Noura Erakat is a Palestinian American human rights attorney and assistant professor at George Mason University. She is the author of “Justice for Some: Law as Politics in the Question of Palestine,” which will be published next year by Stanford University Press.
Over the past month and a half, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza have taken part in a series of weekly protests called the Great Return March, culminating Tuesday with Nakba Day, when Palestinians mark their mass expulsion during Israel’s establishment in 1948.
Men, women and children have been braving Israeli army sniper fire to demand that they be allowed to exercise their internationally recognized right to return to lands they were expelled from by Israel. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers, and thousands more have been wounded since the protests began.
While much of the media coverage has been casting the protests as a response to the Trump administration’s move of the U.S. Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, they are in fact part of a century-long legacy of Palestinians protesting for their rights and freedom.
Palestinians have been organizing demonstrations, boycotts, strikes and outright revolts from hostile foreign rule since 1917, when colonial Britain designated Palestine for Jewish settlement. With the stroke of a pen, the great power declared that indigenous Palestinians, 90 percent of Palestine’s population, would not exist as a political community for the sake of establishing a Jewish national home.
Had Jews merely wanted to live in Palestine, this would not have been a problem. In fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians had coexisted for centuries throughout the Middle East. But Zionists sought sovereignty over a land where other people lived. Their ambitions required not only the dispossession and removal of Palestinians in 1948 but also their forced exile, juridical erasure and denial that they ever existed. So, during Israel’s establishment, some 750,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes to make way for a Jewish majority state. More than 400 Palestinian cities and towns were destroyed or taken over by Jewish Israelis. Forests were planted to cover the ruins and other evidence of the Palestinian presence on the land.
This “nakba,” or catastrophe as Palestinians refer to it, did not end in 1948. Israel has justified its existence on an unequivocal Jewish demographic majority in a place where Muslims and Christians combined had constituted an overwhelming majority. By its own definition, Israel has set up a mutually exclusive equation: Israel exists if Palestinians do not; Palestinians exist if Israel does not.
Rather than challenge this zero-sum equation of human existence, the United States has provided Israel with diplomatic cover and bottomless military aid. Israel continues to systematically dispossess Palestinians. It continues to steal Palestinian land for illegal settlements while destroying Palestinian homes and evicting families. Israel also continues to deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homeland just because they are not Jewish.
This is why Palestinians have been resisting for more than seven decades: They are fighting to remain on their lands with dignity. They have valiantly resisted their colonial erasure. They have succeeded in inscribing their peoplehood in international law and the global consciousness. Despite Israel’s best efforts, they have remained on the land and are not going anywhere.
You can see this resilience in the face of a double amputee throwing rocks from his wheelchair, in the families flying kites toward a militarized frontier, in the children who made masks from plastic bottles and onions to fight the tear gas. These were the people who faced live ammunition to demand their right to return home, along with 20,000 protesters in Atlit, Israel, who asserted Palestinians’ native presence, and Palestinians in the West Bank who have been taking part in weekly protests for a decade or more against the theft of their lands.
This resistance is not about returning to the 1947 borders or some notion of the past, but about laying claim to a better future in which Palestinians and their children can live in freedom and equality, rather than being subjugated as second-class citizens or worse.
Palestinians have endured tremendous suffering and hardship, but there is no choice but to continue in struggle. Israel and the Trump administration are trying to make permanent the exclusivist regime that they have imposed upon Palestinians — one based on racial and religious supremacy: apartheid. But Palestinians, even in this devastating moment, are paving paths of resistance to new and possible futures where freedom is not a mutually exclusive privilege but a natural human condition that can be enjoyed and embodied by all.