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Monday, May 23, 2011
Middle Eastern Insights - No. 9 - Home-Made Nakba

Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation)
Bar-Ilan University
Middle Eastern Insights
No. 9, 23 May, 2011

Home-Made Nakba
Mordechai Kedar

The word nakba in Arabic means an enormous, gigantic tragedy, a catastrophe.
This is the word used in the Arab-Islamic discourse to denote the start of
the “Palestine” calamity, in which Islam’s Holy Land of Palestine fell
captive in a modern-day Crusade to Zionism, the emissary of European
imperialism. When Israel's 1948 War of Independence ended, six hundred
thousand Arabs, formerly of Palestine/Eretz Israel, remained in refugee
camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Judea and Samaria (under Jordanian
occupation), the Gaza Strip (under Egyptian occupation), Egypt and Libya.

The catastrophe was indeed great and its dimensions stemmed not only from
the physical disaster that befell the Arabs, but – and perhaps primarily –
from the psychological tragedy that has accompanied the physical for
sixty-three years: Israel survived the War of Independence and the later
wars it was forced into. It succeeded, developed, expanded and flourished
while the Palestinians were left with only a shattered dream. Israel became
a success while they failed, and jealousy is driving them mad. Jealousy
begets hatred; the greater the jealousy, the more intense the hatred. The
State of Israel is the mirror in which the Arabs perceive their failure;
while the Jewish people celebrates its sixty-three years of renewed
independence, after 1940 years of exile, they mark sixty-three years of
continuous shortcomings.

To an extent, the years of struggle against Zionism served to unite the
Arabs in Palestine /Eretz Israel under the leadership of Haj Amin
el-Husseini, who was wanted by the British for his activities. He recruited
tens of thousands of Balkan Muslims for the SS in order to prevent European
Jews from entering Eretz Israel mainly by guarding the railway bridges on
which Hungarian Jews were transported to their deaths in 1944 by the Nazis.
Many, including some of us, Israelis, are unaware of this point: the leader
of Palestine’s Arabs was part of the machinery of destruction used to murder
European Jewry. Nevertheless, Husseini and his Nazi patrons failed and
Israel was established three years after their defeat.

On November 29, 1947, when the results of the United Nations General
Assembly vote on the Partition Plan (designed to settle the Jews of Eretz
Israel in three cantons – the Negev desert and two narrow strips along the
coastal plain and the Galilee panhandle) were publicized, the Jews danced
joyously in the streets, celebrating the great historic achievement. The
Arabs strongly opposed the decision and were furious that the “theft of
Palestine” had received an international seal of approval. The differences
between the Arab and the Jewish approaches were evident already then: a
positive, constructive and optimistic approach on the part of the Jews, and
a negative, destructive attitude adopted by the Arabs – destructive towards
the Jews, but no less destructive towards themselves.

The most outstanding example of these different approaches is the timing of
the declaration of the state: The Jews did not wait even one day despite
all the difficulties – particularly a brutal war and lack of control over
wide areas of land – and declared their state’s independence immediately
upon the conclusion of the mandate, and even earlier: since May 15th fell
on Shabbat, the declaration occurred a day earlier, on Friday May 14th, in
order to avoid desecration of Shabbat. By contrast, according to their
interpretation of the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians could have declared
independence as early as mid-1999; nevertheless, twelve years later they
have yet to establish a state. Their declaration of independence in
November 1988 was in name only and was of no practical significance, except
for the PLO head's stationery, which refers to the “President of the State
of Palestine”.

The Palestinians have identified almost five hundred towns, villages, cities
and neighborhoods that fell into Zionist hands. A great deal of property
was confiscated by the Government of Israel, primarily under the provisions
of the 1950 Absentees’ Property Law; in their place were built kibbutzim,
moshavim, towns and cities until, in most cases, no trace of evidence
remained to indicate that they had been Arab land prior to the War of
Independence. The people of Israel dried up swamps and erected communities,
while the Palestinians remained in refugee camps. The immigrant transit
camps in Israel disappeared during the 1950s and Jewish immigrants created a
new, optimistic Israeli society; the Arabs, however, remain in refugee camps
to this day, "branded" by their host countries so that they do not integrate
into their populations. Israel built a new society, which has, over the
years, rid itself of the Jewish Diaspora mentality and increasingly bridged
the cultural gaps among the various groups which have returned to their
homeland from the four corners of the earth. The desire to achieve economic
independence powered the wheels of Israel’s economy and brought it to the
forefront of the developed world. Israeli industry expanded into all types
of products; Israeli technology is world-renowned; the shekel is one of the
world’s strong currencies. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have made a
vocation of their refugee status, developed beggary into an art and
transformed their misery into a tool used to weigh on the conscience of the
world.

