Today [May 15] is Nakba Day, when Palestinians mourn expulsion from their homeland in 1948. This year, Israel’s violence has ignited the largest Palestinian uprising in years – and it needs meaningful international solidarity.
By Akram Salhab
Published on Tribune, May 15, 2021
By the end of 1949 more than 750,000 Palestinians had been made refugees, hundreds of villages had been demolished, and any evidence of Palestinian presence destroyed. An entire society was left in ruins. As these ruins smouldered, a leading architect of Palestinian expulsion, David Ben Gurion, famously predicted that amongst Palestinians ‘the old will die and the young will forget’.
It soon became clear that Israel was committed to making this a reality by destroying what remained of Palestinian society and dividing us into fragmented and weakened subgroups over whom it could exercise complete control. Refugees were deemed ‘infiltrators’, with those attempting to return home shot on sight or arrested and deported once again. Those living inside what became Israel after 1948 were subject to military rule and continued land confiscation and dispossession, while minorities such as the Druze were coerced into the state’s structures. The West Bank and Gaza came under the control of Jordan and Egypt respectively, who ruled with an iron fist.
The story was meant to end there, with Palestinians disappearing into a thousand tiny fragments – becoming nameless refugees, deracinated denizens in Israel, or melting into an undifferentiated Arab nation. Yet, by the end of the 1960s, following two decades of tireless organising, Palestinians had built themselves into a unified revolutionary movement that set the world alight, as part of an international era of national liberation that sought to bring global imperialism to its knees.
The Palestinian revolution of the 1960s and 70s—as with the Great Rebellion of 1936, and the Intifada of the late 1980s—united Palestinians across borders, despite all attempts to keep us divided. It is upon these great traditions, and the many other revolutions and uprisings throughout our history, that the present rebellion is built.
As has often been the case, this Palestinian uprising started in Al Quds (Jerusalem), a site not just of religious significance but a central battleground for two conflicting visions of sovereignty in Palestine – Israel’s ethnically homogenous, supremacist form of settler colonialism versus the Palestinian struggle for a liberated city, and a country where all can live in freedom.
Al Quds has long been in the crosshairs of Israeli planners and increasingly emboldened and genocidal settler movement, and the city is a microcosm of the trends present across the country – house demolitions, forcible expulsions, settler attacks, land confiscation, and routine harassment and arrest of Palestinians. The expulsions taking place in Sheikh Jarrah are one of many planned all over the city, and indeed across occupied Palestine.
This latest round of Palestinian mobilisation has been brought about by attempts from Israel’s settler colonial regime not just to continue its ethnic cleansing, but to ensure complete repression of Palestinian political, social, and cultural life in the city. During Ramadan, Al Quds is unmistakably Palestinian, with lights up everywhere, large numbers of people gathering at Damascus Gate, and the Old City full of Palestinian worshipers coming and going to Al Aqsa mosque. Ramadan coincided this year with Orthodox Easter, during which the streets of the Old City were filled with Palestinian Christian worshipers and the ebullient sounds of drums and bagpipes played by Palestinian scout troops.
For Israeli authorities, these events are an intolerable expression of the Palestinian character of the city. This year they made extra efforts to suppress celebrations by banning Palestinians from gathering at Damascus Gate, preventing many Palestinians from worshiping at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and beating those who insisted on their rights to access the site.
From that point onwards, Palestinian youth chose to be the authors of their own history. As they have numerous times over the past years, they took to the streets to confront Israeli soldiers and armed police wherever they found them, throwing bottles, rocks, and fireworks. These running street battles, taking place all over the city, are imbued with a spirit of great defiance and courage, but also of nonchalance, lightheartedness, and freedom.
A young Palestinian boy parades in front of Israeli mounted police on a donkey, youths ascend Damascus Gate on the bannisters rather than the stairs, simply because they can. Shopkeepers and juice sellers line the streets serenading worshippers as they leave the mosque after prayer. Cars pass by blaring patriotic songs and shouting insults at heavily armed riot police. A Palestinian advises a policeman to watch himself ‘for his own benefit’, kindly warning him ‘you don’t understand, these Jerusalemites are crazy!’. Al Quds is a city unmistakably in rebellion, an uprising of the most boisterous and awe inspiring variety, and visible to the world through the online accounts of socially media canny Palestinian youth.
Despite beatings, arrests, sound bombs, shootings, undercover police, horse charges, and the use of ‘skunk trucks’ spraying foul-smelling water at protestors at high velocity, Palestinians have held firm. Israeli authorities have been defeated at every turn, forced to remove the barriers at Damascus Gate, divert the fascist Jerusalem Day march away from Al Aqsa and Palestinian areas, and delay the eviction of 28 Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Inspired by these images, and shocked by the brutality of Israel’s attack on worshippers on the holiest night of the year, Palestinians inside the areas occupied in 1948—Haifa, Akka, Lydd, and elsewhere—also rose up, holding demonstrations in over 30 towns and cities that were brutally attacked by Israeli police. Although often billed as solidarity demonstrations with Al Aqsa and Al Quds, these protests were equally about the almost identical oppression that Palestinians in these areas face.
This resistance has now spread to Gaza and the West Bank, as well as amongst the millions of Palestinians living as refugees in forced exile, who all share the same dreams for national liberation and return to the homes from which they were expelled. At the time of writing, Palestinian refugees from Jordan and Lebanon have cut through the border, attempting to return home.
Where events go from here remains unclear, with Israel unleashing hell on the people of Gaza and fanatical settler lynch mobs into Palestinian areas – burning cars, invading homes and shops and beating Palestinians in the streets – in an attempt to quell the uprising. But in spite of the brutality Israeli authorities have inflicted, and intend to inflict, the genie can never go back into the bottle – too much has already happened. Barriers of fear have been broken and an irrepressible spirit of revolutionary struggle is now alive from Al Quds, to Lydd, to Ramallah, to Gaza, and all the refugee camps and cities of exile to which our compatriots have been cast.
As Israel focuses its brutality on Gaza, this is not the time to let up. All Palestinians, and people of conscience around the world, must stand together and take practical actions to restrain and then defeat the Israeli war machine. The trade union movement in Britain that has for so long stood with the Palestinian people—passing resolutions, motions and declarations of support—must now take concrete action. Union members must refuse to build weapons destined for Israeli warplanes, and ultimately the houses of Palestinian families in Gaza. Dock workers must refuse to unload Israeli goods. All measures of boycott, divestment, and sanctions must be taken immediately to prevent Israel’s planned massacre.
Palestinians have demonstrated, with perfect clarity, that we are one people, fighting for one cause, and that years of the most brutal attacks have done nothing to diminish our collective spirit, and our ceaseless demands for liberation and return. Today, 15 May, is Palestinian Nakba Day, when we commemorate yet another year since our expulsion from our homes. With Palestinians filling the streets—and millions across the world gathering in squares and public spaces in solidarity with Palestine—it is the perfect moment to inaugurate a global Intifada to bring the ongoing Nakba to an end.