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Israel presides over a new Palestinian catastrophe

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For many Palestinians, one word haunts their historical imagination: “Nakba.” It means catastrophe in Arabic and summons the disasters that befell hundreds of thousands of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war when they were driven from their homes and native cities in the wake of Israel’s founding. “Their villages were destroyed, or resettled and renamed, their histories erased,” explained my colleague Louisa Loveluck. “It is a deep and enduring trauma that has touched nearly every Palestinian family — one many fear is repeating itself.”

Indeed, as the devastating Israeli campaign against Hamas in Gaza rumbles on, the specter of a new Nakba looms. The scale and scope of Israel’s aerial bombardments of the tiny territory are unprecedented. At the beginning of the month, a Geneva-based rights group said the volume of munitions dropped by Israel on the Gaza Strip since Oct. 7 was already about the equivalent to two of the nuclear bombs deployed over Japan by the United States at the end of World War II.

The destruction and escalating ground offensive has claimed more than 11,000 Palestinian lives in Gaza, many of them children, and prompted a staggering humanitarian crisis. It has also forced about 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents to flee their homes — a displacement that may redefine the territory for years to come. The bulk of Gaza’s residents are registered refugees whose ancestors fled what is now Israel in 1948. Now, they reckon with a new tragedy.

“What do things look like behind us? Destruction and death. We left in fear,” a woman who gave her name as Um Hassan told Reuters as she crossed into southern Gaza from the north. “We are the poor Palestinian people whose houses were destroyed.”

Displaced Palestinians fled south on foot and horse-drawn carts along Salah al-Din Road, as attacks intensified in the north on Nov. 12. (Video: Reuters)

For Israel, the onslaught is all downstream of the horror inflicted by Hamas on Oct. 7. The Islamist group’s terrorist strike on southern Israel marked the bloodiest day in Jewish history since the Holocaust and the grisly, hideous details of the massacres, as well as the ongoing plight of Israeli hostages, have stirred a widespread desire among the Israeli public for retribution. During a Sunday interview with CNN, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pinned the responsibility for Palestinian civilian harm on Hamas for provoking Israel’s ire.

In media interviews and public statements, various Hamas officials seem unrepentant. They accept their actions will lead to the death of many “martyrs” and explain away the blood on their hands as an expression of resistance to an oppressive regime. “We warned, we said something is coming, we said don’t bet on the Palestinians’ silence,” Basem Naim, a Hamas spokesman, told my colleagues. “No one listened. This operation, we consider it an act of defense. I am besieged in a prison, I tried to break out of the prison.”

They also acknowledge that they are deliberately trying to stoke an all-the-more catastrophic conflagration. “I hope that the state of war with Israel will become permanent on all the borders, and that the Arab world will stand with us,” Taher El-Nounou, a Hamas media adviser, told the New York Times.

The Arab world is hardly standing with Hamas, though it’s outraged by the disproportionate onslaught unleashed by Israel. “Israel crossed every legal, ethical & humanitarian red line in its barbaric war on Gazans,” tweeted Jordanian foreign minister Ayman Safadi, pointing to the West’s moral double standards. “Yet Int’l community & its key organizations have failed to even demand a ceasefire.”

The punishing military doctrine that Israel may be following in Gaza

Some Israeli officials are sanguine, if unapologetic, about what their operation is doing to Palestinians. Speaking on one of the country’s main news television channels on Saturday, Avi Dichter, Israeli agricultural minister and a former director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, said the nature of the fighting in northern Gaza required the mass evacuation — and potential expulsion — of Palestinians living in Gaza City.

“This is going to result in some sort of Nakba,” he responded to an interlocutor who invoked the term. “[This is] a Gaza Nakba 2023, that’s how it’ll end.”

The crisis facing Palestinians is not just in Gaza. In the West Bank, where Israeli settlements and jurisdictions carve up the land once envisioned as the site of a viable Palestinian state, settler vigilantes have stepped up their attacks on Palestinians in the aftermath of Oct. 7. “The United Nations has recorded 222 settler attacks against Palestinians over the past month,” my colleagues reported. “Eight people, including a child, have been killed. Another 64 Palestinians have been injured, more than a quarter by live ammunition.”

The violence has already forced dozens of families to flee their homes and abandon groves of olive trees tended by their families for generations. My colleagues, including Loveluck, visited the West Bank community of Zanuta, whose 150 or so Palestinian residents were leaving in fear for their lives. “Those settlers are above the law; they are the state now,” Aser al-Tal, a 59-year-old shepherd, said to my colleagues.

“Those settlers could slaughter us and no one would care. What do you want me to say?” he added, beginning to cry. “There are no words to describe the misery of this life.”

Settler violence is erasing Palestinian communities in the West Bank

For sections of the Israeli far right, which forms a major part of Netanyahu’s government, Palestinian dispossession is the unspoken prerequisite to their aims. In a telling interview with the New Yorker, Daniella Weiss, a veteran leader of the Israeli settler movement, showed, at best, indifference to the plight of Gaza’s Palestinians, saying they should be dispersed to countries like Egypt and Turkey and that Israelis should resettle Gaza. (Netanyahu and some of his allies in government have so far resisted such calls.)

When it came to the actions of Israeli settlers in the West Bank, including attacks and intimidation that led to the eventual appropriation of Palestinian land, Weiss was blunt about their goals and unmoved by the condemnation they have drawn from the Biden administration.

“The world, especially the United States, thinks there is an option for a Palestinian state, and, if we continue to build communities, then we block the option for a Palestinian state,” she told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner. “We want to close the option for a Palestinian state, and the world wants to leave the option open. It’s a very simple thing to understand.”


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