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Israel’s Blood-Soaked Borders: Al-Nakba Then and Now

This year’s observance of Yom al-Nakba, the “Day of the
Catastrophe” marking the 63rd anniversary of Israel’s Declaration
of Independence (14 May 1948) and the disastrous cleansing of
over 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from the new state contrary to the
letter and spirit of that document, was marked by the killing of
at least 16 demonstrators on Israel’s borders.

That tragic sacrifice by protesters correctly demanding that the
Palestinian Right of Return within Israel be honored should
remind us of a vastly greater human toll paid by Palestinians
during this apartheid state’s early years along some of these
same blood-soaked borders. From 1949 to 1956, according to
one estimate cited by the noted Israeli historian
Avi Shlaim,
somewhere between 2700 and 5000 Palestinian “infiltrators” were
killed attempting to cross the armistice lines and enter Israel,
most of them refugees seeking to return to their homes, lands,
and families.

As Israeli historians such as Shlaim and his colleague Benny
Morris have shown, and young Palestinian citizens of Israel later
recalled in looking back to those fateful years when the
techniques of Israel apartheid were developed and perfected, a
landscape frequently punctuated by the bodies of refugees along
the border or “Green Line” resulted from a policy favoring a
“free-fire zone” long before the U.S.A.-Indochina war made that
term a household phrase. The policy was to shoot first, and ask
questions later — a policy still evidently in place last weekend
for Makba Day, when the Israeli authorities confronted more
“infiltrators” (a term which has kept its currency along with the
bloodshed itself).

While Yom al-Nakba is a commemoration of Israel’s
anti-Palestinian ethnic cleansing and a protest of Israeli
apartheid’s continuing reality, this year’s border protests might
be called a small-scale but all-too-realistic reenactment of
Israel’s formative years of dispossession and slaughter. Each
demonstrator killed at the border stood, in effect, for somewhere
between 200 and 300 fatalities during 1949-1956.

Not all border crossing during those years were innocent: a
guerrilla and counterguerrilla raids took place, as well as some
drug smuggling. However, as Shlaim sums up the findings of Benny
Morris, at least 90% of the “infiltrations … were motivated by
economic and social concerns.”

Those concerns included simply returning to one’s home or
ancestral community, or to farming land which had been divided
from one’s residence by the vagaries of the armistice lines of 11
May 1949 (not originally intended to be a permanent political
boundary), or reuniting with one’s family and friends.

In fact, this great majority of nonviolent “infiltrators” had
every right to an orderly process for returning to Israel and
becoming equal citizens of the new state under United Nations
General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 181 (29 November 1947) adopted
before the displacement of al-Nakba had begun, and UNGA
Resolution 194 (11 December 1948) adopted just over a year later
after this humanitarian disaster of ethnic cleansing had become
an accomplished “fact on the ground.”

However, respect for the civil and human rights provisions of
these two U.N. resolutions was as far from the minds of the
Israeli powers that be as the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and
Fifteenth Amendments from the minds of those ordaining almost a
century of Jim Crow in much of the U.S.A.

Both the ethnic cleansing of 1947-1949 and the slaughter of the
would-be Palestinian Arab returnees or nonviolent “infiltrators”
during 1949-1956 reflected a terrorist philosophy much like that
summed up by Leon Trotsky: al-Nakba, like the Bolshevik approach
to revolution, “kills thousands and terrorizes millions.”

Israeli forces during the first bloody years of the “Green Line”
were not so much unable to distinguish peaceful returnees from
suspected guerrillas as unwilling to do so. Indeed, they may have
feared the spectre of peaceful ethnic pluralism and democracy as
directed by UNGA 181 and 194 far more than a few violent border
raids and reprisals.

The nonviolent Defiance Campaign directed by the African National
Congress against the coalescing modern system of South African
apartheid during these same years met a likewise violent
repression reflecting similar fears.

As White House Press Secretary Jay Carney famously put it in
another context: “Resistance does not require a firearm.”

Focusing on the physical as well as structural and psychological
violence of 63 years of al-Nakba — a violence warping the
perspectives and emotions of Israeli Jews as well as Palestinian
Arabs — should serve not to “delegitimize Israel,” but rather to
highlight and promote the necessary conditions for legitimizing
it after more than six decades of military rule and injustice.

Those conditions can all flow from one critical step: orderly and
expeditious implementation of UNGA 181 and 194 by the
repatriation to Israel of those Palestinian refugees who so wish
on the basis of equal citizenship, bringing about equitable
powersharing between Israeli Jews and these new citizens as well
as the current fourth-class Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel
making up over 1.5 million people or about 20% of the population.

With this critical step included, either a one-state or two-state
solution could meet the basic civil and human rights standards
that the U.N. resolutions of over 60 years ago mandate and
elementary 21st-century standards of decency demand.

Without this step, which conventional “two-state solutions” have
studiously sought to avoid for over four decades, we are talking
about creating a Bantustan and calling it peace.

The Palestinian “infiltrators” then and now who have given their
lives in a quest peacefully to return to their ancestral lands
and communities deserve better, as does a Jewish tradition rich
with stories of pluralism, hospitality, and universal humanity.

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Margo Schulter

Margo Schulter