As Israel celebrates 59 years of independence, Palestinians on May 14 commemorate the Nakba, the catastrophe of expulsion and decades of exile that continue to this day.
When my mother was 9 years old, she and her family mounted the back of a pickup truck and left their village of Lifta, adjacent to Jerusalem, under threat from Zionist militias. My grandmother covered the furniture in the family home that my grandfather had built. Anticipating a short absence until fighting in the area died down, they took only a few clothes. That was almost six decades ago. Like hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians, they were never allowed to return, and their property was seized by Israel.
My mother remembers her early childhood and the Jewish neighbors who rented the apartment her father owned. She recalls helping them on the Sabbath and playing with their daughter after school. A life such as this is no more than a distant memory for most Palestinian refugees, who, with their descendants, now number more than 5 million.
But a better life needn't be just a memory. It is feasible for Palestinians to return to their homeland while peace with Israelis is built at the same time. Another diplomatic push will not bring about the fantasy of neat separation of Israelis and Palestinians into two states. This would only perpetuate inequality and division. Instead, international pressure should be put on Israel to drop its insistence on supremacy over Palestinians. Then both parties can come together to begin building a single, multiethnic state where Jews and Palestinians can again live side by side.
One of the hard – but not impossible – tasks will be convincing many Israelis of the viability of a single-state solution. In 2004, for example, Israeli historian Benny Morris, who has written several books documenting the forced expulsion of the Palestinians, said that a "Jewish state would not have come into existence without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them." But Mr. Morris is no bleeding heart. He added, "There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing." If Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, could be faulted, Morris said, it was because he "did not complete the transfer in 1948."
Millions of Palestinians live in squalid camps under Israeli military rule and in surrounding countries. Israel has refused to allow these refugees to return home as required by international law.
The reason is simple: From its inception, the Zionist movement set out to turn a country where the vast majority of people were not Jewish into a country that gives special rights and privileges to Jews at the expense of non-Jews. If Palestinian refugees were black Africans, no one would dispute an "apartheid" label that former US president Jimmy Carter has used to describe the situation.
But while some see Israel as a miracle, many Israelis themselves recognize that the Zionist project has been far from a success: Today the number of Israeli Jews and Palestinians inhabiting the country is roughly equal at about 5 million each. Just more than 1 million Palestinians live as citizens of Israel, albeit with inferior rights, while almost 4 million live under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Their high birthrate means that in a few years, Palestinians will once again become the majority as they were prior to 1948.
To assert, as Israel does, that it has a right to be a "Jewish state" means to recognize that it has a right to manipulate demographics for the purpose of ethnic domination. This outlook violates fundamental human rights.
Palestinians, many of whom are already being forcibly displaced by the cruel wall that snakes through the West Bank, fear another 1948-like expulsion. At the last Israeli election, parties that explicitly endorse ethnic cleansing of Palestinians made major gains, including the one led by Deputy Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Palestine/Israel is as unpartitionable as was South Africa and Northern Ireland, where similar ethnic conflicts had also defied resolution for generations. In both places, it was only when the dominant group dropped its insistence on supremacy that a political settlement could be reached. What was once unimaginable happened: Nelson Mandela's African National Congress and F.W. de Klerk's National Party joined hands in a national unity government in 1994. Leaders in Northern Ireland made similar progress this year.
Neither political marriage came about through love, but through necessity and with outside pressure. In time, social reconciliation may come, but it has not been the prerequisite for political progress in South Africa or Northern Ireland. Such pressure on Israel as the strongest party is necessary, which is why I support the growing movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions modeled on the antiapartheid campaign. At the same time, we must begin to construct a vision of a nonracial, nonsectarian Palestine-Israel, which belongs to all the people who live in it, Israeli Jews, Palestinians, and all exiles who want to return and live in peace with their neighbors.
• Ali Abunimah is cofounder of the online publication The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse."