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A conversation about 75 years of Israeli independence and 75 years of Palestinian Nakba


A Palestinian man holds a Palestinian flag.
A Palestinian man protests on the seventy-second anniversary of the Nakba, 15 May 2020. Demonstration zum Nakba-Tag, As Sawiya, Westjordanland, 15.5.2020, Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz / Active Stills

This year, Israel celebrates the seventy-fifth anniversary of its independence. At the same time, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), referring to the expulsion and flight of a large portion of the Palestinian population that occurred in the context of the founding of the state of Israel.

Karin Gerster directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Ramallah Office.

Gil Shohat directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Tel Aviv Office.

Translated by Joel Scott and Hunter Bolin for Gegensatz Translation Collective

The anniversaries come at a time of great unrest in both the Occupied Territories and Israel itself, as the country’s right-wing government ratchets up its control over Palestinian areas, while protests against that very government have grown to unprecedented size.

How are these two events reflected in the respective societies, and how does the one mutually condition the other? Are the protests in Israel opening up new perspectives for social transformation and reconciliation, and how do Palestinians view the current moment? Katja Hermann, head of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s West Asia Unit in Berlin, spoke with Karin Gerster, director of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Ramallah Office, and Gil Shohat, her counterpart in Tel Aviv.

This anniversary coincides with a period of mounting political tensions. In Israel’s current far-right government, several key posts, such as the ministries of finance and national security, are held by extremist ministers, some of whom express openly racist views. Laws with the potential to erode the country’s democratic structures are being ushered in at lightning speed, all of which will also have drastic effects for Palestinians. Gil, what is your take on these developments?

GS: I would say that within the first four months of 2023 alone, we have seen more domestic and foreign policy developments than other countries would see in four years. This makes it very difficult to keep track of everything. This is the most right-wing government that Israel has ever seen. At breakneck speed, it has already put forward 140 new legislative initiatives. What this government is aiming for is nothing short of doing away with what remains of the country’s liberal-democratic foundations once and for all.

However, the government has been met with an unexpected protest movement composed of politically heterogenous groups, which has now grown into a mass movement which intends not only to block this “reform agenda”, but also to bring down the current regime. Despite all its political shortcomings, the protest movement that is resisting these developments has been impressive. For 17 Saturdays in a row, hundreds of thousands of people have been hitting the streets. These are certainly tumultuous times.

With the Knesset going into recess, the government’s activities have slowed somewhat over the past month. Nevertheless, this holiday month, which includes Pesach and the memorial holidays, and which traditionally serves to conjure up a sense of unity among Jewish Israelis, is showing how divided Jewish-Israeli society is. The reason being that even on these national holidays, where typically just about everyone — from the left to the right — rallies around shared patriotic and Zionist ideals, major fault lines have surfaced between government representatives and opposition politicians, showing just how deep this crisis is.

What exactly are the demands of the protest movement, and what role are leftist groups playing in it?

GS: At the beginning, the protest movement’s central demand was to preserve democracy. It views itself as a patriotic democracy movement, which is first and foremost committed to the values of Israel’s declaration of independence. In recent months, it has evolved from a movement to preserve existing institutions into one that is saying: if we want to prevent these kinds of developments in the future, we need to form a constitutional movement.

I’m not entirely sure if everyone realizes what that would entail in terms of human rights and the occupation. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the protests have become more radical in this regard. Ultimately, though, it is also about preserving some kind of liberal consensus, to which the majority of the population is seeking to lay claim.

It is in fact a broad, heterogeneous movement that is taking to the streets out of outrage over the government’s attempt to eradicate what remains of Israeli democracy.

What role left-wing forces are playing in this movement is a central question for us at the foundation. The Left faces a dilemma: as impressive as it looks from outside, the protest movement is a very patriotic movement, and it initially left very little space from which to critique Israel’s occupation policy and to present a broader critique of the shortcomings and discriminatory elements of the state as a whole.

But within this protest movement (particularly in the major cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, but also in Jerusalem), leftist groups have been doggedly trying to draw attention to the fact that any demand for the preservation of democracy will be untenable so long as the occupation is in place. The main slogans of the anti-occupation bloc are: “There is no democracy with occupation”, and “There is no democracy without equality”. The concept of equality has come to occupy an increasingly prominent position. That is to say that concepts that have been almost entirely absent from public discourse are finally gaining ground.

I was at the demonstration last week in Tel Aviv, where there were 180,00 people, and the anti-occupation bloc had essentially organized a parallel demonstration of its own within the crowd, with their own separate speakers that anyone wishing to follow the main march would have to pass by. So they are visible, they are not just on the margins, they are right in the middle of the action at the protests, and they are growing in size every week — which, from a leftist perspective, is encouraging.

Another notable development is the fact that there are more and more young people present, and some of them are saying: one way I can contribute to the cause is by refusing to join the army, by refusing to do my military service, because I don’t want to be part of this policy of occupation. So, there are different discourses coming together at these demonstrations, and we as the RLS are right there in the thick of it, observing those participating and speaking with them.

