Nakba 75: Time for Israeli, Palestinian leaders to listen to the people

Nakba 75: Time for Israeli, Palestinian leaders to listen to the people

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas speaks during a high-level UN event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (AFP)
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Three-quarters of a century has passed since the war of 1948 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is as far as ever from a resolution. All it does is provide common reminders that, without a peaceful settlement of the longest conflict in modern history, it will continue to rage.

Last month, Israel celebrated its 75th Independence Day, while facing its worst domestic crisis since its inception, and this week it is time to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic). The two events are inseparable. It is not only about remembering the horrendous suffering that this war inflicted on the Palestinians back then, but the suffering they have endured every single day since, with no just and fair solution to their predicament in the offing.

In the Israeli narrative, the Nakba never took place. There was no forced expulsion, no atrocities, no dispossession or destruction of Palestinian towns, villages and communities; only people fleeing the horrors of a war that was their leadership’s fault in the first place. Even today, addressing the Nakba is, among Jewish Israelis, confined to a relatively small number of scholars and peace and human rights activists. Gradually, more written and oral evidence is becoming available that sheds light on events back then — and it makes very uncomfortable reading for those who still adhere to the mainstream Zionist discourse. Moreover, in school curricula, the Nakba is a taboo subject, unmentionable for fear of suggesting that “the most moral army in the world” committed atrocities that no circumstances could excuse.

Learning in detail about the complexity of events that both led up to and took place during the 1948 war — and accepting that whatever the wrongs on the Palestinian side, Israel bears responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinian population in Palestine during the war, for creating the Palestinian refugee problem and for perpetuating it — is a first and necessary step toward reconciliation and coexistence. It is both morally right and politically expedient, as it can help build trust between nations that have been at war with one another and to heal the psychological scars that every conflict leaves behind.

Palestinians obviously do not trust Israel or the international community, and equally they have no confidence in their own leadership

Yossi Mekelberg

It is hardly surprising, then, especially as the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza continues and is entrenched by the periodic rounds of open hostilities and the inevitable bloodshed that accompanies them, that most Palestinians, as revealed this week by the findings of an Arab News/YouGov survey, are longing for their daily political and humanitarian nightmare to come to an end. They are also skeptical of this wish materializing anytime soon.

If trust is the most essential ingredient in building a better future, Palestinians obviously do not trust Israel or the international community, and equally they have no confidence in their own leadership. But although there is much gloom in this survey, it also leaves room for optimism. Despite all the setbacks since the Oslo Accords, which are now nearly 30 years old and have failed to create a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel, 51 percent of Palestinians favor a two-state solution. Moreover, another 21 percent support the creation of a federal state, which could be interpreted as a two-state solution in a one-state reality. The latter could ensure that people’s aspirations for self-determination are fulfilled but without the need to create hard borders or divide Jerusalem and, equally important, without the almost impossible task of removing the Jewish settlements, which have become the major obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

For all of those scaremongers, especially in Israel, who claim that the Palestinians would like to see the end of Israel through demographically overwhelming it by way of a one-state solution, the survey, and not for the first time, demonstrates clearly that only a very small minority — 13 percent — see that as a viable solution.

But this must return us to the issue of who can bring about a solution and who can be trusted with negotiating it. The fact that the vast majority of Palestinians do not trust any Israeli government, of any persuasion, to embark on the path of peace could hardly be regarded as shocking news — and the current Israeli government is only making this state of affairs worse. Similarly, the distrust in the US as an honest broker derives from past experiences, which is frustrating for Palestinians because they recognize that Washington has the power to influence Israel’s decision-makers but is not ready to do so for its own reasons.

For too long, political and geographical divisions have debilitated the Palestinians’ ability to diplomatically counter Israel’s might

Yossi Mekelberg

This has led to overwhelming support among Palestinians for Russia or China to be proactive in brokering peace. While Russia today could hardly be a peace broker for the most obvious reasons, China does not come with the baggage carried by America or certain EU countries and, furthermore, Beijing’s recent successful involvement in the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran has improved its credibility in the region.

Political developments in Israel remain a source of concern over whether peace can be achieved, but the disarray in the Palestinian political system is equally worrying. The Palestinians’ lack of confidence in their own leadership, be they Fatah or Hamas, as expressed by this survey, is detrimental to their prospects of achieving their aspirations of statehood. For too long, political and geographical divisions have debilitated the Palestinians’ ability to diplomatically counter Israel’s military, economic and political might, but before entering negotiations with Israel, unity at home is an overriding necessity. Without it, the Palestinians remain vulnerable, which leaves the field open for Israel — and mainly the far-right settlers’ movement — to dictate their fate.

The support for coexistence, either along the lines of two separate political entities or via a federal state, as emerges from this survey, should be regarded as both a miracle, considering how many false dawns similar plans have suffered, and also as a source of hope, because this is the will of the people.

When it comes to solving this intricate conflict, it is the people who are showing more vision and pragmatism than their leaders, and this holds true on both sides of the Green Line. It is either for their respective leaders to listen to the people as they have spoken or clear the way for new leaderships that are ready to embark on the path of peace based on a two-state solution along the 1967 borders, even if adjusted to the realities that have emerged since then, but without compromising the basic tenets that will see both Israelis and Palestinians enjoying the same political, civil and human rights.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a 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
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