The next time anyone tries to tell you that “the occupation” (meaning the post-1967 Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza) is the core of the issue in Israel/Palestine, politely but firmly tell them that they’re off by twenty years. Today, May 15, is the day Palestinians commemorate al-Nakba (“the Catastrophe”), the day the state of Israel declared its independence in 1948, putting a public seal of approval on the near-destruction of Palestinian society. Without the Nakba, the Zionist movement never could have achieved its goal of creating a majority-Jewish state in Palestine. Equally important, on a day of clashes at numerous sites in and around Israel/Palestine, many journalists continue to collaborate in the perpetuation of a discursive framework that helps shield Israel from legal responsibility for the effect of the Nakba. (Image by SlimVirgin at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)
This morning, as I listened to NPR’s hourly newscast, I heard reporter Philip Reeves make what sounded like a relatively innocuous statement in reference to the day’s violence. During the Nakba, he said, “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were driven from their homes, or fled.”
Why the extra two words (“or fled”) tacked onto the end of the sentence? Those two little words imply that the people who were “driven from their homes” did not “flee” – but they did, of course. That’s what people do in wartime: they flee. Sometimes they flee because their village is literally under attack. Sometimes they flee in anticipation of the attack. Sometimes they flee because soldiers are marching them down the road out of town. Whatever the reason for flight, though, they have the right to return to their homes. Period.
For decades apologists for Israeli settler colonialism have been clinging to the idea that the issue of the Palestinian “right of return” can be negated by sowing doubt about exactly how those 750,000 Palestinians ended up outside their homes in 1948. If the impression can be created that at least part of this exodus was “voluntary,” the logic goes, then the question of the “right of return” – firmly enshrined under international law – can be perpetually postponed under a cloud of manufactured uncertainty.
It’s a cynical, disingenuous strategy, and it works in part by pressuring journalists to alter their language ever so slightly. But ask yourself, why is this spurious logic only applied in the case of Israel/Palestine? When discussing war in Sudan or Bosnia or Angola or Iraq, journalists would never add the phrase “or fled” to their description of war’s violent displacement – such an addition would seem redundant. Of course they fled! Only in the case of Israel/Palestine can the act of fleeing one’s home during a war be implicitly constructed as a potential abdication of one’s right to return.
So what is the purpose of those two little words in that NPR report? The purpose is to show, in a way that most listeners would not even notice, that the journalist is refusing to take sides in a debate over what exactly happened in 1948. But it is a debate between those who are appealing to international law and those who are seeking to avoid taking responsibility for the violation of international law. Since when do journalists have to be neutral in such a debate?
What this small but important example illustrates is the success of those who have sought to frame Israel/Palestine in terms of “competing narratives” which can then be ritualistically set in opposition to each other in the hope that the “solution” will be found somewhere in the middle. Journalists can then be coaxed more easily into sacrificing the truth under the guise of “objectively” taking into account both narratives.
International law, however, is not simply a narrative, and neither is the right of return. This is the real meaning of commemorating the Nakba.