Demons of the Nakbah

By Dr Ilan Pappe
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-05-30 03:00

Israel has long denied its responsibility for the events of 1948, the

Nakbah, that forced the Palestinian population from Palestine at the point

of Israeli guns. However, today when recognition of the wrongs done to the

Palestinians in 1948 is finally dawning, many Israeli politicians are openly

advocating a new "Transfer Option", writes Ilan Pappe.

As a Jewish child, born in Haifa in the early 1950s, I did not encounter the

term Nakbah (catastrophe), nor was I aware of its significance. Only in my

high- school days did the term make its first appearance. There were three

Israeli Palestinian pupils in my class, and we all participated in joint and

guided tours around Haifa and in its vicinity. In those days, there was

still evidence of Arab Haifa in the Old City: beautiful buildings, remnants

of a covered market later destroyed by the Israelis in 1948, mosques and


These relics testified to the city's more glorious past. Many of these

residues of the past are gone now, demolished by the bulldozers of an

ambitious city mayor who has erased any urban characteristics that could

point to the city's Arab past. But in those days there were quite a few Arab

houses squeezed between the modern concrete buildings. The guides on the

school tours used to refer to them as Hirbet Al-Shaych, a vague reference to

an Arab house from an unidentified period. My Palestinian classmates

muttered that these were houses left from the 1948 Nakbah, but they did not

dare to challenge their teachers, nor did they expand on what they meant.

Later, as a young doctoral student at Oxford University I chose 1948 as the

subject of my thesis. I wrote on British policy in that year, but

incidentally discovered evidence in the Israeli and British archives that,

when put together, gave me for the first time a clear idea of what the

Nakbah had been about. I found strong proof for the systematic expulsion of

the Palestinians from Palestine, and I was taken aback by the speed at which

the judaisation of the formerly Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods was

carried out.

These villages, from which the Palestinian population had been evicted in

1948, were renamed and resettled within a matter of months. This picture

contrasted sharply not only with what I had learned at school about 1948,

but also with what I had gathered as a BA student in Middle Eastern Studies

at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, even though quite a few of my courses

dealt with the history of Israel. Needless to say, what I found also

contradicted the messages conveyed to me as a citizen of Israel during my

initiation in the army, at public events such as Independence Day, and in

daily discourse in the country's media on the history of the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I returned home to Israel in 1984 to begin an academic career, I

discovered the phenomenon of Nakbah denial in my new environment. It was in

fact part of a larger phenomenon -- that of excluding the Palestinians

altogether from local academic discourse. This was particularly evident, and

bewildering, in the field of Middle Eastern Studies in which I had commenced

my career as a lecturer. Towards the end of the 1980s, as a result of the

first Intifada, the situation improved somewhat, with the Palestinians being

introduced into Middle Eastern Studies as legitimate subject matter. But

even then this was done mainly through the eyes of academics who had been

Intelligence experts on the subject in the past, and who still had close

ties with the security services and the IDF [Israeli Defence Force]. Thus,

this Israeli academic perspective erased the Nakbah as a historical event,

preventing local scholars and academics from challenging the overall denial

and suppression of the catastrophe in the world outside the universities'

ivory towers.

For a short while at the end of the 1980s, several academics, including

myself, caught public attention by publishing scholarly books that

challenged the accepted Israeli version of the 1948 War. In these books, we

accused Israel of expelling the indigenous population and of destroying the

Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods. Although our early works were

hesitant and cautious, and mine were not even translated into Hebrew, it was

still possible to gather from them that the Jewish State was built on the

ruins of the indigenous people of Palestine, whose livelihood, houses,

culture and land had been systematically destroyed.

Public response in Israel at the time moved between indifference to the

total rejection of our findings. Only in the media and through the

educational system did we succeed in directing people towards taking a new

look at the past. However, from above, the establishment did everything it

could to quash these early buds of Israeli self-awareness and recognition of

Israel's role in the Palestinian catastrophe, a recognition that would have

helped Israelis to understand better the present deadlock in the peace


The struggle against the denial of the Nakbah in Israel then shifted to the

Palestinian political scene in the country. Since the 40th anniversary of

the Nakbah in 1988, the Palestinian minority in Israel has associated, in a

way that it never did previously, its collective and individual memories of

the catastrophe with the general Palestinian situation and with their

predicament in particular. This association has been manifested through an

array of symbolic gestures, such as memorial services during Nakbah

commemoration day, organised tours to deserted or formerly Palestinian

villages in Israel, seminars on the past, and extensive interviews with

Nakbah survivors in the press.

Through its political leaders, NGOs and media, the Palestinian minority in

Israel has been able to force the wider public to take notice of the Nakbah.

