Nakba commemoration at Tel Aviv University, 13 May 2013. (Photo: Lazar Simeonov)
For the second time in two years, students at Tel Aviv University (TAU) commemorating the 1947-49 Palestinian expulsion and the destruction of villages were met with a counter-protest. At last year’s event over 1,000 amassed on campus, ending in clashes incited by members of Knesset. Again this year, the youth-based “new Zionist” group Im Tirtzu bottom-lined the demonstration, distributing a counter analysis pamphlet titled “Nakba Harta” or “Nakba-Bullshit”. (The English booklet’s title reads “Nakba Nonsense,” but the Hebrew title uses the word “Hartata,” or “bullshit.”).
“Reading the names of the [destroyed] villages leaves it open to interpretation and many people believe that the state of Israel is a consequence,” said Ben Gross, 26, from Im Tirtzu. Gross explained that his group does recognize a catastrophe was experienced by the Palestinian people during Israel’s war of Independence, but qualifies without proper context, Israeli’s will be led astray to feelings of guilt and remorse over their territorial gain. “There is no need for us to apologize for winning the war,” Gross stated.
Im Tirtz protesting a nakba commemoration at Tel Aviv University, 13 May 2013. (Photo: Lazar Simeonov)
Through Im Tirtzu, Gross tries to stop what he views as a loss of pride in his country. And in doing so the group separates itself from the gamut of pro-Israel advocates that shy away from a frank acknowledgment of Palestinian suffering caused by Zionist militias in 1948. Still, Im Tirtzu’s criticism of the Arab Student Union’s Nakba commemoration left no room for Palestinians to conduct their reading of destroyed villages uninterrupted. Decked out with nearly one Israeli flag per demonstrator and demanding “no chaos, no trouble,” Im Tirtzu, slickly undermined the event.
Gross and a fellow student explained that Im Tirtzu was protesting because they feel the Palestinian students and leftists who planned the memorial tacitly support Nazism and a culture of Holocaust denial. “The problem is not reading the names of villages, it’s what stands behind it,” said Gross. Another member of Im Tirtzu said that weeks ago a lecture was held on campus at which faculty made comparisons of the Palestinian Nakba to the Holocaust–a comparison he said exemplifies holocaust denial. Both students then noted the ties between Adolf Hitler and Amin al-Husayni, the former Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the British Mandate period.
The Israel advocates argued that because al-Husayni famously and controversially met with the Nazi leader and appealed for him to support a Palestinian National state, today’s Nakba memorial ought to acknowledge those events, and al-Husayni’s possible ideology. Gross said he does not oppose what the Palestinians students were saying or doing at the commemoration but what they didn’t say.
You might think that discussing a Nazi affiliate at a Nakba memorial is really not to the point, but Gross’s stance is more thought through than his organization’s claim that the Nakba is bullshit. Reading Im Tirtzu’s website later, it is is clear that Gross agrees whole-heartedly with the groups’s reinvigurated vision of secular Zionisim founded by Theodore Herzl–although in Herzl’s Palestine, there never was a nakba and Jews and Arabs lived harmoniously in European-inspired fantasy of a Jewish state. Gross’s charm is that he doesn’t sound rehearsed. The communications student entered the hasbara scene a few years ago as an unaffiliated online activist. Initially he tried to make up the deficit he saw in the state’s official internet presence. He cited the Mavi Marmara PR disaster as an example where Israel had a chance to win, but lost a communications battle. At that time Gross had already served in the Israeli Defense Forces, in duty during the second war in Lebanon. Although he said his army service and losing loved ones to political violence was not the sole factor in prompting the goal of becoming a professional Israel advocate after graduation, he did find those experiences instrumental.
“I think that [serving in the military] makes you one of us. There is a certain amount of pride in being Israeli.” Now he is a regular participant in Im Tirtzu’s weekly counter-protests against students demonstrating on campus in support Palestinian hunger strikers. And during Operation Pillar of Cloud last fall, Gross was active in the “situation room,” a student government supported computer facility where pro-Israel students used campus resources for online hasbara.
“It feels like they are talking to themselves, to walls,” said Hanin Majdali, 23, a Palestinian student also at Tel Aviv University. Majdali said her participation in the nakba event “was automatic, it was not like I even asked myself to go.” When presented with Im Tirtzu’s position of protesting the commemoration because of al-Husayni, and their underlying feeling of nefarious motives on the part of the Arab Student Union, perplexed, Majdali said, “I don’t feel that I’m in a situation where … I can feel something with their narrative.”
“If they want to explain to themselves something other than what we mean” she continued, “it’s their problem.”
Majdali is from Baqa al-Gharbiya, the western half of a village split in two by the separation wall in the Wadi Ara region of northern Israel. Wadi Ara was not ethnically cleaned during Israel’s war of Independence and was under Jordanian administration from 1948 to 1967. However, Majdali mother’s side is from Tantura, the location of a nakba massacre that is a symbol for collective Palestinian sorrow and loss. “It was one of the cruelest massacres, like Deir Yassin.”
Ilan Pappe describes the sacking of Tantura in The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Pappe quotes from a Jewish militia officer,
‘Prisoners were led in groups to a distance of 200 metres aside and there were shot. Soldiers would come to the commander-in-chief and say, ‘My cousin was killed in the war.’ His commander heard that and instructed the troops to take a group of five to seven people aside and execute them…’
Like many Palestinians from the north studying in Tel Aviv, Majdali rents a flat in Jaffa, a city full of historic Palestinian Arab architecture. Yet after 1948 through zoning laws the entire old city was purged of it’s Palestinian residents. Majdali lives on a main street where many Mandate period buildings have been torn down and replaced by canonical non-Arab structures. The demolitions are a reminder of how swiftly Palestinian life and its memory was erased from society. “I feel really angry,” she said, “every time I see Israeli or European house styles.”
“We are a class B citizen, or even less,” she continued. For many Palestinian citizens of Israel remembering nakba annually is not about a push to return to villages destroyed over 60 years ago, but about their present struggles for equality and maintaining land that can be confiscated under Israeli laws that effect Palestinians alone. These more contemporary land grabs inside of Israel’s 1948 borders are what critics refer to as “the on-going nakba.”
Looking down on the steps of the campus plaza, watching her comrades dressed in black disperse from the commemoration Majdali thought for a moment. “It’s very important to remember the nakba because it is still happening.” Where Majdali’s family lives in Wadi Ara, villages are at over capacity and in some cases are beginning to resemble the contruction patterns inside the West Bank’s refugee camps. The crowding has caused Palestinians to seek housing elsewhere. But often nearby Jewish-Israeli localities pass laws that Israel’s high court has upheld, where it is legal to bar non-Jews from purchasing homes.
“In every detail of your life you are not Israeli, you are not Jewish,” and therefore do not have full access to the rights guaranteed to citizens, reflected Majdali. As Palestinians, one way they are legislated separately from their Israeli-Jewish counterparts is through land code. For the most part Palestinians live on private land and Israelis on state owned land. The two systems exist as a combination of a spillover from the Ottoman period and Israeli land reforms that sought to nationalize territory. In the first two decades of statehood, Israel required land registrations that invalidated droves of Palestinian property titles. The process of expropriation continues today, mostly through the same zoning laws that legalize home demolitions.
Cumulatively, since Israel’s founding 93% of Palestinian land has been confiscated by the state, with only 3% of the total land of Israel owned by Palestinians, even though they comprise nearly 20% of the population.