Resistance as Survival: Recalling May 15th, 1948

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I am writing this on the eve of May 15th,, 70 years to the day since the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic), the day the state of Israel came into being. It was shortly before this date that Israeli forces first showed how unmitigated the violence was that they were prepared to unleash in what was now clearly a colonial project. Ultimately, some 720,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their villages during the 1948 war, amounting to 80 per cent of those then living in what became the state of Israel. One of Israel’s distinguished modern writers S. Yizhah recorded the violence leading up to this event in his novel (The ruins of Hizeh). Written after he served as a Zionist soldier in the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948, Khirbet Khizeh describes the expulsions that occurred towards the end of that war:

"Who, then, would ever imagine that once there had been some Khirbet Khizeh that we emptied out and took for ourselves. We came, we shot, we burned; we blew up, expelled, drove out, and sent into exile.”

This military act of ethnic cleansing has never ceased, but has continued ever since. Its ferocity waxing and waning whenever each new piece of Palestinian territory is seized. The Nakba is not an event, but a structure, a process that has carried over until this day. As the eminent Palestinian Elias Khoury wrote,

The consequences of continuing Nakba is nowhere clearer than in East Jerusalem and Hebron, whether then or now. It is not a past event, one the we could perhaps commemorate, but continues to the present.

Indeed, yesterday 58 Palestinians have already been killed and 2,000 wounded, some of them in critical condition without access to adequate medical care. They are, after all, living in the Gaza Ghetto.

Perhaps this is why Khoury thinks that there can be no mutual recognition of past suffering by the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians until Nakba is overcome. And until then, Israeli control can only be met by resistance.

Like Edward Said before him, Khoury tells us that we must commemorate the Holocaust, knowing that it was the millennia of European anti-Semitism that lay behind it. This is why he also stresses the overwhelming significance of combatting anti-Semitism wherever it arises, including in the Arab world, or among those who deploy it working for Palestinian rights. However, he is equally adamant that the brutality of the Zionist colonial project, daily impacting upon Palestinian lives, must be continuously challenged and ultimately stopped. We should know that today there are over 40,000 demolition orders within Israel, and that in the West Bank rare are the families without one or more of their members having been imprisoned alongside the arrests of thousands of other Palestinian men, women, and children.

Yet Israel has faced negligible criticism of its continued land seizures and near total control over Palestinian territory and population, least of all from the USA with its massive military and ideological support for Israel. The provocative opening of its embassy in Jerusalem is just another indication of how, for the US too, Palestinian lives do not matter. Meanwhile, the resistance which comes from the people under Israeli siege, some of whom have been locked in modern ghettos for years on end is, literally, a death-defying or, for increasing numbers, deadly affair. We are witnessing this again right now, watching the extreme violence Israel’s army is using against those unarmed citizens who have been marching week after week against their imprisonment in Gaza, demanding to return to their homes which were seized in 1948. Already in these protests over a 100 have been killed and 10,000 injured. For those of us expressing solidarity from afar, including significant numbers of us Jewish groups, it is hard not to feel utterly powerless.

I wrote about this a few years ago, worrying anxiously how to resist despair, and concluding, like others before me, that for Palestinians it is often primarily a matter of surviving despair. Survival itself is, of course, a type of resistance. I recalled then the late John Berger’s powerful summary of his impressions visiting Palestine a decade ago. Surrounded by rubble on all sides, including ‘the rubble of words’, he found what he called an  ‘undefeated despair’ amongst many of the Palestinians he met. It is despair that Israeli policy has tried to instill in Palestinians from the beginning, again making survival itself the bottom line for Palestinian resistance. Yet, as we see in Gaza today, active forms of resistance continue to thrive, and among each new generation of Palestinians there are those still determined to do more than survive, knowing, like the heroic teenager Ahed Tamimi, that "To Exist is to Resist."

From afar, we can only try to learn from and support each new form of non-violent resistance. Palestinians have asked us to support BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel, and whatever reservations we might have about how exactly one implements this policy it is surely necessary for us to comply with the spirit of their call. Meanwhile, in Britain, we must insist that it is incumbent on people everywhere, but especially upon Jewish people whom Israel claims to ‘represent’, not to stay silent in the face of the injustice of the ongoing Nakba. Our only hope lies in the numbers we can persuade to join us.