How threats of a second Nakba went mainstream

With the death of the Green Line and the growing political influence of Palestinian citizens of Israel, prominent right-wing figures are now openly advocating mass expulsion to preserve Jewish supremacy.

This article was published in partnership with Local Call.

“Remember 1948, remember our War of Independence — and your Nakba. Ask the elders among you, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and they will explain to you that eventually the Jews wake up and know how to protect themselves and the idea of a Jewish state.”

Israel Katz, Israel’s former transportation minister who sees himself as one of the potential heirs to Benjamin Netanyahu’s throne at the head of Likud, made these remarks before the Knesset in late May, in reference to the expulsion, flight, and denial of return to hundreds of thousands of refugees during and after the 1948 war. Katz’s speech to the Knesset plenum came after students flew Palestinian flags across university campuses in Israel to commemorate Nakba Day, raising the ire of the Israeli right.

Katz was not alone in his threats. Yoav Galant — the former minister of education from Likud who was nearly appointed chief of staff of the Israeli army — also decried the flying of Palestinian flags as a reason to remind Palestinians of their “mass flight” 74 years ago, with a veiled threat of a repeat should they make the same “mistake” again. Just months before, Uzi Dayan, a veteran military commander and Israeli politician who served as a member of Knesset for Likud between 2020 and 2021, made a similar threat during an interview with the far-right Channel 14.

“The thing we need to tell the Arab community, even those who didn’t participate in the attacks, is to be careful,” Dayan said. “If we reach a civil war situation, things will end in one word and a situation you know, which is Nakba. This is what will happen in the end.”

Likud MK Israel Katz speaks at a conference of the right-wing Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon" at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud MK Israel Katz speaks at a conference of the right-wing Israeli newspaper “Makor Rishon” at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, February 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is not clear whether the threats to carry out a second Nakba are coming directly from the upper echelons of Likud and Netanyahu himself, or whether such an expulsion plan will appear on the party’s platform in the next Knesset, but this sequence of statements indicates that talk of another Palestinian catastrophe is not an outburst or an isolated case. Coming from mainstream right-wing leaders such as Katz, Galant, and Dayan, as opposed to the usual suspects for “extremist” rhetoric such as Itamar Ben Gvir, the Nakba is presented as a legitimate policy decision, akin to a speeding ticket or a fine for greenhouse gas emissions. The threat of mass expulsions of Palestinians is portrayed as a reasonable method of enforcement against both citizens and non-citizens under Israeli control.

Against this background, it is understandable how Ophira Assayag and Eyal Berkowitz, the hosts of one of Israel’s most prominent political talk shows, held a discussion on their program alongside Ben Gvir about his intention to set up an office that would encourage emigration in order to remove the “terrorist supporters” who wave Palestinian flags, even if that number reaches the hundreds of thousands. But Ben Gvir, the Kahanist who not long ago was considered to be on the fringes of Israeli politics, no longer sounds so extreme. The Ministry for the Encouragement of Emigration sounds polite and considerate next to Likud members who offer direct and bloodthirsty war crimes as policy.

From denial, to justification, to a plan of action

The threat of a new Nakba by non-religious right-wing leaders such as Katz and Galant is not entirely new. In 2007, former Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter, then an interior minister from the centrist Kadima party and now a senior Likud official, said: “Whoever sits year after year and cries over the Nakba should not be surprised that in the end he will actually receive a Nakba.” In 2017, following the murder of three settler children in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, Tzachi Hanegbi, then the regional cooperation minister on behalf of Kadima, directly addressed the Palestinians on his Facebook page: “Remember ‘48, remember ‘67, that’s how Nakba begins.”

And yet, although this has been said before, one must wonder how the threat of a second Nakba has become mainstream in today’s right.

For decades after 1948, the Nakba did not exist in the consciousness of the Jewish public in Israel. The vast majority of Jews, including on the left, did not know the word at all until the 1980s. After the “New Historians” — a group of Jewish Israelis who called into question the founding tenets of the State of Israel and the Zionist project toward the end of the last century — began to challenge the dominant narrative among the Jewish public according to which the Palestinians had left voluntarily, the initial reaction was denial and silence.

