Why We Can’t Forget the Nakba

لماذا لا يمكننا نسيان النكبة

This essay was originally published on the website of the Middle East Institute.

By Carol Daniel Kasbari, senior associate director, Conflict Resolution Program

For Palestinians, the Nakba (Catastrophe) is a somber occasion that represents the loss of their homeland and the forced displacement that followed. As a nation, they mourn the tragic events that unfolded, which saw them violently uprooted from their ancestral homes to make way for a Jewish-majority state, as envisioned by the Zionist movement. This year, as Palestinians commemorate the 75th anniversary of this agonizing chapter in their history on May 15, they recognize the significance of this day and the ongoing struggle for justice, equality, and the right to return to their homeland.

The Nakba has deeply scarred Palestinian society, affecting not only those who were directly displaced, but also their descendants who grew up in refugee camps or the diaspora. It has disrupted families and communities, resulting in the loss of culture and a sense of belonging. The Nakba remains an open wound for all Palestinians, who continue to deal with its consequences despite the passage of time. When my father passed away two months ago, I felt the pain again of never having met my aunts, who were displaced, and not knowing whether they were alive or deceased, or if they knew about my father, who was an orphan from birth. The trauma of losing his entire family is still strongly felt to this day.

No matter where a Palestinian lives, the trauma of the Nakba remains raw and excruciating. As they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their heritage and way of life, the sense of helplessness that gripped them during those dark times persists. It is not surprising that many of our elders refused to discuss this traumatic past, as it was simply intolerable. My parents never discussed it with me, and I never learned about it in school as a child. Every home, every street, and every institution has been under the supervision of Israeli monitoring and disciplinary power.

As a Palestinian who grew up within the Green Line, I came to realize that many Israelis had little desire to comprehend me or my people. It seemed as though they were content to subscribe to the notion that before the Nakba, the land was uninhabited, and now it rightfully belongs to those who were previously without a homeland. They accepted the belief that the indigenous inhabitants of the land were merely Arabs who happened to live there, without any profound connection to the land. It was as if the Arabs had lived alongside the Jews, who were perceived as the rightful owners of the land, from time immemorial.

Israelis are largely unaware of the enduring trauma that continues to afflict Palestinians who were forcibly evicted from their homes. Worse, Israeli governments refuse to recognize that the violence inflicted on Palestinians is not exclusively physical. Rather, it is profoundly embedded in the state’s own fabric — in its systems, institutions, and regulations. The responsibility for the expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland cannot be solely attributed to a few Israeli leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion, nor to current figures like Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir, or Benjamin Netanyahu, who seek to continue and intensify this destructive legacy. While it is important to hold individuals accountable for their past and present crimes, it is crucial to recognize that the systemic violence against Palestinians exists within the foundational structures of Israeli society — its social, political, and economic institutions. The impact of this structural violence is far-reaching and enduring, surpassing the more visible physical attacks on Palestinians and their property. With over 60 discriminatory laws and numerous policies targeting Palestinian citizens of Israel, Jews enjoy significant advantages and Palestinians are stripped of all manner of rights.

To truly understand the tragedy of the Nakba and the ongoing trauma experienced by Palestinians, it is important to humanize their experiences. It is crucial to recognize that behind every statistic, every headline, and every policy decision, there are real people with real stories and real struggles. By listening to and amplifying these voices, we can begin to truly understand the complexity and depth of the Palestinian experience.

The international community must understand that the Palestinian struggle for justice is motivated by a desire to be seen, heard, and valued as human beings. It is a struggle for recognition, dignity, and respect. The call to “erase the erasure” in this context is a powerful expression of the Palestinian struggle for justice and recognition. It refers to the demand that the Nakba be recognized and redressed, as well as that Palestinians’ rights to return to their homes and land be recognized and honored. It is a cry for the restoration of justice and dignity as well as for the Palestinian people to be recognized as equal members of the human family.

The Nakba’s trauma can no longer be ignored. It is imperative that the world, and Israel in particular, recognize and comprehend the significance of this event. The Jewish and Palestinian peoples’ perceptions have been molded by traumatic historical experiences. The founding and rise of the state of Israel in 1948 marked a moment of redemption for Israelis. The Nakba, however, is not a closed chapter in history for Palestinians who have been permanently displaced and are living in exile or under occupation. The trauma is persistent and has an impact on the daily life of every Palestinian, which is why the Nakba cannot be forgotten or erased.

Dealing with the consequences of the Nakba is the only way to find a solution and move forward. It is the key to achieving calm, stability, and normalcy in the Holy Land. However, this can only happen if Israel and the rest of the world take responsibility for their complicity in the ongoing displacement and statelessness of the Palestinian people. The failure to recognize and address this issue prevents progress toward a peaceful and just resolution.

Carol Daniel Kasbari, Ph.D, is a social scientist with an interdisciplinary doctoral degree in conflict analysis and resolution. She has more than 20 years of experience designing and leading programs in the field of conflict mitigation, peacebuilding, advocacy, and nonviolent resistance in complex international environments, focusing on the Middle East-North Africa region and Europe. She is the senior associate director of the Conflict Resolution Program at The Carter Center and a nonresident scholar with MEI's Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs.

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