In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, bringing an end to a brutal era of apartheid. His dedication to justice and equality shone as a beacon of hope for oppressed communities worldwide. However, as Mandela himself would say, "We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians (Fayyad, 2020)."
Today, the struggle for Palestinian freedom continues, marked by 75 years of settler colonialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and brutal military occupation.
Palestine has a rich history spanning over 3,000 years, with diverse cultures and influences. But the people we call Palestinians existed before our modern conception of the nation-state. The Ottoman Empire ruled the region known as Palestine for over 400 years. Most of the area's population were Sunni Muslims, but Christian and Jewish populations also lived there.
In the late 19th century, a movement began in Europe that sought the creation of a 'homeland' for the Jewish people, who were facing ethnic persecution and prejudice. By 1897, the movement had decided on a national resettlement effort that would create a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1917, amid the First World War, Britain expressed its support for forming a 'national home' for the Jewish people in the region. After the Allies' victory, Britain took control of the land now known as Israel and Palestine.
Jews began to buy land in Palestine and migrate in large numbers. The native Palestinians were initially welcoming of the new settlers. However, as Nazism began to terrorise Europe, there was a mass influx of Jews to the region, leading to heightened tensions among the Arab and Jewish populations.
Following World War II and the genocide of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust, Zionism saw an outpouring of support from the West. The UN General Assembly recommended dividing the British territory in the Palestine region into separate independent Arab and Jewish states, with the city of Jerusalem controlled by the international community. The plan gave about 56 percent of the land to the Jews, who were a third of the population in Palestine. The Arabs, the majority of the population, rejected the partition.
On May 15, 1948, a day after Israel declared its statehood, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan and Iraq entered the territory, kicking off the First Arab-Israeli War, which would go on to reshape the Middle East. In the nine months of the war, Israel took control of the area the UN had proposed for the Jewish state as well as 60 percent of the area proposed for the Arab state. The post-war armistice line, known as the Green Line, became the de facto borders of Israel. This period was instrumental in shaping the discriminatory laws and policies that continue to affect Palestinians to this day.
Every year, on May 15, Palestinians commemorate the Nakba – which means 'catastrophe' in Arabic. The day remembers the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 indigenous Palestinians from their land and the destruction and depopulation of over 500 villages by Israeli forces and Zionist militias between 1947 and 1949 (Slater, 2020). Three-quarters of a century has passed since then, but the Palestinian diaspora continues to fight for their right to return to their homeland. Despite numerous UN resolutions, these rights are still denied. Palestinian refugees across the world number over 5.9 million today, according to the UN Relief and Works Agency.
It is essential to remember that the Nakba is not a distant historical event; it is a painful reality that persists today. Zionism was a form of settler colonialism that required the displacing of the native Palestinian population for the establishment of a Jewish majority state.
Palestinians still face expulsion, home demolitions, and land confiscation. From Sheikh Jarrah to Gaza to Lydd, the colonisation and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians has never ceased. The Israeli state continues to demonstrate that no matter how Palestinians protest and resist, they are met with violence. They are shot, beaten, tortured, and bombed.
The Palestinian people have endured decades of suffering. Their very existence in their homeland is an act of resistance against the injustices perpetrated against them. Nevertheless, the fight for their dignity and freedom cannot be won by simply pleading with their oppressors. This is the essence of decolonisation, the meaning of a revolution.
Recently, the world has witnessed a stark escalation of violence. On Oct 7, 2023, the Palestinian group Hamas attacked Israel, killing over 1,300 civilians and soldiers and taking around 200 hostages. Israel's response was a devastating barrage on Gaza that has hit hospitals, schools, ambulances, civilian buildings and more. Much of the territory is cut off from water, electricity, the internet, fuel, and critical humanitarian aid and medical supplies. A ground assault has started in Gaza.
It seems like the very definition of 'collective punishment', which is considered a war crime.
The death toll on the Palestinian side crossed 10,000 on Monday. There seems to be little hope for a ceasefire soon.
It is another dark moment for the Palestinian people in recent history etched with tragedy. Their ongoing plight is not simply a political issue. It is a humanitarian crisis as well. Marwan Makhoul, a Palestinian poet, writes, "In order for me to write poetry that isn't political, I must listen to the birds, and in order to hear the birds, the warplanes must be silent."
At this moment, when the world seems rife with conflict and injustice, such a change may seem impractical and even naïve.
However, as noted American LGBTQ activist Leslie Feinberg reminds us, "The Palestinian liberation movement is an anti-colonial movement. It may seem that the colonial occupation of Palestine could last forever, but it will not."
To bring about such change will require global solidarity and unyielding commitment to the cause of justice and human rights. But it is not impossible.
Fayyad, Huthifa. Nelson Mandela and Palestine: In his own words. Middle East Eye, 2020.
Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications, 2006.
Pappe, Ilan. The idea of Israel: A history of power and knowledge. Verso Books, 2014.
Regan, Bernard. The Balfour Declaration: empire, the mandate and resistance in Palestine. Verso Books, 2017.
Slater, Jerome. Mythologies Without End: The US, Israel, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1917-2020. Oxford University Press, 2020.
Jobain, Najib, Jeffery, Jack, and Keath, Lee. Israeli forces cut off north Gaza to isolate Hamas as an advance on the urban center looms. Associated Press, 2023.
This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.