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Ongoing Catastrophe: Israel Threatens New Mass Expulsions as Palestinians, U.N. Mark 75th Nakba Anniversary

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Palestinians across the globe are marking the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic), when some 700,000 Palestinians fled from or were violently expelled from their homes upon Israel’s founding in 1948. The occasion comes as five days of fighting, that killed 33 Palestinians in Gaza and two people in Israel, was brought to a stop this weekend after the Israeli army and the militant group Islamic Jihad agreed to a Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. Today the United Nations is holding its first-ever high-level special meeting to commemorate the Nakba. We host a roundtable discussion with Munir Nuseibah, a human rights lawyer and director of Al-Quds Human Rights Clinic in Jerusalem; Saleh Hijazi, a member of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee; and Peter Beinart, editor-at-large for Jewish Currents.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. On Saturday, the Israeli army and the militant group Islamic Jihad agreed to an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire following five days of fighting in Gaza, which has been under an Israeli blockade for the past 16 years. Prior to the ceasefire, Israeli forces killed 33 Palestinians in Gaza, including women and children, and at least 147 Palestinians were injured. Meanwhile, Palestinian militants fired over a thousand rockets into Israel, killing two people: an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man from Gaza working in Israel. The latest violence began Tuesday, when Israel broke a previous ceasefire.

This all comes as Palestinians across the globe are marking today the 75th anniversary of what they call the Nakba, the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” when well over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were violently expelled from their homes in 1948 when Israel was founded. For the first time, the United Nations is holding a high-level special meeting to commemorate the Nakba today. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressmember Rashida Tlaib introduced a resolution last week to recognize what she calls the ongoing Nakba and the rights of Palestinian refugees.

We’re joined by three guests. Peter Beinart is editor-at-large of Jewish Currents. His recent piece is headlined, “Could Israel Carry Out Another Nakba?” He’s a professor of journalism and political science at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, CUNY. Also with us, Saleh Hijazi, part of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee. He’s the former deputy regional director for the Middle East at Amnesty International. He was a key researcher on their report, “Israel’s Apartheid Against Palestinians.” He’s visiting New York from Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. Munir Nuseibah is also with us, a human rights lawyer and director of Al-Quds Human Rights Clinic in Jerusalem. Saleh and Munir both arrived in New York on Sunday to attend today’s meeting at the United Nations on the Nakba.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! I want to start with professor Munir Nuseibah. If you can talk about the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and what this violence of the last weeks has meant?

MUNIR NUSEIBAH: The violence of the last week is the unfortunate continuation of impunity in Israel. Over the past few decades, since the Nakba, actually, until the current day, Israel has been able to sustain an apartheid regime in Palestine and close Gaza in a siege, prevent people from moving, prevent goods from moving, but also keep the occupation running, keep the displacement and the demolition and the ongoing Nakba, which you mentioned earlier in your introduction, and at the same time continue with a policy of assassinations, of imprisonment, arbitrary imprisonment. And all of these elements have — continue causing these small armed conflicts that happen every now and then. But the problem is that with impunity, with no punishment for those who perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity, we can only expect these events to continue and to come back again and again and again.

Yes, every time there is an escalation like this one, there will be intervention from neighboring countries, like Egypt, to stop this type of military conflict. However, the main problems remain. Gaza is still under siege and collective punishment of every person who lives in there and every person who also lives outside and who wants to visit Gaza. The West Bank is still occupied. The Israeli regime is applying apartheid in all of the territory of Palestine-Israel. So, unfortunately, while I can say that we’re comfortable and happy that the military action has stopped, I would say that there is, you know — this might come back in the future, as long as there are no fundamental remedies for the current situation.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2018, I interviewed Mahmoud Salah, a Nakba survivor who was forced out of his home village of Sar’a in 1948. At the time he spoke to us, he was 86 years old. He was born in a village just outside Jerusalem that was bombed and invaded when he was a teenager in 1948. He described how his family sought refuge in what’s now the West Bank. He slept in caves, under trees, moving from refugee camp to refugee camp, before the U.N. eventually sent him on a ship to South America, to Venezuela. Then he went to Colombia. I spoke to him in Chicago, where he lived, and I asked him what that word “Nakba,” Arabic for “catastrophe,” means to him.