Palestinians flee their village in the Galilee after the entry of Zionist forces, 1948. (GPO)
Palestinians flee their village in the Galilee after the entry of Zionist forces, 1948. (GPO)

This response only intensified after the Palestinian public in Israel began to center the Nakba in its public and political discourse, for example through “return marches” to villages that were depopulated in 1948, which have become an annual event since the late 1990s. The Nakba Law, enacted in 2011 not long after the right and Netanyahu returned to power, was largely a response to the rise of the Nakba discourse among the Palestinian public inside Israel.

Once studies published by Palestinian, Israeli, and other historians no longer made it possible to deny what happened in 1948, the right’s tactics began to change: instead of denying the Nakba, it began to openly justify it. Writers and journalists such as Ben Dror Yemini admit there was a Nakba, but argue that expelling over 750,000 Palestinians was legitimate. Even far-right organizations such as Im Tirtzu do not deny the expulsions, but nonetheless dispute the Palestinians’ interpretation of this history.

Such justifications are not just prominent on the right. Uri Misgav, a columnist for Haaretz and one of the most prominent spokespeople of the Zionist left, recently rebuked his own newspaper for what he saw as a lack of editorial balance in favor of the Palestinians, sardonically ending his op-ed with the popular Israeli refrain: “Sorry we won.”

The statements by the likes of Katz, Galant, Dayan and many others, along with the acceptance of Ben Gvir’s transcendental-Nakba discourse, shows that we have reached a new stage: after the Nakba’s denial, after its justification, we have entered the era of the bloody promise. From here on out, the Nakba can be turned into a plan of action. Rather than something to be swept under the rug or ashamed of, it is an act to boast about. This is the true legacy of 1948.

A Palestinian boy walks in front of graffiti that reads 'Returning' as Palestinians attend "Camp of Return" to mark refugees' ties to their lost land, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, May 12, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian boy walks in front of graffiti that reads ‘Returning’ as Palestinians attend “Camp of Return” to mark refugees’ ties to their lost land, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, May 12, 2013. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A monopoly under threat

The rise of the new Nakba discourse can be attributed to the political situation in which the Israeli right finds itself today. This is not just the fact that the Bennett-Lapid government relies on a partnership with the Islamist Ra’am party, which last year broke a longstanding taboo by becoming the first independent Arab party to join a governing coalition in Israel.

Netanyahu’s failure to gain a majority over the last four elections is directly related to the strengthening of the Palestinian public’s political power in Israel. The Joint List reached a peak of 15 Knesset seats (out of 120) in one of these election campaigns, and in three of them it recommended a leader from the Jewish center-left as a candidate for prime minister, while stopping short of agreeing to join such a coalition themselves.

Even before Netanyahu began his political affair with Mansour Abbas, the barrier that kept Palestinian citizens out of the political game had fallen. Far-right MK Bezalel Smotrich summed up this “problem” for the Israeli right in April 2021: “The attempts to whitewash the Islamic movement by certain elements on the right reflect a dangerous and irresponsible blindness and short-sightedness that will lead to the loss of right-wing rule for decades to come and the end of the Jewish state… [T]he right is the majority among the Jewish Israeli public in Israel, but not among Israeli society writ large.”

He went on: “The right’s rule is based on the foundational convention since the establishment of the state that the Arab parties, as long as they deny that Israel is a Jewish state and support the terror of its enemies, are not legitimate partners in establishing a government and making national decisions. The joining of the Arabs to the Jewish left would lead to left-wing rule for decades. Left-Arab rule will cause irreversible damage to the Jewish state and could, God forbid, turn it into a state of all its citizens and even of all its nations.”

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab List (Ra'am) party leader Mansour Abbas attend a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab List (Ra’am) party leader Mansour Abbas attend a plenum session in the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The right understands quite well that should Smotrich’s nightmare come true and Palestinian citizens enter the political arena in full force, its chances of gaining a solid majority will be significantly reduced. This is precisely why the dominant slogan of the Netanyahu camp since the last election has been to protect the “Jewish state” in the face of threats from the alternative: “a state of all its citizens.”

