Editorial & Opinion

Brittany Palumbo and Joel Reinstein: It’s time to talk about the Palestinian Nakba in RI

“These real connections between Palestine and Providence are the reason why we’re joining with other Rhode Islanders to put together a teach-in, “Unpacking the Nakba.” On May 15th, the day when Palestinians mark the Nakba, we’ll have a presentation and discussion on what happened in 1948, how it’s continued through today, and its relevance for struggles here in the Ocean State.”
Photo for Brittany Palumbo and Joel Reinstein: It’s time to talk about the Palestinian Nakba in RI

Published on May 12, 2021
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Join Rhode Islanders for Palestine for our teach-in “Unpacking the Nakba,” May 15th at 4:00! Register here.


Escalating violence in Jerusalem has made headlines in US media: “clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police,” “Violence shakes Israel, with rocket fire and police battling Palestinians.” Readers could be forgiven for believing that Israelis and Palestinians are continuing a sectarian squabble in which both sides share responsibility for tragic escalations. 

In fact, the recent unrest began with Israel’s attempt to expel hundreds of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where they’ve lived for decades. Israel aims to replace these families with Jewish settlers, claiming that their homes are on land once owned by Jews, and that therefore any Jewish settler is entitled to evict the current residents and take their homes. 

Under Israeli law, this kind of unabashed ethnic cleansing is legal. It’s why organizations like Human Rights Watch are finally acknowledging what Palestinians have been saying for years, that Israel – the sole power between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea – is an apartheid state. 

But more than apartheid, Israel is continuing a process of colonization and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians that it has carried out gradually since before Israel’s creation in 1948. It was in 1948 that Palestinians suffered the Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” as pre-Israeli Zionist militias drove some 750,000 Palestinians from their homes under the pretext of war with neighboring countries. This expulsion has continued through the unrest taking place today. 

#SaveSheikhJarrah 

In East Jerusalem, which is under Israeli military occupation, threatened expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah are just the latest episode in an effort to remove as many Palestinians as possible and replace them with Jewish settlers. Since Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, it has revoked the residency permits of 14,595 Palestinians; 685 Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel just between 2004 and 2016, leaving 2,513 people homeless. 

This is the context in which thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout the country have taken to the streets to defend the families in Sheikh Jarrah, where they’ve been attacked by Israeli occupation forces firing tear gas and rubber-coated steel bullets. One protester, 16-year-old Said Odeh, was killed when Israeli soldiers shot him twice in the back, and then prevented an ambulance from reaching him for 15 minutes. 

Israel has also assaulted Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, injuring hundreds of worshippers on both May 8th and 10th during the holy month of Ramadan. Israeli police shot rubber bullets and threw stun grenades in the mosque, and even denied access to Palestinian medics attempting to treat the hundreds of wounded people trapped inside. 

It’s in response to all of this that Palestinian militias in the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip fired rockets into Israel. This has given Israel the pretext to launch airstrikes that, as of this writing, have killed 32 people, 10 of them children. Israel now threatens to reprise past military operations against the stateless civilians of Gaza, which have killed thousands since 2006, with the overwhelming majority of the dead noncombatants, and many hundreds of them children. 

The Nakba 

All of this continues the ethnic cleansing that began in 1948. As part of the forced removal of some 750,000 people, Zionist militias carried out exterminations of entire villages, most infamously the village of Deir Yassin. Over 400 Palestinian communities were demolished, as part of a premeditated plan to remove as many Palestinians as possible from what is now Israel. Several hundred thousand people had been displaced even before the beginning of the war between Israel and neighboring countries. 

Israel has never allowed these refugees and their descendants to return home, even after the war ended. Today they comprise one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with some five million Palestinian refugees recognized by the United Nations. The Nakba has continued through forced expulsions and violence like that in East Jerusalem, as Israel has pursued a consistent policy of removing as many Palestinians as possible from as much territory as possible. 

In carrying out this violence, the Israeli military receives $3.8 billion dollars every year from the United States, much of which comes back to American arms manufacturers – like Textron, whose headquarters is right here in Providence. United States funding subsidizes Israel’s military occupation through which it rules over millions of Palestinians. The occupation has created a booming Israeli industry in technology of surveillance and policing that can be exported around the world. The Israeli company Cellebrite, for example, develops the phone-hacking technology used by Providence police: if the police here want to access the contacts on an arrested protester’s phone, they can turn to Israeli technology developed by decades of military rule over Palestinians. 

These real connections between Palestine and Providence are the reason why we’re joining with other Rhode Islanders to put together a teach-in, “Unpacking the Nakba.” On May 15th, the day when Palestinians mark the Nakba, we’ll have a presentation and discussion on what happened in 1948, how it’s continued through today, and its relevance for struggles here in the Ocean State. 


Brittany Palumbo is a healthcare worker in Rhode Island and a hub coordinator of Sunrise Providence. Joel Reinstein is a labor organizer in Providence and a member of the Providence Democratic Socialists of America.

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