Righting the history of Palestine

For Palestinians, history is a nightmare from which we are fighting to awaken.

Israeli settler colonialism has worked to erase the Palestinian from history. This erasure takes many forms, from outright ethnic cleansing, to erasing the traces of Palestinian villages, to the Zionist revision of written histories. Even by righting this history publicly here, I am likely to be banned by Israel from returning to Palestine. But exile is just the price we pay to resist.

It is exactly such an erasure of Palestinians that mainstream media outlets commit in their distorted portrayals of the recent outpour of Palestinian resistance to Israeli colonisation.

We are witnessing now a historical moment. Waves of Palestinian protest represent an unprecedented galvanising of resistance, in what many are calling the Intifada of Unity. The steadfastness of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah has inspired protests across Palestine and outside. The protests inside Palestine are being violently suppressed by Israeli military and police. Rising tensions provoked a military response by Hamas in Gaza, to which Israel responded with yet another devastating assault on the coastal enclave, killing 254 Palestinians, sixty-six of whom were children, and injuring thousands more. Despite a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Israeli colonial violence continues in countless more insidious forms, to which Palestinians persistently resist.

Mainstream media portrayals of these events betray either a wilful erasure or a total lack of understanding of Palestinian history. Whether this is a product of malevolence or ignorance is of no concern to me. Either way, here I endeavour to right the history of Palestine.

In doing so, I am by no means alone. I join the voices of countless Palestinians who have continued to unequivocally refuse dominant representations of Palestine and Palestinian resistance. As Palestinian historian Rana Barakat states, given the erasure of the Palestinian from history, recalling Palestinian pasts is necessarily a simultaneous writing and righting of history.

This history is not an abstract past for me. It fundamentally shapes who I am and where I write from. My grandfather fled Palestine as a child in 1948. He and his brothers later fought in resistance. My dad narrates these histories. These connections form who I am as a diaspora Palestinian, and what Palestine means to me – a land of loss and belonging, rupture and attachment, despair and conviction. It is also this history of dispossession and displacement that brings me to where I am today, living as a settler on the sovereign lands of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples, in so-called Australia. And it is through the struggle over my ambivalent position, as settler here but Indigenous in Palestine, that I right this history.

Pre-1948 Palestine

Although often used to refer to the devastating events of 1948, Palestinians understand the Nakba (catastrophe) as an ongoing structure, not a singular event. Taking the Nakba as ongoing helps us to understand not only that the Nakba continues today, but that it began well before 1948. The catastrophic events of 1948 were preceded by decades of Zionist colonisation.

From its inception, Zionism openly saw itself as a form of European colonialism. For example, in discussing whether Argentina or Palestine should be the location of Zionist colonisation, founder of the Zionist Organization Theodor Herzl claimed the Jewish state in Palestine would be ‘a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.’ Soon-to-be first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion made clear that this would entail the forced expulsion of the Indigenous Palestinians: ‘We must expel Arabs and take their place.’

This dispossession was founded on the fundamental myth that Palestine was ‘a land without people for a people without land.’ Attributed to Israel Zangwill (a contemporary of Herzl) in 1901, this phrase still forms the core of Zionist ideology towards Palestinians. It produces an ideological erasure of Palestinians, serving to justify their physical erasure from Palestine.

The suggestion that there were no people in Palestine considering themselves Palestinians prior to Zionist settlement is, of course, false.

Prior to Zionism, Palestinians had ‘a multilayered identity deeply rooted in the ancient past’. At least by the end of the seventh century, Palestine became known as Palestine ‘to the entire Islamic world, as much for its fertility and beauty as for its religious significance’ and, later, to Europe, with ‘innumerable references to Palestine in European literature from the Middle Ages to the present’. It is abundantly clear that there were a Palestinian people considering themselves sovereign on the land of Palestine for centuries before the onset of Zionist settlement.

Palestinians expressed this sovereignty through their resistance to Zionist colonisation, which began as soon as the intention of Zionist settlers to displace Palestinians became clear.