This is the reason the right seeks to portray Abbas and his party, who sit in a government that expands settlements, kills Palestinians with impunity, and allows thousands of Jews to ascend to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, as “terror supporters.” In the eyes of this New Right, a Jewish state is neither one that revives the Hebrew language nor keeps the Sabbath, but one with a Jewish monopoly on power. As scholar Gabriel Abensour put it, Judaism in existing Israeli law is “not a justification for the legitimate use of force by the state, but is the force itself.”

A logic of elimination

Once Palestinian citizens not only amass political and economic power, but demonstrate their national identity and proudly wave Palestinian flags, the path is paved by the right to recognize that the only way to deal with this reality is to remove them from the game. And even if there is no real intention at the moment to realize the threat of another Nakba, it is clear that if it is legitimate to threaten Palestinians with physical removal, they can certainly be symbolically removed from the Israeli body politic.

But this move seems to be related to something deeper taking place inside Jewish-Israeli society. With the death of the Oslo process has come the death of the idea that Israel can “get rid” of the Palestinian problem by ending the occupation and retreating to the Green Line.

Two years ago, after Netanyahu agreed to give up on annexing Israeli settlements — despite both the broad national consensus inside Israel and the Trump administration’s support for such a move — the right wing’s attempt to “resolve the conflict” by annexing the occupied West Bank in whole or in part was also buried. Israel remained “stuck” with the Palestinians.

Palestinian students wave flags at the Nakba Day ceremony at Tel Aviv University, May 15, 2022. (Activestills)
Palestinian students wave flags at the Nakba Day ceremony at Tel Aviv University, May 15, 2022. (Activestills)

Because official apartheid is not an option that Israel can market even to itself, and because equality of rights — not to mention a seat at the table — is out of the question, expulsion sounds like an almost logical option when facing such an “internal enemy.” What’s more, the Nakba is part of the Israeli collective memory, a kind of “hidden traveler” in our consciousness, so that it can easily be deployed as part of the Jewish majority’s toolbox.

It is worth considering whether the rise of the new Nakba discourse among the right is not a mirror image of the rise of a Nakba discourse among the Jewish left. Inspired by organizations like Zochrot, the left is gradually ceasing to deny and justify, and beginning to seek, albeit cautiously, ways to take responsibility for the Palestinian catastrophe. The success of Israeli documentaries such as “Blue Box” or “Tantura” — both of them stories about Palestinian dispossession from an Israeli point of view — is a testament to this change.

Even military action against the Palestinians appears less relevant today. In 2002, under the premise that it would end the Second Intifada, then-Israeli army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz pushed for the re-occupation of the Palestinian cities of the West Bank. The separation wall was built (but never completed) during those years as a barrier against Palestinian attacks and suicide bombings. And in the various wars on Gaza, Israel’s official line has been that bombing the strip into oblivion would successfully deter Hamas.

None of this, however, resolved the conflict, nor did it dramatically reduce the level of violence against Israelis. The events of May 2021, which revealed just how little the Green Line matters today, as well as the series of attacks by Palestinian gunmen earlier this year, emphasized the extent to which Israel does not have a real military solution to the current situation.

Although the army has been operating in the Jenin area in recent weeks, it is quite clear that no serious member of the Israeli security establishment believes re-occupying the city will be of any use. Proposals to “eliminate” Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar have also been rejected by the military, despite the fact that a recent Channel 13 poll shows a majority of Israelis support his assassination.

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar seen at a rally in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, May 30, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)
Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar seen at a rally in Beit Lahiya, Gaza Strip, May 30, 2021. (Atia Mohammed/Flash90)

With neither negotiations nor annexation on the horizon, and lacking the possibility to take military action that would change the picture, Israel is being forced to recognize that despite its overwhelming power, and despite seemingly winning every confrontation with the Palestinians over the last 74 years, the Palestinians have not surrendered. Instead of waving a white flag, as Orly Noy wrote on these pages, they are now openly waving the Palestinian flag on both sides of the Green Line.

Thus, if there is neither a political nor a military solution, if the Palestinians refuse to surrender, and if there is no intention to grant them equal rights or allow them a seat at the table, the only way for Israel to preserve the “Jewish state” in the face of Palestinian resistance — both armed and unarmed — is to kick them out. If it worked in 1948, the thinking goes, why would it not work again?