From its inception, Israel broke up all the Jewish armed groups that had
been operating prior to the establishment of the State: the Haganah, the
Irgun (Etzel) and the Lehi were disbanded and their arms were confiscated.
Events came to a head in June of 1948, when the Altalena, a ship carrying
Etzel weapons needed for the battle over Jerusalem, was sunk. Ben Gurion,
acting out of a sense of state primacy would not even sanction this arms
shipment. Without debating whether or not Ben Gurion acted justifiably, it
is undeniable that Israel survived its first few years, which were
immeasurably more difficult than any in its history, because the nation
acted "as one person", if not always "with one heart". State primacy
triumphed over factionalism, and the State gained ascendancy over all the
groups under its wing, including those imposed by force. The Palestinians,
by comparison, became progressively more splintered; one after another,
there arose armed groups such as al-Qawmiyun al-Arab, al-Feda’iyun, al-Sa’iqa,
al-’Asifa, Fatah, the Popular Front, the Democratic Front, the Arab
Liberation Front, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and many others. Not only did these
groups not cooperate; they often fought one another and spilled each other's
blood. The last round of violence occurred in June 2007 when Hamas'
militias took over the Gaza strip, mercilessly shooting Palestinian
Authority security personnel and hurling to the street those who had fled to
the upper floors of multistory buildings.

Immediately after its establishment, the State of Israel was awarded
international recognition and joined the United Nations as a member state.
Israel has never been involved in war against a non-Arab or non-Islamic
country, and there have even been talks about its joining NATO. The
Palestinians, by contrast, have become embroiled in strife with everyone
around them, and their Arab "brethren" have killed far more of them than
have been casualties of their conflict with Israel: in September 1970, the
Jordanian army killed approximately 20,000 Palestinians because they managed
to dominate large areas in the North of the country; in August 1976, the
Syrian army butchered thousands of Palestinians at Tel al-Za’tar; in
September 1982, the Lebanese Christian militias killed hundreds of
Palestinians in Beirut's Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps (these killings
are attributed to Israel because IDF forces were in the vicinity and allowed
the Maronites freedom of action); in August 1990, the Iraqi army invaded
Kuwait and destroyed the country, with Arafat supporting Saddam Hussein
wholeheartedly. When Kuwait was liberated in March 1991, the Kuwaitis
expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who had been working in
Kuwait for many years, in revenge for the latter's support of Hussein; Libya
banished thousands of Palestinians from its territory after the signing of
the Oslo accords in 1993; in April 2003, immediately after Saddam Hussein
was toppled, hundreds of knife-wielding Iraqis burst into Baghdadi
Palestinian homes in order to exact revenge for years of Palestinian support
of Hussein, and four new Palestinian refugee camps were created as a result.

The citizens of Israel – both Jewish and Arab – enjoy equal rights under the
law, while the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have not been awarded
citizenship to this day. Moreover, the Lebanese constitution expressly
specifies that Palestinian refugees will never gain citizenship, even though
some of them emigrated from Lebanon to Israel prior to the War of
Independence (1948), primarily in order to work in then-developing Haifa and
in various Jewish communities established in Northern Israel, such as Rosh
Pina, Ilaniya, Zichron Yaacov and others. For more than sixty years,
Lebanese law has barred Palestinian refugees from employment in close to
seventy different professions. This discriminatory list of forbidden
professions has recently been shortened to about twenty different
occupations; no one on earth has uttered a single word about this blatant
discrimination. By contrast, an Arab in Israel can study and work in any
profession he or she wishes to engage in. No wonder then that Arabs make
every effort to live in Israel, be it via fictitious "visa marriages" to
Israeli Arab women or by infiltrating the borders, primarily in the South.

