For Palestinians, 2017 is a year of significant anniversaries. While historians mark May 15 as the anniversary of the date on which Palestinians were expelled from their homeland in 1948, the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians began in earnest in 1947. In strict historical terms, 1947 and 1948 were the years in which Palestine was conquered and depopulated. The tragedy, which remains a bleeding wound to this day, started 70 years ago.
June this year marks the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military occupation of the 22 percent of historic Palestine that was not seized by Zionist militias in 1947-48. While Nov. 2 will mark the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the roots of the Zionist campaign to claim Palestine as a Jewish state go back much earlier.
The document signed by British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour was the first official commitment by a major world power to facilitate “a national home for the Jewish people.” Britain made its infamous promise even before the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine and most of the modern Middle East, officially capitulated in World War I.
A few years later, the League of Nations entrusted Britain in 1922 to be the caretaker of post-Ottoman Palestine, and mandated to lead the country to independence. Instead, the Brits worked to achieve the opposite. Between 1922 and 1947-48, with direct British help Zionists grew more powerful, forming a parallel government and a sophisticated and well-equipped militia. Britain has remained decidedly pro-Israel after all these years.
When the British mandate over Palestine officially ended in November 1947, that parallel regime moved in to fill the vacuum in nearly perfect tandem, claiming territories, ethnically cleansing most of Palestine’s Arab population and on May 14, 1948 declaring the State of Israel.
Palestinians recognize the following day, May 15, as the day of the Nakba, or catastrophe, of war and exile. Nearly 500 Palestinian villages and many cities and towns were depopulated, seized or destroyed. An estimated 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees.
These anniversaries are important not because they form convenient numbers, but because the political context surrounding them is unprecedented. The US has abdicated its long-term commitment to the “peace process,” leaving Israel to decide the course of its own actions while the international community stands hapless.
The “peace process” was not designed to create favorable outcomes for Palestinians. It was part of a larger design to formulate a “solution” in which Palestinians were to be granted semi-autonomous, disconnected mini-regions to be called a state. Now that pipedream is over as Israel is expanding its illegal settlements at will, constructing new ones and has little interest in adhering to even the US-envisaged “negotiated agreement” paradigm.
It is important that the Palestinians are freed from the stifling discourse that rendered the Nakba extraneous and molded an alternative narrative in which only the Israeli occupation of 1967 seems to matter.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains visionless. Although politically defunct and practically impossible, the Palestinian Authority (PA) still insists on the two-state solution, wasting precious time that should be geared toward arranging a future that is predicated upon coexistence in a shared land.
It is important that the Palestinians are freed from the stifling discourse that rendered the Nakba extraneous and molded an alternative narrative in which only the Israeli occupation of 1967 seems to matter. The official Palestinian discourse has been confusing and inconsistent for some time.
Historically, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was forced to concede under US and sometimes Arab pressure, and alter its demands throughout the years. The greatest of these concessions was made in 1993 when the PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, which redefined Palestinian rights around UN Resolutions 242 and 338. It relegated or discarded everything else.
This was a great folly and a strategic mistake for which Palestinians continue to bear the consequences. Existing now are several Palestinian depictions of the history of their struggle against Israel. But there can only be one way of understanding the so-called conflict, one that starts with Zionist settlements in Palestine and British colonialism 100 years ago.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas is himself sending mixed messages. He seemed disinterested in contextualizing the struggle of his people back to the Nakba 70 years ago, yet the PA announced that it will sue Britain for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
Britain, on the other hand, has brazenly announced that it will be “celebrating” the 100-year anniversary of the declaration, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being the guest of honor. The country that facilitated the ongoing tragedy in Palestine still refuses to acknowledge the enduring harm it committed 100 years later.
Israel is experiencing no moral awakening either. Besides the small school of Israel’s “new historians,” Israel continues to hold on to its own version of history, much of which was constructed in the early 1950s under the guidance of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion.
Compelled by pressures, fears and lack of vision, the Palestinian leadership failed to grasp the need to hold on to and explain these anniversaries combined as a roadmap toward a solid, unified and sensible discourse.
The Balfour Declaration cannot be appreciated without understanding its dreadful consequences that played out in 1947-48; and Israel’s occupation of the remaining 22 percent of Palestine is entirely out of context if read separately from the ethnic cleansing of 1948.
Moreover, the Palestinian refugee crisis, which continues to manifest itself in Syria and Iraq to this day, cannot be fathomed or explained without examining the origins of the crisis, which date back to the Nakba.
This year is burdened with significant and tragic anniversaries, but these dates should not be used as opportunities to protest, registering only a fleeting moment of solidarity. They should offer the chance to rearticulate a unified Palestinian discourse that crosses ideological and political lines. Without an honest understanding of history, one cannot redeem its many sins.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com.