MAHMOUD SALAH: Nakba means it is a disaster of my heart, a disaster of my family, a disaster of my soul, a disaster of my country, because it is — the Nakba, it is the history of my country, of my grandfather, grandmother, the disaster of my even faith, my religion, my school. It was destroyed. The Nakba, it is — Nakba, it is a word that is a very, very strange word, a hard word. It is still in my heart. And I give it to my sons. I give it to my — everybody I know from the family.

AMY GOODMAN: Saleh Hijazi, if you could talk about the significance of today at the United Nations, the first time they will commemorate the Nakba? And also talk about your previous work at Amnesty International, when last year, for the first time, they talked about Israel as an apartheid state.

SALEH HIJAZI: Yes. So, actually, the two, both the U.N. commemorating the Nakba for the first time and Amnesty International coming and recognizing that the regime that Israel imposes on Palestinians is that of apartheid, is a regime that treats Palestinians as an inferior racial group and imposes a system of oppression and domination on them with the intention of creating a Jewish supremacist state, with as little Palestinians, preferably no Palestinians, within the land of Palestine — both these are coming to recognize what Palestinians have been saying for many, many years. It’s a recognition of the Palestinian narrative that in 1948 we were victims of a planned ethnic cleansing of the indigenous population, the Palestinians, in Palestine, and that that event in 1948 continues until today, that we’re still facing the same systematic dispossession, displacement, systematic killing.

You know, you were mentioning Gaza and the attack on Gaza recently. This is the sixth attack of such gravity against Gaza since the blockade, the criminal blockade, that was imposed on the Gaza Strip since 2007. Last year, according to the U.N., over the last 12 months, we’ve seen the sharpest rise in the killing of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including many, many children. So, these are all symptoms of this system of oppression and domination, of forceable displacement.

Now, they are late, but they are, of course, very welcome, though a recognition is not enough. What we need is to tackle the root causes of what is happening. We need the dismantling of this system of oppression and domination. The U.N. has a responsibility. It has committed itself to addressing the question of Palestine, but it only does that in a kind of a partial way, in a humanitarian way. We need a political addressing of the situation in Palestine. We need the dismantling of settler colonialism and — Zionist settler colonialism and apartheid. And it starts with ending complicity when it comes to states, institutions, corporations, to isolate the apartheid regime, similar — very similar to what happened in southern Africa, when the world stood up to the apartheid regimes that were there in Namibia, in South Africa and in Zimbabwe, isolated these regimes, imposed boycotts and sanctions against them. This is what we want the world to do. We want the U.N. to go down that route of action, and we want also individual states to also end their complicity with the system of oppression and domination in Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Palestinian American Congressmember Rashida Tlaib, who represents Detroit, recently introduced a resolution to recognize the Nakba. The resolution reads, quote, “The Nakba is not only a historical event, but also an ongoing process characterized by Israel’s separate-and-unequal laws and policies toward Palestinians, including the destruction of Palestinian homes, the construction and expansion of illegal settlements, and Israel’s confinement of Palestinians to ever-shrinking areas of land,” she writes.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy attempted to quash a planned event by Tlaib commemorating the Nakba by preventing it from going ahead in the U.S. Capitol. Instead, she hosted the event in a packed Senate committee room filled with Palestinian rights supporters. The group Democratic Majority for Israel tweeted in response, quote, “The root of the catastrophe: the Arab world refused to accept the UN plan for a Jewish & Arab state in what was left of the UK’s Palestine Mandate after Jordan’s creation. Instead, 5 Arab armies invaded Israel, attempting to destroy it & push the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea,” they said.

I wanted to bring Peter Beinart into this conversation. Peter is editor-at-large of Jewish Currents. You recently wrote a piece, “Could Israel Carry Out Another Nakba?” First, could you respond to both the resolution, what’s happening in Israel, as well as that response I just read, and then talk about what you suggest in your piece, “Could Israel Carry Out Another Nakba?” where you say, “Expulsionist sentiment is common in Israeli society and politics. To ignore the warning signs is to abdicate responsibility,” you write, Peter?

