The Ugly Side of Israel’s Independence

For Palestinians, some things can never be forgotten. On the contrary, we would not dare allow ourselves to forget them lest we do a huge injustice to our people and to our history. This week, as Israel prepares to commemorate 62 years of independence, we Palestinians also mark the flip side of that celebration, that terrible anniversary of Al Nakba, which will always be scorched in our memory as a reminder that some injustices will remain so, irrespective of the years that have passed.

Anyone who takes a peek into the Palestinian reality today and then listens to the gallant speeches given last night by Israeli officials on the occasion of Israel’s Memorial Day would think the two sides were living in some sort of parallel universes.

"On this blessed occasion, I want to say in the name of the state of Israel at large: We do not seek war," Israeli President Shimon Peres told the families of fallen Israeli soldiers. "We are a nation that yearns for peace," he said, "but knows and will always know, how to defend itself."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also moved his crowd with his warm and sticky notions of peace. "Not a day has passed [since the two wars of 1948 and 1967] on which Israel did not extend its hand in peace to its neighbors, "and our hand is still outstretched." Since the man was basically speaking to the converted, there was no immediate rebuttal, no questioning of this so-called outstretched hand and no demand for an explanation as to why Israel continues to occupy and brutalize an entire nation.

For answers to these questions, one only has to look beyond the Israeli-manufactured wall that lines the de facto border (also Israeli-manufactured) and snakes along and inside much of the West Bank, completely encircling Jerusalem, where all of this back-patting was going on. For the Palestinians, Israel’s Independence Day is an open wound, oozing and festering until it breaks open each year when Israel proudly raises its glass to its own birth.

For the past 62 years, Palestinians have been grappling to make sense of the reality they were forced into that fateful year of 1948. They have struggled, resisted, turned to violence, opted for peace negotiations and formed a government on a land that was still under foreign military rule. Through all of this, they have more or less maintained a unified stance when it comes to the right of return of the refugees who were kicked out or fled their homes during the war. Originally, some 800,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled their homes in fear of massacres by Jewish gangs and found, just days later, that the borders had been closed to them, barring them to return to their villages, towns and cities. That was 62 years ago. Today, the only thing that has changed is their numbers, which are in the millions. Approximately five million Palestinians who are either first generation or descendants of refugees have yet to be allowed to return home or paid compensation for the homes, land and properties stolen from them. Theirs is the longest-standing refugee cause in the world and this week, Israel’s Independence week, only rubs salt into a deep and painful wound.

Back to the other parallel universe and nothing seems awry. Huge Israeli flags adorn homes, cars and shop buildings throughout the country as Israelis (many of whom live in the original homes of the aforementioned refugees) prepare to barbeque, vacation and celebrate their good fortune of being born Israeli.

So, what will it take for the world to see that these two parallel worlds cannot coexist peacefully in this present form and that Israel cannot possibly, in all conscience, take such immense pride in its independence while it continues to oppress a another nation? Of course, there are those Israelis who see through the façade and know that an injustice must be righted before Israel or the region at large can ever be graced with peace. The refugee issue, among so many other issues, is at the forefront of obstacles to any comprehensive solution. Israel refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing in terms of its establishment much less offer a fair solution to the refugee problem itself. Whenever approached, even the most leftist of Israel’s leaders do not accept a refugee return to what is now Israel. The most generous of them may offer financial restitution or even a limited amount of refugees to be absorbed by the Israeli state but nothing more.

What is even trickier is dealing with this issue internally. Earlier this month, a number of Palestinian factions and individuals were up in arms over Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s interview with Haaretz in which he said refugees would be welcomed in a newly established Palestinian state. This was understood by some as Fayyad’s relinquishment of the right of return, a compromise tantamount to treason in the Palestinian context.

Whether this is what Fayyad meant or not (he simply said refugees would have the right to reside within the state of Palestine), the fact remains that the refugee issue must be resolved for peace to prevail. It has been 62 years and the world has turned a blind eye to the plight of millions of Palestinians forced from their homes and barred from ever returning. Israel feels no obligation to account for the atrocity, probably because it can do so with impunity. Still, it is not hard for the world to see the horrors that Israel created as a price for its independence. All one has to do is look at the desolate conditions of Palestinian refugee camps both here in Palestine and in neighboring Arab countries. As long as refugees and their descendants continue to languish in squalid refugee camps, still stubbornly holding on to the original keys to their homes, Israel’s "outstretched hand" of peace is no more than a slap in the face.