of continued violent erasure. People don’t like being called a colonialist these days, but they really hate being called a racist. The muted public stance on both the Left and the Right now is only permitted a language that defines this historical event (the forced expulsion of the majority of a people by a colonial project and by the imperialism that guided it) as itself an expression of racism.

The important element here, and the most dominant articulation of settler-colonial ambitions, is the endeavour to make those expelled invisible – to simply forget it and them. If the Nakba never happened, if the Palestinian people – and their subsequent struggle for justice – can be detached, and therefore dehistoricised from their origins, the establishment of a settler-colonial state in Palestine can never be defined as a racist project. They forcibly displaced no-one because no-one was there.

Here, the success of settler-colonialism is the real-time disappearance of ‘the native.’ The idiotic evocation of late 19th century European visions of ‘a land without a people for a people without a land,’ has remained resilient; in fact, has become more pervasive in 2020. The dream to have us disappear has become, especially since the summer of 2018, a more plausible reality – from Labour’s official position to Netanyahu’s current plan to annex the remainder of Palestine. It is impossible to campaign against the latter if one adheres to the former. But how did we get here?

In Roman mythology, the Gates of Janus were a symbol; closed in times of peace and open in times of war. In Palestine, they have become both: closed to the eyes of the world, while continuously open for the Palestinians.

When the gates are closed, it contains a vision of the place one’s great-aunt or grandmother still lives, and where happy teenage summer holidays were had in kibbutzes, and sunlit beaches. It is a place of lived intimacy, of relatives and photographs and certain phrases, of tenderness and of love, all shadowed by the ineffable horrors of the Holocaust, and a perpetual remembrance of this purpose: of safety gained once again, after being lost in the genocide of Europe’s death camps.

So it becomes intolerable to envision its foundational purpose: the settler-colonial machine actively working on another people, creating daily apartheid, war crimes, forced destruction, annexation. In order to preserve the memory of one’s great-aunt – and everyone has one – the settler-colonial project is fortified: the colonised must disappear. 

Denis Goldberg, released from decades in Afrikaner prison, and arriving to the ANC offices in London, corrected me on this view of a unique system, explaining how common a feature such discomfort was in settler-colonial societies more generally. Whenever the reality of the dispossessed, especially of the policies being used to suppress a people, their humanity, their names, were raised, he said, “they really don’t like it.”

A couple of years ago, he remarked that now, every person he met in South Africa declared with a real sincerity that they had always been against apartheid. “So,” he marvelled, “where are the racists that supported the apartheid regime?”

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About the Author

Karma Nabulsi is a professor of politics and international relations at St Edmund Hall, the University of Oxford. She directed and co-edited The Palestinian Revolution, an open-access digital teaching and research resource, and co-editor of the recently published Radical Republicanism.