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Seven Decades after the Nakba, Palestinians Continue to Experience Displacement and Dispossession

“Hold on to the land, get rid of the people” has been Israel’s policy ever since it was established 70 years ago.

Aline Batarseh

May 28, 2018
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Palestinians expelled from their homes

The fact that Israel was established at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population of the land is indeed a great Nakba (catastrophe), and the myth that Zionist Jews were going to inhabit “a land without a people for a people without a land” has been contradicted by the fact that in 1948 more than 750,000 Palestinians out of a total population of 1.4 million (PCBS) were uprooted from their lands and homes in order to make room for the Jewish state.

When more than half the population of a country is displaced, the results are catastrophic. They are so catastrophic that Palestinians today make up one of the longest and largest refugee crises in the world. Not only are Palestinian refugees not allowed to exercise their internationally-enshrined right to return to their homes, but they also continue to experience renewed forms of displacement and dispossession today.

We Palestinians always refer to the continuing Nakba because the catastrophe never came to an end for us. This past week represented another episode of the continued mourning of a denied existence for Palestinians everywhere. With Palestinian protesters being gunned down in Gaza on the one hand and the American embassy relocation ceremony taking place in Jerusalem on the other hand, we had a renewed feeling of despair. It was a reminder that there is no light at the end of the tunnel and no prospects for us to live a life free from Israeli occupation, oppression, and racial discrimination.

On Monday, May 14, 62 non-violent Palestinians protesters were murdered in one day. This brings the total number of Palestinian civilians murdered since the beginning of the Gaza Return March — which began on March 30— to 111 people. These are not just numbers.

These are people with hopes and dreams. These are people with families and loved ones whose lives will forever be shattered. All these protesters, all these innocent people who were simply crying out for an end to their miserable lives in an open-air prison and who posed no threat whatsoever to Israeli soldiers, were murdered. For what? For demanding an immediate end to a more than 10 year blockade that has strangulated the Palestinians in Gaza? Or was it for their insistence on their right to return to the homes from which they were uprooted in 1948? Or both?

When unarmed civilians are willing to risk their lives by coming face to face with one of the strongest militaries in the world, we should ask why, and we should be willing to take real action when we hear the answer. According to a UN report that was released in July 2017, 60 percent of youth in Gaza are unemployed. The water in Gaza is contaminated, the water source is predicted to be “irreversibly depleted” by 2020, and people have no more than four hours of electricity per day.

Who is willing to live this kind of life? What do we expect Palestinians in Gaza to do? It is time to end the siege of two million Palestinians, 70 percent of whom are refugees. We need to say this loud and clear: the humanitarian crisis in Gaza will come to an end once and for all only when there is an end to the Israeli occupation and 10-year blockade.

Living conditions in Gaza are so dire that bandaging them will not be enough. It was never enough, and it won’t be enough today. I am not discrediting humanitarian intervention, and I am not saying it is not important. But it is not enough for the international community to provide immediate relief for the besieged population of Gaza if the relief is short-lived. The real challenge, and the real test of humanity, is the ability of the outside world to address the root causes of despair in Gaza before the next massacre takes place. I don’t think I can say this enough: we need to end the occupation.

All of us Palestinians, regardless of where we live, regardless of the circumstances that are specific to our lives, dream of freedom from occupation and discrimination. We, like all other human beings in the world, want to live a dignified life in which our children are not stripped of their childhoods, in which we are not afraid of settler violence and expropriation of our land, in which we do not live in daily fear of our homes being demolished because we could not acquire building permits that are close to impossible to obtain, in which our existence is not denied every single day of our lives. The truth is that Israeli policies have made our existence impossible, and Israel has been emboldened by a U.S. administration that has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a unilateral decision that defies the international legal status of Jerusalem as an occupied city. As a Palestinian from Jerusalem, the fact that an international leader — the leader of the most powerful country in the world — decided that my home-town, the city where I was born, the city where my parents and their parents before them were born, is Israel’s capital is beyond disheartening.

At the opening ceremony in Jerusalem, Jared Kushner, whose family has been financing illegal Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, said “The United States stands with Israel because we both believe in freedom. We stand together because we believe in human rights.” My immediate question was: freedom for whom? Certainly Kushner does not believe that Palestinians in the occupied territories, who are denied freedom of movement, deserve to live in freedom.

