Yesterday, May 15, Palestinians and their supporters, as they have done increasingly over recent years, marked the nakba (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) –– the day 68 years ago that Israel came into existence upon the expiry of British rule under a League of Nations mandate.
That juxtaposition of Israel and nakba isn’t accidental. We’re meant to understand that Israel’s creation caused the displacement of hundreds of thousand of Palestinian Arabs.
But the truth is different. A British document from the scene in early 1948, declassified in 2013, tells the story: “the Arabs have suffered ... overwhelming defeats ... Jewish victories … have reduced Arab morale to zero and, following the cowardly example of their inept leaders, they are fleeing from the mixed areas in their thousands.”
In other words, Jew and Arabs, including irregular foreign militias from neighboring states, were already at war and Arabs were fleeing even before Israel came into sovereign existence on May 15, 1948.
Neighboring Arab armies and internal Palestinian militias responded to Israel’s declaration of independence with full-scale hostilities. In fact, the headline for the New York Times’ famous report on that day includes the words, ‘Tel Aviv Is Bombed, Egypt Orders Invasion.’ And, indeed, the head of Israel’s provisional government, David Ben Gurion, delivered his first radio address to the nation from an air-raid shelter.
Israel successfully resisted invasion and dismemberment –– the universally affirmed objective of the Arab belligerents –– and Palestinians came off worst of all from the whole venture. At war’s end, over 600,000 Palestinians were living as refugees under neighboring Arab regimes.
As Saudi columnist Abdulateef Al-Mulhim observed on previous anniversary, “It was a defeat but the Arabs chose to call it a catastrophe.” In fact, the Syrian, Qustantin Zuraiq, in his 1948 pamphlet, Ma’an al-Nakba (The Meaning of the Catastrophe), was first used the term nakba in this context, and the catastrophe of his description was not an Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, but their flight in anticipation of an Arab invasion and destruction of Israel.
Accordingly, the term nakba, as used today, smacks of falsehood, inasmuch as it implies a tragedy inflicted by Israel. The "tragedy," of course, was self-inflicted.
As Israel’s UN ambassador Abba Eban was to put it some years later, “Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged.”
However, the Palestinians do not mourn today the ill-conceived choice of going to war to abort Israel. They mourn only that they failed.
This is contrary to historical experience of disastrous defeat. The Germans today mourn their losses in World War Two –– but not by lauding their invasion of Poland and justifying their attempt to subjugate Europe. They do not glorify Nazi aggression.
The Japanese today mourn their losses in World War Two –– but not by lauding their assault on Pearl Harbor and their attempt to subjugate south-east Asia. They do not glorify Japanese imperialism.
Nakba commemoration is therefore instructive in a way few realize.
It informs us that Palestinians have not admitted or assimilated the fact –– as Germans and Japanese have done in varying degrees –– that they became victims as a direct result of their efforts to be perpetrators.
It also informs us that Palestinians would still like to succeed today at what they miserably failed to achieve then.
And it informs us that they take no responsibility for their own predicament, which is uniquely maintained to this day at their own insistence.
If readers doubt my word, consider the following vignette: in January 2001, John Manley, then-Foreign Minister in Jean Chretien’s Canadian Government, offered to welcome Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Canada. The Palestinian response? Mr. Manley was burned in effigy by Palestinian rioters in Nablus and Palestinian legislator Hussam Khader declared, “If Canada is serious about resettlement, you could expect military attacks in Ottawa or Montreal.”
Why this astounding response by a Palestinian official to an offer of refugee relief?
Because establishing a Palestinian state and resettling the refugees and their descendants inside it or abroad would remove any internationally-accepted ground for conflict. That’s why helping to solve the Palestinian refugee problem is regarded as a hostile act –– by Palestinians.
Nakba commemorations disclose that the conflict is about Israel’s existence –– not about territory, borders, holy places, refugees or any other bill of particulars.
When Palestinians accept that Israel is here to stay, the possibility of the conflict’s end will come into view. In the meantime, responsible governments can repudiate nakba commemorations –– rather than treat them as benign expressions of national loss or grief –– as a small but important step towards bringing that day closer.