No End to the Palestinian Catastrophe

For 70 years, the United States and much of the world community have ignored the ongoing Al-Nakba-Arabic for "Catastrophe" – of the Palestinian people at the hands of one of the last remaining colonial powers, Israel. The establishment of Israel in 1948 meant the loss of civil society for the Palestinians.

The Zionist plan for an exclusive Jewish state in Palestine involved removing the native people from their homes, wiping their cities and villages from the map, and attempting to erase them from time and space-to make them nonexistent. Any hope for the restoration of their ancestral land diminishes as the remaining 22 percent disappears to hillsides covered with illegal Jewish settlements.

In 1948, some 750,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes to realize Jewish statehood. Of the 8 million Palestinians, more than half currently remain stateless. Today, there are approximately 7 million Palestinian refugees, with a third living in the Occupied Territories.

What has emerged in Israel is a strictly exclusionary Jewish state that privileges Jews over non-Jews. It has created a national political identity based on religious beliefs. Israel’s entrenched system of institutionalized discrimination reflects its ethos that Palestinians are a demographic obstacle to the realization of a "Greater Israel." Israel’s use of political and physical violence against the Palestinians can be described as crimes against humanity.


Israel has conferred the inferior status of "foreign resident" upon the Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Territories, making them foreigners in their own land and vulnerable to Israel’s arbitrary laws.

The power to imprison is used extensively against the Palestinian population. They can, for example, be incarcerated without charges for up to six months under Israel’s "administrative detention" policy. Officials are allowed, at the end of that period, to renew the detention indefinitely-all in contravention of international law.

Over the years, thousands of Palestinians have been imprisoned without charges and evidence disclosed to their lawyers. At the end of April 2018, there were 5,772 Palestinians being held in Israeli prisons, according to B’Tselem, an Israeli non-governmental organization.

Many detainees have been under 18. Currently, more than 315 minors are in Israeli prisons. A 2015 UNICEF report confirmed that ill-treatment of Palestinian children remains systematic and widespread within its military detention system.

Although in 1991, Israel ratified the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, whose Article 12 guarantees that everyone living within a state shall have the right and liberty of movement, freedom to choose residence, and be free to leave his own or any country, it severely restricts the movement of Palestinians.

Draconian travel restrictions, hundreds of military checkpoints, barriers, roadblocks and walls compound the burden of movement, and are often life threatening. These humiliating barriers restrict access to agricultural land, work and health care. They cut connections among Palestinian families and communities, and make visiting and socializing onerous.

Movement is strictly controlled through an elaborate permit regime. ID cards must be carried at all times. Visas-with limited time and place conditions-must be obtained to travel outside the territories or beyond the Separation Wall.

Efforts to dispossess the Palestinian population and gain demographic control continue unabated through home demolitions. Israel is dedicated to the proposition that every Jewish family has the basic right to safe and secure housing. Yet this right is denied Palestinian families, whose homes may be bulldozed at any time.

Since 1967, more than 48,000 Palestinian homes and structures in the occupied territories have been destroyed. From 2006 until April 30, 2018, at least 1,333 homes in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) were razed, making 5,997 people homeless. In 2017 alone, 351 structures were destroyed, including schools.

Israeli laws and policies make it impossible for Palestinians to build legally. Building permits are costly and rarely granted-home permits cost an estimated $30,000-so they are forced to build "illegally." It is worth noting that upon receipt of a demolition notice, Palestinian families face an untenable choice: Either destroy the home yourself or the Israelis will, then charge you for the costly demolition fees.

One of the most grievous demolitions took place in the Mughrabi Quarter of East Jerusalem’s Old City on June 10, 1967. Some of the buildings destroyed in this old Moroccan neighborhood were more than seven centuries old. Israeli bulldozers leveled Arab neighborhoods on both sides of the Western Wall to make way for an expanded plaza for Jewish worshippers. The mass demolition left 132 families homeless.

The Bedouin Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line (1949 Armistice border) are regularly targeted for home demolitions. Israel’s High Court of Justice in May 2018 ordered the demolition of Khan Al-Ahmar, a Bedouin village-which lies between two Israeli settlements in the occupied territories-to build 2,000 Jewish settlements. The government has offered the residents an alternative location near a garbage dump in the nearby Palestinian town of Abu Dis.

Home demolitions, residency revocations, evictions, land ownership restrictions, movement barriers and incarceration are just some of the bureaucratic legalities used to contain, control, demoralize and to gradually remove the Palestinian population. These strategies are meant to keep Palestinians preoccupied with the struggle for their basic needs, leaving them no time to struggle for national rights.


East Jerusalem, with expanded borders, has been occupied and ruled by Israel since 1967. Palestinian inhabitants do not have Israeli citizenship, but are subject to Israeli laws. They are classified as permanent residents and as such, cannot participate in national elections as voters or candidates.

Despite the term "permanent," Palestinians can be systematically stripped of their Jerusalem residency if they are unable to prove that the city is their primary abode. Since 1995, the permanent residency status of more than 11,000 Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem has been rescinded under Israel’s "center of life" policy. To avoid residency revocation, they must continually prove that Jerusalem is their "center of life." Those who do leave-whether to a foreign country or the West Bank-risk losing the right to live in Jerusalem. Conversely, Israeli citizens can live anywhere in the world, for unlimited periods of time, without losing their citizenship or any of the rights it entails.

