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Mohamed Shuman playing music near the wreckage of his family’s house, Gaza City, June 2015

On November 11, 2017, the gray streets of Gaza suddenly turned yellow as tens of thousands of people came out to wave the flag of Fatah, the party of their former leader Yasser Arafat. This was the thirteenth anniversary of Arafat’s death, and, for the first time since 2007, when the Islamic resistance movement Hamas defeated Fatah in the bloody civil war that followed Hamas’s electoral victory the previous year, it had permitted a public commemoration of Arafat Day.

By allowing the celebration, Hamas had given the first substantial sign that it was serious about a new reconciliation deal, signed with Fatah in October. According to the agreement, the more moderate Palestinian faction, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which rules in the West Bank, would also assume local administrative control inside Gaza. With such a prospect, the people of Gaza hoped that Israel might be persuaded to lift the siege of the territory, which was meant to isolate Hamas and had the effect of punishing all Gazans for having voted for the party, which Israel, the United States, and the European Union consider a terrorist organization. Some Gazans have dared to hope the deal might even pave the way for tentative new discussions about wider peace.

A carnival atmosphere took hold across the besieged strip during the commemoration, with children selling sweets and cakes. As the crowds packed into a central square, leaders of Hamas and Fatah promised to end their division and find unity. The people cheered but seemed fearful, too: after such a long time they were once again putting battered trust in their leadership to try to bring a resolution to the conflict with Israel. An eighty-nine-year-old woman named Aisha waved her yellow flag, tears in her eyes: “I can’t breathe,” she declared, “but I can cry.”

The sudden joyous outpouring reminded some of the euphoria that erupted in 1993, after Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s prime minister, signed the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn. But as Gazans know, Oslo failed to address what many of them believe was the root cause of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians: the dispossession of Palestinians during the Arab–Israeli war of 1948, during which the Jewish state was created. Oslo proposed to reverse Israel’s illegal land seizures of 1967, offering a “two-state solution,” with the Palestinian state constructed out of Gaza and the West Bank, joined by a safe passage across Israel, and East Jerusalem as its capital. But the negotiators did not address the long-standing claim of Palestinian refugees that they have a right to return home. Nowhere is that right as deeply felt as it is in Gaza, which holds the highest concentration of Palestinian refugees, many living within a few miles of their pre-1948 homes.

A slice of land just twenty-five miles long and seven miles across at its widest, the Gaza Strip sits at the southwest tip of Israel, bordered to the west by the Mediterranean, to the south by Egypt, and to the east and north by Israel. The other chunk of Palestinian territory, the West Bank, lies fifty miles away, with Israeli territory in between.

Until 1948 there was no “Gaza Strip”; the area around Gaza City was part of a much larger region of British-ruled Palestine known as the Gaza District, which contained scores of Palestinian villages. During the 1948 war a total of 750,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from all over Palestine. About 200,000 of those living in the south sought refuge in the Gaza City area, which Egypt had seized during the war.

In December 1948 the United Nations passed UN Resolution 194, stating that the Palestinians should have the right to return to their homes, but Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, refused, saying that Palestinians would “never return.” Within a few years Israel had erased almost every Arab village in the former Gaza District. “The old will die and the young will forget,” Ben-Gurion is said to have declared. The Arabs of Palestine, however, have not forgotten the events of 1948, which they refer to as the Nakba, or catastrophe, and they have been working harder in recent years than ever before to preserve the memory of their lost homes.

Ben-Gurion also expressed the hope that the refugees would move away from camps near Israel’s border and disperse into Arab countries, but while some did move away, most have stayed in order to be close to their land. The original 200,000 refugees who fled to Gaza now number up to an estimated 1.7 million. (Each descendant of a refugee is also classified by the UN as a refugee.) And with them in the Strip live another 300,000 Palestinians, indigenous to Gaza.

Today more than two million people live in Gaza, which is surrounded by walls and fences patrolled by Israeli soldiers. Israeli drones fill the skies above, its gunboats patrol the sea. On Gaza’s southern border is the Rafah crossing into Egypt, usually closed because Egypt has cooperated with Israel’s siege.


