The Catastrophe Called Nakba
by Sam Sokol
The Jerusalem Post
May 10, 2012
“All of the world knows what happened here in 1948,’ Daoud Abu Lebdeh says, while leaning against a table in a coffee shop on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus.
“The Israeli soldiers or the Israeli militias like the Hagana, Kahane, the Irgun and Lehi came here and they [kicked] the people outside from their homes.”
Daoud is a nondescript man of 24 from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Wadi Joz. A correspondent and blogger with the Palestinian website the Middle East Post, Daoud has come highly recommended as an expert on the Nakba, the “catastrophe” of the birth of the State of Israel, and concurrently, the start of the Palestinian refugee problem, by Fatah Youth activist and Jerusalemite Mousa Abassi.
Except for the historical inaccuracy of placing the radical Jewish nationalist movement of Kahanism in the 1940s, several decades too early, Daoud’s statement echoes the standard Palestinian narrative of the Nakba, a topic which comes up every year as Arabs within Israel, the Palestinian Authority and around the world commemorate the what they see as the tragedy of Israel’s establishment on May 14, 1948.
Elaborating on the Palestinian narrative regarding what they have termed “ethnic cleansing,” Daoud explains that “the English books, the American history books, it’s all the same. There is nothing to change. The whole world knows what happened here.”
“[The Jews] came here and established their own state [and] until today they have prevented us [from] establishing our state near to their state.”
The Palestinian narrative is very clear. According to Daoud and the Arab version of events, the Zionist movement began bringing in Jews to Palestine, then a peaceful backwater of the Ottoman Empire in which a distinct Palestinian culture had developed over centuries.
Having convinced the British to back their nationalist goals at the expense of the local Palestinians, the Jews began to bring in illegal immigrants and eventually drove the Palestinians out of their homes in an orgy of violence and massacre.
The Jews, explains Daoud, have no claim to any part of Palestine.
Asked why his predecessors did not accept the 1947 United Nations partition plan, unlike the Zionist movement which endorsed it wholeheartedly, and instead chose to go to war, the Palestinian journalist grabs my iPhone off of the table.
“I have taken your phone,” he says. “What do you do?” The partition resolution, he claims, was like someone stealing a smartphone and then asking to split it. He asserts that the Zionist movement had no claim to any part of the land and that asking the Arabs to accept that they did was a trampling of their rights.
According to Daoud, the ancient Jewish presence in Israel, preceding the arrival of Arabs and Islam to the country by thousands of years, does not have any bearing on the current political reality.
Asked why, he counters that the Jewish presence in this land is similar to that of the Muslim Moors who conquered Spain.
“Just as I can’t, in the name of Islam, go to Spain to occupy it and [expel] the Spanish because [in the past we were there],” he says, “it’s the same thing that you [Israel] are doing now. It’s not my problem that [King] David was here and Muhammad was there.”
The Palestinian focus on the Nakba, and on the return to homes lost in the fighting and subsequent Arab mass flight from Israel in 1948, has intensified over the past few years, he asserts. Despite an emphasis on the Nakba, and Israel’s illegitimacy, in the PA’s educational curriculum since the early 1990s, Daoud is sure that his people have grown more attached to the Nakba narrative because they are disillusioned by the failure to achieve a two-state solution.
However, despite the popularity and wide currency enjoyed by the Palestinian version of events, not everybody subscribes to the Nakba narrative.
Efraim Karsh, an expatriate Israeli, historian and Arabist, is the editor of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Quarterly, published by Dr. Daniel Pipes’s think tank the Middle East Forum, and, speaking with the Post by Skype from his home in the city of brotherly love, affirms his contention that the popular version of events is based on erroneous sources.
Karsh, who recently published Palestine Betrayed, a history of the Nakba, explains that it is precisely the widespread acceptance of Palestinian historiography that has stood in the way of implementing a two-state solution and accounts for, in his view, Palestinian intransigence.
An accurate history of the conflict, he opens, should be independent of political ideology. He believes history has no relation to political ideology. He himself, he continues, is an advocate of the two-state paradigm, despite his absolute rejection of the Palestinian narrative.