At the outset of Zionist settlement in the late nineteenth century, when Palestinians saw these settlers instead as pilgrims or refugees, they extended characteristic Palestinian hospitality. Even Herzl himself ‘noted the “friendly attitude of the population” to the first wave of Zionist colonists’.

However, the response of Palestinians shifted dramatically once the Zionist intention to displace Palestinians became clear. As early as 1891, Palestinians began to protest to the Ottoman authorities, who then ruled Palestine, the increasing acquisition of land on the part of Zionist settlers from Europe. Palestinian resistance intensified after the official founding of the Zionist Movement in 1897, when the settler colonial intentions of the Zionist European communities in Palestine became explicit. Throughout this resistance, Palestinians continued to make a clear distinction between their Indigenous Jewish Palestinian neighbours, with whom they had been living for centuries, and the Zionist European Jewish settlers who had come with a clear intention to displace Indigenous Palestinians.  In 1901, Palestinians across several villages resisted Zionist land purchases through legal avenues and by harassing surveyors of the candidly named Jewish Colonization Association who had come to measure their lands. Palestinian resistance continued to intensify, with increasing settlement and displacement, in the lead up to World War I.

Palestinian fears of being displaced were further justified when Britain issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and with the onset of the British Mandate in Palestine. This declaration voiced clearly the intentions of Britain to aid the Zionist movement in its goal to form a settler nation-state in Palestine. The declaration proved crucial in providing both international legitimacy and material support to Zionist settlement.

Palestinian resistance to the dual British-Zionist colonialism was strident and continuous throughout the period of the British Mandate from 1920 to 1948. Large-scale riots and uprisings occurred in 1920, 1921, 1929, 1933, and culminating in the Great Revolt of 1936-1939, which comprised of a comprehensive civil disobedience strategy, massive protests and a six-month long Palestine-wide strike. Palestinians never ceased laying claim to their lands that the British were appropriating as ‘state lands’. This highlights the centrality of land in the Palestinian struggle. That this resistance was driven by Palestinian sovereignty over the land is clearly evident in the three demands that the Palestinian national movement at the time never failed to articulate:

  1. The immediate halting of Zionist immigration;
  2. A prohibition on the transfer of Palestinian land to Zionist settlers;
  3. The formation of a democratic government in Palestine.

In the aftermath of World War II, the British resolved to withdraw from Palestine, transferring responsibility to the newly-founded United Nations (UN). The atrocious events of the Holocaust provided further moral legitimacy and a sense of urgency to the Zionist settler project. In fact, the UN saw the formation of a European Jewish settler colony in Palestine as a form of compensation for the Holocaust, or more accurately, a displacement of their associated responsibilities to the European Jewish people.

This displacement was formalised in the UN Partition Plan of 1947, setting out 56 per cent of historic Palestine for a Zionist state (who comprised less than a third of the population of Palestine at the time) and 43 per cent for a Palestinian state – with the holy city of Jerusalem being set out for an international regime. Given that the Zionist settlers made clear their intention to ‘transfer’ Palestinians from their land in Palestine, the combined effects of the UN Partition Plan and British withdrawal in 1948 were wholly predictable.

The Zionist plan to ‘transfer’ Palestinians was formulated well before the 1948 Nakba, when it was put into action. ‘Transfer’ is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing. The ethnic cleansing of 1948 was planned out in great detail. In fact, Zionist ‘transfer committees’ were established from 1937 precisely to formulate detailed plans for how to cleanse Palestine of its Indigenous Palestinian inhabitants.

The 1948 Nakba

In what came to be known to Palestinians as the Nakba, the tactics used to carry out this ethnic cleansing included widespread massacres, systematic rape and other terror-inducing tactics. Fahimi Zeidan, one witness who was twelve-years-old at the time, recalls hiding in her home with hers and another family when the Zionist militia blasted the door open. They shot an already injured man and

when one of his daughters screamed, they shot her too. They then called my brother Mahmoud and shot him in our presence, and when my mother screamed and bent over my brother (she was carrying my little sister Khadra who was still being breast fed) they shot my mother too.

