Alsheikh: Recognize the Nakba
The United States must follow the example of the United Nations and acknowledge both the historic and ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
In March, Bezalel Smotrich was granted a diplomatic visa to travel to the United States, drawing outrage and shock from human rights activists across the country. As a key minister in the Israeli government, Smotrich had repeatedly called for the genocide of Palestinians. He had urged Israeli settlers to “wipe out” Palestinian villages in the West Bank, including women and children. Nonetheless, Smotrich was welcomed onto U.S. soil.
This incident was not the first time that the US has been indifferent to the persecution of Palestinians. For decades, the US has refused to recognize the Nakba, the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, which started in 1948 and is internationally commemorated every year on May 15th. Today, this complicity allows war criminals like Smotrich to walk free in the US. The US must take the first step towards ending this complicity using federal legislation to recognize the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians which started in 1948 in order to create an ethnically homogenous apartheid state.
This phenomena is nothing new; ethnic cleansing has a long history with Zionism, which has long sought to clear Israel/Palestine of its non-Jewish indigenous population. In the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, a removal of Palestine’s existing Indigenous population was necessary to satisfy “Zionism’s ideological drive for an exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine.” Without the forcible removal of the existing Palestinian Arabs, a Jewish state could never have been formed. Even after the United Nations tried to partition historic Palestine into two separate states, the population of the theoretical Jewish state in 1947 would’ve actually been 46.7% Arab Palestinian.
Thus, in order to enable the creation of a homogenous ethnostate, Zionist actors advocated for the destruction of Arab populations in lands they wished to control. To use the words of British sociologist Martin Shaw, Zionism required “the development of an incipiently genocidal mentality” aimed at destroying the Indigenous peoples, just like any other settler-colonial racial project. This “genocidal mentality” was reflected in the Hebrew word tihur, used by Israeli generals to refer to the destruction of Palestinian populations. It literally translates to “cleansing” or “purification.” In the eyes of pre-state Zionist military forces, Palestinians were an item to be cleansed from the land, in order to racially purify it as a Jewish ethnostate.
In 1948, tihur transformed into the Nakba, the systematic destruction and ethnic cleansing of Palestinian communities in order to make way for the foundation of the state of Israel. Zionist paramilitary forces expelled nearly one million Arab Palestinians from what is now the state of Israel, 85% of the Palestinian population in that territory. Palestinian civilians, women, children and elders were massacred throughout Palestine, and hundreds of former villages were wiped off the map. Families would often be lined up against a wall and collectively murdered by firing squads. In carrying out these war crimes, Zionist paramilitary forces destroyed 125,000 homes, and gave the rest to newly arrived European settlers.
Even some Zionist leaders were appalled by what their armies carried out: In the words of future Israeli minister David Remez, “the deeds that had been done remove us from the category of Jews and from the category of human beings altogether.” As Netiva Ben Yehuda, a famous Zionist soldier, remembers, “Such pictures were known to us. It was the way things had always been done to us, in the Holocaust, throughout the world war and all the pogroms. Oy, how well we knew those pictures. And here — here, we were doing these awful things to others”.
Yet, although the United States has given far more money to Israel than any country on Earth – 243 billion dollars of mostly military aid to Israel since 1946 – we have not acknowledged this ethnic cleansing. Notwithstanding our own history of persecuting Indigenous peoples, never once have we even offered recognition of the massacres which Zionist forces carried out. This is an injustice which we cannot stand: The US must recognize the Nakba through federal legislation.
US legislation to acknowledge this ongoing ethnic cleansing and apartheid would provide a valuable tool for activists seeking to fight against these injustices. Government recognition of these events would serve to legitimize anti-apartheid activists in the eyes of the general public, allowing them to reach wider audiences and make their campaign for justice visible.
A recognition would also serve as a valuable political tool to enable our representatives to fight against the persecution of the Palestinians today. The Nakba didn’t stop in 1948 - in fact, the Nakba has continued ever since in the ongoing settlement and apartheid rule of Palestine, which Pappe has called an “incremental genocide.” Since 1948, Palestinians have continued to be forced into smaller and smaller enclaves to make way for illegal Jewish settlements – in violation of international law – which aim to force Palestinians to choose between living in impoverished ghettos or leaving their ancestral homeland. Should they choose to stay, Palestinians live in constant fear of murder at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces, which routinely harrasses Palestinian civilians under the pretext of “security concerns.” The Israeli police raid of the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, a raid on one of Islam’s holiest mosques during Islam’s most holy month, is a testament to this strategy of terrorism and fear-mongering. Today, Palestinians are tried under a discriminatory apartheid legal system, which puts Arabs and Jews under two separate bodies of law which tries Arabs and Jews differently for the same crimes. If the US government were to acknowledge the root causes of the modern apartheid rule of Palestine — settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing — this could change the public rhetoric surrounding Palestine in a more humanitarian direction, serving to humanize Palestinians in a discourse which has long treated them as objects.
Sadly, so far efforts by our congressional representatives have failed to produce this legislation. In 2022, Rashida Tlaib and her congressional co-sponsors introduced a federal bill to “commemorate the Nakba through official recognition and remembrance,” which was shot down by pro-Israel members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. This opposition to recognizing the persecution of the Palestinians comes from the idea that any criticism of Israel or Zionism is antisemitic; yet, nothing could be further from the truth. To quote Jewish Voice for Peace, a national Jewish activist organization, “Zionism has also harmed Jewish people. Many of us have learned from Zionism to treat our neighbors with suspicion, to forget the ways Jews built home and community wherever we found ourselves to be … as long as Zionism has existed, so has Jewish dissent to it.” Nowadays, Israeli-American activists like Miko Peled are leading the call for the end of apartheid in Israel/Palestine.
Still, not all hope is lost. In 2022, the U.N. officially recognized the Nakba and dedicated itself to commemorating the event through official programming in 2023. Over 90 countries voted in support of the resolution, showing us that the majority of the world is on the side of human rights and the Palestinians.
Statistics show that Americans are increasingly following suit. Recent polling reveals that young voters are increasingly likely to support Palestinian human rights as compared to their predecessors; in 2023, Democratic voters polled more in favor of the Palestinians than of the Israeli occupation for the first time in history. Today, a quarter of all Jewish Americans, and more than a third of younger Jewish Americans, believe that Israel as it exists today is an apartheid state.
Recognizing the Nakba must be the first step in the long journey of correcting decades of Israeli apartheid and American neo-imperialism. Until the day when the US will recognize the ethnic cleansing which it has enabled, we cannot truthfully claim to be the broker of peace, freedom or democracy in the Middle East.
Until that day, the Nakba will only continue to worsen.
Opinion articles represent the views of their author(s), which are not necessarily those of The Dartmouth.