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On the 70-year anniversary of Nakba Day, this is how Israel could embrace returning Palestinian refugees

On 15 May, Palestinians mark Nakba Day, an annual event which both remembers the displacement of Palestinians in 1948 and protests Israel’s continued rejection of their right to return.

This year Nakba Day comes as the Trump administration makes good on its promise to relocate the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Today’s opening of the new US embassy comes amid protests in the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip. In response, Israeli forces have killed at least 41 Palestinian protesters, wounding hundreds more.

The convergence of the 70th anniversary of Nakba Day with these contemporary developments is an opportunity to consider its significance in the past, present and future.

The Nakba was the systematic expulsion of Palestinians and destruction of their communities. Over a period of two years, 85 to 90 per cent of Palestinians who had been living in what became the State of Israel were expelled and hundreds of villages were destroyed.

The Nakba fits our understanding of what we now refer to as ethnic cleansing. Fear and violence – including massacres – were used to empty Palestinian communities. The expelled Palestinians were then physically prevented from returning. By 1952, Israel had passed laws to expropriate the refugees’ lands and deny them their citizenship.

Yet the Nakba is not just about the past, as Palestinians are still displaced and brutalised by Israeli authorities today.

The Palestinians being gunned down by Israeli snipers in Gaza – including more than 250 children hit with live fire since 30 March, according to Save the Children – live under a devastating blockade.

The US embassy, meanwhile, is now located in a city whose municipal boundaries include illegally annexed occupied territory. Jerusalem’s authorities openly seek to maintain a “Jewish majority” in the city, even evicting Palestinian families and forcing them to watch as their homes are demolished.

In the West Bank, Israeli forces routinely demolish and displace Palestinian communities. Earlier this month, soldiers raided Palestinian neighbourhoods in Masafer Yatta and made 26 homeless. According to the United Nations, Israeli occupation authorities have demolished 167 Palestinian-owned structures in 2018 to date.

Even those Palestinians with Israeli citizenship aren’t safe from this ongoing persecution. The village of Umm al-Hiran in the Negev, for example, is set to be destroyed so that Israeli authorities can “build a new Jewish-only town on its ruins”.

But the significance of the Nakba is also about the future.

For Israel, the Palestinian refugees’ return would mean an end to the Jewish majority created by forced displacement and discrimination. Yet outside the lens of demographic anxiety, the power of the Palestinians’ return can be transformative, rather than destructive.

Some argue that Israel would never accept such a resolution, but this is to allow the parameters of the possible to be limited by Israel’s insistence on a “right” to an ethnostate at the expense of the Palestinians.

While practical questions are important and there are many precedents to be drawn on with respect to the return of refugees, the main obstacle to the realisation of Palestinian refugees’ rights is Israeli rejectionism.

With hard-right nationalists dominating the US and Israeli governments, and the European Union seemingly committed to a “carrots but no sticks” approach, Israel is still displacing Palestinians 70 years on from the Nakba. Without accountability, it will continue to do so.

But looking forward beyond the apartheid status quo, the return of Palestinian refugees is not only the right thing to do legally and morally, but it is also the only route to a just, sustainable solution for both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Published first by The Independent.

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