Zionist soldiers who took part in such massacres described horrifying scenes: babies with their skulls cracked open, the raping of women, and people being burned alive in their homes. These were not isolated ‘excesses of war’ or the work of an extremist minority in the Zionist forces. They were clear patterns of action encouraged at every link in the chain of command.

The primary goal of these operations was to expel Palestinians from the land of Palestine, or at least from as large a part of Palestine as could be controlled. Zionist forces deliberately spread news of the massacres, rapes and other atrocities to Palestinian towns and villages, to coerce them to flee their homes in fear of suffering a similar fate. The result was that, in 1948, over 420 Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed, with at least 780,000 Palestinians being expelled from their homes. The Zionist forces controlled 78 per cent of the land of Palestine, on which they would establish the State of Israel.

For Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba was a total shattering of worlds. It was foundational in fragmenting the Palestinian community across the diaspora, ’48 Palestine and ’67 Palestine.

These terms are spatiotemporal markers of the two major stages of Israeli colonisation in Palestine. ’48 Palestine refers to the land that Zionist forces colonised in 1948, while ’67 Palestine refers to the land that Israel occupied in 1967 (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip). Both areas of ‘48 and ‘67 are recognised as Palestine, but as distinct zones of colonisation with distinct present realities for Palestinian people living there.

The ethnic cleansing of the Nakba directly created the first major Palestinian refugee population, which has since expanded due to further Israeli forced displacement, with two-thirds (8.7 million) of the thirteen million Palestinians worldwide currently being forcibly displaced persons.

Whether they are in Gaza, the West Bank, neighbouring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, or Syria, or further abroad, all Palestinian refugees are denied their fundamental right to return home. Those Palestinians who attempted to return to their homes in the years following 1948 were deemed ‘infiltrators’ by Israel, and were either expelled once again or simply shot on site. Meanwhile, their villages were destroyed, their homes were plundered, and they were replaced on the land by Zionist settlers.

Despite extensive ethnic cleansing in 1948, some 156,000 Palestinians managed to remain in ’48 Palestine, the territory that became the State of Israel. Although they had survived the massacres and expulsions, they now came under an Israeli military rule that would last for almost two decades. During this time, they were forcibly displaced, incarcerated in prison camps, saw their land and property seized and their homes raided, and were harassed and abused throughout. These tactics were accompanied by legal and bureaucratic means of dispossession. For example, the seizure of Palestinian property was ‘legalised’ through a variety of seemingly benign property laws. Palestinian population centres were spatially cut-off from one another. Furthermore, Palestinian history was erased through, for example, the physical concealment of ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages or, more recently in 2011, making the commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba illegal.

’48 Palestinians, however, continue to resist such measures, asserting in myriad ways their identity and Indigeneity as Palestinians. We are seeing this currently in the galvanising waves of protests by ’48 Palestinians to resist the ethnic cleansing of Sheikh Jarrah.

The 1967 Naksa

The second great rupture in Palestinian history is the 1967 Naksa (setback). Amidst mounting tension between the states, Israel launched the Six-Day War against Egypt, Jordan and Syria, which resulted in an overwhelming Arab defeat and the Israeli occupation of the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, Syrian Golan Heights and the remaining area of Palestine – the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The military occupation of the latter three territories continues today.

This war constituted the second major catastrophe for the Palestinian people, with another 400,000 Palestinians being expelled from their homes by Israeli forces. Cumulatively then, between 1948 and 1967, three-quarters of all Palestinians had been forcibly expelled from their homes. This also marked the beginning of the ongoing, devastating military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

In just the four years following 1967, over 17,500 Palestinian homes were blown up by Israel in the West Bank alone. Meanwhile, between 1967 and 1986, an average of 21,000 Palestinians left the West Bank and Gaza per year, under Israeli policies of expulsion. This expulsion was accompanied by increasing Israeli settlement in the West Bank and Gaza, replacing the expelled Palestinians on their land, which continues to escalate in the West Bank today.

