Tue, May 16, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Palestinians remember as the great 'nakba' continues

With millions still living under occupation or in exile, what Palestinians call their `nakba,' or catastrophe, remains at the heart of their national identity

By Karma Nabulsi  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

In the last week of April 1948, combined Irgun-Haganah forces launched an offensive to drive the Palestinian people out of the beautiful port city of Jaffa, forcing the remaining inhabitants to flee by sea; many drowned in the process.

My aunt Rose, a teenager at that time, survived the trip to begin her life in exile on the Lebanese coast. Each Palestinian refugee family grows up hearing again and again the stories of those final moments in Palestine, the decisions, the panic, as we live in the midst of their terrible consequences.

Throughout 1948, Jewish forces expelled many thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and cities into Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of others fled in fear.

The purpose was to create a pure Jewish state, ethnically cleansed of the original inhabitants who had lived there for centuries. The creation of the state of Israel was the heart of this cataclysmic historical event for the Palestinians -- the mass forced expulsion of a people; the more than 50 massacres carried out over the summer of 1948 by various armed Jewish forces; the demolition of villages to ensure the refugees could not return -- all this is summed up in a single word for Palestinians: nakba, the catastrophe.

"We must do everything to ensure they [the Palestinians] never do return ... The old will die and the young will forget," said David Ben-Gurion, the founder of Israel, in 1949.

But the young have not forgotten. The event is remembered every year on May 15, and the youth are at the heart of it: At a rally on the site of the destroyed village of Umm al-Zinnat near Haifa, Salim Fahmawi, now 65, a primary school student when the soldiers entered the village 56 years ago to expel them, told an Israeli reporter: "The presence of so many young people, many of whom are third and fourth-generation post-1948, gives me a sense of relief -- because I know the torch has not been extinguished and is passing from generation to generation."

Nakba day has now become a profoundly political event -- unlike other cultural and social manifestations of our national identity -- because it is all about resistance to the current Palestinian situation rather than enshrining past memories of victimhood.

The project against the Palestinians begun at the start of the past century had two purposes: first, to deny the very concept of Palestine and destroy its political and social institutions, and second, to annihilate the spirit of the Palestinians as a people, so that they would forget their collective identity once scattered far from home.

But the relentless and dynamic nature of the catastrophe -- it is an ongoing, daily Palestinian experience -- binds this generation directly to the older one, and binds the exiled to Palestine. Indeed, the past few years have witnessed a violent acceleration in this process of attempted destruction -- hence the title of this year's event: The Nakba Continues.

The nakba is being lived again today in the brutal thrust of the current policies of the Israeli state. More than 10,000 Palestinian refugees have been created by the construction of the concrete separation wall that has cordoned off huge new tracts of occupied land. This wall, condemned as illegal by the International Court of Justice, has turned West Bank cities such as Qalqilya into ghost towns, and thousands of refugees have been created for the third and fourth time in the refugee camps in Gaza.

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