The only point of entry from Israel for human traffic is the Erez checkpoint, on Gaza’s northern border. Yet even while making that crossing it’s hard to believe anyone lives on the other side. The only other people passing through with me on a recent visit were a group of British surgeons from the charity IDEALS, their suitcases packed with prosthetic limbs.

Inside Gaza, the medieval and the modern seem to coexist, as horses and carts crowd the streets along with cars and trucks, while children in pristine uniforms pour out of schools. A new UN school is built each month in order to accommodate the population growth. In the middle-class Rimal area, students speaking into mobile phones struggle to be heard over hawkers selling wares. Shops seem well stocked, but prosperity is an illusion, since many of the luxury goods have been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt and hardly anyone can afford them. Thundering generators struggle to provide emergency power as Gaza itself struggles to survive the siege while still rebuilding after recent wars. The Israeli assault of 2014 lasted fifty-one days and killed 2,200 people, including five hundred children, as well as destroying thousands of homes, schools, water plants, and hospitals. Israel lost sixty-six soldiers and seven civilians during the conflict.

The UN says that Gaza will be uninhabitable by 2020. Sitting on stones by the seafront with Emad, my twenty-five-year-old Palestinian driver, we could see why: raw sewage was pouring out into the water, the electricity cuts having crippled the sewage system. Emad pointed out that the stones we were sitting on carried the names of Palestinian villages destroyed in 1948. He was sitting on Majdal, where his family came from. He looked up the coast to the swinging cranes of the thriving Israeli port city Ashkelon, built on the spot were Majdal once stood. I was sitting on a stone named Huj, a village just a few miles from Gaza. Many areas and streets in Gaza are named after villages the residents once lived in. A man Emad and I met named Ali Abu Aleish, who lives on Huj Street, produced documents showing that his family owned land that is now part of an estate constructed by Ariel Sharon, the deceased former prime minister of Israel.

In view of Gazans’ daily struggles, it seems surprising that they have time to think of the past. But it is precisely because of recent wars that memories of 1948 have been strengthened. The bombardment of Gaza in 2014 caused people to feel that a “second Nakba” was occurring. I first heard the phrase soon after that war from an old man named Abu Ibrahim, who was sitting on the pile of rubble that had recently been his home. His family had herded sheep around Beersheba for centuries, and in the war of 1948 they were forced to flee, first living in a tent, then building a house near Gaza’s border, from which they could see their old land. He showed me an urn his mother had carried on her head from Beersheba; the urn had survived the first and second Nakba, he said proudly.

Ibrahim’s reference to the second Nakba was echoed up and down Gaza. The destroyed houses, the panicked flight, the tents in which the homeless had to live—these have reminded many of what happened seventy years ago.

In the aftermath of the 1948 war, the refugee tragedy caused headlines and protests around the world, but the story soon faded from view. The Israeli government told the world that Palestinians had fled their villages of their own accord or on orders from Arab armies that wanted them out of the way. There was no obligation on Israel, therefore, to let Palestinians return, since, according to this argument, their displacement was not Israel’s responsibility. Any “infiltrators” who tried to go back were criminals, and they were shot or put in prison. With the US standing behind the new Jewish state, Palestinian accounts of 1948 were too often ignored.

In the late 1980s Israel’s so-called new historians, most notably Benny Morris, examined newly opened Israeli archives and found no evidence that the refugees had fled on orders from Arab leaders, but had done so mostly out of terror after hearing reports of massacres carried out by Israeli soldiers in villages such as Deir Yassin, where Jewish militiamen killed over 150 Palestinian civilians. Ilan Pappé, another of Israel’s new historians, went further, identifying what he called a plan of “ethnic cleansing.”