East Jerusalem, an area of immense religious and political importance to Palestinians, was separated from the rest of the West Bank through its illegal annexation in 1967. However, Israel did not want the Palestinians native to East Jerusalem to become citizens of Israel, and issued them with ‘permanent residency’ instead – a precarious legal status that has left them particularly vulnerable to forced expulsion, as we are seeing in Sheikh Jarrah and other Jerusalem neighbourhoods today. Between 1967 and 2015, Israel revoked the residency status of at least 14,416 Palestinian Jerusalemites, a form of bureaucratic expulsion from Palestine that tears Palestinian families apart.

The 1967 Naksa confirmed to Palestinians that they had to take resistance to Israeli settler colonialism into their own hands. The Palestinian national liberation movement reconnected the sentiments of the Palestinian anti-colonial struggle with the actions of Palestinians themselves. In 1969, Palestinians took leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), with Yasser Arafat, leader of the most prominent political faction, Fatah, becoming the head of the organisation. The success of the PLO in uniting Palestinians in anti-colonial resistance and gaining international attention is evident in their recognition as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by the UN in 1974. In Yasser Arafat’s 1974 address to the UN General Assembly, he famously announced: ‘Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom-fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.’

The First Intifada

As Israeli settler colonialism continued to escalate, Palestinian defiance mounted. This defiance came to a head in 1987, with the eruption of the First Intifada. The Intifada was the outcome of at least fourteen years of grassroots organising to create the necessary structures for mass mobilisation. The protests that set off the First Intifada broke out in Gaza, before spreading to Nablus, Jerusalem and, before a week had passed, built to a general strike across ’67 Palestine.

Such massive popular protests and strikes were underpinned by a deep well of everyday practice. The Intifada became a way of living for Palestinians, with a vast range of practices of resistance permeating their everyday. They ran backyard farming schemes, promoting self-reliance and disengagement from the predatory Israeli market. When Israel closed schools and universities, teachers took classes in their homes, and taught the politics of the Intifada. Palestinian women smuggled Intifada leaflets under their shirts, posing as pregnant, to conceal them from Israeli soldiers. Palestinian practices and symbols were reinvigorated, from national flags, to art and cooking.

The Oslo ‘peace’ process

The First Intifada provided the impetus for the beginning of the Oslo peace process. This was a process of negotiations between the PLO and Israel, resulting in them signing the Oslo I and Oslo II Accords in 1993 and 1995, laying out the terms for their future negotiations. The ostensible goal of these negotiations was to realise a two-state solution, whereby an independent Palestinian nation-state would be founded alongside the State of Israel. An important outcome of the accords was the creation of the Palestinian Authority (PA), proposed as an interim government that would rule over Gaza and the West Bank until final status negotiations were completed.

The Oslo Accords failed fundamentally in providing the foundations for a just peace. The fatal flaw of the Oslo process was that it not only disregarded but concealed the colonial power relations between Israel and Indigenous Palestinians. What the peace process amounted to, then, was a pacification of Palestinian resistance, while maintaining the conditions of settler colonial domination to which they were resisting.

The formation of the PA shifted the goal of Palestinian politics from the liberation of Palestine to the achievement of statehood on a fragment of Palestine for a fragment of Palestinians. The institution of the PA, furthermore, created the illusion that Gaza and the West Bank were governed by Palestinians, even as Israel continued its violent dispossession of Palestinians and the expansion of Israeli settlement.

Israel effectively used the peace negotiations as a curtain behind which it could intensify its colonisation of Palestine. Between the signing of Oslo I in 1993 and the onset of the Second Intifada in 2000, the population in Israeli settlements in ’67 Palestine almost doubled. Such settlement continues to be actively encouraged by the Israeli government, through policies such as providing lucrative subsidies for settlement construction. Rather than a tragic failure of Oslo, this intensification of colonisation should be seen as a fundamental part of the process.