Who is organizing the protest movement? What groups are involved?

GS: I would say that all groups that disagree with the government’s agenda are involved. Although the government has naturally tried to make assertions to the contrary, you can’t just put it down to a handful of NGOs. It is in fact a broad, heterogeneous movement that is taking to the streets out of outrage over the government’s attempt to eradicate what remains of Israeli democracy.

That is both the strength and the weakness of the movement, that there is no clear leadership. There are more and more people who are saying: “Okay, I’m going to the protests every Saturday, but what is the real goal of these demonstrations if everyone from right-wing politicians like Gideon Sa’ar through to Dov Khenin and Ayman Odeh from the Communist Party Hadash are all present? What can the common message be apart from: we are against the government?”

In this sense, it is worth noting that the demonstrations are broken up into sub-demonstrations. Ultimately, you have to view it as a popular movement, with all the heterogeneity this implies.

The current situation in the occupied Palestinian territories has been compared to the situation at the time of the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005. What is your view of the situation, Karin?

KG: The reason people have made this comparison is that everyday life for each individual in the occupied territories is becoming increasingly unpredictable, and the power and capriciousness of the occupying forces make themselves felt every day.

One example would be restrictions on freedom of movement in the West Bank. These can be traced back to the Oslo Accords, which divided the territories into what is referred to as Areas A, B, and C. The Israeli military controls the Areas B and C, which make up almost 80 percent of the West Bank. In practical terms, that means that, as was the case during the Second Intifada, it can take between six and eight hours to drive from Ramallah to Nablus due to the checkpoints. Normally, this route would take around an hour and a half.

The Israeli army is engaged in military operations on a near daily basis in the cities of Nablus and Jenin. Soldiers and special operations units go on undercover missions disguised as Palestinian delivery drivers, they demolish houses and arrest and shoot at people in broad daylight because they are supposedly terrorists or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Palestinian cities, villages, and refugee camps are cordoned off by checkpoints, with the inhabitants literally locked inside these areas, as we saw most recently in Jericho. That’s why people are drawing comparisons to the second Intifada.

In terms of analysing the current situation: the occupation has been in place for a long time, and occupations are always aggressive. While previous governments have bulldozed houses and displaced Palestinians in the occupied territories, this new right-wing government has done so at a much greater pace, and in a more brazen and brutal fashion.

If we look at the building of settlements, which was officially halted by the 1993 Oslo Accords — and which is illegal according to international law, but not according to Israeli jurisprudence — a large number of outposts (referring to settlements that are also illegal according to previous Israeli law) have been built, which have now been legalized. There are roads for settlers which Palestinians are not allowed to use. Legally, Palestinians are subject to military law, while the settlers are subject to Israeli law. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Betselem have described this situation as a form of apartheid.

The daily life of Palestinians is governed by Israeli laws that are designed to make life impossible.

Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich and Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir both come from the militant settler movement, and also live in settlements themselves. Their positions in the government and their power enable them to expand the power of the occupying forces and protect the residents of illegal settlements. The new government has expressed in no uncertain terms that a Palestinian state is not an option and that Palestinians have no right to the land, since it belongs to the Jewish population. Because of this, Israeli settlements are being expanded in the West Bank — or Judea and Samaria in Israeli parlance.

At the same time, the laws for possessing firearms have been relaxed for Israelis, with the justification that settlers must be able to provide staunch resistance when threatened by Palestinians. This new development has led to a drastic rise in settler violence, with armed settlers, usually in groups, attacking Palestinians, their houses, cars, crops, and livestock.

With Smotrich and Ben-Gvir in the government, these settlers know that they essentially have a free pass to carry out acts of violence, that the authorities will turn a blind eye to such incidents, and with the high percentage of settlers in the military, that they will also receive protection from these quarters. I could name other examples of the current violence, but I think that gives you a decent impression.

What additional consequences can be expected for Palestinians in light of the current policies of the Israeli government?

KG: One of the key elements of the coalition agreement between Likud and the Religious Zionist Party is the commitment to the principle that the Jewish people have the exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the land of Israel. This represents an explicit right to self-determination for the Jewish population, which expands upon the Nation-State Bill of 2018.

There are undeniable plans to apply this law to the occupied West Bank, which would be tantamount to an annexation. Responsibility for the occupied territories was transferred from the defence minister to Smotrich, meaning that he essentially assumes the function of military commander, coordinating government activities in the occupied territories. That means that it is Smotrich, not the military governor, who has full control over civil affairs in the West Bank, which would allow him to carry out the annexation.

How do Palestinians view the anti-government protests, especially the so-called “anti-occupation bloc” in Israel?

KG: Most people appear to have reservations. On the one hand, Palestinians feel that this movement does not directly involve them, because the annexation of East Jerusalem and the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are still in force, which also means that they can’t access the protests.

