We Must Remember the Palestinian Nakba - Word&Way

We Must Remember the Palestinian Nakba

May 15, 1948 — 75 years ago — a human rights travesty began which most U.S. politicians, religionists, and media outlets do not mention. Palestinians and those of us who are in solidarity with their liberation and human rights movement will commemorate what is referred to as the Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic.

Wendell Griffen

Understanding the Palestinian Nakba requires knowing the history behind the place that leaders of the Israeli apartheid regime and their U.S. pro-Zionist enablers and sympathizers call a “democracy.” I recommend former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 2006 book, Palestine – Peace Not Apartheid, for an easy read and well-documented history of what some Christians call “the Holy Land.”

In his book, Jimmy Carter writes that Jews and Arabs inhabited the Holy Land, together, for centuries before A.D. 135, when it was conquered by the Romans. The Romans changed the name of Jerusalem to Aelia Capitolina, and Judaea became the province of Syria Palaestina, later shortened to Palaestina. When Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the name of Jerusalem was revived.

The name Palaestina survived the seventh-century Arab conquest of the region and prevailed across the centuries as Turks, Kurds, and European colonizers ruled the region until 1516 when Ottoman Turks incorporated Palestine into their empire. When the Ottoman Turks were on the losing side in World War I, France and Great Britain assumed authority (notice that point) over various parts of the Middle East. The League of Nations assigned Great Britain supervision of the Mandate of Palestine (the area now known as Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan). Jordan was separated from the Mandate in 1922 and the remaining territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea became known as Palestine.

In 1922, when the British conducted a census of Palestine, the area was inhabited by about 84,000 Jews and 670,000 Arabs (among which were 71,000 Christians). When the United Nations (the successor entity to the League of Nations) approved a partition plan for Palestine in 1947, the partition plan designated that over half of the territory – 55 percent – would be established as a Jewish state, Jerusalem and Bethlehem would become internationally designated holy sites, and the remaining land would become an Arab state.

The Jewish Agency group that represented the Jewish community in Palestine to the British Mandate approved the partition plan. Arab leaders opposed it. On May 14, 1948, Jews declared their independence as a nation they named Israel (with support from the U.S. Truman administration). The following day (May 15, 1948), military units from four Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq) and Arab volunteers within Palestine commenced an unsuccessful war against the new Israeli state. They did so to oppose the partition plan and in response to Zionist hostilities committed against Arab communities during the final weeks before the British Mandate ended during the spring of 1948.

According to President Carter, when Palestine was partitioned by the UN in 1947, the population in the area had “grown to about 600,000 Jews and 1.3 million Arabs, 10 percent of whom were Christians. During and after the 1948 war, about 420 Palestinian villages in the territory that became the State of Israel were destroyed and some 700,000 Palestinian residents fled or were driven out.

Here is an Al Jazeera News article about a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives by Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to commemorate the Nakba as well as an article by Yousef Bashir, an expert in Israeli-Palestinian affairs. The article details the impact of the Nakba on his life and family.

Most people in the U.S. have little to no knowledge about the history of imperialism, colonialism, Western paternalism, and complicity with Zionism mentioned by Congresswoman Tlaib and Bashir. U.S. media outlets and politicians refuse to mention the Nakba when they talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those media outlets and politicians lack the intellectual honesty to admit establishing the state of Israel involved forcibly displacing up to 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 from homes, neighborhoods, and land their families had lived in for generations.

Congresswoman Tlaib and Yousef Bashir affirm a truth we should remember on the 75th anniversary of May 15, 1948. That truth is that the Israeli state is a reality that exists alongside, and because of, the reality of the Palestinian Nakba. Intellectual honesty requires that when we think or speak about the creation of the state of Israel we speak also speak about the Palestinian Nakba. We must, also, be intellectually, morally, ethically, politically, and theologically honest enough to admit that the Palestinian Nakba of 1948 has worsened since 1948, and what that continuation and worsening means.