An important factor in ensuring the Oslo process would serve Israeli colonisation was the role of the US as a dishonest broker. Although the US posed as a neutral mediator for peace, nothing could be further from the truth. This fact is evident most blatantly in their political and material support for Israeli colonisation. For example, between 1991 and 2019, the US used its veto power on the United Nations Security Council fifteen times to unilaterally block international condemnation of Israeli actions – a power it has used only once during the same period on all other issues combined. To date, the US has handed Israel a total of over $146 billion (not inflation-adjusted) in aid, 77 per cent of which is military aid. Between 2019 and 2028, the US is set to hand Israel an unprecedented $3.8 billion dollars per year in military aid.

The Second Intifada erupted in 2000 out of the frustration of Palestinian hopes for peace. Like the First Intifada, the Second Intifada was a direct response to the escalation of Israeli settler colonialism. However, the Second Intifada differed from the First in many respects. In particular, it saw a decrease in popular participation and an increase in methods of armed struggle. Like the peace process to which it responded, the Second Intifada ultimately saw the further entrenchment of Israeli settler colonialism.

The post-Oslo present

Palestinians continue to live and resist across the fragments of Palestine and outside, in a present that is defined by ‘the farce of Oslo and its many sequels’. The violent Israeli colonisation of Palestine continues in many forms in this post-Oslo reality. There is the blatant disregard for Palestinian life, evident most disturbingly in the ongoing Israeli siege and brutal Israeli assaults on Gaza. This violence is underpinned by Israeli discourse. For example, during the 2008 assault, Israeli Deputy Minister of Defence Matan Vilnai threatened to punish Gaza with a ‘holocaust’.

The West Bank has become a key frontier zone for Israeli settler colonial land appropriation. The West Bank has been effectively divided into 227 separate enclaves, a strategy comparable to the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa, while totally isolating East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank. This splintering of Palestinian space is effected in part through a massive, 730km-long wall that snakes through the West Bank, well beyond the 1967 Green Line. The Apartheid Wall, as it is primarily known by Palestinians, cuts Palestinian cities and villages in two, separating farmers from their land and Palestinian communities from one another.

The erasure and repression of ’48 Palestinians continues. The violent Israeli response to recent protests across both ’67 and ’48 Palestine is testament to the fact that Israel sees all Palestinians as a threat to be eliminated, regardless of whether or not they carry an Israeli passport. Palestinians become a security threat to Israel simply in being born Palestinian.

The millions of diaspora Palestinians continue to be denied their right to return home. Many of those in the near diaspora, particularly in Lebanon, continue to struggle through conditions of statelessness and the immense precarity entailed. I am among the privileged few diaspora Palestinians who can travel to Palestine on my Australian passport, with a maximum three-month Israeli tourist visa. That is, so long as I am prepared to face the indignity of being interrogated for eleven hours at the border by Israeli teenagers with assault rifles, who have the power to deny me entry to my homeland. By making this piece public, I am likely to be banned entry for life.

I urge non-Palestinians then to know the cost when you hear our call to rise in solidarity with Palestine. Know that, for doing so, the physical ties to our homeland are severed by Israel. But the far deeper ties, those of an undying sovereignty over Palestine, only grow stronger.

This is a historical moment. Palestinians unite in protest from Sheikh Jarrah to Gaza, from Haifa to Ramallah, from Shatila to New York. Our voices come together in a chorus that echoes through time, calling, as we always have, for a Free Palestine. Now stand with us on the right side of history.


Photo: Aida refugee camp, Palestine (Jamal Nabulsi)

Jamal Nabulsi

Jamal Nabulsi is a diaspora Palestinian writer and researcher, living on the unceded sovereign lands of the Jagera and Turrbal peoples. His research explores the intersections between emotion and resistance, through analysing Palestinian practices of graffiti and hip-hop music. Twitter: @jamal_nabulsi

More by Jamal Nabulsi ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Powerful stuff Jamal. Well researched and communicated. We can only hope and pray for an everlasting peace and tolerance. I believe that all religious groups have the right to coexist within Palestine,

  2. As long as the last Empire continues to fund, support and encourage ruthless right wing oligarchs around the world, the suffering will go on.

  3. This is a precise description of the history of the Palestinian agony and a wonderfully written article Jamal! Thank you! Unfortunately it is not enough to be a victim of injustice to be be seen as one.

