The seventy-third anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba was marked on 22 May 2021, in convergence with unanticipated collective resistance uprisings in Jerusalem and her surrounding occupied territories, and recent subsequent Israeli assaults on the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip, with Director General of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) and Arab scholar Azmi Bishara presenting his lecture “On the Contemporary Relevance of the Nakba and the Arab Dimension of the Palestine Issue.” Bishara’s address was streamed to a global audience over the Arab Center’s various social media platforms. The landmark event was organized in cooperation with the Institute for Palestine Studies.
Institute for Palestine Studies Board of Trustees Chairman Dr. Tarek Mitri introduced Dr. Bishara. Mitri prefaced the latter’s address emphasizing that the 1948 Nakba of Palestine, for all descendants of those who lived its horrors, remains a topical issue, one that drives a profound urge to repossess the Nakba and tell its story anew. Mitri opined that such a realization might lead us to pursue political action aspiring to be equal to the continuing trauma of the Nakba, going well beyond hitherto cherished illusions of achieving “political gains,” however comparatively diminutive they might be. More than that, Mitri suggested it can help return us to the reassess the early and initially prevalent conceptualizations of the history concerned - as being the history of an Arab Nakba, and not exclusively a Palestinian one. He suggested then that Arab reactions to recent Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip stand in rebuttal of any notion that the Palestinian cause is no longer something championed by Arab nationalism.
Bishara began his address by emphasizing that the Nakba was not a simple matter of stereotypical dispossession and usurpation: it is rather a paradigm of settler colonialism - and this essentially stands, as such, today. This essence of the Nakba was embodied in the organized eviction of families from their homes and the concerted re-population of them with settler-colonists. The background of the current massive uprising cannot be understood in isolation from Israeli state policy of expanding Jewish colonial settlement - or without reference to the incessant violations of the sanctity of Al-Aqsa Mosque, or to the occupation’s apparent intent to normalize such violations.
Bishara then drew the attention of his audience to how the uprising underway today (in all of Jerusalem, the West Bank, within the Green Line, and the Gaza Strip) is reminiscent of the early days of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions. However, things are moving much more quickly today: with the revolutionary movement gathering in days as opposed to weeks. The common departure point of both the earlier Arab Spring revolutions and the current Palestinian uprising (that has resounded among all Palestinians) has been one of acute disheartenment (verging on demoralization), in which the assertion of human dignity is the fundamental objective and driving force. We can observe, Bishara underlined, an exhilaration among fourth and fifth post-Nakba generations of Arab youth everywhere, high spirits engendered by the resolute response of a finally undivided Palestinian resistance to Israel’s actions.
Bishara underlined the importance of not overlooking the dynamic presence (within both above revolutionary histories) asserted by the groupings of organized Islamic resistance as those who responded pro-actively to the eruption of non-partisan and popular youth uprising, in an upsurge that was autonomous and devoid of factional affiliation - bearing in mind that the Islamic resistance in Gaza effectively affirmed that, for it too, Jerusalem was an issue of utmost priority, from which it could not be distanced.
The entry of the Islamic resistance into this Jerusalem arena served to overcome the rift between the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Perhaps this is one of the most important of the current uprising.
In military terms, Bishara observed that the technology developed and successfully deployed by the Palestinian resistance astounded everyone, seeing as the Palestinians had been completely blockaded in the Gaza Strip since 2006, save for two years after the revolution in Egypt (2011-2013), during which besieged Gazans were able to breathe relatively freely. He pointed out that the resistance was able to alter the calculi of pre-emption and deterrence, notwithstanding Israel’s having set about this war with an aim of pre-empting any imminent Palestinian deterrence. The outcomes of this change in the ordnance equation of will likely very soon become apparent, Bishara predicted, especially since Israeli provocation and incitements have returned with a vengeance in recent days to Al-Aqsa apparently to disprove any claim by the Palestinian resistance of its having established a state of deterrence in Jerusalem.
Bishara then commented that his address’ title of the Contemporary Relevance of the Nakba references principally the fact that the Nakba’s causes, motives, and downstream manifestations are all still operative and impactful; Israel was established by the United Nations’ 1947 partition resolution, and consolidated its authority over Palestinian lands in 1967, after which it expelled the Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza. As a result, the Gaza Strip has turned into one enormous refugee camp with a 365 square kilometer area, sheltering two million Palestinian refugees. Gaza cannot therefore in any way be considered a liberated area; it is simply a large refugee camp.