PETER BEINART: Sure. I think the fact that there is even a conversation, an argument, about the Nakba taking place in Washington is itself progress. And it owes a great deal to the figure of Rashida Tlaib, who I think is the first American politician in a long time who’s been willing to really make an effort to get this commemorated. So it requires people like Kevin McCarthy and groups like Democratic Majority for Israel to have to argue back and try to cancel these events, which in the past they didn’t even need to do. And she found an important ally in Bernie Sanders, who’s the one who allowed her to use that room in the Senate.

The problem with trying to kind of blame Palestinians for their own expulsion and claim it only was a result of Arab armies attacking Israel is, first of all, that a significant number of the roughly 750,000 Palestinians who were expelled or fled in fear between 1947 and 1949 did so before the Arab armies attacked, before Israel declared independence in May 1948, and also because these expulsions didn’t end when the war ended. If you read — if you can just read Israeli historians, like Benny Morris in his book Israel’s Border Wars, he talks about how Israel continued expulsions, albeit at a smaller scale, through into the 1950s. Then Israel expelled a large number of Palestinians again in 1967. So the point of my essay is that while there have been fluctuations in the pace at which Palestinians have been expelled, this has been a continuous process since Israel’s creation, because Palestinians have been a problem for Israel. And then, the basic guiding notion in Israeli politics has been: You want to control as much land as possible with as few Palestinians as possible.

What I think may be different and worrying about this moment is that you have a critical mass of people in this Israeli government who are on the record as suggesting that they would like to find some way of convincing or coercing large numbers of Palestinians to leave the West Bank, if not Israel proper. It starts with Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, who’s in charge of civil administration, who wrote very explicitly in 2017, essentially, that Palestinians should be given a choice either to accept living under Israeli control without basic rights or to leave. Itamar Ben-Gvir also has spoken in these terms, but some of the Likud ministers, as well. Yoav Gallant, the defense minister; Tzachi Hanegbi, the national security adviser; Avi Dichter, the agricultural minister, former head of Shin Bet, the domestic security agency — all of them have essentially suggested — ironically, they don’t deny that the Nakba took place in 1948; they acknowledge it and say that it may need to happen again. And I think if Israel feels utter impunity from the United States and from the rest of the world, it makes it more likely, especially in a context of rising Palestinian armed resistance in the West Bank, that we could get to that terrible moment.

AMY GOODMAN: You also wrote a piece on your Substack titled “Is Denying the Nakba Antisemitism?” Explain what you mean.

PETER BEINART: Well, that was a play on a speech that Yair Lapid made, when he essentially said that antisemitism — any form of racism should be considered antisemitism. I think the point that I’ve tried to make in some of my writing is there’s, to me, a very profound irony and tragic irony in the fact that Jews, who — we know, deeply, that preserving memory is the way you maintain a people. The reason that the Jewish people have survived, in large measure, is because we tell the stories of our history, and we preserve a national memory. So, when Jewish leaders, in Israel or the United States, essentially tell Palestinians to forget the Nakba, to get over it, what they are doing is not making a move — that is not a suggestion of peace. That is really a proposal of extinction, because if you tell a people to forget its history, you are really inviting it to cease to exist. And that’s what I find, as a Jew, so disturbing about this continual Nakba denial that we see in our mainstream American Jewish organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Saleh Hijazi and professor Munir Nuseibah back into this conversation. Professor Nuseibah, as you come to the U.N. today, what do you think actually needs to happen, and the role of the United Nations in this?

MUNIR NUSEIBAH: The United Nations had an important role in creating the Nakba, unfortunately. Back in 1947, the United Nations General Assembly recommended the partition of Palestine into two states, responding apparently to the political atmosphere that the United Kingdom, the colonial power present in Palestine at the time — responding to the atmosphere that it created. After that, the Nakba happened, and Israel displaced 80% of the overwhelming — you know, of the Palestinian population that lived in the area that it conquered during that war. These Palestinians have become refugees in different refugee camps, in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jordan, in Egypt, in Lebanon, in Syria and other places around the world.

The General Assembly has resolved already, back in 1948 in a resolution, that the Palestine refugees should have the right to return. And it has been keeping this resolution and calling for it continuously since then; however — and there been many other resolutions that contributed to calling for different Palestinian rights. We have a lot of literature, a lot of resolutions from the General Assembly, some resolutions from the Security Council, that push for Palestinian rights. However, we haven’t been able to see actual measures taken against Israel in order to force Israel to abide by international law and U.N. resolutions.

