How Netanyahu Is Stoking Israelis' Fear of the Nakba

We Israelis must face our part in the physical expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 and its symbolic weight for Palestinians today. It may bite, but it won’t destroy us

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A Palestinian woman in Lebanon holds a placard in Arabic reading: 'We will return,' during a rally to mark the Nakba at the Beaufort Castle near the border with Israel, Lebanon. May 15, 2018
A Palestinian woman in Lebanon holds a placard in Arabic reading: 'We will return,' during a rally to mark the Nakba at the Beaufort Castle near the border with Israel, Lebanon. May 15, 2018Credit: Bilal Hussein/AP
Galia Golan
Galia Golan

There are a number of reasons that we in Israel are afraid of the Nakba, the word Palestinians use to describe the catastrophe that befell them on Israel's creation in 1948 - and that the Israeli right-wing has even felt the need to ban marking it or teaching anything about it. 

I’ve been amazed in some 52 years of teaching at major Israeli academic institutions how little Israeli students know in general about the history of the conflict, including the more recent past. 

But the Nakba is indeed special, and we are afraid to open up the topic.  One of the reasons is that when the average Jewish Israeli hears the word, he/she thinks "return" – as if we are about to be flooded with four million, even one million returning Palestinians, the threat of an eventual Arab majority planning to throw us into the sea. 

Members of the Palestinian community and supporters march toward the Israeli consulate to protest the U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem. Chicago, Illinois, May 15, 2018Credit: SCOTT OLSON/AFP

That was pretty much the reaction when it was, inaccurately, claimed that the right of return was the main obstacle to agreement in the Camp David negotiations of 2000. 

A second reason is that it is painful, and therefore undesirable, to face some of the things that our own people did in 1948 – namely the physical expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from their homes in areas designated to be within or near the borders of the newly-founded state. 

In the late 1990s, the new historians began to write about these things.  Israel television even aired pictures of at least two of these forced evacuations. Israeli historians broke new ground by exposing the historical record and how these events had been treated  in Israeli historiography. But with the collapse of the Oslo Accords, that discussion went silent once again. 

The third and perhaps most important reason for the silence is that acknowledgment of the Nakba, our role in it, might threaten the very legitimacy of the State of Israel. 

Was the state born in sin? Was its creation a legitimate act if it was done at the cost of pushing people out of their homes, creating hundreds of thousands of refugees, including many who simply fled out of fear - but barring their return, as the government decreed on 10 June 1948? 

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot during clashes with Israeli forces along the border with the Gaza strip east of Khan Yunis on May 18, 2018Credit: SAID KHATIB/AFP

To begin with, whatever the evils and mistakes of the period, Israel’s legitimacy does not rest on the war of independence (though its survival may), but, rather, on an international decision, the vote of two-thirds of the UN General Assembly on 29 November 1947. 

One may discuss the reasons for the world’s decision, and the local Palestinians’ rejection of a partition that gave 55 percent of the land to the Jews (who actually owned only about 6%) and were a minority compared to the number of Palestinians at the time. 

Nonetheless, and for whatever reasons, that decision, UN Resolution 181, is the source of Israel’s legitimacy as a state. Yet it is this matter of legitimacy that has haunted most of our leaders for decades. The Arab states refused even to recognize Israel in the 1950s, referring to us as the "Zionist entity." 

In time we demanded not just recognition that we exist, but recognition that we have a right to exist.

When the Arab League declared the famous three no’s" at Khartoum in 1967 (no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it), our leaders intentionally ignored the fact the call was only for return to the 1967 borders, not 1948. 

But more importantly, two and half months later, Egypt and Jordan accepted UN Security Council resolution 242 with its clause that all states in the region have "the right to live within secure and recognized borders." Yet we didn’t believe them; Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and their governments were convinced that the Arabs would never accept us, our legitimacy here. 

Supporters of Palestinian rights protest in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC. May 15, 2018Credit: WIN MCNAMEE/AFP

Further, Jerusalem became pretty much the symbol – a physical symbol- of our legitimacy in this place, as did countless archeological excavations.  Egyptian President Anwar Sadat clearly understood this issue of legitimacy and the psychological nature of it for Israelis. 

Thus, in his speech, in Jerusalem, in the Knesset, he made repeated statements such as, "We really and truly welcome you to live among us in peace and security," "In all sincerity I tell you, we welcome you among us with full security and safety," "An Israel that lives in the region with her Arab neighbors in security and safety."  

