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Young protesters in London with Palestinian flag. PA

Opinion The story of Palestine - over a century of national struggle

Trinity adjunct professor Yaser Alashqar looks at the long struggle of the Palestinians in the shadow of Israel’s power.

THIS ARTICLE WILL not aim to discuss the immediate causes of escalation and the evolving crisis in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Instead, it will hopefully shed light on the key origins of the Palestinian issue and on some of the important political realities at the Israeli-Palestinian and international level.

It is true that we are witnessing a Palestinian moment of implosion in the occupied territories (Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem) and the Palestinian community inside Israel.

However, unlike what news headlines might currently tell us about the Palestinians and Israel’s blame of Hamas, the story of Palestine did not start today.

Historical roots and the Nakba

The roots of the Palestinian national struggle date back to more than a century. Put simply, the evolving events are a direct Palestinian response to a long historical process of colonialism, dispossession, land confiscation and the denial of national rights in Palestine. This process continues to be a living reality in the Palestinian national experience.

The Jewish movement, Zionism, emerged in Europe prior to the First World War and it sought to deal with the Jewish experience of European anti-Semitism.

However, in later years and with active assistance from Britain as the colonial power in Palestine and the Middle East region, the Zionist movement succeeded in establishing the State of Israel in the land of Palestine in 1948. It facilitated mass Jewish emigration and settlement in that country through violent and colonial practices against the indigenous Palestinians.

Taking over Palestine and expelling most of the indigenous Palestinian people in 1948 became recognised in Palestinian national history as the Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic).

The Nakba refers to the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages and the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948 as a result of the creation of the State of Israel in Palestine. Similar to Britain’s endorsement of Zionism following the First World War, the US continues today to fully support the State of Israel for a range of political, military and geopolitical reasons.

In recent years, Palestinian and Israeli scholars have documented the forced transformation of Palestine into a Jewish state and the developing consequences. Rashid Khalidi illustrated the role of the 1948 events in strengthening the Palestinian national identity and bringing “the Palestinians closer together in terms of their collective consciousness.”

Nur Masalha explored new ways of commemorating and remembering the 1948 Nakba, while the Israeli Jewish scholar, Ilan Pappe, highlighted how the Israeli military occupation of the remainder of the Palestinian territories in 1967 transformed Gaza and the West Bank into “the biggest prison on earth.”

Imprisonment and apartheid

In the biggest prison on earth, Israel has built and maintained a colonial system of discrimination, occupation, blockade and apartheid against the Palestinians. This oppressive system is not only noted by Palestinian and UN sources.

Israeli and international human rights organisations have also been issuing clear reports and warnings. Hagai El-Ad, the executive director of B’Tselem – Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories – acknowledged it publically: “We are Israel’s largest human rights group – and we are calling this apartheid”.

Human Rights Watch made a similar conclusion after years of close observations and research into Israeli’s policy towards the Palestinians. In April 2021, the internationally respected organisation issued a revealing report, indicating clearly that Israel is committing the crimes of apartheid and systematic persecution of the Palestinian people.

At the policy level, Human Rights Watch called for imposing international sanctions against Israel as a means of challenging its apartheid practices and crimes against humanity in Palestine.

Netanyahu and Hamas

Israel’s leaders and spokespersons choose to ignore this historical context, a context that cannot be overlooked and it helps people at the international level to locate the Palestinian national experience and the current wider unrest from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Israeli right-wing leader, Benjamin Netanyahu is encountering internal problems of corruption and leadership challenges from other Israeli political actors and from the right-wing movement. He is interested in protecting his political power and willing to use force and war against the Palestinians to increase his popularity and power, especially among religious-nationalist parties and settlers in Israel.

Netanyahu pursues his preferred public discourse of ‘Hamas’s terrorism’ and ‘rocket fire’, especially during the times of escalation and military assaults on Gaza. This discourse does not provide any acknowledgement of the root causes of Palestinian violent actions or historical grievances, including the Nakba, occupation, apartheid and the denial of basic human rights.

It also fails to recognise that the emergence of the Palestinian political and armed movement, Hamas, in the late 1980s was connected to the harsh realities of Israeli military occupation in Gaza and the West Bank. The US Harvard academic, Sara Roy, studied and researched well the politics of Hamas and the strong link with the occupation.


Today, around two million Palestinians in Gaza continue to be subjected to extreme violence and destruction. To take one example from the last few days, Israeli airstrikes wiped out entire families and their children in one of Gaza’s overcrowded areas, known as the Shati refugee camp.

The Shati refugee camp hosts more than 85,000 Palestinian refugees. Putting aside the illegality of armed attacks on civilians under international humanitarian law, the Israeli claims of targeting Hamas fighters among the refugee population in the camp have been refuted strongly by UN sources on the ground.

Gaza’s refugees represent approximately 70% of the total population in this shattered territory.

They were displaced and expelled by Jewish-Israeli forces from their original homes and land in Palestine in 1948. The UN has recognised the Palestinians’ right of return to their land since 1948 and it continues to provide Palestinian refugees with humanitarian assistance through the UN organisation, UNRWA.

Gaza’s refugee population has been dispossessed and under repeated Israeli attacks since the 1950s. However, they still represent the collective Palestinian memory of the Nakba and the struggle for national rights.

Not only Palestinians in Gaza are currently bombarded by Israeli advanced aeroplanes and drones but they also cannot flee the besieged territory because of the Israeli blockade by land, sea and air. They are stranded with a sense of permanent distress, trauma, entrapment, insecurity and lacking access to the outside world.

The besieged territory has also acquired a special place in Israel’s war economy and arms trade. The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, spoke previously about the Israeli use of Gaza as a ground for testing new military technologies and weapons. These weapons are marketed at the international level as “battle-tested products”. Worse than ever, Gaza simply now means a disastrous state of physical imprisonment, collective punishment, death and destruction.

Palestinians may not have the same equal power as Israel, which is supported militarily and economically by the US and major European states, but the story of the Palestinian national struggle carries moral power and legitimate historical ambitions for justice and self-determination.

Yaser Alashqar is an adjunct assistant professor in International Peace Studies at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. His teaching and research fields include conflict resolution, mediation and Middle East politics. He is also an academic member of the Centre for Palestine Studies in SOAS at the University of London.


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