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The Nakba continues 67 years on

An oppressor can take away almost anything except one’s memory

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

Every annual commemoration of the Nakba (Catastrophe) - when some three-quarters of the entire Palestinian population were dispossessed from their homeland in 1948 - I remember my visits to refugee camps in Palestine and Lebanon.

I reminisce fondly about the wonderful, generous, dignified people I met, and their enduring love for their homeland. However, I also reflect with great sadness about the squalid conditions in which they have spent their whole lives, their proud maintenance of keys and deeds to their stolen homes, and their faith despite the injustice they have endured for 67 years now. Their hope and resilience are an inspiration.

I also ponder the trauma that my father and his family endured at their expulsion from Palestine to Lebanon with only the clothes on their backs. To add insult to injury, our home in Jerusalem bears a plaque proclaiming its “liberation” in 1948. Such experiences are shared by millions of other Palestinians - the largest refugee population in the world - who have managed not just to survive but to thrive against all odds. It is the stuff of Hollywood epics.

Ironically, as much as Israel would like the Palestinians to forget, it is ensuring on a daily basis that they never will

Sharif Nashashibi

Israelis rightly highlight the importance of remembrance when it comes to the Holocaust, but in brazen hypocrisy, most wish for collective amnesia over the Nakba. Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion said of the Palestinians: “The old will die and the young will forget.” He was only half right: the old are indeed dying, but the young are not forgetting.

Ongoing dispossession

How can they when the Nakba is ongoing? Israel continues to dispossess Palestinians, whether its own citizens or those in the occupied territories. The aim is to make life so unbearable that Palestinians leave. There is only one phrase for this: ethnic cleansing. People wrongly assume that the term only applies to military conflict, and some interpret it even more narrowly as the act of killing.

However, any attempt to forcibly depopulate a land of its people is ethnic cleansing. It may not be happening as spectacularly and swiftly as in 1948, but the outcome is the same. In fact, doing so incrementally, as is taking place today, is more cunning because it often falls under the radar.

Indeed, this year’s 67th anniversary of the Nakba - on May 15 - went by unnoticed by the mainstream media, and thus mainstream society. The plight of the refugees has been ongoing for so many decades that it has long ceased to be considered newsworthy.

However, it cannot go unnoticed by the Palestinians because they are the targets and victims of this project. Ironically, as much as Israel would like the Palestinians to forget, it is ensuring on a daily basis that they never will. For them, the Nakba is not just a part of their past, but very much of their present and, if Israel continues to have its way, their future too.

The Nakba is not a single historical event, but has accumulated over the years, and not just because the refugee population continues to grow and languish in limbo. Events since 1948 have meant that refugees have been dispossessed over and over again, such as in 1967 when Israel took over the rest of Palestine and other Arab territories, and every time it attacks and invades the Gaza Strip.

However, Palestinian refugees have been further dispossessed throughout the region. Hundreds of thousands were expelled from the Gulf following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, and those in Iraq itself have been targeted by government forces and militias since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

More recently, the Arab Spring has resulted in further displacement of Palestinian refugees. Of the 560,000 registered with the U.N. in Syria, “over 50 percent are estimated to have been displaced within Syria, with a further 12 per cent displaced to neighbouring countries,” the U.N. Relief and Works Agency said on Friday. Many, however, are being returned or refused entry by neighboring countries, and those further afield such as Egypt and Libya.

In Egypt, Palestinians have been targeted since the overthrow of President Mohammed Mursi, amid a public, media and government backlash because of the misperception that they are aligned with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Human rights, historical wrongs

Palestinian refugees are the region’s most enduring unwanted people, yet all they want is their fundamental, inalienable rights under international and human rights law. For this, they are vilified as a threat to Israel’s security and Jewish ethnocracy. Grotesquely, the welfare of the dispossessor is placed above that of the dispossessed.

Israel and the international community are ignoring the elephant in the room and failing to realize the obvious: there can be no lasting solution without justice for Palestinian refugees. They are not an obstacle to peace, they are key to it.

Remembering the Nakba is a collective duty, not just for Palestinians or Arabs, but for everyone. This is, after all, a humanitarian catastrophe as well as a national one, with global implications. The international community’s reluctance to right this monumental wrong has made it complicit.

Remembering is not only relatively easy but effective - an oppressor can take away almost anything except one’s memory. However, more important than remembering is informing those who do not know, and reminding those who do not want to know. For as long as the voices of Palestinian refugees are stifled or ignored, we must speak up for them.

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya News, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.