I Believe in a Palestinian State. But I Can’t Mark Nakba Day

Israelis hold many, often competing, narratives about 1948. Palestinian leaders like Saeb Erekat demand one narrative, and no reconciliation with even moderate Israeli voices.

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Mohammed Shehadeh, 86, holds a key in front of a mural ahead of the 68th anniversary of Nakba, in Qalandiyah refugee camp, May 14, 2016.
Mohammed Shehadeh, 86, holds a key in front of a mural ahead of the 68th anniversary of Nakba, in Qalandiyah refugee camp, May 14, 2016.Credit: Ammar Awad, Reuters

Nakba Day, commemorating the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, came and went on Sunday with the usual marches with demonstrators holding real or symbolic keys, maps depicting all of mandatory Palestine and, this time, the number 68 being displayed for the years since the tragedy. 

But for most of the world, it was just another May 15. This day fails to resonate with many potential partners to the Palestinian cause because it represents a fixation with the past that prevents Palestinians from moving on and securing a future state.

Why was May 15 chosen and why does it matter? A young Israeli Arab diplomat from Jaffa called George Deek framed the problem well.

"The Nakba Day is not April 9th – the day of the Deir Yassin massacre, or July 13th – the day of the expulsion from Lod,” Deek, Israel’s then-deputy ambassador to Norway said in a speech in November 2014. “The Nakba Day was set on May 15th – the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster of the Nakba is not the expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile – the Nakba in their eyes is the creation of Israel.” 

For Deek, whose grandfather had fled Jaffa in 1948 but returned to Israel with the help of Jewish friends, the choice of May 15 means that Palestinian leaders mourn more the fact that he is Israeli than that his cousins are Jordanians: they mourn Jewish statehood more than Palestinian statelessness.

 “The Palestinians have become slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, prisoners in the world of frustration and hate," he concluded

Long before I heard this speech, I had sympathized with the Palestinians’ fate, accepted Israel’s contribution to the tragic outcome of the War of Independence and advocated a two-state solution. Yet Deek articulated why marking Nakba Day on the 15th May makes even those sympathetic to the Palestinian cause too uncomfortable to join marking the day.

Choosing this date turns the conflict into a zero-sum game, in which the only way to right the Nakba is to undo Israel through the full exercise of the right of return: to turn back the clock. Indeed, BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti, who opposes a two-state solution, has stated unequivocally that Israel ending the occupation would not end the boycott movement because there would still be Palestinian refugees.  

Associating the Nakba with Israel’s creation also prevents Palestinians from being able to move on. Saeb Erekat admitted as much when he wrote in Haaretz this week, “For the Palestinian people, the Nakba is a collective tragedy whose wounds have yet to heal 68 years later.The two-part makeup of the Nakba was borne through the destruction of Palestine and the construction of Israel.” He demands, “Israel must recognizing what it has done to the Palestinian people” without recognizing that many Israelis, unrestricted by a single narrative, already have done just that.

The problem, perhaps for Palestinians like Erekat, is that Israelis are unwilling to accept the most extreme narrative of the Nakba imposed en masse on Palestinians, just as Palestinians don’t accept extreme Israeli versions of the War of Independence narrative. 

But Israelis are free to develop several – often competing – narratives of that war, allowing many to embrace the idea of a Palestinian state, even including notions of an Israeli "original sin." 

In contrast, the Palestinian leadership demands one narrative, which allows no reconciliation with even moderate Israeli versions of events, closing off the path to the genuine acceptance of a two-state solution. Because that’s what’s at stake here: Without mutual recognition of both peoples’ rights to self-determination there can be no peace negotiations predicated on a two-state solution. While Israeli leaders have made two-state solution offers, even if they fell short of Palestinian demands, the Palestinian leadership despite having expressed support for the idea nix its viability in their insistence on the right of return.

This problem goes back nearly a century, and in that sense there is a symbolic connection between the Nakba and the 100th anniversary of Sykes-Picot, which is marked this week.

While the Zionist movement's aspirations were excluded from Sykes-Picot, it had the political wherewithal to position itself to obtain an independent Jewish state. David Ben-Gurion was not fixated on how much land he was being offered but rather on getting something to form a base for a state. 

In contrast, the Arab national movement was unable to overcome Sykes-Picot. It became obsessed with one injustice after another, from the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate to the partition plans of the Peel Commission in 1937 and the UN in 1947. Internecine killing of Arabs in Palestine who “collaborated” with the Jews helped decimate Palestinian Arab society before 1948, making the Nakba more likely, as the Arabs tried to resist the creation of Israel without any organized political or military strategy. This self-destructive behavior continued through two intifadas up to the present-day anti-normalization movement.

A century of political failure should be a kickstart for the Palestinian national movement to review its strategies and tactics that have allowed successive Israeli governments to push Palestinians’ national aspirations ever more further away from being realized.

Changing the date the Nakba is marked won’t bring Palestinians palpably closer to statehood, but it would signal a shift: It would say – let’s look at the universal issue of civilian suffering and how best to address it in as wide a coalition as possible. These are dates that the entire pro-peace camp can identify with. The challenge is, who will take the lead, and how will they avoid being branded “collaborators”?

Steven Klein is an editor at Haaretz and an adjunct professor at Tel Aviv University's International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation. 

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