While Palestinians in Gaza are not allowed to leave the territory, Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, face movement restrictions in the form of checkpoints, closures, and the separation barrier. I think Mr. Kushner either has a serious misunderstanding of the meaning of the word “freedom,” or he simply believes that Palestinians are not human enough to deserve to live in freedom. Similarly, while Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was celebrating a “glorious day” in Jerusalem, Palestinians in Gaza were experiencing the tragic loss of loved ones yet again.

This is my cry for action. We need to address the root cause of all this despair, and that is the Israeli occupation. Ending the occupation is the only solution. We want solutions beyond immediate responses that are short-lived. Mr. Kushner has made a mockery of the words “freedom” and “human rights.” We want freedom and human rights for all, and we want an end to racial discrimination.

The fact that I am forced to feel like a stranger in my own city, Jerusalem, is unacceptable and appalling. I, as a native Palestinian from Jerusalem, have to prove that my “center of life” is in the city. This means that I have to pay taxes and electricity and water bills to Israel, as well as live, work and go to school in Jerusalem without reciprocal services. In return for paying taxes, Palestinians in Jerusalem receive social benefits and health insurance.

However, we cannot vote in national elections, and despite being forced to pay taxes to the state of Israel, Palestinians do not receive the same quality of services that Jewish residents of the city receive. In terms of infrastructure, the roads and pavements of East Jerusalem neighborhoods are underdeveloped in comparison to those of Jewish residential areas in West Jerusalem and illegal settlements in East Jerusalem. According to B’Tselem, only 52 percent of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have legal access to the water grid. Additionally, even though Palestinians make up about 40 percent of the population of Jerusalem, there are only six municipally-run family health centers in Palestinian neighborhoods as opposed to the 27 centers in Jewish-Israeli neighborhoods.

Since Israel began constructing the separation barrier more than 12 years ago, cutting through Palestinian land — and in line with Israel’s policies of structural discrimination — more than 140,000 Palestinians (out of a population of approximately 324,000 Palestinian residents) currently live in Jerusalem neighborhoods that are separated from the rest of the city by the separation barrier. I remember witnessing the barrier being built in different parts of the West Bank, slowly, incrementally.

I call this the psychological war against Palestinians. First, there were “rumors,” which were unbelievable to us, that Israel was planning to build a barrier. Then the barrier slowly became a suffocating reality that separated families, severely restricting freedom of movement and access to basic services, schools and workplaces. Today, 76 percent of Palestinians, including 83.4 percent of Palestinian children, live below the poverty line.

This structural discrimination has forced many Palestinians to leave Jerusalem over the years. However, there is a price that Palestinians pay for leaving the city if they choose to do so. If Palestinians move to anywhere other than Jerusalem, even for a temporary period of time, their residency rights are subject to revocation. This, along with strict “family reunification laws” that are applied to Palestinians from Jerusalem who marry Palestinians from other parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (or foreigners), is what is referred to as “quiet transfer.”

The reality is that the existence of Palestinians in Jerusalem is threatened on a daily basis, whereas Israel welcomes Jewish citizens of any other country in the world and grants them citizenship rights that are withheld from Palestinian natives of the city. According to B’Tselem, since 1967 Israel has revoked the residencies of some 14,500 Palestinians in order to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in Jerusalem.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, despite Israeli efforts to maintain a Jewish demographic majority in the country, the number of Palestinians will exceed the number of Israelis by the end of 2020. This means that we have to find a way to live together This starts with Israel recognizing that it has done Palestinians a historical injustice. But more importantly, any recognition must be followed by an end to the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as an end to discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the implementation of the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

There are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees in the world today, about 5 million of whom are registered with UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), which was created as a temporary agency in 1950. Decades later, this “temporary” agency continues to exist because Palestinians have yet to exercise the right of return, which is at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Despite Israel’s efforts to create “facts on the ground,” through implementing its colonialist, expansionist agenda, Palestinians will continue to demand their right to return to their homes. As Israel intensifies its attempts to erase our existence, our resilience, love for life, quest for freedom, and belief that justice will prevail in the end gives us hope. I, as a person, cannot but hold on to this hope and the hope that humanity will prevail. So far, humanity has failed us.

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