The Heart of the Problem With Israel: The Mass Expulsion of the Palestinian People


(Originally published on Alternet)
As Israeli government violence against the Palestinians in Gaza intensifies (the latest news being an aggressive ground invasion), I saw a discussion on-line about whether Israel has become more brutal or the brutality has simply become more visible to the public.

A man looks at Jaramana Refugee Camp for Palestinians in Damascus, Syria in 1948.

The Jaramana Refugee Camp for Palestinians in Damascus, Syria in 1948. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I remembered listening to Benjamin Netanyahu when he was at MIT in the 1970s. He called himself Bibi Nitai and said he was in self-exile until the Labor Party, which he despised, was out of power. He spoke contemptuously about Arabs, and predicted he would be the leader of Israel someday and would protect the Jewish state in the way it deserved. The immediate response many of us had was: “Heaven help us all if he ever gets into power in Israel.”
I also remember the many Israeli leaders I met in the 1970’s from Labor and Mapam and from smaller parties on the “Zionist left” who seemed kind and caring and markedly different from Benjamin Netanyahu – and in many ways they were, not just in their political rhetoric (they all said they were socialists) but as human beings, or so it seemed. But when I finally dug a little deeper and read my history, I learned how they, too, were participants – in fact, often leaders – in the plan to drive the Palestinians out of their homes and off their land. Nothing very kind or caring about that, to say the least.
The bottom line: Israel was created based on the expulsion of over 700,000 Palestinians from their land and from their homes (what Palestinians call the Nakba, the catastrophe). This is the heart of the problem.In some circles, particularly among “progressive” Zionists, the terrible injustice done to the Palestinians is acknowledged, but as awful as the Nakba was, they say, it was what had to be done to create and ensure the security of the Jewish state. (The most recent proponent of this position is Israeli writer Avi Shavit.) It was a terrible price that had to be paid, he and others concede. To be clear, the price was paid by the Palestinians – that is, the killing and expulsion of Palestinians for the sake of Jewish safety. And quite simply, the only way you can think that – that you can excuse the Nakba- is to believe that Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian lives.
And isn’t that what we are seeing today? If Jewish lives matter more than Palestinian lives – if, as the argument goes, the Nakba had to happen so that Jews could be “safe” – doesn’t the brutal violence we see so casually inflicted on the people of Gaza by the Israeli government follow from, in fact, isn’t it embedded in, that history? (And it’s ironic to note that large numbers of the Palestinians in Gaza are from families that fled there during the Nakba in 1948 as refugees from cities and villages in what became Israel.)
That is why I believe those of us working in our own communities – in my case, the Jewish community – need to make sure everyone not only knows about the Nakba but understands that this is the heart of the issue. And that central to the achievement of the “Zionist dream” has been that Jewish lives matter more than Arab lives. That so much attention was paid in Israel to the three kidnapped Israeli boys, in contrast to the total contempt and disregard for the large numbers of Palestinian youth killed and languishing in Israeli prisons for the crime of being Palestinian, brings this point home.
Finally, our understanding of the Nakba cannot end there. We cannot use the acknowledgement of injustice to excuse ourselves from doing anything to end it. We have to take the next step – to think about solutions; to work to hold Israel accountable to basic principles of human rights and self-determination; to recognize the rights of those who have been expelled from their homes. Sometimes the problem is understood as beginning with “the occupation” of 1967, but the root cause goes back to the Nakba and the refusal to allow the return of the refugees in contradiction of UN general assembly resolution 194. In the Palestinian-led call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), which has reverberated across the globe, the principles are laid out clearly: 1. Ending the Israeli occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
 2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
 3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194. That is what is needed to address the problem at its core.
Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a long-time organizer for peace and justice in Palestine/Israel. Most recently, she was a founding member of Jews Say No!, is on the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is a member of the coordinating committee of the Nakba Education Project–US.

8 thoughts on “The Heart of the Problem With Israel: The Mass Expulsion of the Palestinian People

  1. 40 years ago, I would listen to the same people you write about immediately above. From October 26, 1973 thru May 10, 1974, I was a volunteer on Kibbutz Mashabbe Sadeh. I went to replace a soldier who had been called up to repel the Arab invasion of Israel on Yom Kippur, 1973. My guy didn’t come home. Of the over 700,000 Palestinians who left their homes between May 1948 and June 1949, an equal number of Jews were expelled from their homes in Arab countries. I am not about to restate arguments from long ago. I refuse to apologize for the continued lives of my friends and family in Israel. I stand ready to volunteer to move settlers from the West Bank into pre-1967 Israel. I also wait for an intelligent, organized, Arab society representing the Palestinians who will swear to live side by side with Israel in peace. I have waited all of my 60 years for this. I doubt I will ever see it. In March 1975, I had coffee with a Palestinian student at college – SUNY at Buffalo. George and I had argued publicly about the Arab – Jewish conflict for a year. When we finally sat down, George looked in my eyes and said, “we waited 200 years to get rid of the Crusaders, we can wait at least that long to get rid of you.” I see no hope of a peaceful future between Arab and independent Jew. Someday, Israel will cease to exist. It is the way of humanity to keep destroying the good and replacing it with waste. Until then, and as long as I live, I wait to hear a voice that does not exist. The voice I wait for is the one of Arab mothers who force their husbands to love their children more than they hate mine. Your rhetoric is as old as I am. You really should try to create something different.
    Sam Prince

  2. Thank you for this Donna Nevel
    Thank you for this excellent history lesson. It has been years since these true
    facts have seen the light of day! Hope you will contribute more to this blog
    in the future.