And then of course he actually made peace with us, a peace that has withstood our invasions of another Arab country, Lebanon, changes of rule in Cairo including the election there of a Muslim Brotherhood government, and continued occupation of the Palestinian people in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem and siege on Gaza. 

Interestingly, it was Begin who commented to President Carter that he did not need the Arabs’ recognition of our legitimacy here, for "God gave us that right 4,000 years ago." Apparently neither Rabin nor Olmert felt we needed it either. 

Rabin made that clear in his very first speech to the Knesset after his election in 1992 when he said we were no longer "a people that dwells alone." This was just a few years after the PLO officially accepted resolution 181 (the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine) as well as UNSC resolution 242 with its clause on the "right to exist within secure and recognized borders." 

Members of pro-Palestinian and other civil society groups demonstrate outside the US Consulate General in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a protest to mark Nakba Day. May 15, 2018Credit: GULSHAN KHAN/AFP

To make this clear and fully official, Rabin made this part of the Oslo exchange of letters in which Arafat reiterated: "the PLO recognizes the right of State of Israel to exist in peace and security." 

But our current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, likes to say - as he did in his first press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington - that the Palestinians do not even recognize us: "Persistent rejectionism is the reason we don’t have peace."  

He could say this, ignoring all of the history above, because he has returned Israel to its earlier fears and psychological insecurities – actually demanding that the PLO explicitly recognize Israel as the Jewish state. 

In so doing, Netanyahu most likely meant to introduce a new condition, a new obstacle. But the point is the same – he returned to a demand that would satisfy our issue of legitimacy. Some might call this a demand to accept and adopt our narrative, but goes well beyond what previous leaders like Rabin deemed necessary after all the proclamations and concessions already made by the Palestinians, including Arafat.

Arafat did not fully grasp the matter of legitimacy when it came to Jerusalem, the major point of disagreement at Camp David. He underestimated the symbolic meaning of the city when he 'quipped' that the Temple had not even been in Jerusalem but some other location.

(Mahmoud Abbas has made his skepticism about Jewish claims to Jerusalem even more explicit, pushing for the UNESCO resolutions that attempted to remove Jewish history from Jerusalem, claiming that Jews have no organic connection to the place and his characterization of Jews as recent 'interlopers.')

Graffiti showing U.S. President Donald Trump with a shoe-print on his face and Arabic that reads, 'We resist for the sake of al-Quds (Jerusalem) and the right of return," Gaza City. May 20, 2018Credit: Khalil Hamra/AP

For their part, our negotiators at Camp David related to the territories as "ours" – not simply that we have a right to be here but rather, an exclusive right, although they basically said, we might be generous and give the Palestinians some of it. 

Of course the Palestinians too believe they have a right here as well.  They could and did claim that they had given up their right to 78% of Palestine by recognizing Israel’s right to exist and by going for the two-state solution, with a Palestinian state only in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Our right to be here, the right of the Jewish people to be here in this place, this land – our legitimacy - that is what we feel will be threatened if we allow the topic of the Nakba to be opened. It would not be an easy discussion. It would indeed raise painful issues and the question of the right of return.

But Rabin and Arafat, Olmert and Abbas were not actually afraid to tackle that issue, so sensitive to both peoples. The Palestinian demand that apparently Israel was willing to consider, maybe accept, was that we recognize our role in the creation of the problem, and then go onto discussing practical measures of numbers and so forth. Indeed, Clinton put forth a reasonable solution, as did the Geneva Initiative. 

And the Arab League, in 2002, added to the usual demands the phrase that there be "a just, agreed upon solution" of the refugee problem.

The new wording "agreed upon" was inserted by Marwan Muasher, who had been Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel. He has explained that his intention was to reassure Israel that nothing would be forced upon it regarding refugee return. And indeed Abbas went on Israeli television in November 2012 to say the same thing, avowing that the PLO had no intention of changing the character of the State of Israel.  

Of course we do not know what solution would be acceptable to each side today. Nor do we know if we will ever have a government in Israel that will even consider the issue. For now we have a law against discussing or marking the Nakba. But refusing to discuss it won’t make it go away. 

One day we must face it. It may bite, but it won’t destroy us, or our legitimacy – legitimacy that has in fact already been accepted by all the Arab states, including Palestine as represented by the PLO, in the Arab Peace Initiative. 

Dr. Galia Golan is Darwin Professor Emerita of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the author of 10 books, most recently, Israeli Peacemaking Since 1967: Factors Behind the Breakthroughs and Failures (Routledge, 2014). She is co-editor with Gilead Sher of the forthcoming Spoilers and Coping with Spoilers in the Israeli-Arab Conflict (Indiana University Press, 2019)

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