  4. Jamal,a wonderful peice of historical fact. Yourtime in Palestine was well spent. Written with stark account,compassion and love in the call for continuing solidarity with the Palestinian people.

  5. Remarkable; essential research, The Great Hunger in Ireland is seen in similar ways, and leads to great solidarity. It, also, gives rise to young reserchers coming forward. Digging deep resurrects what the Zionists thought wiped out

  6. Great piece Jamal, your writing has enlightened me to the historical issues that continually plague this conflict and serve as a portent of contemporary techniques of neo-colonisation elsewhere in the world. This senseless pursuit of domination is a manifestation of the greed and foolishness of human minds, of which must be transformed.

  7. This is a well written one-sided article. It would have been nice if the author had listed his sources (my apologies if I have missed them somehow). RWith respect, please remember, there are two sides to every story.

  8. A wonderful, passionate and clear description of our stolen lands and continued persecution of the Palestinian people, of which my mother and her family were a part.
    Thanks Jamal for this piece.
    I also live on unceded Gubbi Gubbi land north of Brisbane/Meanjin.

  9. What a succinct and thought provoking overview of this dreadful historical and ongoing injustice.
    Don’t expect any Australian government to leap the the side of Palestine though, not while we continue to downplay the theft of sovereign land from the original inhabitants of our country.

  10. Congratulations Jamal Nabulsi and Overland for this powerful truth-telling. The ethnic cleansing of 90% of Palestine means that a 2-state solution is dead. There is presently a One-state Apartheid reality in Palestine as perceived recently by both Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem . Subjects of Apartheid Israel total 14.3 million comprising 6.8 million Jewish Israelis (48%), 7.1 million Indigenous Palestinians (50%), 0.4 million non-Arab and non-Jewish Israelis, 1.9 million Palestinian Israelis (Third Class citizens under over 60 race-based, Nazi-style discriminatory laws), and 5.2 million Occupied Palestinians (73% of Apartheid Israel’s Indigenous Palestinian Subjects, with zero human rights, subjected to extreme poverty, excluded from Jews-only areas, and excluded from voting for the government ruling them i.e. subject to egregious Apartheid). The GDP per capita is a deadly $3,400 for the Occupied Palestinians versus $46,400 for the Occupier Israelis.

    The Occupied Palestinians are highly abusively confined to West Bank ghettoes under military rule (3.2 million) or to the blockaded and repeatedly bombed and shelled Gaza Concentration Camp (2 million). The various groups of Palestinian Subjects of Apartheid Israel are controlled not just by guns but by specific compulsory ID passes just as were non-European Subjects of Apartheid South Africa and indeed the Subjects of Nazi Germany-occupied Europe. There are also 8 million mostly impoverished Exiled Palestinians deriving from successive mass expulsions of Indigenous Arabs (800,000 in 1948 and 400,000 in 1967), and illegally excluded on pain of death from the homeland continuously inhabited by their forebears for thousands of years.

    Silence is complicity and those not condemning Apartheid, Apartheid Israel and the ongoing Palestinian Genocide (2.2 million Palestinian deaths from violence, 0.1 million, and from deprivation, 2.1 million, since the Australia-assisted British invasion of the Middle East in 1914) are complicit in these crimes. Under the Coalition Government Australia is second only to the US as a supporter of Apartheid Israel.

  11. Many good points in this article, so I think it’s a shame it has some biases like branding European Jews as colonialists when they consider themselves to be refugees who are returning after thousands of years – it’s similar to how the author would presumably object to being branded an Australian Arab who is to live in Australia and no longer has a right to come back to Palestine. This doesn’t mean I endorse the violent way in which the Zionist side realised their ambitions without the consent of the local population.

    It also ignores the many crimes committed against defenceless civilians like the Hamas bus bombings which have significantly hurt the Palestinian cause by severely harming their reputation, fostering a cycle of hatred/distrust and giving the Israeli side an excuse for their murderous and oppressive policies. The Israeli side does have most of the blame but if it wasn’t for the ultra violent “resistance” I think they would have been forced to stop oppressing the Palestinians decades ago.

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