On our way to civil war?

Uzi Dayan remarked that the first stage before a new Nakba is a civil war between Arabs and Jews, and it seems the right and its affiliates in the defense establishment are now concentrating on fueling that war.

Their methods include facilitating a sharp increase in the number of Jewish worshippers ascending to the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa, with a record 2,600 Jews during Jerusalem Day earlier this month; permitting the violent and racist Flag March through Jerusalem; strengthening the presence of cells of radical settlers in bi-national cities such as Lydd; increasing pressure on Bedouin citizens in the Naqab/Negev while establishing new Jewish settlements there as part of the “war over the south”; and launching a renewed attack on Palestinian flags, from Huwara to the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, from Tel Aviv University to Ben-Gurion University — all designed to push the Palestinians toward the kind of violence we saw across the country in May 2021.

Israeli right wingers take part in the 'flag march' in the city of Lydd, December 5, 2021. (Oren Ziv)
Israeli right wingers take part in the ‘flag march’ in the city of Lydd, December 5, 2021. (Oren Ziv)

There is no record of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and the man who oversaw the Nakba, ever uttering the word expulsion or transfer during the 1948 war, but the army commanders knew exactly what their mission entailed in those days. Perhaps, then, the right’s brazen use of the word “Nakba” indicates that this is not a real plan, but rather a way to let off steam — an expression of Israel’s frustration and helplessness from being unable, both now and in the future, to completely subdue the Palestinians.

And perhaps we can even see these statements as the beginning of the final, dying convulsions of Israel’s regime of Jewish supremacy. A few years before it collapsed, Apartheid South Africa was still imprisoning tens of millions of blacks in Bantustans. It did not prevent the fall of that regime.

However, even if the specter of a Nakba is little more than an expression of Israeli weakness, it is a dangerous development that must be taken extremely seriously. The threat to carry out another mass expulsion of Palestinians, scholar Raef Zreik recently wrote, reveals “just how fragile, threatened and subject to constant danger Palestinian existence is.” Israel is the only country in the so-called Western world where the ruling majority shamelessly and systematically threatens its citizens with wholesale expulsion.

There are many reasons why the chances of a new Nakba are low, why what was possible three years after a World War that saw tens of millions murdered and expelled from their homelands, is far less likely today. International norms today are different, Palestinians are far more experienced, skilled, and organized than they were in 1948, Jewish Israeli society is much more divided than it was then, and much less willing to pay significant prices for the decisions of its leadership.

Still, even if a new Nakba does not occur in the near future, and with all its political and strategic weakness, Israel still maintains tremendous strengths; its ability to mete out harm to Palestinians is nearly limitless. Even if the horrific scenario of columns of Palestinians fleeing does not re-materialize, the very fact that senior Israeli political leaders, some of whom are likely to return to power soon, are threatening to expel hundreds of thousands of people from their homeland, just because they refuse to surrender to Jewish supremacy, is a testament to the moral abyss into which large swaths of Jewish Israeli society are swimming. That abyss grows deeper every single day.

Right-wing Israelis hold Israeli flags and burn Palestinian flags outside the 13th Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, Tel Aviv, April 17, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)
Right-wing Israelis hold Israeli flags and burn Palestinian flags outside the 13th Joint Israeli-Palestinian Memorial Day ceremony, Tel Aviv, April 17, 2018. (Oren Ziv/Activestills)

Israel is diving into this moral abyss precisely at a time when Jewish-Palestinian partnership inside Israel is more present than ever. This is exactly what the right fears, and its declarations of another mass expulsion are part of its plan to prevent the strengthening of these partnerships.

One can only hope that in the face of this moral abyss, the parts of the Jewish center-left that believe that there is no way forward without real political cooperation between Jews and Palestinians will take the opportunity to stare the injustices that have been and continue to be committed by the Jewish majority against the Palestinian people straight in the face. Only then will they be able to think about how to fix those injustices and build a brave partnership between them and the generations of Palestinians who survived the Nakba.

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.