In 2001, as Yasser Arafat was in Washington deliberating whether to accept the "Clinton Parameters" for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, then Saudi Ambassador Prince Bandar Bin Sultan confronted him: "Since 1948, every time we've had something on the table we say no. Then we say yes. When we say yes, it's not on the table anymore. Then we have to deal with something less. Isn't it about time we said yes?"
Arafat didn’t rise to the occasion and refused to accept Clinton’s guidelines, but 16 years later, Bandar’s assessment keeps coming true. Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas repeatedly asserts his willingness to accept a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a position that would have once been greeted as a miraculous breakthrough but today is met mostly by shrugs. That train has left the station.
Israel and the United States are no longer interested in a pragmatic and equitable two-state solution, if they ever were. In exchange for a truncated Palestinian mini-state that won’t control much more than the Palestinian Authority does, Abbas is now being asked to not only recognize Israel but to acknowledge the Jewish people’s inherent, biblical right to the Land of Israel, a statement that would constitute a repudiation of the entire history of the Palestinian national movement. Just when Abbas is willing to let go of 1948, the world, shepherded by Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to drag him right back in again.
“This isn’t 1948” Abbas bellowed in his speech before the Palestinian National Council last week in which he blasted Donald Trump and lambasted Zionism. He sounded as if he was trying to exorcize a dybbuk, or at least to reassure himself. Of course this isn’t 1948, and it never will be. But for Abbas and the Palestinians, the ghostly echoes of that fateful year are possibly louder now than they’ve been for many decades. It is inevitable that this will happen, at a time when Palestinians are divided, dispirited, leaderless, rudderless and feel abandoned by the world. Their terms of reference are still 1948, the formative disaster of their national history. History may not repeat itself, but it has given Palestinians few reasons to believe that things have fundamentally changed. For many Palestinians, 1948 is their Groundhog Day.
This year will be even more difficult for Palestinians. Not only because they find themselves, frustrated, dejected and stuck in the same dead end they’ve known throughout their history, but also because Israel will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of its independence. The Israeli government will be feting the events that were a historical redemption for Jews but are the landmarks signposts of the Nakba, their catastrophe, for the Palestinians. For each come-from-behind victory of Jewish valor that Israel will mark, there is a corresponding disaster that Palestinians will mourn. The sites of Israel’s heroic 1948 battlefields are often the graveyards of Palestinian villages that once existed and are no more.
A few hours before Abbas made his now infamous “Yehrab Beitak” (May your house be destroyed) speech last week I happened to be walking inside the stone trenches of the Qastel where one of the most crucial battles of the 1948 war was fought and won by the Haganah and the Palmach. It is a small national park today, overlooking the road to Jerusalem, built on a long-gone Crusader castle and on the ruins of the Palestinian village of al-Qastal, which was destroyed in the battle and surrounded by new apartment buildings and villas. The capture of the hilltop in April, 1948 ended the Palestinian siege that had threatened to strangle Jerusalem and marked a major turning point in the entire war. It was dwarfed in history, however, by the massacre at Deir Yassin, which took place at the exact same time and was, in a way, part of the same operation.
As veteran Palestinian watcher Danny Rubinstein details in his new book, "The Battle on the Qastel: 24 Hours that Changed the Course of the 1948 War between Palestinians and Israelis," the capture of the Qastel changed the tide of the war. It was the first manifestation of more confident and more aggressive Haganah and Palmach forces that were henceforth inclined to expel all Palestinians from captured villages, especially those that had taken part in the fighting. After the massacre carried out by the right-wing underground forces at Dir Yassin on the very same day the Qastel was captured, the Israeli forces did not have to strain themselves to persuade Palestinians to leave.
There were many other factors that compelled the Palestinians to leave their homes, including fear of massacre, an unwillingness to live under Jewish control, weak Palestinian leadership that couldn’t convince their people to stay put, as well as Arab leaders who promised them to return to their homes and share in the spoils after the Zionists are defeated.
Historians will argue forever which factor contributed most to the Nakba, but one thing is certain: The territory that was suddenly under the control of the Jewish people for the first time in 1900 years had also been effectively “depopulated” of its Palestinian population. More than 80% of the Palestinians who had lived in the areas controlled by the new Israeli state were now refugees. Thus, the Palestinian refugee problem was born.
A few weeks before the final battle at the Qastel, the daring and able Palestinian commander of the Jerusalem area, Abdel el-Qadir al-Husseini had gone to Damascus to plead with the Arab League for heavy arms and ammunition. Without al-Qastal, he explained, we won’t be able to maintain the siege on Jewish Jerusalem, which, at that time, had exhausted its last food supplies. The Arabs, however, had already finalized their plans to invade and to carve up Palestine and had no wish to include local and independently minded Palestinians in the booty. Abdel al-Qadir returned to the Qastel empty-handed, to hold it or die, as he predicted. A few days later he was killed at the Qastel by a Jewish sentry who had no idea who he was, in an incident that gave rise to countless conspiracy theories.