Jimmy Carter wrote that when he (then the governor of Georgia) and Rosalyn Carter took a ten-day visit to Palestine in 1973, he was given a map of Israel by their driver (whose father was an Israeli diplomat). According to Carter:

There is no indication of a “green line” between Israel and the West Bank or Gaza, and the map also includes a substantial portion of the Golan Heights and all of the Sinai. There was also an expressed desire among some radical Israelis to retain the captured territories, but the prevailing attitude among the nation’s leaders was that the occupied lands should be kept only until they could be traded for a secure peace with the Arabs. None of my official briefings included plans for permanent retention …

Later, Carter writes:

There were only about 1,500 Jewish settlers in the [West Bank] occupied territories at that time [1973], and our natural presumption was that Israel would dismantle the unwanted settlements to comply with international law, including U.N. Security Council resolutions that had been supported by both Israel and the United States. I knew that Prime Minister [Golda] Meir had said that there were no separate Palestinian people, but we [Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter] assumed this to mean that there should be no future racial delineation between Jews and Gentiles.

I have to admit that, at the time, I equated the ejection of Palestinians from their previous homes within the State of Israel to the forcing of Lower Creek Indians from the Georgia land where our family farm was now located; they had been moved west to Oklahoma on the “Trail of Tears” to make room for our white ancestors. In this most recent case, although equally harsh, the taking of land had been ordained by the international community through an official decision of the United Nations. The Palestinians had to comply and, after all, they could return or be compensated in the future, and they were guaranteed undisputed ownership of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza.

Carter recognized fifty years ago that the Palestinian Nakba that began in 1948 continued. He equated the ejection of Palestinians from their previous homes within the State of Israel to the “Trail of Tears” displacement of “Lower Creek Indians from the Georgia land … to make room for our white ancestors.” Carter later writes: “Although aware of the subservient status of the Palestinians, I was reassured by the assumption that Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace.” The history of the past fifty years shows that Carter’s 1973 assumption (twenty-five years after the 1948 Nakba began) that “Israel would withdraw from the occupied territories in exchange for peace was wrong.

Not only has Israel refused to withdraw from the West Bank, but since 1973 it also brazenly violated international law and human rights norms by encouraging, allowing, subsidizing, and defending hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers — estimated at between 400,000 to 600,000 — to migrate into the occupied West Bank in violation of international law. Meanwhile, U.S. diplomats and politicians have allowed Israel and the Israeli settler movement to steal Palestinian land, build settlements, divert water, destroy Palestinian crops, and attack Palestinians whose ancestral ties to the West Bank date back for centuries.

Others have denounced and condemned what Jimmy Carter eventually realized about the Palestinian Nakba of the past 75 years and associated it with Israeli apartheid. Chris Conley, a white Republican Baptist attorney from Georgia, addressed Israeli apartheid in this May 2021 Baptist News Global article. In May 2018, Bob Allen reported that the Lott Carey Global Missional Community, a Black Baptist group, denounced Israeli apartheid practices and policies, and criticized U.S. complicity in them. And in November 2019, Baptist News Global published an essay I wrote after then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the U.S. no longer viewed illegal Jewish settlements in the Israeli occupied West Bank to violate international law. These and other writings show that the U.S. has ignored, funded, defended, and profited from Israeli apartheid and genocidal practices and policies against Palestinians for the past 75 years.

Article 85, 4c of The Geneva Convention considers the practice of apartheid a war crime and a crime against humanity. It specifies that “the implementation of the system of Apartheid is a grave breach of International Law.” However, the apartheid designation is no longer applicable to the occupied territories annexed by Israel in 1967, but is the Nakba reality for the whole reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

A Dossier on Israeli Apartheid (jointly prepared by Kairos Palestine and Global Kairos for Justice 2022) states:

Between the river and the sea, it is abundantly clear that Israel meets the definition of apartheid under international law. Both through the laws the state has adopted and its inhumane practices, Israel actively works to promote separation and segregation through a biased legal regime that offers specific rights and privileges to one group [Israeli Jews] at the expense of the other [Palestinians] to maintain its domination. For an Israeli Jew, there are no restrictions to movement or limitations to deciding where to live throughout Israel and the West Bank, while Israel limits the choices for Palestinians. Israeli Jews enjoy certain laws, administrative structures, and privileges – such as education, social and health benefits. These are not afforded to Palestinians.

In 2018 (five years ago), Israel passed its Nation State Basic Law which defines Israel solely as the state of the Jews, not the state for all its citizens (including Palestinian Arabs living in Israel). There are more than 60 laws that grant privileges to Jews that are not granted to Palestinian Arabs who are citizens of Israel.

