23 May '11
By Mordechai Kedar
Center for the Study of the Middle East and Islam (under formation)
Middle Eastern Insights No. 9
May 23, 2011
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 is an Israeli scholar of Arabic literature and a lecturer at Bar-Ilan University. He holds the Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University. Kedar is an academic expert on the Israeli Arab population. He served for twenty-five years in IDF Military Intelligence, where he specialized in Islamic groups, the political discourse of Arab countries, the Arabic press and mass media, and the Syrian domestic arena. He is a valued contributor to JewishIndy.
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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