Remembering the Palestinian Catastrophe

Today November 29 marks the passage of the 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181.  By the deliberations of this body, historic Palestine, which had most recently been under a British Mandate, was to pass into two states, an Arab one  comprising 44% of  the land, and a Jewish one, receiving 56%.

In the United States, many people are familiar with the Jewish, Zionist, and Israeli narrative.  People often think of Israel as the guarantee of security for Jews worldwide, given anti-Semitism, which revealed a genocidal mania in Hitler’s Holocaust.  The Zionist settlers were seen to “make the desert bloom” by their pluck and industry.  Israel declared itself a state on May 14th, 1948, thus realizing David Ben-Gurion and the Zionists’ dream of Jewish independence in the land of biblical Israel. Subsequently, many American know the Israeli view that the Arab world wants to drive the Jews into the sea, all because they occupy this small slice of territory to which they have clung with devotion over the centuries.

But there is another, more disturbing narrative that follows from the UN partition plan.  While the partition presaged the birth of Israel, it was also the beginning of what the Palestinians have called al-nakba, “the catastrophe.”  The Palestinians rejected the partition plan, as they could see that the drive for Jewish sovereignty in Palestinian Arab land would have severe effects on Palestinian life.  This became terribly true from December 1947 onwards.

A new generation of Israeli historians, with access to declassified documents and diaries of the principal Zionist and Israeli leaders, has offered corroboration of what the Palestinians have long characterized as their catastrophe.  One of these historians, Ilan Pappe has recently published a book focusing on 1947-1948 and future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s leadership to make possible a Jewish state over as much Arab land as possible, regardless of the UN partition plan.

Thus, there is a simple conflict that must be borne in mind when considering today’s conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs.  Zionism wanted a state for Jews, not Arabs.  But it just so happened that Arabs outnumbered Jews in historic Palestine.  Pappe focuses on the critical mechanism in effecting the Palestinian catastrophe, namely, Ben-Gurion’s Plan D, in which Zionist, then later Israeli brigades and forces were to occupy the Palestinian villages in what was to become the Jewish state, expel the Palestinian population, and then destroy their villages.  What ultimately ended up on these de-populated territories were Jewish settlements and national parks, a process that ought to be quite familiar to us Americans here as regards the natives who once lived here. Pappe states that that 200 such villages were thus “de-Arabized” in the weeks before the State of Israel was founded.

Pappe and other Israelis have not flinched in characterizing what took place in late 1947 and throughout 1948 as “ethnic cleansing,” an odious process familiar to many in the United States from the recent examples of Bosnia and Rwanda.  Even a famous military hero like Moshe Dayan conceded that such cleaning had taken place, when, in 1969, he admitted to fellow Israeli Jews, “There is not one place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.”  A large part of the Arab population had been terrorized and expelled; some were murdered and raped by the Zionist and Israeli forces.

For Palestinians today, there is another word from the global political lexicon that is linked to this “ethnic cleansing”: “apartheid,” which refers to the white domination of and separation from South African blacks.  In the Palestinians territories Israel has illegally occupied since 1967 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (and the Israeli military still controls Gaza from outside the Strip, by the way), Palestinians have been increasingly segregated in towns and cut off from roads, employment, farmland, and the rest of the Palestinian territories by various Israeli mechanisms, including the Separation Wall. In a new book, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has used the word “apartheid” to describe what Israel has been doing to the Palestinians. The controversial Avigdor Lieberman, who recently joined the Israeli government, may be more vociferous in his calls for the transfer of the Palestinian Arabs out of Israel, but there is a line of continuity between him and David Ben-Gurion.

Today, Palestinians in refugee camps who are descendants of those Palestinians expelled by the Zionists and Israelis remember this as a dark day.  The same holds for Palestinians in the Diaspora, many of whom may want to exercise their legal right of return, but Israel has ignored UN resolutions calling for this exercise.  And Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip languish in de facto ghettos and prisons because of the Israeli Jewish drive for having as few Palestinian Arabs as possible in the vicinity of Israeli Jews.

This narrative of ethnic cleansing and institutionalized apartheid is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as the triumphant Zionist/Israeli narrative.  But if we American citizens wish to understand the basic dimension of the conflict, we ought to listen to Palestinian survivors of this catastrophe as well as those courageous Israeli historians who are willing to challenge the militaristic patriotism that elevates the state above moral principle and human rights.

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