  3. Great candor account and narrative that is very difficult for Most Jews and Israelis to accept ,acknowledge and deal with, as that will make the Palestinians the victims of the Zionists and Israel creation.Also, it will strip the Jewish people from their ultimate victims title, as they don’t see nor wish to recognize the Palestinians Nakba as bad as their own. This is a real dilemma for the Palestinians ,as they have to pay and have been paying the price. But, its also ,as we see some of it now, is a huge problem for Israel and consequently the Jews, as Zionism and Israel did all that with the name of all Jews.
    On the positive side this is Israel’s and the Jewish people opportunity of the life time to make mends with the Palestinians, and I think the Palestinians are large enough and forgiving to accept the Jewish people – as most Arabs for centuries have lived with the Jews, fairly well if not good in all parts of the Middle East. It will solve the problem of the conflict, one country, one state, one law. All equal rights and responsibilities for all citizen, and they can call it what both people wish it to be called, and all Jews can call it home( the ones who wish to live there, as not all Jews nor Palestinians will). This way Jews don’t have to be singled out( unless,they wish to single themselves out as most of them have done in the past and Israel still wishes to do, by building a 25 feet walls to surround it self and close its society to its neighbors.) how could one be part of a neighborhood if he hates and separates himself from all his neighbors? Aggressive or not , you have to remember the narrative of history and how Israel was created, aggression brings aggression ! Maybe when understanding and real good intention are exhibited ,then the situation changes! It was done in other nations, and it could be done in Palestine/ Israel. No one should be thrown to the sea, nor buried in the rubles of hate and victimhood !

  4. Very rare and honest narrative from a Jewish person, but not surprising at all from a compassionate human being! I don’t think that the majority of the Jewish people do not know that, but they choose to ignore and deny those realities, as they are very deeply emersed in their own past and tragedies as the ultimate victimes. Till that is changed, the discourse of history will continue and the Jewish people will be stigmatized again and again, not because they are Jews( as many Jews keep convincing themselves and try to convince every one who would listen) but because of what Israel and the Zionists have been doing in the Jewish name. Thank you for sharing your honest opinion, its refreshing and encouraging to say the least. We need to live together in peace and security for all lives, not just the Jewish lives and the rest can suffer the hill that Israel is bringing on them like the Palestinians for over 66 years. Its not just this massacre ! I have no problem ,as a solution to have a one state where all people live with the same rights and responsibility , and those who break the set of laws of the land will be persecuted according to one democratic law. Making peace with the Palestinians and restoring their rights is the best ticket to end any Antisemitism in the world, or at least reduce it to nothing, continuing on this path is a disastrous one, not just for the Palestinians but for Israel and dare I say for the Jewish people too!

  5. It is disheartening to read Jews parroting Arab propaganda as history. The assault on truth represented by this article is truly unworthy of printing in any serious publication. So let’s be clear. Israel was not created based on the expulsion of any Palestinians. None needed to be expelled to create the state. The only reason that there are any Palestinian refugees (intentionally expelled or otherwise) is because they started a war to deny the Jews their state. No war, no refugees. The Palestinians started the war. Does that mean that they deserved to be made refugees? No it does not. It does mean, however, that they bear a large part of the responsibility for causing the refugees. The reason there is no Nakba is not that Palestinian lives are worth less than Jewish lives (what a revolting lie). It is that the Palestinians made it necessary by attacking the Jews. Are Jewish lives worth less than Palestinian lives? Do they have no right to defend themselves if they are attacked? No one’s safety would have been endangered but for the Palestinians choosing war. they are still choosing war. The usual recipe for the destruction of the Jewish state which Ms. Nevel offers is immoral, impractical, and dangerous. The true solution is for the Arabs to stop choosing war.

  6. The right of all ethnic groups to their own states was enshrined as a fundamental human right since Wilson’s 14 points, nearly a century ago. As such, the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination in their own state is beyond question. But the same principle means that the Jewish people have the same right – that is, to self-determination in their own nation-state. The problem of course is that just as the Palestinian people were exiled in the 1948 War of Independence/Nakba, the Jewish people were exiled from the exact same land by Rome 20 centuries ago, after the Bar Kochba Rebellion. In reasserting their own fundamental human right to an ethnically-based nation state, the Jewish population of the Palestine Mandate did expel 700,000 members of the Palestinian population that inhabited that land after the Romans expelled the Jews (though I do not agree that Labor Zionists bore the same culpability for the Nakba as the Irgun & the Stern Gang). The problem then is that there is one land upon which there are two valid claims of ownership under an ethnically-based nation-state system. And the only valid solution I have ever heard is the 2-state solution in which the Palestinian people have the West Bank & Gaza & the Jewish people have Israel within the Green Line (while the Saudis, under a peace plan they proposed years ago, pay off Palestinians in exile for any claims they may have on properties inside the Green Line). The real problem is in the decline within Israel of Labor Zionism, the sole faction that has ever expressed realistic interest in a 2-state solution. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated for holding that position.

  7. There must be an end to competitive victimhood. The Roman war crime of the Jewish Diaspora is not countered but complemented by the Nakba of 1949. The expulsion of Jews from the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem by Jordan (providing ridiculous justification for the post 1967 fiction “Arab East Jerusalem”), and the cancellation of citizenship for Jews by the government of Iraq shortly afterwards, does not justify the Allon plan of 1967. Ultimately, both sides must admit that Palestinians as well as Israelis live on “occupied” territory, that both peoples have historical claims to land of Greater Israel — and that the insistence on borders from one scriptural text or another, one historical description or another, and the colonial deeds from one illegitimate arbitrary authority or another, cannot be the basis for a negotiation among equals. Equally it seems highly unlikely that a single state could accommodate a Mandela-like reconciliation of the two peoples in a single state. Nevel’s insistence on the obiliteration of Israel, and on the illegitimacy of Jews ruling Israel, proclaims a triumphalism which will bleed legitimacy from both parties which both deserve

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