By this time, however, Israel’s official narrative of 1948 was so entrenched that the voices of these new historians were barely heeded by politicians, and in the 1990s it was considered impossible to secure Israeli support for the Palestinian right of return. Even Arafat agreed to set it aside during the Oslo talks. Today many Palestinian analysts blame Arafat, as well as Israeli and Western negotiators, for Oslo’s failure, warning that a newly unified Palestinian leadership will not remain unified for long if it doesn’t insist on addressing the right of return in any new peace talks. “During the Oslo process the right of return was relegated as if a mere irritant, not a fundamental human right,” said Ramzy Baroud, the son of a 1948 Gaza refugee, editor of The Palestine Chronicle and author of the forthcoming book The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story.* “The collapse of the peace process and the failure of Oslo brought the right of return back to the center.”


In Israel, however, where the policies of the extreme right-wing have received endorsement from Donald Trump, particularly through his stunning recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the prospects of putting a Palestinian right of return on a negotiating table seem more unlikely than ever; the mere mention of it is enough to destroy the possibility of a rapprochement. Even the dovish Yossi Beilin, an architect of Oslo, says the two-state approach remains the only option: “The right of return will never happen. All this talk of ’48 is a mood, not an opinion.”

Sarah Helm

Palestinians posing for selfies on a pier by the Mediterranean Sea, Gaza City, March 2017

Some Palestinians agree with Beilin. “Palestinians always claimed their rights to historical Palestine,” said Ghassan Khatib, professor of politics at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “Then someone came along and convinced them that this was utopian and would not happen, offering a trade-off to go for the possible instead. Now people realize the possible and the impossible are both impossible, so they might as well stick to the impossible. But they have no strategy, no plan.”

Gaza’s own “new historians,” however, like Salman Abu Sitta, founder of the Palestine Land Society, which maps pre-war Palestine, say the prospects are not hopeless. “The conflict began in 1948, not 1967. It cannot be solved without returning to the root cause,” said Abu Sitta, who fled the Gaza District as a child. And there is a Palestinian plan, he said, which is to win back ground in the narrative war by challenging Israel’s version of the 1948 war. A form of peaceful resistance, this campaign of retrieving the facts is already well underway, he said, largely thanks to the younger generation of Palestinians.

In Gaza more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of twenty-five, and it is among the young that the deepest despair often takes root. Some are turning to radical Islam, others to drugs. As many as eighty suicides are reported in Gaza each month, according to local aid groups, many among the young. Most of Gaza’s younger generation have nevertheless remained remarkably resilient, preparing against the odds for a better future, while also making an effort to learn about their past.

Earlier this year I encountered this resilience at a Gaza girls’ school, where I met with a class of seventeen-year-olds preparing for final exams. All had plans to study further in order to become doctors, social workers, journalists, and lawyers—“anything that helps free Gaza,” as one said. I asked how many had lost family in the war, and at least ten hands shot up.

“Why did Balfour give away our land?” asked one girl, referring to the declaration made in 1917 by Arthur Balfour, then British foreign secretary, pledging to create in Palestine a Jewish homeland. “Why did the world not implement UN Resolution 194 [the Palestinian right of return]?” “Why should I be a refugee when my land is one kilometer away?”

Their teacher explained to me that schools were placing more emphasis than ever on teaching history, studying the pre-1948 villages and the Nakba, since it helped the children understand the present. “They have lived through three wars”—in 2008, 2012, and 2014. “They want to understand how this can be. Their parents don’t have answers but if they can learn their story from the beginning they can make their own minds up and find connections to the present.” The teacher herself had lost her father in the most recent war. “He survived 1948 but was killed in 2014,” she said.

Many of the young are profoundly disillusioned with Palestinian politics, openly scorning the “old men,” as they call leaders of both Hamas and Fatah who have failed to find solutions for their generation, preoccupied instead with internal squabbles. Despite the unity displayed on Arafat Day, few young Gazans believe the reconciliation agreement will hold, saying that the only way to bring Palestinians together is around the issue of 1948. “At a popular level Palestinians everywhere including citizens of Israel are resurrecting these ’48 values in response to divisions of their leadership. It is an issue that unifies everyone,” said Ramzy Baroud.