The bottom line is that the People of Israel have, during sixty three years
of independence, gone from strength to strength in spite of the wars, the
difficulties and the uncertainties, while the Palestinians have blundered
along, going from bad to worse. For sixty three years, the Arabs have
imposed on the Palestinians, and the latter have imposed on themselves, a
Nakba of their own making. The May 15th breach of the border fence by
hundreds symbolized more than anything else the contrast between them and
Israel. They are empty-handed, lacking all, while Israel is an ordered and
structured state which can even show restraint in its dealings with them.

A Glimpse into the Future

Through the end of 2010, it was universally understood that in the Arab
world the ruler controls the army, the police and the intelligence services;
he can at will fire into a crowd, kidnap people from their homes, rob them
of their human rights and civil liberties, torture them or hang them in the
public square. Events of the last six months have radically altered the
perception of strength and weakness in the Middle East. The protests in
Tunisia and Egypt have succeeded in doing what rampant violence – including
the assassination of Sadat – failed to do until now. Sadat's murder ended
his life, but changed nothing in Egypt; Mubarak was no different than Sadat
when it came to quality of life for the citizenry. By contrast, nonviolent
demonstrations, in which close to eight hundred Egyptians lost their lives,
brought an end to the rule of the "Free Officers" and may yet bring an end
to Mubarak's life after he stands trial for the killing of protesters.

The new atmosphere in the Middle East enables unarmed masses to successfully
confront and topple dictators. The "exposed body" demonstration, against
which governments are seemingly powerless, is the new unconventional weapon
being wielded by unemployed, frustrated youths. Following the successes
enjoyed by the Tunisians and the Egyptians, the Libyans, Yemenis and Syrians
are also attempting to use this weapon against their rulers, and are paying
a heavy price in blood as a result. The Palestinians – the refugees and
those living in Judea and Samaria – have turned this weapon on Israel as
well.

Using the modern social media, Facebook and Twitter, any group can organize
in spite of government opposition, and rebel leaders can operate without
their identities being exposed. Many Facebook groups have been created to
call for the third intifada, and the question is not if this will occur, but
when and under what circumstances.

But it is impossible to separate the events of May 15th from internal
considerations, both Syrian and Lebanese. The Syrian government will do all
in its power to divert the camera lenses away – even temporarily – from Dar’a,
Homs, Banias and the mass killings being perpetrated by the regime. A
confluence of interests between the government and refugees in Syria led to
the provocation at Majdal Shams, as it is evident to all that dozens of
buses crowded with protesters could not approach the border fences without
the collusion and consent of the Syrian army, consent that would not be
given without a green light from the President's office in Damascus.

Lebanon, with its chronic internal difficulties, oscillates between a
pseudo-Western democracy and an Iranian-like theocracy and is uncertain
about its path. On the one hand, there is a burning desire to be rid of
four hundred thousand Palestinian refugees who have suffered humiliation and
oppression at the hands of the Lebanese elite since 1948; there are, thus,
some who encourage the Palestinians to march en masse toward the border
fence with Israel. On the other hand, the Lebanese are fearful of heating
up the border with Israel; memories of the Lebanon war (2006) deter many in
the Land of the Cedars from war with the "Zionist entity". Iranian
influence is also not strong enough to push Lebanon into igniting the
Israeli border, and I am not certain that the Iranians are interested in
detonating the Lebanese grenade at this juncture; they may prefer to retain
that option for more difficult times, if and when a confrontation occurs
between Iran and the West over its nuclear program.

The events which began on May 15 have yet to run their course. The dynamics
of Middle Eastern protests are such that they tend to intensify, albeit in
fits and starts. Both world and Arab media have forgotten the protests for
now, which will anger the Palestinians and motivate them to replicate the
events of May 15th. Israel must be resolute, but its actions need to be
measured and restrained since a high death toll will only fan the flames of
trouble. It is imperative that Israel not share the defendants' dock with
dictators. Israel must act wisely and cautiously, using non-lethal methods
to quell disturbances, as mass killings at the borders, in particular those
surrounding Gaza, will deflect world attention from the internal conflicts
in Arab countries and put the "right of return" squarely on the
international agenda.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Mordechai.Kedar@biu.ac.il

The article is published in the framework of the Center for the Study of the
Middle East and Islam (under formation), Bar Ilan University, Israel.
Translated by Nachama Kanner

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