Israel has failed to accept historical realities of the Nakba
When this time of year comes round, Israelis and Palestinians mark the events that unfolded in 1948 — events that left them with diametrically opposed experiences, narratives and emotional legacies that affect both peoples to this day. For Israelis, the day on which independence was declared is one of joy, celebrating the ultimate Zionist, against-the-odds aspiration for the renewal of Jewish self-determination in the country of their forefathers, two millennia after their exile. For the Palestinians who lived on the very same land for hundreds of years, it was the culmination of their catastrophe, the Nakba, in which most lost their homes and possessions, about 10,000 were killed, and many more faced decades of exile in places that haven’t been predominantly hospitable. And, after more than 70 years, there is still no end to their refugeedom in sight.
Most astonishing is the complete lack of empathy and understanding among the vast majority of Jews of the sheer suffering of Palestinians during that war and ever since, and of Israel’s role in it. It all adds up to an inconvenient truth that some would rather ignore, deny or suppress.
To some extent, this is due to a fear that taking any responsibility might have far-reaching political implications for any future peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, including the refugees’ right of return. But there is something emotionally deeper at play, whereby those who suffered immense persecution and even genocide at the hands of others, just for being who they are, are now hard-hearted to the sufferings of another people, cannot accept that they are capable of inflicting immense pain on others, and continue to do so by their government’s ongoing policies that prolong and perpetuate the torment of those people.
But surely Israelis can at least see the correlation between Zionism and the eventual fate of the Palestinian people, whether the latter are refugees, live within a Jewish state or have ended up elsewhere in the region or the wider world. It is a truism that, whether or not the Zionist movement planned in advance to expel Palestinians and take their lands, without Zionism and its longing for self-determination in this specific territory, for which Jews feel a special affinity, the Nakba would never have happened. Even the most ardent Zionist cannot and should not deny, or should at least understand, this linkage. For this obvious connection, and this connection alone, between fulfilling the Zionist dream and the Nakba, it could be reasonably expected that, more than 70 years later, Zionists and their supporters would strive to find a just and fair solution for those who survived that catastrophe and for their descendants.
Ultimately, the figures are clear for everyone to see. By the end of the fighting, more than 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled from or fled their homes prior to the establishment of the state of Israel (in its pre-1967 borders). Some 154,000 Palestinians remained in the newly created state. For the next 18 years, they lived under military rule. But, even since this was removed, they have continued to be discriminated against, both legally and by custom, compared to the country’s Jewish population. Moreover, several massacres of Palestinian civilians took place before and after the state of Israel was declared. These were carried out by paramilitary Yishuv organizations and later by the Israeli Defense Forces, most notoriously in the village of Deir Yassin. Naturally, these massacres, especially that of Deir Yassin, visited terror on many defenseless Palestinians, who literally ran for their lives. By the end of the war, more than 400 towns and villages lay in ruins, emptied of their inhabitants.
Since the mid-1980s, based on meticulous archival research and interviews with those who were involved in planning and executing the policy, Israeli historians have been unearthing evidence that, at least in some places, expelling Palestinians was part of a bigger plan, such as the notorious “Plan Dalet.” The expulsion of Palestinians from their villages and towns was not always a spontaneous event, and in many cases it was part of the government’s long-term strategy.
Since 1948, the narrative adopted by Israel has been that the entire responsibility for the Nakba lies with the Palestinian leadership for rejecting the UN Partition Plan of 1947 — which called for the partition of Mandatory Palestine into Jewish and Arab states — while the Zionist movement accepted it. Factually, this might be correct but, looking closely at the details of the plan, we find that, even if in hindsight it was a historically calamitous mistake, the rejection had its own logic. The much smaller Jewish population had been allocated 55 percent of the territory while the Palestinian people were allocated only 45 percent of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, leaving many Palestinians under the rule of the soon-to-be-established Jewish state.
For the Israeli-Zionist narrative, acknowledging wrongdoings toward the Palestinians in 1948 and taking responsibility, even if not sole responsibility, has always meant also shouldering the obligation to rectify what happened back then, including addressing the right of return. As peace negotiations over the last quarter-century have demonstrated, Palestinians are more interested in Israel accepting responsibility, acknowledging its part in their suffering, apologizing for it and finding a solution to their statelessness, while compensating them for their losses. Only a small minority would like to go back and live in Israel. But Israel, even as an act of goodwill, won’t accept this historical reality.
Yet genuine peace must include a genuine truth and reconciliation process, in which both sides will have to address the pain they inflicted on the other. For Israel, this means understanding the miseries brought upon Palestinians during the Nakba, showing empathy, and crossing the mental Rubicon by admitting its contribution to it.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program.Twitter: @YMekelberg