Israel’s interior minister is the sole arbiter of individual residency, leaving Palestinians with no due process. Revocation means deportation to the West Bank, loss of home, family and any benefits for taxes paid. The interior minister can strip the residency of any Palestinian deemed a threat, found engaging in anti-Israeli activities, or on grounds of disloyalty to Israel. According to International Humanitarian Law, it is illegal to impose an obligation of loyalty from people under military occupation or who are not citizens.

The intent of the "center of life" policy has been to institutionalize a system that insures a Jewish majority in Jerusalem-to make it a Jewish city. Jewish settlers are encouraged to move into Palestinian neighborhoods. They can claim ownership of East Jerusalem properties on grounds that they were owned by Jews before 1948. No such law exists for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees who have never been allowed to return to their homes owned before 1948. For them it is an erosive process of colonization.

The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reported that since 1967, not one new Palestinian community has been built in East Jerusalem, even as the population has quadrupled. Only 7 percent of East Jerusalem land is zoned for residential housing, although Palestinians account for 40 percent of the city’s population.

The Israel Knesset, or parliament, passed a law in 2003 effectively barring Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories, who marry an East Jerusalem resident, from joining their spouses in Jerusalem. In addition, the Separation Wall fully sealed Palestinian East Jerusalemites off from the rest of the West Bank.


Today, 21 percent of the nearly 8.5 million inhabitants of the state of Israel are Palestinian. Israel’s Palestinian citizens are the descendants of the approximately 150,000 who stayed in the country following the 1948 expulsion. To insure a Jewish majority state, Israel passed a number of laws-within four years of its founding-to restrict Palestinian access to citizenship, to nullify the right of return of the displaced population, and to accelerate Jewish immigration and naturalization.

Israel prefers to cast Palestinian citizens as Israeli Arabs. They can best be described as stateless citizens of Israel: they are included yet excluded. An entrenched segregated, hierarchical and unequal citizenship structure has been developed, wherein Jewish citizens enjoy privileges over those Palestinians who have formal Israeli citizenship.

All Israeli citizens’ incomes are taxed, but Jewish communities receive better benefits and services. Palestinian infrastructure and basic city services, such as trash collection, are often ignored. The median income of Jewish households is nearly 75 percent higher than that of Palestinian households.

Residential and education segregation are ubiquitous -90 percent of Palestinians live in segregated towns and villages. Attempts at housing integration have been regularly denied by Israeli courts. Residency separation has led to massively underfunded, segregated Arab schools, with curriculum tightly controlled by the Israeli authorities-Arab schools lose funding if they teach about Al-Nakba. Palestinians are underrepresented, as well, in Israel’s academic institutions and bureaucracy.

A recent example of Israel’s punitive measures meant to weaken Palestinian politicians is the Expulsion Law of 2016. It allows a three-quarters majority of the Knesset to expel an elected member if they do not like the member’s views. Palestinian parties-holding 18 seats in the 120-seat Knesset-have asserted that the law violates all rules of democracy. They contend it targets Arab members, is meant to intimidate and silence the Palestinian minority, and accomplishes the goal of a Knesset without Arabs.

Full citizenship rights are extended to Jews who are citizens of other countries and to Jewish settlers who live outside Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories; while inside its borders, Arab citizens of Israel proper are denied those rights.

Israeli policy has always been to reduce the number of Palestinians, while increasing the number of Jewish immigrants. From its founding, it has used a plethora of policies and schemes to eliminate Palestine as a political entity and eviscerate Palestinian nationality-ignoring completely Article 15 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to a nationality," and that "no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality… ."

The current government has worked doggedly to pass a 12th Basic Law-11 Basic Laws approximate the country’s Constitution. Entitled the "Jewish-Nation State Law," the bill would define Israel exclusively as "the nation-state of the Jewish people," making clear that national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people. It would dispense with the democratic component, embedding the Jewish element of the state. The bill’s critics say it will further consolidate Israel’s racial apartheid policies into law, and weaken democratic challenges to the political structure.

Israel has cast itself as a "Jewish and democratic state." Clearly, a state that favors one people over another cannot call itself democratic. It functions with one set of laws for Jewish citizens and another for Palestinians. Ahmed Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Knesset, stated, "Israel is a democratic state for Jewish citizens, and a Jewish state for Arab citizens."

The majority of Israelis have seemingly accepted the fact that Israel has become a "Jewish and undemocratic state." Although Palestinians have no voice and no power, they have steadfastly refused to surrender their right to have rights.

Unfortunately, Israel’s alignment of ethnicity and nationality anachronistically resembles the racial nationalism that plagued Europe a century ago.

Since its inception, the United States has supported Israel’s reliance on aggressive force and policies to preserve its Zionist nationalism. Curbing Israel’s excesses is not synonymous with attacks on Jews or Judaism. It is rather an attempt to restore justice, national identity and civil society to the Palestinian people.

M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East.

(c) 2018, Dr. M. Reza Behnam