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The Arabic words “an-Nakba” (“the catastrophe,” from the trilateral Semitic root NKB meaning to do harm, or to make miserable) is the term used in modern Arabic to refer to the uprooting of about 700,000 Arabs living in British Mandatory Palestine and their exile to neighboring Arab states, as a result of Israel’s victory in the 1948 war. It has become a political term that competes well with “ha-Shoah” (the Holocaust) for international attention, as a gut-wrenching knee-jerk plea for recognition of a tragedy of epic proportions wrecked upon a hapless, helpless population. As Palestinian Authority representative Hanan Ashrawi stated at the controversial 2001 World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa: “a nation in captivity held hostage to an ongoing Nakba, as the most intricate and pervasive expression of persistent colonialism, apartheid, racism, and victimization.”
But “ha-Shoah” represents a real disaster, galactic in dimension, and, as Will Durant put it, an evil that demonstrated the failure of civilization, or worse, “the failure of civilization, democracy, ethics and religion… of everything we might call humanity.” The use of “an-Nakba” today, however, represents the successful spin of modern Arab propaganda in support of an endeavor maintained for more than 60 years, by Arab states and terrorists, that seeks to replicate the Holocaust on an even larger scale.
The term originated in Arabic history decades before the 1948 war, and meant almost exactly the opposite of its current usage.
George Habib Antonius, the father of modern Arab nationalist history, wrote The Arab Awakening in 1938. There he documented the first known political use of the term (pg. 312):
“The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe (Am an-Nakba). It saw the first armed risings that occurred in protest against the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries. In that year, serious outbreaks took place in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.”
In fact, from the 1880’s onward Arab nationalists protested the use of the term “Palestine” because “Palestine,” as they explained, was really southern Syria (as-Suriyeh al-janubiyeh). Even the most vitriolic and vociferous Arab nationalist in Southern Syria, the Hajj Amin el-Husseini, opposed the Mandate because it created “Palestine” separate from Syria.”[i] The General Syrian Congress of 1919 stressed an exclusively Syrian identity for the Arabs of “greater Syria” (i.e., including Lebanon and Palestine): “We ask that there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine . . .”[ii] George Antonius, as noted above, defined Palestine as part of Syria. Akhmed Shukairi, the PLO delegate to the UN, asserted in 1956, eight years after the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the “Palestinian refugees,” that “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria.”[iii] As late as 1974 Syria’s President Hafez al-Assad asserted that: … Palestine is not only a part of our Arab homeland, but a basic part of southern Syria.”
This original “Nakba,” thus, was not the catastrophe that Ashrawi described in such searing terms. Rather it was a spontaneous rebellion by the Arabs of southern Syria (which would soon become known as British Mandatory Palestine), in protest against the division by the European victors of World War 1 of Arab-populated lands of the former Ottoman (Turkish) Empire into the British and French mandates of Palestine, Syria and Iraq.
This “Nakba” had nothing to do with Jews or Zionism, and nothing to do with demands by “Palestinian” Arabs for national self-determination or political self-realization. To the contrary, this original “Nakba” stands as historical testimony to the fact that the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine saw themselves as Syrians. They had no perception of themselves as “Palestinians.”
Even the term “Nakba” as it was first used to relate to the 1948 war is inconsistent with its emotion -fraught use today. Constantine Zureiq, a professor of history at the American University of Beirut, in his 1948 book Ma’na an-Nakba (The Meaning of the Catastrophe), used the term to condemn Arab governments for their failure to vanquish Israel and for their abandonment of the Arab peasantry; and to critique Arab society as a whole for its tendency to live in the past: “The Zionists had a vision from the past to the future, while the Arabs lived in the dreams of their glorious past.”[iv]
The concepts of the “Palestinian people” and “historic Palestine” as that people’s ancient homeland “from time immemorial” did not exist in the Arab world of 1948. Those Arabs who suffered that “Nakba” were indeed hapless victims; but they were victims of their own leaders’ lust for the destruction of Israel,[v] and they saw themselves as Syrians, living in what should rightfully be called “Southern Syria.” It was only decades later that Yasser Arafat and his Soviet handlers came up with the eminently successful PR fiction that the Arab refugees represented an ancient nation in its ancestral homeland, exiled cruelly by a brutal colonialist Jewish army. [vi]
The term “an-Nakba” in its current usage, referring exclusively to Israel’s putative crimes against the “Palestinian people,” was an even later invention. The term is not found in Arabic political usage until 1998 when Arafat, by this time ensconced as the “rais” (head, leader) of the Palestinian Authority, thanks to the Oslo Accords, instituted an official “Nakba Day” to be held every year on May 15, the anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel. Only then did the words “an-Nakba” begin to assume their place of prominence in Palestinian life.
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