One of Karsh’s main contentions in his book is the responsibility of the Palestinian and outside Arab leadership for the events of 1948.
“In 1947, prior to the first UN General Assembly vote, Palestinian leaders rejected any form of Jewish self-determination in Palestine. Hajj Amin Husseini, their most prominent leader from the early 1920s to the late 1940s, upheld that ‘there is no place in Palestine for two races.’ All areas conquered by the Arabs during the 1948 war were cleansed of Jews,” he wrote in this newspaper last year.
Delving through Arab, Israeli and British archives, Karsh in Palestine Betrayed paints a portrait of a divided and not at all cohesive Palestinian-Arab society that, as he put it “all but disintegrated, with 300,000-340,000 of its members fleeing their homes to other parts of Palestine and to the neighboring Arab states.”
Writing that “nowhere at the time was the collapse and dispersion of Palestinian Arab society al-Nakba, ‘the catastrophe,’ as it would come to be known in Palestinian and Arab discourse – described as a systematic dispossession of Arabs by Jews,” Karsh went on to quote contemporary Palestinian Arab leader Musa Alami, who stated that “If ultimately the Palestinians evacuated their country, it was not out of cowardice, but because they had lost all confidence in the existing system of defense.”
Even more damning, in Karsh’s eyes, is a statement by Sir John Troutbeck, the head of the British Middle East Office in Cairo, regarding a 1949 fact-finding mission to the Gaza Strip.
“‘We know who our enemies are,’ they [the Arab refugees] will say, and they are referring to their Arab brothers who, they declare, persuaded them unnecessarily to leave their homes.”
Referring to these and similar statements, Karsh tells the Post that “the beginning of my book basically tells it all. In 1948-1949 no one among the Palestinians spoke about the Jews as responsible for their plight. It came only later, ex post facto, that they started explaining why they ran away. If you look, there are quotes of refugees in Gaza in 1949 telling the British ‘look, our leaders, the Arabs, they pushed us out but not the Jews’ so I cannot think that you need much more than this [to understand the situation].”
In the Fifties, Karsh says, the narrative began to change, with the plight of the Palestinian refugees being used as a tool in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
“In the Fifties you see the discredited Arab leaders like the Mufti and others begin an attempt to basically absolve themselves or rehabilitate themselves in their constituents,” he says.
This alternative narrative, combined with statements by Daoud regarding repeated Israeli rejections of Palestinian peace offers which Karsh rejects as untrue, paint a picture, he says, of a people unwilling to face reality.
The current Palestinian historiography is “a combination of ignorance and reluctance to reconcile themselves to reality [and] the result is very dispiriting for the future for peace,” he continues.
Certainly, the PA’s continuing demand for the “right of return” would be looked upon differently by a world that believed the Palestinian exodus to be the fault of the Arab states and local communal leaders.
In fact, Karsh continues, while there has been, even after the Roman exile, a Jewish presence in the Land of Israel for millennia, the very concept of Palestinian nationalism is a 20th-century creation.
Among his sources, Karsh quotes former Arab nationalist, Knesset member and alleged Hezbollah spy Azmi Bishara, who once made an appearance on Israeli television to announce that he doesn’t “think there is a Palestinian nation at all. I think there is an Arab nation.
“I always thought so and I did not change my mind. I do not think there is a Palestinian nation, I think its a colonialist invention – Palestinian nation. When were there any Palestinians? Where did it come from? I think there is an Arab nation. I never turned to be a Palestinian nationalist, despite my decisive struggle against the occupation. I think that until the end of the 19th century, Palestine was the south of Greater Syria.”
Of course, Daoud is having none of this. He says that while he is ready to accept a two-state solution, there really is no legitimate Jewish sovereignty in Palestine and that the entire conflict is the fault of Zionist territorial hunger and ethnic cleansing. Karsh’s opinion, he believes, is the historical revision, not the current Nakba narrative.
“The Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis. What we don’t know is why we the Palestinians must pay the price for that.”