Abdel al-Qadir’s death devastated the Palestinians. His funeral and burial on the Temple Mount were attended by tens of thousands of Palestinians. In Jewish eyes, he was a terrorist who had masterminded bombing attacks in Jerusalem in which scores of innocent civilians were killed, but for the Palestinians he was a national hero. A scion of the Husseini clan that had dominated Palestinian society for over half a century – Abdel al-Qadir’s father was the first mayor of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, his uncle was the infamous mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was ludicrously accused by Netanyahu of suggesting the Final Solution to Adolf Hitler, and his son was Faisal, the future Palestinian minister – al-Husseini was unique in his aristocratic background, his willingness to risk his life, his daring tactics and the devotion he inspired among his men.
Within one day, the Palestinians had lost their favored military champion, their stranglehold on Jerusalem, their will to fight, and, in the wake of Deir Yassin, their willingness to stay home and risk Jewish conquest. The fact that all of this arguably came about because Arabs had stabbed them in the back is a theme that would revisit the Palestinians at crucial moments throughout their history, as, in their eyes, it has today.
For what is the Saudi-led effort to pressure the Palestinians to accept far less than the minimum espoused even by their most moderate, if not another Arab betrayal? What is the “slap of the century” meted out by Donald Trump when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital if not a latter-day British Mandate, which, in Arab eyes at least, fostered and nurtured the Zionist enterprise while brutally suppressing Palestinian society and demolishing its paramilitary infrastructure in the Great Arab Revolt of the 1930s? What is the big difference between a world that, in the wake of the Holocaust, voted for partition and supported Israeli independence and armed to the teeth and forgot about the Palestinians until PLO terror reminded everyone of their existence in the 1970s - and an international community that once again is otherwise engaged?
When they look at Hamas and Fatah and their internal feuds, what has changed so much for the Palestinians since clan rivalries, especially between Husseinis and their archrivals the Nashashibis, pitted them against each other at a time when they should have united against the common Zionist enemy? What have the Palestinians learned from their refusal to accept the UN Partition Plan, the likes of which they can only dream about today? And how is it that a people who haven’t been able to challenge Israel militarily for over 70 years are still unwilling to let go of the “armed struggle” and to choose less deadly, but surely more effective ways of advancing their cause? Why do they continue to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity?
For Israelis, of course, 2018 is nothing like 1948. While the country has retained the War of Independence’s ethos of few against the many and of certain annihilation in case of defeat, the 1948 war is a distant memory, which is why the Qastel Park was virtually empty when I visited. Israel is no longer a state-in-the-making with a future that’s hangs in the balance, as it was then, but a modern, technological and military superpower that can deter real and potential enemies from even dreaming of attack. It is this perception of how fundamentally things have changed in Israel’s favor that underpins Netanyahu’s demand that Palestinians accept the right of the Jewish people to live in the Holy Land. For the Palestinians, however, the great transformation is less apparent: in their century or more of national consciousness, they have traded Ottoman occupation for British, British for Jordanian and Egyptian, and Jordanian and Egyptian for 50 years of Israeli occupation. Their song remains the same, along with their situation.
Perhaps, as part of a permanent settlement that guaranteed them an independent state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Palestinians would have been willing to swallow the bitter pill of conceding a Jewish right to Palestine. They certainly won’t consider making such a concession at a time when Israel, backed by the United States, is offering them less and less as a reward, and even that’s in theory only. With their backs to the wall and their heads to the ground, they will continue to abide by the parting poem written by Abdel al-Qadir al-Husseini to his nephew Faisal, on the night of the Arab betrayal and before he returned to al-Qastal to die. “The land of the brave is the land of our forefathers,” he wrote in the translation provided by Benny Morris in his book, "1948." “The Jews have no right to this land. How can I sleep while my enemy rules it?”
Their hopes are once again dashed, their leaders are aging and feuding, their international situation is worse than its been for many decades and, with Trump and Netanyahu in charge, the prospects for a peace settlement that would not be viewed as a national humiliation are non-existent. While some Israelis and many others around the world are praying for a new kind of Palestinian leader who will be capable of seizing the day and achieving what he (or she) can, the Palestinians themselves are weak, isolated and feel they’ve got nothing to lose. 1948 may have been the Palestinian catastrophe, but it's still the year that feels most like home, the place they’ve been living throughout their lives. In their moments of frustration and desperation, even bad memories can be a source of comfort.