My initial impression was that the anti-occupation bloc made up around 5 percent of the protest movement, but friends have since disillusioned me, estimating it at around 1 percent. Even if Palestinians from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip wanted to participate, they would not be able to, because they don’t have permits allowing them to enter Israel.

GS: I think this question is also interesting when considering the case of Palestinian Israelis. Within the Palestinian population of Israel, there is also a large degree of scepticism towards the protest movement. The activist and feminist Samah Salaime summarized the three main perspectives of Palestinians on this matter in a text republished in German on our website.

We can have no illusions about the fact that this movement is a 99-percent Jewish-Israeli protest movement, and that even the anti-occupation movement is primarily made up of Jewish Israelis. Although there is Palestinian-Israeli involvement from the parties associated with Hadash or from NGOs like Standing Together, the debates about this involvement are heated among Palestinian Israelis.

The Palestinian philosopher Bashir Bashir recently said in an interview that Palestinians don’t need the anniversary to be reminded of the Nakba, since the Nakba is both a memory and a living present. What does that mean in your opinion?

KG: We remember things that have already happened. So I would agree with Bashir on this point, because an occupying force, every occupying force in the world, deploys violence. Israel does this in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank, and in the Gaza Strip.

As I mentioned earlier, the daily life of Palestinians is governed by Israeli laws that are designed to make life impossible. Israel controls both their borders and their airspace, and the construction of settlements has increased drastically since the Oslo Accords were signed. The number of illegal settlers has risen from 250,000 to 800,000, and violence is a central feature of everyday life. That is the reality Palestinians face in the occupied territories.

The brutality of the everyday experience of occupation here in the occupied territories has led to signs of exhaustion when it comes to these kinds of anniversaries.

Palestinian Israelis, which make up around 20 percent of Israel’s population, also experience various forms of discrimination as a part of everyday life. Discrimination against Palestinians in the diaspora is another issue. For example, they continue to be denied their right of return, which they were guaranteed by the United Nations.

These descriptions offer a little snapshot of the ongoing Nakba that, no matter where they live, Palestinians experience every day in the most diverse ways and at various levels.

How have the political developments influenced this year’s anniversary of Israeli independence, which was celebrated on 26 April?

GS: Israel’s Independence Day and the other national holidays, such as the day of remembrance, always manage to unite people. That was not the case this year, perhaps for the first time ever. For many proud, self-proclaimed, Zionists, the current situation gave no cause for celebration. People also used the occasion to stage protests against the policies of the current government.

Efforts from all sides — from the president to the head of the government through to representatives of other important government bodies — to ensure that these holidays would serve to bring the country together failed to bear fruit, with debates only intensifying. For example, even at military cemeteries, where each year fallen soldiers are commemorated, there were demonstrations against the speeches held by ministers such as Ben-Gvir, who insisted on speaking at these events despite the fact that some of the families of the fallen had asked them not to.

This year’s national holidays, which usually have a unifying element, instead provided a striking display of the divisions and the highly politicized mood in Israel.

You mentioned how divided the country is. What role does the collective memorializing of events such as the anniversary of the declaration of independence and the Nakba play when it comes to the “division” of the country and of society into a Jewish-Israeli majority and a Palestinian-Israeli minority?

GS: The Jewish-Israeli population is currently undergoing an internal process of negotiation regarding what its stance on Israeli independence and the declaration of this independence should be. To what extent does the democratic movement wish to evolve into a resistance movement in opposition to the attempts to dismantle the last remaining democratic standards in Israel? This is one aspect, and it is expressed in the intensity of current internal divisions in Israel.

The other one has to do with the 20 percent of Palestinian Israelis who, for example, organize a march of return on Independence Day every year. Tens of thousands of people — primarily Palestinian Israelis, but also some Jewish Israelis who join the march — make their way to the villages that were destroyed and evacuated in 1948 (during the Nakba), where they celebrate their own national identity. This event was indeed very big this year by Israeli standards, but — and this is the problem — it wasn’t covered in the media. Because of this, many people are completely unaware of it, which of course reinforces the barriers between different political bubbles.

There are efforts to bring people together around values like equality, social justice, and national justice. At our offices, we try to provide a living example of these values, despite all the difficulties, but it’s important to acknowledge that there is not a lot of coordination here, and that the attempts by the Israeli government to intensify these divisions continues unabated.

Nevertheless, organizations such as Zochrot, along with others, have been trying to build awareness among the Jewish population for their responsibility for the Nakba. The focus here is on taking responsibility. And time and again, it’s important to stress that independence for Israel means Nakba for the Palestinians.

Given the geographical and political fragmentation of the Palestinians, commemorating the Nakba seems to be an important, unifying element for Palestinians, whether it’s in the occupied territories, in Israel, or in the diaspora. How do you see this?

KG: My personal impression is that the brutality of the everyday experience of occupation here in the occupied territories has led to signs of exhaustion when it comes to these kinds of anniversaries. The anniversary makes the existence of the ongoing, everyday Nakba painfully clear — and that unites Palestinians no matter where they are.