Bishara went on to explain the Egyptian authorities’ stepping up to play a role in the recent intifada, and especially during the 11 day assault on Gaza (10- 21 May), as being an attempt to curry favour with new U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, noting that the US President had shown no interest in talking to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi until after the aggression had begun on Gaza. Bishara stated his belief that if the US Democratic Party had not been in power, no Egyptian initiative would have materialized. He pointed out that the position and role of Egypt role differed greatly, in the latest war waged on Gaza, from the Israeli assaults of 2012 and 2014; these reflect the wide gulf between the then political authority of a democratically elected civilian president who clearly and tangibly sought to ease the Strip’s strife, and the current regime’s exertion of a policy of “maximum pressure” to bend the population of the strip to his will. Nevertheless, it is significant that during the current uprising Egyptian institutions demonstrated clearly that they are seeking to re-assert their repossession of agency in external affairs. By the same token, an American desire for Egypt to play a greater role in communicating with Hamas seems to have surfaced.
Regarding Jerusalem, Bishara underlined the city’s powerful symbolism seen in recent events: the city had become subject to escalating annexation and occupation, actions ideologically blazing with anachronistic biblical narrative - to the point that virtually everything in the Jerusalem municipality must be evaluated in terms of the Holy City. As a result, Israel took steps to limit the numbers of the Arab inhabitants of Jerusalem, and lay virtual siege to Old City, encasing it within bands of Jewish settler colonies. If the current Israeli scenario of home evictions succeeds in the historic and storied Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, then demolition of the equally celebrated Wadi al-Joz area and confiscation of Palestinian homes in Silwan’s Batn al Hawa neighbourhood will be the next model. Bishara suggested that despite Israel besieging Arabs in poor neighborhoods that, as a result, at times display alarming signs of degradation and degeneracy, youth in those deprived neighborhoods did rise to stand for their Jerusalem and resist the occupation; al-Aqsa Mosque provided a key focus around which the youth grouped.
Regarding the Arab dimension, Bishara made it clear that Palestine is not an area of any primacy for Arabs in general, except insofar as they self-identify as belonging to the Arab “ummah” or to The Arab Nation. Arab peoples in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and other Arab countries all do have their own distinct priority issues. Bishara then spoke of the series of efforts made over the years to remove the cause of Palestinian cause from its national/Arab Nationalist framework: the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, which removed Egypt from the calculus of Arab-Israeli confrontation, considering in its stead Egypt’s conflict with Israel essentially to have begun with the 1967 Israeli occupation of Sinai, rather than the 1948 Nakba. Jordan followed in the same vein. Bishara then saw that throughout this descent from any claim to a moral high ground of solidarity, no Arab country entering direct or indirect negotiations with Israel ever saw fit to raise the fundamental issue of the right of refugee return, a right enshrined in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention.
That said, Bishara noted that this kind of spineless posture of Arab governments was not one characterizing their countries’ people. In fact, the Arab Opinion Index, conducted annually by the Arab Center over the past ten years and undoubtedly the most comprehensive public survey of its kind, attests that normalization of this status quo on Palestine and Palestinian refugees for Arab public opinion at least remains something to be rejected; it is reprehensible in the eyes of Arab citizens everywhere. It is the position of Arab governments, but not of Arab people. Bishara claimed that the recent intifada confirms beyond all doubt that the narrative according to which the Arabs have done away with the Palestinian cause is a false and misleading one. On the contrary, he allowed that the current Palestinian intifada should be understood as being an extension of the two earlier Arab Spring revolution tsunamis.
In second section of his lecture, Bishara refuted the worn-out Israeli mythology of the Palestinian Nakba, such the legendary flight of the Palestinian Arabs from their villages, towns and cities at the request of Arab armies following the launch of the 1948 war. The dispossession of Palestinian Arabs from their cities and towns was, rather, systematic and organized, beginning well before the war’s actual start and prior to the declaration of Israeli independence of Israel. In addition, Bishara addressed other myths, such as that fighters in the Zionist forces were a numerically fewer than fighters in the Arab armies.
Closing his address, Bishara stressed the necessity of reviving the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) with the full participation of leaderships in Gaza, Ramallah and the Palestinian diaspora, as well as the inclusion of various existing or nascent independent initiatives. This is essential to allow the PLO to revive emerge uncontestably as a referential and representative political body capable and competent to approve jointly approved decisions, and to implement them.
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