Talking of 1948 certainly unifies Gazan families as they live under siege. In Shati refugee camp, power cuts force families to sit together in the dark, often passing the time by listening to a grandparent describing life in his or her old village, which appears so much better than life today. “In summer I ran into the long grass or lay in the cool orange groves,” said Fatmeh Tarqash as her children and grandchildren listened. “In winter we built a fire and took the embers indoors for warmth.” Fatmeh’s grandchildren have nowhere to run today. In winter the asbestos-roofed homes in the camps are cold and damp, and in summer the walls sweat.

Fatmeh’s twenty-two-year-old granddaughter, who works with people whose hearing has been impaired by explosions, listened carefully, and then exclaimed: “They grew their own food. They were self-sufficient. But today we must be beggars.” She pointed angrily to a UN food box. When the electricity to the house suddenly came back on she showed me her family’s old village on Google Earth. Would she settle for a two-state solution? “No. If they give us part of the land back, they will expect us to be grateful to them. Why should we be? It’s ours.”

Gazans have a new tool in their campaign to raise awareness about their dispossession: the Internet has allowed them to bring their erased villages back to life by posting photographs of documents and land deeds. Gaza’s “new historians” are also journalists who contribute to the Electronic Intifada and other burgeoning Palestinian news sites. A young journalist, who didn’t wish to be named, films close to Gaza’s northern border and streams his footage of Gazan fishermen being monitored by Israeli gunboats as they haul in a catch. “We live in a box,” he told me. “A fake place. We want to show people what it’s really like and not rely on others to tell our story.”

New technology also allows the young to look to the future. At the Islamic University of Gaza, architecture students redesigned their ancestral villages as futuristic cities for a competition to be judged in London. One showed a Palestinian town that had been destroyed in 1948 rebuilt with skyscrapers and huge highways. A month later I saw the finalists’ drawings posted on the wall of a London art gallery, where the participants joined us from the West Bank and Gaza via Skype. Talk of construction rather than destruction was moving, but these futuristic designs for Palestine after “the return” seemed fanciful. It is unlikely that construction by Palestinians on land recognized as theirs will begin anytime soon. After all, it is Israel that is carrying out the construction by building settlements across Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Israel is increasingly intransigent about granting any land at all, even in the West Bank, where illegal settlement continues at speed, as it does in Arab East Jerusalem. Yet some new ideas for a resolution are emerging, particularly among the new generation of Palestinians who talk about a one-state solution with Jews and Arabs living as equals in a single democratic state on all of mandate Palestine. Among Israeli Jews today this prospect seems especially fanciful, but some Israeli radicals predict it must come. Ilan Pappé, speaking in Cambridge recently to launch his new book, The Biggest Prison on Earth, said that the one-state solution was “not an impossible scenario” and that the alternative is for Israel to continue developing as “an apartheid state.”

Although the concept of a one-state solution is still in its infancy, we are certain to hear more about it, precisely because the prospects for two states seem dead. The one-state idea is already being discussed within senior ranks of the moderate Palestinian Authority. Saeb Erekat, the chief negotiator for Mahmoud Abbas, responding to Trump’s Jerusalem move, declared that by recognizing the city as Israel’s capital, Trump had finally killed the two-state idea, adding: “Now is the time to transform the struggle for one state with equal rights for everyone living in historical Palestine from the river to the sea.”

There is even a smartphone program called the iNakba app that provides maps indicating where Palestinian villages once were and what Israeli towns might be there now. Driving across Israel to reach Gaza, I used the app as a guide back in time, passing the site of the Palestinian village of Yibneh, which is now Yavneh. Near the huge Israeli port of Ashdod lie the remains of Isdud, where a Gazan friend of mine, Abu Hasan, once lived. On a recent visit to Gaza he told me how to find his house, but it was no longer there.