This re-emergence of the Nakbah as a topic for public debate was also helped

by the climax of the Oslo negotiations -- the Camp David summit meeting

between the then Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and Arafat in the

summer of 2000. The false impression at the time, which had it that the end

of the conflict was about to be achieved, placed the Nakbah and Israel's

responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands. And,

despite the collapse of the summit meeting, mainly due to an Israeli wish to

enforce its point of view on the Palestinian side, for a while the

catastrophe of 1948 was brought to the attention of a local, regional, and

to certain extent global, audience.

Not only in Israel, but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it

was necessary to remind those concerned with the Palestine question that

this conflict did not only entail the future of the occupied territories,

but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their

homes in 1948. The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issue of

the refugees' rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed

Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

Indeed, the Nakbah had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace

process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a

Pandora's box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the

Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel's

responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue,

and this "danger" was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli

media and parliament, the Knesset, a consensual position was formulated: no

Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to discuss the Right of Return of

the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The

Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Barak made a public commitment to

it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The media and other cultural institutions were also recruited to discourage

discussion of the Nakbah and its relevance to the peace process, and it was

in this atmosphere that I became involved in the Tantura Affair. This

erupted after an MA student at my university, Haifa, exposed an hitherto

unknown massacre, one of the largest yet known, carried out during the 1948

War by Israeli forces in the Palestinian village of Tantura. This student

was taken to court in December 2000 accused of defamation, and later, in

November 2001, he was expelled from the university for daring to add yet

further evidence of Israel's responsibly for the Palestinian catastrophe.

The court system, it transpired, thus willingly joined the denial process.

This year, as I look back over the attempts that I have made, together with

those of others, to introduce the Nakbah onto the Israeli public agenda,

what emerges is a very mixed picture. I can now detect cracks in the wall of

denial and repression that surrounds the Nakbah in Israel, coming about as a

result of the debate on the "new history" in Israel and the new political

agenda of the Palestinians in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been

helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugees issue

towards the end of the Oslo Peace Process. As a result, now, in mid-2002, it

is, after more than 50 years of repression, more difficult in Israel to deny

the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this

relative success has also brought with it two negative reactions, formulated

after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

The first reaction has been from the Israeli political establishment, with

the Sharon government, through its minister of education, beginning the

systematic removal of any textbook or school syllabus that refers to the

Nakbah, even marginally. Similar instructions have been given to the public

broadcasting authorities. The second reaction has been even more disturbing

and has encompassed wider sections of the public. Although a very

considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academics have

ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they have nonetheless also been

willing to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a

prescription for the future. The idea of "transfer" has entered Israeli

political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the

best means of dealing with the Palestinian "problem".

Indeed, if I were asked to choose what best characterises the current

Israeli response to the Nakbah, I would stress the growing popularity of the

Transfer Option in Israeli public mood and thought. The Nakbah -- the

expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine -- now seems to many in the

centre of the political map as an inevitable and justifiable consequence of

the Zionist project in Palestine. If there is any lament, it is that the

expulsion was not completed. The fact that even an Israeli "new historian"

such as Benny Morris now subscribes to the view that the expulsion was

inevitable and should have been more comprehensive helps to legitimise

future Israeli plans for further ethnic cleansing.

Transfer is now the official, moral option recommended by one of Israel's

most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies

in Herzeliya, which advises the government. It has appeared as a policy

proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their

government. It is openly advocated by university professors, media

commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. And, lately, the leader

of the Majority in the American House of Representatives has openly endorsed


A circle has thus been closed. When Israel took over almost 80 per cent of

Palestine in 1948, it did so through settlement and ethnic cleansing of the

original Palestinian population. The country now has a prime minister who

enjoys wide public support, and who wants to determine by force the future

of the remaining 20 per cent. He has, as did all his predecessors, from

Labour and Likud alike, resorted to settlement as the best means for doing

this, adding the destruction of independent Palestinian infrastructure. He

senses, and he may not be wrong in this, that the public mood in Israel

would allow him to go even further, should he wish to repeat the ethnic

cleansing not only of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but if

necessary also that of the one million Palestinians living within the

pre-1967 Israeli borders.

The Nakbah thus is no longer denied in Israel; on the contrary, it is

cherished. However, the full story remains to be told to the Israelis, as

there may still be some among that state's population who are sensitive

about their country's past and present conduct. This segment of the

population should be alerted to the fact that horrific deeds were concealed

from them about Israeli actions in 1948, and they should be told, too, that

such deeds could easily now be repeated, if they, and others, do not act to

stop them before it is too late.

Al-Ahram Weekly [Other bibliographical details not provided. Circa end of

May, 2002]

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