There are a lot of voices in the fray that are demanding that Hamas be chastised for the October 7 attack on Israel as if Hamas lies at the heart of the loss and suffering that the Palestinian Arabs and the Israeli Jews are facing today. As reprehensible as it might seem, the current scenario cannot be delinked from the context of the Palestinian-Israel conflict that has its roots in the state of Israel’s origins and the expunging of a million Palestinian Arabs from their ancestral lands for three-quarters of a century.
When colonial imperialism was progressively receding from Asia and Africa in the middle of the twentieth century, Israel’s founders utilised a historically revisionist narrative through an international movement, Zionism, to settle the Jewish people fleeing European anti-Semitism in a land inhabited by Arabs. Just like now, as the Russians claim Ukraine to be a part of “one historical and spiritual space” that needs to be annexed with the Russian homeland because it was a part of the Kievan Rus principality in medieval times, Israel’s claim to territorial ownership of historic Palestinian land is predicated on the two millennia old Judean dynasty of King Herod.
In part motivated by the biblical canon, this misleading revisionism led to the implantation of Europeans right into the Palestinian heartland to build a new society where they could create a sovereign polity in the name of religion. Unlike the imperial colonisers in Asia and Africa, whose prime motivation was to siphon the fortunes from the occupied lands, these non-native settlers forcibly dispossessed the indigenous population and initiated a settler colonial project. The project usurped the political control and the right to exist from the people of Palestine on their historic land culminating in the establishment of a nation-state known as Israel in 1948. Whereas the colonisation by European imperialists was used as a tool for empire-building, in the case of Palestine, it became the project of Jewish nation-building.
Nakba, as it is referred to in the collective memory of around 13 million Palestinian Arabs today, signifies the near total destruction of Palestinian society and loss of homeland, which they relive every day due to interminable oppression.
Israel’s birth was not purely a political event. It relied on the logic of elimination and used all the violent means at its disposal to uproot the Palestinian Arabs through wholesale slaughter. This practice was not unique to Israel, and similar erasures of indigenous people occurred in other settler colonial states, such as the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Cherokee nation in North America. Nakba, as it is referred to in the collective memory of around 13 million Palestinian Arabs today, signifies the near total destruction of Palestinian society and loss of homeland, which they relive every day due to interminable oppression. This physical displacement was necessary for Israel as it allowed the settler colonial state to alter the demographic balance, not to let the Arabs statistically outgrow the Jews.
Remarkably, this mass displacement intended to fragment the Palestinian community became the rallying call for Palestinian nationalism and served as a crucible for the forging of a cosmopolitan sensibility that signifies not just historical memory and structural guilt but also a call for justice. While pogroms were becoming a bedrock of the Zionist state, the reverberations of Nakba continued to emphasise not just the barbarity that Israel’s colonialism contributed to human culture and civilisation but also alluded to the extreme human suffering, including historic Jewish persecution and sorrows in Europe. At the same time, the experience of Nakba made the Palestinians question their dispossession and social annihilation at the expense of European Jews who survived the holocaust. If anything, as Edward Said wrote in The Question of Palestine, the “awareness of these simple … questions” galvanised the Palestinian cause.
Today, the intensified settler violence may indeed feel like a second Nakba for Palestinians as they fear the continuing offensive on Gaza will push them into exile once again. Palestinians displaced from their homes in 1948 have never been able to return. Therefore, the likelihood of a reprise seems real to those remaining in Northern Gaza. There is an escalating brutality underway reminiscent of the policy of erasure followed by the founders of Zionism. For Israel, its 24-hour window for Palestinians to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip southwards was meant to minimise human loss, and its justification for the recent onslaught is apparently to vindicate the recent Hamas attack. However, the conflict has its genesis in the fundamental injustice of the first Nakba and the land occupations after the 1967 war. Until that foundational injustice is sorted, the conflict will endure.
Around the globe, the ongoing mass movement in solidarity with the Palestine cause is unprecedented. However, for much of the significant political leadership in the West, the desertion of the cause is unparalleled. For their part, the American and British administrations, having let Israel get away with the recent surge of atrocities, are currently attempting to curtail the humanitarian loss by persuading Egypt to let Gazans in. Since it puts Egypt’s stability at stake, in recent times, the crossing has been mainly opened to let humanitarian assistance enter the Gaza Strip. The Rafah crossing, which connects Egypt to Gaza, is subject to tight restrictions. However, the aid passage is not the only aspect of the humanitarian response in jeopardy. According to recent reports, Israel has been reluctant to offer any assurances that it will not carry out airstrikes on trucks transporting relief supplies to affected areas. This has raised concerns about the safety of humanitarian aid workers and the delivery of essential supplies to those in need. Despite repeated requests from international aid organisations, the Israeli government has yet to provide any concrete guarantees, leaving the situation uncertain.
If the United States, Europe, and Britain continue sanctioning Israel’s actions, it can give way to an even larger-scale war in the region. The people of Palestine face a conundrum as staying back in Gaza is comparable to being in an outdoor concentration camp. However, the Western-facilitated fleeing to adjoining Arab states would lead to the same sort of ethnic cleansing and dispossession as Nakba since the Palestinians would not be permitted to come back to their motherland.
Home to millions of Palestinians, the Gaza Strip and the Occupied West Bank continue to encounter suffocating conditions inflicted by Israel. With Israel’s recent ground incursion in the Gaza Strip, the erasure is reaching a scarily new juncture. Israel must be resoundingly called out for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the dehumanisation of Palestinians. Simultaneously, civil society around the world should continue to reinvigorate the debate on the Palestinian question by challenging media narratives and disinformation and calling to account their governments and corporations for playing a part in infringing Palestinians’ rights.