Israel is throwing a 75th birthday party – Palestinians have little to celebrate

Rashid Khalidi

The Nation  /  April 26, 2023

While Israelis hail the 75th anniversary of their country’s founding, Palestinians are preparing to mark 75 years of brutal oppression.

The coming month witnesses two very different, albeit intimately linked, 75th anniversaries. This May, Palestinians will solemnly commemorate the Nakba, the catastrophe that befell their society and precipitated the establishment of a Jewish state in a country with a two-thirds Palestinian majority. Meanwhile, this week, Israeli Jews are celebrating the simultaneous creation of their state, one that by 1949 controlled 78 percent of the former Mandatory Palestine, and that since 1967 has controlled all of it, plus an occupied chunk of Syrian territory.

Palestinian citizens of Israel are expected to cheer Israel’s independence, which left them as second-class citizens of a state with at least 65 laws that discriminate against them, and that expelled 750,000 of their fellow Palestinians in 1948. For the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have lived under the draconian control of the Israeli military for nearly three generations, and for the equal numbers of Palestinians living in exile whom Israel bars from returning to their homeland, there is also little to celebrate.

While they can take some consolation from the steadfastness of those who cling to their homeland in spite of Israel’s ongoing systematic dispossession, and from the undying spirit of resistance among the youth, the horizon is bleak. The Palestinian national movement is in a state of total disarray—divided, self-serving, undemocratic, and lacking the most basic elements of a strategy for liberation. And Israel is ruled by a government even more committed to Jewish supremacy, creeping annexation, settler colonialism, and denial of the most basic Palestinian rights than all those that have come before.

In the United States, the government, media, and much of society will mark the Israeli anniversary—an event for which the US itself can claim much of the responsibility—while paying little if any attention to its Palestinian doppelgänger, for which this country also was and still is largely responsible.

Recent protests in Israel against the extreme right-wing Netanyahu government’s attempts to bring the judiciary under its full control have focused on its objective of depriving secular, LGBTQ+, and other liberal Jewish Israelis of their rights. However, the protests have largely ignored the government’s even more zealous determination to deprive Palestinian citizens of Israel of the few rights they enjoy, while deepening both the suffering of Palestinians living under occupation and the power of the extremist settlers whose interests the Israeli military serves.

This commitment to Palestinian immiseration is not surprising, since the government’s leading ministers include self-described “fascist homophobe” Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionist Party, who complained in the Knesset that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was wrong not to have forcibly expelled every single Palestinian from their homeland during the Nakba. But by focusing on measures that primarily affect Israeli Jews, the protesters, echoed by the US media’s coverage, have largely obscured Israel’s unending occupation and robbery of Palestinian land, and its systemic discrimination against its own citizens.

However, after decades of bombardment by the meretricious slogan that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” one of the positive effects of the protests has been to allow Americans who are not dazzled by the supposed liberal brilliance of Israel’s democracy and of the Israeli Supreme Court to see at last the dark side of these supposed paragons. For its entire existence, the Israeli state has applied what are ostensibly the same laws differently to Jews and to Palestinians: the very definition of apartheid. It has imposed draconian military rule on Palestinians—from 1948 until 1966 on those inside Israel, and since 1967 on those in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—and deprived them of virtually all rights. Never a real democracy for its Palestinian citizens, since 1967 Israel has presided over a despotic hell for Palestinians under occupation. More Americans are realizing that such a state cannot legitimately be described as fully democratic, any more than could the Jim Crow South.

One key indication of this change can be seen in a February 2023 Gallup poll showing that Democrats are more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Israelis by a 15-point margin. This represents a reversal of the situation among Democrats only seven years ago, when their sympathy was 30 percent greater for Israelis than for Palestinians. After 75 years of relentless, slick propaganda that created an unblemished image of Israel, there is increasing recognition among Americans of who is the oppressor and who the oppressed, and of the original sins of Israel’s establishment in 1948: ethnic cleansing, colonization, land theft, and the denial of the Palestinian people’s right of self-determination.

In spite of the ambiguous and unjust nature of this dual anniversary, perhaps there is something to celebrate, however cautiously. Perhaps, 75 years after the Nakba, we are seeing the beginning of the end of pernicious illusions about Israel, and the beginning of an understanding of the cruel realities of Palestine in the US, which is more responsible than any other country for perpetuating the unjust status quo in that unhappy place. Maybe this understanding will one day help Palestinians and Israelis to find true peace, so that it will not take another 75 years before they can live with supremacy and absolute power for none, and equal rights and justice for all.

Rashid Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University; his most recent book is The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine