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Self-Made Nakba

May 20, 2008
by Barry Rubin

It's become fashionable to match celebration of Israel's founding (though part of the media can't even admit Israelis are celebrating) with Palestinian marking of their 1948 "nakba" catastrophe.
Yet whose fault is it that they didn't use those six decades constructively? And who killed the independent Palestinian state alongside Israel that was part of the partition plan? Answer: The Arab states and Palestinian leadership themselves.


The mourners were the murderers. You can read details in my book, The Arab States and the Palestine Conflict.
Here's a summary. The key point is that in rejecting partition, demanding everything, and starting a war it could not win, the Arab side ensured endless conflict, the Palestinian refugee issue, and no Palestine. It wasn't murder it was suicide. Or in the words of General John Glubb, commander of Jordan's army: "The politicians, the demagogues, the press, and the mob were in charge....Warnings went unheeded. Doubters were denounced as traitors."

Briefly, the British tried to help the Arabs win; the Americans to assist them in finding a last-minute way out, and the soon-to-be Israeli Jews were ready to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel if their neighbors had accepted it. The British government provided money and arms to Arab states (for Egypt 40 warplanes and 300 troop carriers; for Iraq, planes as well as antiaircraft and antitank guns; for Saudi Arabia, a military training mission) while embargoing them to Israel, tipped off Arabs about the timing of its withdrawals (giving them a head start to seize abandoned installations), subsidized the Arab League, blocked Jewish immigration, and let British officers run Jordan's army in the war against Israel.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said later said, "It became clear to us that Britain viewed with favor the Arab aims regarding Palestine." It's well-known that President Harry Truman supported partition and quickly recognized Israel. But in March 1948 the U.S. government offered the Arab states a serious plan to suspend partition, block a Jewish state, and create a new, long-term trusteeship. They considered but rejected it, even after Washington proposed an international peacekeeping force--including Egyptian troops--to maintain order.

Finally, if the Arab side has accepted partition, the Jewish leadership would have accepted establishment of a Palestinian Arab state. Many were desperate to get a state at all, lacked confidence they would win the war, and knew they could not buck an international consensus. Why, then, did the Arab side, and especially the Palestinian leadership, reject partition, go to war, and trigger a 60-year-long crisis that was a disaster for their people?
  1. Palestinian leader Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, was a man who thought like Hamas. Fresh from his stay in Berlin, where he cooperated with Adolph Hitler, he hated Jews, wanted to destroy them, and could not envision compromise.
  2. Pressure from radical forces and public opinion made it unthinkable, or suicidal, for Arab regimes not to go along with all-out war even when they feared the worst.
  3. Arab states competed for influence, seeing the future Palestine either as their satellite or a place they could seize land for themselves.
  4. Finally, they thought they would win easily. Even the moderate Jordanian King Abdallah said, "It does not matter how many there are. We will sweep them into the sea!" Syria's prime minister warned that the Arabs would "teach the treacherous Jews an unforgettable lesson." 

The leader of Syria's client guerrilla force, Fawzi al-Qawukji, bragged, "We will murder, wreck, and ruin everything standing in our way, be it English, American, or Jewish." He explained that the holy war would be won not through weapons but through the superiority of self-sacrificing Arab fighters. The idea was revived, with the same failed result, by Yasir Arafat in the 1960s. Today, having learned nothing from experience, radical Arab nationalists and Islamists frequently make the same claim.

True, Arab armies in 1948 were badly led, badly trained, and uncoordinated. Arab regimes distrusted and disliked the Palestinian leadership and bickered among themselves, striving for individual advantage. This pattern, too, was often repeated in later years. Abdallah secretly negotiated with the Zionists but they distrusted him, knew he couldn't control the other leaders, and he offered too little.
Still, the consensus was, in the words of a U.S. intelligence report, "The loosely organized, ill-equipped armies of the Arab nations do not have any capabilities against a modern opponent but they do have the strength to overrun Jewish resistance in Palestine...."

It didn't work out that way. The nascent Israeli forces gained ground against the Husseini and Qawukji forces before the Arab states' invasion then largely won the ensuing international war.
Neither during the conflict nor after their defeat did the regimes help create an independent Palestinian Arab state. Egypt held the Gaza Strip; Jordan annexed the West Bank. Their rejecting peace so often thereafter made the conflict last until today. The continuation of these policies today by much of the Palestinian leadership--either explicitly or in practice--could make it last another century.

The underlying concept was that either the Palestinian interest should be subordinate to wider movements (Arab nationalism, Islamism) or at least a Palestinian state could only be established after total victory, in all the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Even if some Palestinian leaders think differently today, they are unable to act differently.

Another element in the self-perpetuated nakba was the management of the Palestinian refugee problem. In contrast to all other refugees in the world, the UN set up a system in which Palestinians who left in 1948 maintained that status forever, even if they obtained another nationality.
By not integrating Palestinian refugees--though this sometimes happened on an unofficial level--and keeping them in camps, Arab regimes with the collaboration of the PLO ensured that their suffering would fuel endless conflict and provide recruits for violence.

Fifteen million people were expelled from India and Pakistan, twelve million Germans had been thrown out of eastern Europe, about the same number of Jews were forced out of Arab states, and other such situations had occurred. They are all resolved and mostly forgotten today. In the Palestinian case, however, the nakba was deliberately perpetuated because the Arab world, including the Palestinian leadership, decreed that it could only be ended by a triumphant return to what was now Israel. Neither resettlement elsewhere nor in a West Bank/Gaza state was satisfactory. Indeed, this was one of the main issues on which Arafat destroyed the peace process in 2000. Even the "moderate" leadership of the Palestinian Authority maintains this stance today.

Of course, regarding peace--and even more the desire to avoid war--there has been some real progress in Arab states, including full, but not fully accepted, peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan. Most Arab leaders know they cannot win the struggle with Israel by total victory, but that was also true back in 1948. What has changed is their margin for doing nothing has increased, which lets them avoid war. Yet their ability to admit the truth publicly, change their course fully, and accept peace formally and fully still remains quite constricted. And the strong challenge from Islamist movements threatens to reverse even this minimal progress.

Such is the reality misunderstood or ignored by all those who think peace is easily obtainable with enough effort or unilateral Israeli concessions. Peace, however, cannot be achieved by pretending since those who engage in this process only fool themselves.

Despite the lessons of sixty years ago and throughout the ensuing time, the Arab side has the chutzpah to complain--and a good part of the Western media echo--that they were Israel's victims in 1948.

Back then, Qawukji explained that once the Arabs started winning, the Western media would proclaim, "The Arab cause is a just one." The Arab side made no secret of the fact that the Jews were the underdog and everyone knew what happened to underdogs. As Arab League Secretary-General Abd al-Rahman Azzam explained, "This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre...."

By the way, what slogan were Palestinian schoolchildren told to chant at the Nakba Day demonstrations organized by the Palestinian Authority? Why, "Palestine is all ours!" of course, the same slogan as in 1948. Sad to say, the main complaint of Palestinians today is still not so much that they are Israel's victims but that so far Israel hasn't been theirs, Azzam-style.

What would Qawukji think to learn that in fact the Western media would proclaim, "The Arab cause is a just one," only after they had so thoroughly and repeatedly failed to gain such a bloody total victory, though long before they fully accepted the lessons of that failure?
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online.

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