Gaza’s ‘March of Return’ is not the first popular mobilisation to carry this name. Many such marches have taken place in the past, and many more will most likely be held in the future. What compels Palestinians — especially refugees — to hold such rallies is the fact that their Nakba has never ceased, their suffering has multiplied, and their exile has become a daily reality.
The Nakba — the catastrophic ethnic cleansing and destruction of the Palestinian homeland by Jewish militias in 1948 — is not a mere date to be commemorated every May 15; it is far more encompassing than a single event, however tragic. Everything that existed before that date is the life that millions of Palestinians were unfairly denied; every day since has been a life of destitution, exile and want.
The Nakba, in some way, has thus become part of the collective identity of all Palestinians: The indignity it carried, the resistance it inspired. The Nakba has become so ingrained into the very consciousness of Palestinians that it would be impossible to imagine a truly peaceful future without justly and carefully addressing that original injustice.
However, the tragic events that led to the destruction of Palestine only constitute part of the Palestinian catastrophe. The original 800,000 who were pushed into exile 70 years ago have multiplied into millions of Palestinians, still scattered in refugee camps all across the Middle East, and in ‘Shatat’ (Diaspora) around the world.
Palestinians continue to march, to speak of their villages, of their ‘Right of Return’.
Many of those refugees, while still searching for a safe path that would take them home, often find themselves on yet another journey, another dusty trail, being pushed out time and again from one city to the next, from one country to another, even lost between continents.
The original Nakba is still very much alive, active in numerous forms and manifestations: from Syria’s Palestinian refugees escaping a tragic war to Lebanon’s Palestinian population persisting despite their desolation, to refugee centres in Gaza, in the West Bank, in the Negev and elsewhere.
Yet despite what may seem like a desperate situation, Palestinians continue to march, to speak of their villages, of their ‘Right of Return’ to Palestine, of their unalienable rights under international law. For Palestinians, memory is a weapon.
And 70 years later, the battlefield is still there, delineated most starkly at the Gaza border where tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees continue to camp, holding their ‘March of Return’ — starting March 30 and ending May 15.
At both ends of this ongoing fight, Palestinians and Israelis champion a legacy that spans decades: Palestinian youth are carrying on with the same struggle that was espoused by generations of Palestinians since the onset of the Nakba, and the Israeli occupation army — which has killed more than 40 and wounded thousands in recent weeks — is implementing the same bloody policies of generations of Israeli occupation soldiers and armed Zionist gangs that carried out the ethnic cleansing of the citizens of Palestine in 1948.
It is as if time has stood still, or that history reproduced itself in a most profound pattern. For change to happen, a paradigm shift is required. This tragic and violent reality cannot be allowed to carry on forever.
But it is important that we relate the present to the past. The colonialist mentality of the past continues to control Israel’s actions today, as it will govern its future behaviour if Apartheid is not demolished, the Occupation is allowed to perpetuate and the Nakba is not reversed.
The current Israeli landgrab in the West Bank and the mushrooming construction of illegal colonies that is squeezing Palestinians out of occupied Jerusalem is a repeat of an earlier episode, a perpetual drama that has lasted over a century.
Zionist colonial settlement in Palestine began in earnest in 1881 when the leaders of the Zionist Movement in Europe eyed Arab Palestine as an exclusive home for Jews, paying little heed to the indigenous inhabitants of the land. These early ambitions culminated into a bloody, but well-orchestrated terror campaign in 1947-48, resulting in the creation of the state of Israel atop the ruins of Palestine. Nearly 600 Palestinian towns, villages and localities were destroyed to make space for an exclusively Jewish state.
Since then, only names and titles changed. Zionist militias that orchestrated the genocide of the Palestinians prior to the establishment of Israel merged together to form the Israeli occupation army; and the leaders of these groups became Israel’s leaders.
The ethnic cleansing of Palestine at the time was orchestrated by several Zionist militias. The mainstream Jewish militia was the Haganah, which belonged to the Jewish Agency. The latter functioned as a semi-government, under the auspices of the British Mandate Government, while the Haganah served as its army.
However, other breakaway groups also operated according to their own agenda. Two leading bands among them were the Irgun (National Military Organisation) and Lehi (known as the Stern Gang). These groups carried out numerous terrorist attacks, including bus bombings and assassinations.
Russian-born Menachem Begin was the leader of the Irgun, which along with the Stern Gang and other Jewish militants massacred hundreds of civilians in Deir Yassin.
‘Tell the soldiers: you have made history in Israel with your attack and your conquest. Continue this until victory. As in Deir Yassin, so everywhere, we will attack and smite the enemy. God, God, Thou has chosen us for conquest,” Begin wrote at the time. He described the massacre as a “splendid act of conquest.”
Nearly 30 years later, Begin became the prime minister of Israel. He accelerated land theft of the newly occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, launched a war on Lebanon, illegally annexed occupied Jerusalem to Israel and carried out the massacre of Sabra and Shatila in 1982.
Begin’s generation of politicians is gone, but a new one, equally violent, has taken their place. It is the likes of Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked who now represent modern Israel and, behind them, a massive constituency of right-wing religious and ultra-nationalists, who have little regard for Palestinians, for human rights, international law and such seemingly frivolous values as peace and justice.
Seventy years after Israel’s independence, the country’s legacy is still marred with blood and violence, partly because it continues to sustain the illusion that it can achieve an exclusively Jewish state while besieging, occupying and degrading the native inhabitants of that land.
What Israel still fails to understand, however, is that the ‘Right of Return’ for Palestinian refugees is not merely a political or even a legal right to be overpowered by the ever-unfair status quo. It has long surpassed that into a whole different realm. For the refugees, and for the thousands of protesters at the Gaza border, Palestine is no longer just a piece of earth but a perpetual fight for justice — in the name of those who died along the dusty trails of exile and those who are yet to be born.
— Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His upcoming book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.