Sixty seven years later same problems remain: Finkelstein

On the 67th anniversary of Nakba Day, American scholar Norman Finkelstein discusses the meaning of Nakba for millions of Palestinians in an exclusive interview with

Updated Jul 28, 2015

On May 15th of every year Palestinians commemorate the Nakba (catastrophe). Why is this day significant?

No, I do not think the issue is so much what happened on that specific day, the date of the Nakba. That's just a commemoration date. The Nakba refers to a period basically beginning at the end of November 1947 and going through the first days of March, 1949.

It includes a fairly long period of time and it was the period during which -  you could say - two major events occurred. The first major event that occurred was the expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians from their homeland. The estimates are about 750,000 Palestinians. They were expelled and ended up in exile in various places in what became the West Bank, what became Gaza, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon. Large numbers of Palestinians fled and ended up in exile. From the area that became Israel about 90 percent of the Palestinians were expelled. And in the area that became Israel there were about 900,000 Palestinians. By the end of the First Arab-Israeli War - at the beginning of 1949 -  there were about 150,000 Palestinians still remaining in what became Israel. So the first major consequence of what is called the Nakba was the mass expulsion of the Palestinians from the area that became Israel.

The second major consequence was that a new state was carved out: the State of Israel. It included roughly about 80 percent of what was called Palestine. Twenty percent was not included in the state - that was the West, what is now called the West Bank, which came under the control of Jordan and Jordan eventually annexed the West Bank. And Gaza - the Gaza Strip - which came under the control of Egypt. A Palestinian state which was supposed to be created on the basis of UN Partition Resolution of 1947 never came into being.

So the two main consequences of the Nakba were, 1) the expulsion of large numbers of Palestinians and the creation of what’s called the Palestinian Refugee Question and 2) failure to create a Palestinian State on the basis of UN Resolution 181, from November 1947.

On the current situation, we can say that more than 60 years later those two problems still exist. The problem of refugees still exists, the problem that the Palestinians don't have a state still exists. So, I would say that the significance of the Nakba is that sixty plus years later the same problems remain.  They have not yet been resolved.

These issues are at the core of the conflict, how they be resolved?

N.F. : I would say that concerning the right of the Palestinians to a state,  the international community has resolved that Palestinians should have the right to self determination in the state within the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital. The international community has not yet stated exclusively how the issue of the refugees should be resolved, what they call for is a just resolution of the refugee question based on the Right of Return and compensation. But “just resolution” is obviously a vague phrase and hasn't been explicitly decided.

In recent years we observe that Israelis mostly support the right wing parties when election time comes. As such, even if the Israeli leaders agree to a solution (the two state solution), will the Israeli people adapt to that giving their political inclination to the right?

N.F. : Well, Israel is a democracy for its Jewish citizens. The governments are reflective of general opinion. The general opinion of Israelis is very racist and it’s very stubborn. So, I don't think there's a problem of the government being unrepresentative of the people - it’s very representative of the people. The problem is both the government and the people are not willing to acknowledge basic Palestinian rights. I dont think you can change their opinion from within, it has to come from external pressure. It's not much different than the case of South Africa or the case of the American South during the civil rights era. The people are very determined, stubborn, racist. The only way you can change things is with pressure both from within and by the Palestinians themselves and from outside by the international community.

What about Ayelet Shahed? She has now become Israel’s  Justice Minister. She once said Israel should kill Palestinian mothers...

N.F. : It's not just her, they're all horrible. And she is - she seems to be - pretty horrible but you can't really say she is much worse than the whole new cabinet. The new Israeli cabinet is composed of monsters...

Also, the Arab parties in the last elections increased their votes and this was called an ”historic success.” How could this affect Israeli politics?

N.F. : On their own, they can't do very much. But if they work together with Palestinians in the occupied territories, or that they manage to form an alliance with the Ethiopian Jews, then I think it's possible that they can become a force in Israeli society. They constitute about 15 percent of the Israeli population. Fifteen percent isn't a little... it's not little. In the United States African-Americans constitute about 10 percent of the population - 10 or 11 percent of the population. But African Americans, in order to create change in the United States , had to find allies among others. And in order for Palestinians inside of Israel to make change, they will also have to find some allies in Israeli society. One of those groups, I think, are likely to be the Ethiopian Jews.

One of the most important problems right now is the settlements. So, how do Israelis choose to become settlers, what drives them to be settlers?

N.F. : The Israeli government gives all sorts of specıal bonuses to Jews moving into the settlements. Bonuses in terms of mortgages, education, all sorts of things. So, it creates a real incentive on the part of Jews to move into the occupied Palestinian territories, for example, to get cheap housing. So, it's not really settlers on their own - it is a government enterprise, a government organised undertaking to bring settlers into the occupied territories. And right now, there are about 550,000 illegal Jewish settlers in the occupied Palestinian territories.

And increasing...

N.F. : Yeah, it's increasing  at  a pretty rapid rate. In the last five years, it increased by 10 percent. In 2003, it was about 500,000 settlers. Now it's about 550,000 settlers, it increased about 10 percent in the last ten years or so.

What about the Separation Wall?

N.F. : It is not really a Separation Wall. It is an annexation wall. Israel wants to annex, take for itself, about 10 percent of the West Bank. And that 10 percent of the West Bank is the path along which the wall runs. So, the wall is designed to put on Israel's side of the border about 10 percent of the West Bank -- including the important water sources, the richest soil, the best agricultural land and including East Jerusalem.

What is the long-term sustainability of the Israeli policies?

N.F. : Israel is a strong state. It's got a strong economy, it's a modern state. So, there is no hope that it’s just going to disappear one day. The only way, in my opinion, for there to be hope, is if Palestinians organise mass resistance to the Israeli occupation and this mass resistance gains the support of the international community.

What do you want to say to the Palestinian refugees commemoration of Nakba? What's your message to them?

N.F. : My message is this - it's a very difficult period now. A large part of the Arab Muslim world are concerned with their own local problems, so they don't have time for the Palestinian problem. And some of the major Arab States are now more concerned about the division between Shia and Sunni than they are about the Palestinians. So now the Palestinians are very isolated. On the other hand, it's true to say that there is a huge amount of international support for the Palestinians. And the challenge right now, for everybody, is for Palestinians to organise - the Palestinians to find the strength to resist and for them to work together with the international community and international solidarity. That's the only way change is going to come about.

Norman Finkelstein is an American political scientist, writer, professor and author. His parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz concentration camp. Currently he serves as a visiting professor at Sakarya University in Turkey.