Almost all traces of the Palestinian villages have disappeared. A woman I met in Ashkelon, who had recently emigrated from Ukraine to Israel, had never heard of Majdal, which had been a thriving textile center before 1948. “There were never any Arabs here,” she told me. “It’s a lie.” The iNakba app revealed that the Arab market that still stands in Ashkelon’s Old City was once the main market of Majdal.

There are some signs that Palestinians are gaining ground in their narrative war. They have new allies inside Israel, where a small number of young Jewish Israelis are helping Palestinians excavate their history. A group called Zochrot (“remembering,” in Hebrew), a nonprofit organization formed in 2002, aims to “raise awareness of the Palestinian Nakba.” Zochrot devised the iNakba app.

Israel’s “official historians” have gone on the defensive, busying themselves with reclassifying sensitive historical files, held in Israeli archives, relating to 1948. Benny Morris found that among the reclassified files were those relating to the massacre at Deir Yassin. Morris first saw the documents in the 1980s, but said that “the Defense Ministry offered no explanation” for why they have been reclassified.

Whatever small gains the Palestinians are making in their narrative war, however, they are under no illusion about the monumental task they face if their objectives are ever to be achieved. At a café in Gaza, the author Dr. Mohammed Bugi expressed skepticism. “We need a new Mandela,” said Bugi, recently banned from traveling to Amman to promote his new book on pre-1948 Yibneh. “And a new de Klerk,” said Fayez Sersawi, an artist whose studio was bombed in 2014. “Now they are trying to crush our culture and shut our history down. The Nakba has never stopped. The patterns just repeat themselves.”

At Rafah, a border town on Gaza’s southern tip, the repeated patterns of the conflict are highly visible. Camps here are named after the old villages—Yibneh, Isdud, and Huj—and have been regularly bombed in recent times, just as the villages were in 1948. Rafah’s streets are full of posters of martyrs; its camps have always produced the most determined resisters, including suicide bombers. Many of them—including some who were responsible for the carnage across Israel during the Second Intifada, which erupted in 2000 in the despair that followed Oslo’s collapse—were descendants of those who arrived in 1948.

Close to the Egyptian border, where the Sinai sands sweep into Gaza, small plastic shelters cover openings of tunnels being dug into Egypt, though in recent months Israel has begun working on a new underground wall, sunk deep into the desert, to block off such tunnels. Nearby on Rafah’s beach is a jumble of shacks, home to fishermen, descendants of villagers from Jura, once a thriving fishing community just up the coast. History is about to repeat itself for the people of Jura whose refugee dwellings lie in the path of bulldozers clearing the area to create a wider buffer zone.

Most residents of Rafah, so exposed here on the border, have suffered too much as a result of the conflict to wave flags for Arafat or anyone else. Those I spoke to did not express hope for the near future, often saying in chilling terms that “something worse than the Nakba” is about to happen. And yet they also know that in Gaza a change of mood—too easily dismissed by Yossi Beilin—can be the harbinger of change. When the mood in Gaza changed in 1987, it led to the First Intifada, which in turn led to the first moves toward peace negotiations.

Even in Rafah the renewed attention being given to the Nakba has also spread a kind of confidence, a sense that one day the refugees’ story will be known and the injustice they have suffered recognized. The very fact that evidence of the Nakba is now preserved online, the history now already widely available, has contributed to this confidence.

While in Rafah I visited my friend Abu Hasan, whose erased village I had searched for on my drive to Gaza, and I told him I’d failed to find his house. He was not surprised, but expressed the view that the Nakba would not be forgotten. He had just completed his own history of his village. “How can our Nakba—our catastrophe—be forgotten? For us it continues every day,” he said. “What would you think if you were told you had to leave your home one day and suddenly abandon everything you’d ever loved and known and never go back. Would you forget?”

Was he still expecting to go back to Isdud? “I go back every night. In my dreams I go back and play among the trees and chase the birds. Perhaps I won’t go back myself. I’m very old. And Isdud won’t be like I knew it. But Palestinians will go back one day, I’m sure.”

—December 20, 2017