Facing the Nakba could be a first step toward reconciliation

Facing the Nakba could be a first step toward reconciliation

Facing the Nakba could be a first step toward reconciliation
In this 2018 photo, Palestinians are met with a hail of tear gas as they protest in Gaza against Israeli atrocities. (AFP file)
Short Url

Come this time of year and there is a marked difference in mood between Israel’s Jews and its Palestinians there and everywhere.
For the Jewish population, it is a time to celebrate their independence, which was declared in 1948. It could not be more different for Palestinians, who commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, when not only were their aspirations for statehood left in ruins, but also many lives were lost, communities destroyed, and 750,000 out of 1.9 million people from within what is now Israel driven from their homes and made refugees.
To add insult to injury, almost three quarters of a century later, Israel still refuses to accept any responsibility for the Nakba, as well as the suffering that it inflicted on the Palestinian people, which continues to affect millions of refugees scattered across the Middle East and, consequently, the prospects of reconciliation.
For Israelis and Palestinians, the struggle over the 1948 narrative is a crucial aspect of their relations, as each side strives to win the consciousness battle within their own society and in international public opinion.
The vast majority of Israel’s Jews have resorted to complete denial, distortion and wilful ignorance of the Nakba, and most wash their hands of any responsibility, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It has become an inconvenient truth that they would rather avoid for fear that it might offer a powerful weapon to those who question the Jewish state’s legitimacy, and might also require painful soul-searching in light of the war crimes committed and the need to atone for their legacy.
In the oversimplified Israeli narrative, the Zionist leadership, unlike the Palestinian one, accepted the UN’s 1947 partition plan, and when the nascent state was declared, a war was declared on it by the Palestinians and several Arab countries. Hence, anything that happened between that moment and Israel’s eventual victory in the war was part of a just war — of a country defending itself from external aggression.
What this narrative conveniently and deliberately ignores is that even before war broke out, the leadership of the Jewish Yishuv (pre-1948 Jewish residents of the “Land of Israel“) planned to expel as many Palestinian communities as possible, and while subsequently executing this plan, war crimes, including murder and rape, were allegedly committed.
Israel points to atrocities committed by Palestinian and other Arab military forces against Jews before and during the war, and this is undeniable; yet it by no means justifies silencing discussion of Israel’s role in the Nakba and what it means to Palestinians, especially considering its scale and its consequences.

The vast majority of Israel’s Jews have resorted to complete denial, distortion and wilful ignorance of the Nakba.

Yossi Mekelberg

After all, any fair and just solution, and with it a genuine reconciliation between the two peoples, cannot take place unless truth prevails. As long as Israelis refuse to immerse themselves in understanding, internalizing and sympathizing with the immense suffering visited on Palestinians during the Nakba, they will be unable to understand the psychological barrier facing Israel’s Palestinian minority that prevents them from feeling they are an integral part of Israeli society, especially as there has never been an Israeli expression of regret or responsibility, and a long overdue apology has yet to be extended to them.
Moreover, the catastrophe that has befallen Palestinian refugees is sustained by Israel’s enacting of laws that confiscate their properties and bar them from returning, while legislation has turned those who were not made refugees into second-class citizens who face punitive action should they dare commemorate the Nakba.
Yet, we are seeing a gradual change of discourse in Israel about the Nakba and the atrocities committed in places such as Deir Yassin, Tantura or Saliha. This is the result of a growing body of knowledge derived from academic research, investigative journalism and documentaries, in many cases involving former soldiers who have decided to bare their souls and share with the younger generation their experiences of those atrocities.
Since the late 1980s, Benny Morris’ work “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949” and other research by those known as the New Historians, has dispelled the myth that all Palestinians left their towns and villages of their own accord, out of fear of war, or because they were told to do so by their leaders. While some did, many were brutally forced out by the advancing Israeli army on the orders of the country’s leadership and, at times, by local initiatives of Israeli commanders, with the aim of driving as many Palestinians as possible out of the country.
For Israelis to admit their role in the Nakba requires crossing a psychological rubicon, but denying it is also politically motivated.
Psychologically, for a nation indoctrinated with the notion that its military is “the most moral army in the world,” and that the Jewish nation has always been victimized and is incapable of victimizing others, it is next to impossible to admit any wrongdoing.
Israel’s security forces are by far not the most immoral in the world, and the Jewish people have indeed suffered from some of the most heinous war crimes and crimes against humanity that anyone can imagine. However, this does not negate the fact that those handed the task of defending the Jewish state inflicted, in the course of the 1948 war and in subsequent wars and conflicts, immense suffering on others.
Coming to grips with that reality by introducing it into the school curriculum and discussing it in the public domain will not undermine the right of the Jewish state to exist, and should be part of a campaign not to vilify it but to help it become a better society, one better equipped to understand Palestinians’ grievances and aspirations; and from these truths could also come reconciliation and peaceful coexistence.
However, there is also a more calculated reason for Israel to deny any responsibility for the Nakba, and it is the fear that it would hand an advantage to those who demand restitution and, above all, actualize the right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants to their former towns and villages.
This argument is rather redundant. That refugees have a right to return is established in international law, but at no point in decades of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians has there been a serious demand to allow every refugee to settle in Israel.
Additionally, all the evidence indicates that the vast majority of Palestinian refugees are not remotely interested living in a Jewish state, but instead want to become citizens of either an independent Palestine or their host country. Instead, they rightly insist on Israel acknowledging responsibility for their suffering, apologizing for it, and compensating them for their loss.
The renowned historian Margaret MacMillan observed: “We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.” If Israel genuinely aspires to peacefully coexist with the Palestinians and properly integrate into the region, one of the first steps, and a crucial one, should be to stop being selective about how it perceives and portrays its role in the Nakba.

Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg 

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view