The 1948 War Through Arab Eyes

A study of Arab newspapers in the run-up to the Israeli War of Independence shows the kind of rhetoric that led to the Nakba, and is still present today.

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Arab prisoners of war, Ramle, 12–13 July 1948.
Arab prisoners of war, Ramle, 12–13 July 1948.Credit: Photography Department, Government Press Office, State of Israel

“We will fight the partition with all our strength,” Jamal al-Husayni, deputy head of the Higher Arab Committee, wrote in December 1946. He added that if no trace of the Palestinians was left after the struggle, the Arabs in neighboring countries would “carry the banner of resistance after us.” Husayni compared the establishment of a Jewish state, even in a small part of Palestine, to a rotten orange that would spoil all the oranges in the crate (Al Wahda, December 30, 1946).

As the UN Partition Plan gathered steam and became a reality – following a change in the position of the Soviets, which manifested itself in a surprising statement by UN Ambassador Andrei Gromyko – the secretary-general of the Arab League expressed Arab opposition: “Gromyko’s declaration about the establishment of two states, Arab and Jewish, or a binational state in Palestine, is a proposal that is unacceptable to the Arabs. … The only practical solution is the establishment of a state under Arab rule in which the Jews will be a minority” (Falastin, May 16, 1947).

From here, the road was paved to the 1948 war, Israel’s independence and the Palestinian Nakba.

It was Dr. Constantin Zureiq, a Syrian historian and intellectual who taught at the American University of Beirut, who coined the term “nakba” to describe the events from the Arab perspective.

“The defeat of the Arabs in Palestine is not a small downfall – naksa. ... It is a catastrophe – nakba – in every sense of the word,” he wrote in his 1948 book “The Meaning of the Disaster.” He added: “Seven Arab countries declare war on Zionism in Palestine. … Seven countries go to war to abolish the partition and to defeat Zionism, and quickly leave the battle after losing much of the land of Palestine – and even the part that was given to the Arabs in the Partition Plan.”

Through sincere and profound soul-searching, Zureiq tries to get to the root of the resounding Arab failure in dealing with Zionism. “The victory the Zionists achieved – and only a blind man would deny it – was not achieved because of the superiority of one people over another, but because of the superiority of one system over another,” he wrote.

He attributed the Zionist victory to the structural, societal and cultural differences between Zionists and Arabs: “Zionism is deeply implanted in Western life, while we are far from it. … They live in the present and look to the future, while we are drugged-up and dreaming of a magnificent past.”

Zureiq refers to the “heartrending speeches” by Arab representatives to international institutions, where they warned of the steps Arab countries and peoples would take if decisions were made that they opposed. He also ridiculed the bombastic declarations of the Arab League, “thrown like bombs from their mouths,” which, at the moment of truth, turned out to be worthless. “The fire is weak and dying, and the iron is rusted and bent,” he observed.

Rhetoric is the hallucinogen Arabs have become accustomed to from time immemorial. They wear this rhetoric like a top hat and forget that it serves to shut down their minds. “When the battle broke out,” Zureik wrote, “our public diplomacy began to speak of our imaginary victories, to put the Arab public to sleep and talk of the ability to overcome and win easily – until the nakba happened.”

Indeed, hollow and ridiculous Arab rhetoric emerges from every corner of the Palestinian press from the time. It reveals, in real time, the boasting with which Arab and public opinion was overfed.

“In the coming days, harsh blows will be delivered,” a spokesman for the Arab League said, adding, “In a week or two, the battle will enter a new phase. Then the Arab power will be revealed to all” (Falastin, January 29, 1948). “The task of the Arab Liberation Army,” another newspaper wrote, is to “liberate Palestine from the Zionist danger, clear it of this danger and give it to its original owners” (Al Difa, March 29, 1948).

The king of Egypt also declared: “When the Arab forces enter Palestine to save it, after its liberation they will give it to its Arab owners” (Falastin, April 14, 1948).

Reports also told of “victories” of the “Arab heroes” over “the Jewish gangs,” and filled the front pages of the Palestinian press. And that is how, out of a clear blue sky, the Arabs awoke and discovered that a “nakba” had befallen them.

This is why Zureiq’s words need repeating. “We must admit our mistakes … and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” It seems that not only in the Palestinian context, but also in the general Arab context, these words from 1948 are not a thing of the past but are still relevant.

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