And so, what we expect and what we hope is that by commemorating the Nakba and by looking and responding to the work of the human rights lawyers and activists, but also the U.N. special rapporteurs, who are closely documenting the situation in Palestine, that the U.N. will start taking measures at a certain point, measures that can be translated into policies that are taken both by the U.N. but also by individual states. This has been missing. The U.N. has been also involved in this long, never-ending so-called peace process that started back in — in the early '90s. And unfortunately, it is evident to us now that this peace process is just serving as a drug for everyone. Everybody is saying, “Ah, there's a peace process happening now. We don’t need to do any intervention. Let’s invite all the parties to sit on a table.” The parties have sat on tables for very long periods of time. They haven’t gotten anywhere. There is a colonial project that is continuing to expand, to build Jewish-only settlements, to implement an apartheid regime between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. And this needs to end. So, you cannot convince them to give up supremacy only on a negotiating table. Negotiating tables, unfortunately, are not enough for that. What we actually need is concrete actions by the United Nations and by member states of the United Nations, by the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, which can start acting. So, we need this. We need action.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Saleh Hijazi. The Israeli diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism minister, Amichai Chikli, recently sent a letter to the United Nations demanding that Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, be fired, claiming she continues to spew hatred, antisemitism, and incite violence. Can you talk about how Israel continues to challenge the U.N. and its decisions today?

SALEH HIJAZI: Yes. It’s both by using these tactics of accusations of antisemitism against U.N. mechanisms, like the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in the Occupied Territories — now Francesca Albanese, but before it, professor Michael Lynk, and before it, professor Richard Falk, and before it, Judge Dugard, John Dugard — it does so against Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, when they come out with detailed documentation and legal analysis of the situation in Palestine as that of apartheid, which is a crime against humanity, that both states and the United Nations have a responsibility, an obligation to tackle. It does so against, for example, Palestinian human rights defenders and organizations, accusing them of antisemitism because of legitimate, factual criticism, factually based criticism of Israel’s policies of systematic human rights violations, or when it comes to Palestinians, like us, in civil society, also accusations of terrorism, that whenever there is criticism of Israel, it is either antisemitic or it is supportive of terrorism.

And I think this tactic needs — it is exposed. It’s, in my view, no longer working. And that the United Nations, at the highest level, from the secretary-general, including to member states, should really stand firm against these tactics. They should stand firm in supporting the mechanisms that are there, like the special rapporteurs, Francesca Albanese being one of them, but there are also others that come out and produce documentation and reports exposing Israel’s human rights violations. It should stand firm with the International Criminal Court in carrying out this open investigation, that has been open for a long time without any kind of movement, as opposed to then the prosecutor moving on other situations very quickly when there are evidence produced of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So, I think, in response to this, that — you know, let me say, Palestine is the litmus test of this international world order, of the rule of law, of human rights, of international law. If the world fails Palestine by giving in into these scare, bullying tactics by Israel, then it has failed in many, many other places around the world. If international law does not stand in Israel and in Palestine and for Palestinians, if the crimes of apartheid, if systematic human rights violations are allowed to continue without any accountability, then they can continue without any kind of accountability anywhere around the world. So, really, I think it is that the international community needs to stand for the rights of Palestinians, but it also, when it does so, it does so stand for this international order that is the rule-based, international law-based world order.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Peter Beinart, you did not always hold the views you have. You have not always been as critical of Israel as you are today. We actually only have 30 seconds, but if you could explain what changed you?

PETER BEINART: I think it was just going and seeing for myself. I think, like many American Jews, I have been to Israel many times, and I still feel a great sense of connection and affection for Israeli Jews, some of whom are my many friends and family. But when I first — too late in life, but started to actually see some realities on the West Bank of Palestinian existence, it just became — it began a process for me of realizing that, for me, as someone who believes in liberal democracy and equality under the law and believes in Jewish ideals as I understand them, this was something — not something I could support.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Beinart, we want to thank you for being with us, editor-at-large of Jewish Currents; Saleh Hijazi of the Palestinian Boycott National Committee, formerly with Amnesty International; and Munir Nuseibah, director of Human Rights Clinic at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, here for what the U.N. is calling Nakba Day. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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