Rashida Tlaib pushes for Palestinian Nakba recognition in US


Washington, DC – United States Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib has introduced a resolution to recognise the Palestinian Nakba, the term used to describe the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians before and during the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The measure, put forward in the US House of Representatives on Wednesday, comes amid a growing push by progressives in the US to advance Palestinian rights and restrict US aid to Israel.

The motion describes the Nakba – the Arabic for “catastrophe” – as “Israel’s uprooting, dispossession and exile of the Palestinian people from their homeland”.

“A just and lasting peace cannot be established without addressing the Nakba and remedying its injustices towards the Palestinian people,” the proposal reads, adding that the Nakba is the “root cause” of the issues that divide Israelis and Palestinians.

As Tlaib, a Michigan Democrat of Palestinian descent, was set to introduce the resolution this week, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy pushed to cancel an event by the congresswoman on Capitol Hill to commemorate the Nakba.

“This event in the US Capitol is cancelled,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter.

Rashida Tlaib speaks to a packed room at the Senate office building during a Nakba commemoration event in Washington, DC, on May 10, 2023 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

The commemoration did take place on Wednesday, but it was moved from the US Capitol Visitor Center to a nearby Senate office building – still on the Capitol campus.

With the change of venue, dozens of Palestinian rights supporters crammed into a Senate committee hearing room, with many sporting keffiyehs and wearing Palestinian thobes.

“I say it loud and clear by introducing a historic resolution in Congress: The Nakba happened in 1948 and it never ended,” Tlaib told the crowd.

‘This is the people’s Congress’

Earlier this week, Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the pro-Israel group the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), wrote a letter to McCarthy slamming the event and describing rights groups involved in it, including Jewish Voice for Peace Action, as using “anti-Israel and even anti-Semitic language”.

Greenblatt also accused Tlaib of using “incendiary and offensive language”, including accusing Israel of imposing apartheid on Palestinians.

On Wednesday, Tlaib noted that several prominent human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, had concluded that Israel imposes a system of apartheid on Palestinians.

“This is the people’s Congress, and you all have a right to exist,” Tlaib told the attendees.

The event featured Nakba survivors as well as academics and activists who stressed that the dispossession of Palestinians has not stopped.

This is the second time that Tlaib has introduced a Nakba resolution in Congress. This year, the measure was put forward just days before Palestinians and their supporters commemorate Nakba Day on May 15.

The resolution was co-sponsored by five Democrats, including Betty McCollum, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.

“The Nakba is not only a historical event,” the resolution reads, “but also an ongoing process characterised by Israel’s separate-and-unequal laws and policies toward Palestinians, including the destruction of Palestinian homes, the construction and expansion of illegal settlements, and Israel’s confinement of Palestinians to ever-shrinking areas of land.”

The measure is unlikely to pass in Congress, which remains staunchly pro-Israel despite the recent rise of progressive voices critical of Israel.

But the Palestinian-American congresswoman told Al Jazeera in 2022 that one of the aims of the resolution is to spread awareness about the Nakba, noting that many of her colleagues are not familiar with the history of the plight of Palestinians.

“I want them to understand what the Palestine liberation movement is about, what human rights for Palestinians is really about – and it means understanding the history of what has happened to Palestinians since 1948,” Tlaib said at the time.

‘To heal from our past, we have to be honest about history’

About 750,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes when the Israeli state was founded and hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages were wiped out in what many historians describe as a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Millions of survivors of the Nakba and their descendants continue to live in refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as in neighbouring Arab countries.

The Nakba is rarely discussed in mainstream US politics, where Israel has enjoyed widespread support from legislators and successive presidents of both major parties for decades.

Still, during the final weeks of the administration of former President Barack Obama in late 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry made a rare reference to the Nakba as a top US official.

“When Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2018, the Palestinians will mark a very different anniversary: 70 years since what they call the Nakba, or catastrophe,” Kerry said in a speech addressing the conflict.

Israel’s supporters often deny the Nakba, alleging that early Zionist settlers in Palestine came to a barely populated land and “made the desert bloom” – a claim rejected by Palestinians as a myth.

Tlaib’s resolution urges continued backing for the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and calls for prohibiting the use of US weapons to forcibly remove Palestinians from their lands or demolish their homes.

In early May, Congresswoman McCollum also introduced a bill to restrict US aid to Israel to ensure it is not used to enable abuse against Palestinians, including the detention of children.

Meanwhile, 14 Democratic legislators last month issued a letter urging President Joe Biden to investigate whether US weapons were used to commit rights violations against Palestinians.

Although Congress remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel, many of the speakers at the Nakba commemoration event on Wednesday found irony in that McCarthy succeeded in moving the event but not making it go away.

“We’ve been displaced; how fitting?” Palestinian-American academic and rights advocate Noura Erakat said.

McCarthy’s office did not return Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

The groups organising the event, which included the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) and Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), hailed Wednesday’s gathering as “historic”.

“Kevin McCarthy attempted to once again salience Palestinians and our supporters, but we were not silenced,” they said in a joint statement, adding that denying the “documented truth of the Nakba” is anti-Palestinian racism.

“The event and Rep. Tlaib’s resolution are major milestones that reflect the shift in support for Palestinian rights in this country. To heal from our past, we have to be honest about history. Acknowledging the Nakba is an important step towards freedom and justice for Palestinians.”

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