Three hundred thousand (300,000) Palestinians who lived in East Jerusalem after the Israelis illegally annexed Jerusalem in 1967 were given the status of “residents but not citizens” of Israel. Israeli law and administrative regulations apply to them. However, they cannot participate in Israeli elections. Furthermore, pro-Zionist Israeli settlers and politicians constantly threaten their homes and neighborhoods with seizure or demolition, as shown by this February 2022 article.

Approximately three million Palestinians live in the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has limited administrative power within West Bank’s densely populated cities. However, the entire West Bank — including the cities — is under the command, permit system, and courts of Israeli military law. Although the Geneva Convention requires that an occupying power protect and provide for the health of indigenous persons in occupied territory, the State of Israel — the West Bank occupying power — refuses to provide health care to Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, the most crowded place in the world. They lack clean water, consistent electric power, and other services. Since 2005, Israel has maintained a military and economic embargo on Gaza that prevents any person or product from entering or leaving without Israeli approval.

Artwork on the wall that separating Israel and Palestine. Jakob Rubner / Unsplash

Finally, the Palestinian Nakba applies to Palestinians who were expelled from or fled their homes and neighborhoods and now live outside Israel and the occupied West Bank territory. Under international law, these Palestinians have a right to return to Palestine, their ancestral homeland. However, they have no rights in Palestine. The Israeli government can, and on many occasions has, denied them the privilege of even visiting their homeland, neighborhoods, and homes. On the other hand, Israeli law allows any other persons on earth who affiliate with the Jewish religion to immigrate to and live in Israel and receive financial and economic incentives for doing so.

The Palestinian Nakba is not the result of natural calamities (such as earthquakes, tropical storms, climate droughts, and torrential floods). Instead, the Palestinian Nakba is a humanly caused and willed catastrophe perpetrated by the Israeli apartheid regime. For the past 75 years, the genocidal policies and practices of that regime have been funded, armed, defended, licensed, and sacralized by U.S. politicians, capitalists, and Christian Zionists who embrace Israeli racist, fascist, imperialist, neo-colonial, capitalist, and Zionist notions of white supremacy.

In the words of Ella’s Song honoring the civil rights activism and life of Ella Baker, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest” until this travesty ends. But the travesty will not end unless “we who believe in freedom” first remember the Nakba. Then we must join Palestinians to end the Israeli regime’s apartheid policies, practices, and genocide against Palestinians.

There are several ways to join that prophetic work. You may easily find, read, download, and share the 24-page Dossier on Israeli Apartheid at this link. Read the 6-page January 2021 report titled This Is Apartheid by B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. B’Tselem (in Hebrew, “in the image”) is an independent, non-partisan, globally-awards-winning Israeli human rights organization. You can read, download, and share that report at this link.

Get involved with other prophetic faith groups and congregations that support Palestinian liberation. I am a director of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference (an interdenominational collaboration of African American Christian theologians, clergy, laypersons, and congregations) and a director of the Alliance of Baptists. Both groups are anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, critics of Israeli apartheid, support Palestinian liberation. Here is a link to a pdf of the Proctor Conference comprehensive study program, titled Journeys Towards Justice, about the quest for justice by Palestinians in Palestine and Israel and the parallel quest for justice by Blacks in the U.S.

Thanks to leadership from the Justice for Palestine and Israel Community of the Alliance of Baptists, the Alliance is part of an interdenominational coalition committed to opposing all forms of racism, bigotry, and oppression, including racist discrimination, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and xenophobia in our own communities. That includes educating ourselves about the devastation of Palestinian lives under Israeli military occupation, Israeli settler colonialism, and apartheid, and about the connections between settler colonialism, racist oppression, and the cult of security in Palestine/Israel and in North America. Here is a link that provides information about that work and how to become involved with it.

Support for Palestinian liberation from Israeli apartheid does not make one anti-Semitic. Palestinian Arabs, like Israeli Jews, are Semitic people. The Executive Director for B’Tselem summarized the findings of its 8-page January 2021 This Is Apartheid report in these words. Israel is not a democracy that has a temporary occupation attached to it: it is one regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and we must look at the full picture and see it for what it is: apartheid. This sobering look at reality need not lead to despair, but quite the opposite. It is a call for change. After all, people created this regime, and people can change it.

The 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba is our chance to commit to doing so. Palestinians are, with God, watching, suffering, and waiting for us to join that effort.


Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas circuit judge and pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. This piece first appeared on his blog, The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope.