Today is the first international Nakba Day, as designated by the United Nations (UN). It marks the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the State of Israel, according to the Gregorian calendar, and the subsequent displacement of about 700,000 Palestinians. Nakba means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic.
The narrative that the UN is following here is straightforward. Israel, from this viewpoint, is a uniquely evil ‘colonial-settler state’, which came into existence by brutally suppressing the indigenous Palestinian population. The idea is not new. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has promoted this notion since the mid-1960s. It was not until 1998, 50 years after Israel’s foundation, that the PLO itself declared a Nakba Day. But the idea has gained enormous ground recently.
‘Colonial-settler state’ is not the only derogatory epithet routinely attached to Israel. Israel is almost uniquely derided today as an ‘apartheid state’ (a label that is also occasionally applied to Myanmar). Israel is also frequently accused of practising ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians. Indeed, it has become common in anti-Israel circles to present the Jewish state as at the intersection of all the ills facing the world. In the words of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, opposing Israel combines ‘the struggles against colonialism, racism and militarisation, and for climate, economic and social justice’.
From this perspective, Israel is not just a sometimes flawed state, like any other, but a universal oppressor at the centre of a global system of oppression. This helps explain why Israel has become such an obsession among the current generation of phoney radicals.
Few seem to realise the disastrous consequences presenting Israel in these terms has for the Palestinians. The corollary of casting Israel as the universal oppressor is that Palestinians are expected to act as universal victims. Rather than being treated as people with a right to shape their own future, they are pushed into the role of global objects of pity. This unenviable status further undermines Palestinians’ freedom by making them more vulnerable to manipulation by external forces. All this has proved to be truly disastrous for the Palestinians.
Of course Palestinian history has involved a great deal of suffering. But this has not just been the fault of Israel. It is also the fault of the Arab regimes, Iran and the Islamist movement. The UN has itself played a key role in this sordid story. Western anti-Israel activists have also made matters worse from the sidelines with their denunciation of Israeli evil and celebration of the Palestinians’ victim status.
The first step towards changing this situation is to try to develop a balanced view of Palestinian history. This is a more complex task than is generally assumed.
Israel’s creation in 1948 is a good starting point. Lest we forget, the impetus for mass Jewish emigration to what is now Israel was to escape from anti-Semitism in Europe, following the horrors of the Holocaust.
Moral culpability for the displacement of the Palestinians from the area is also not a straightforward matter. It is certainly true that, in some cases, Israeli forces expelled Palestinians or encouraged them to flee. Yet it is also true that the Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership, such as it then was, was intent on strangling Israel at birth. There was no serious attempt at accommodation. All of this involved real and flawed human beings, rather than cardboard cut-outs of good and evil.
For the Palestinians, the events surrounding Israel’s foundation in 1948 were certainly a catastrophe. A relatively small proportion of them stayed in the area controlled by Israel, while many others were scattered across the Arab world and beyond. Those who fled to the West Bank (at that time controlled by Jordan) and to the Gaza Strip (controlled by Egypt) received a subsequent jolt when Israel captured those territories in 1967. Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but its borders remain controlled by Israel and, as is often forgotten, by Egypt. The West Bank remains under Israeli military control, with extremely limited autonomy for Palestinians in those parts controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
The Palestinian story is more complicated than that presented by the UN and others. But there are other aspects to it that are even more neglected.
The Arab regimes have often paid lip service to the Palestinian cause while at the same time keeping their own Palestinian populations under tight control. For example, in the Jordanian civil war in the 1970s, Jordan’s regime killed thousands of Palestinians and expelled the PLO leadership from the country. Then, in 1976, the Syrian army played a key role in the massacre of thousands of Palestinians in the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp in Lebanon.
Arab regimes have often subjected the Palestinians to systematic discrimination. As one study of Lebanon notes:
‘[T]he Lebanese government has assigned them the legal status of foreigners, which has negatively affected their rights to healthcare, social services, education and property ownership. As a result, most Palestinian refugees suffer from abject poverty and unemployment, [and] have little hope for their situation to improve.’
This discrimination is often justified on the grounds of the conflict with Israel:
‘The Lebanese government’s rationale for its refusal to extend citizenship status to the Palestinian refugees living within its borders rests upon the argument that the integration of the Palestinians into Lebanese society would negate their right of return to a future Palestinian state, and would upset the fragile sectarian balance upon which Lebanon’s government precariously relies.’
More recently, Iran has come to play more of a role in the Palestinian tragedy. Its aim is to bolster its regional presence at the expense of Israel. So it has provided substantial backing to the heavily armed Hezbollah militia of Shiite Muslims in Lebanon as a way of threatening Israel. It has also supported Islamist terrorist groups among the Palestinians, such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
These Palestinian Islamist groups, as I have previously argued, do not support Palestinian self-determination. On the contrary, they share the Islamist goal of creating a transnational Islamic order. They are hostile to national self-determination. The Palestinians are being used to lead a fight for an Islamist order that transcends national borders.
Finally, there is the UN itself. It has a special organisation, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), formed in 1949, charged with dealing with the large number of Palestinians still deemed as refugees in the West Bank, Gaza and the surrounding countries. This is separate from the UNHCR, which deals with refugees around the world.
The problem with the UNRWA is that it helps perpetuate the refugee status of many Palestinians. There are now not only first-generation refugees, but also those deemed second- and third-generation and beyond. Rather than encourage the Palestinians to integrate with the local populations, the UNRWA works to keep them separate. In Lebanon, many Palestinians are forced to live in UNRWA-run refugee camps, attend UNRWA-run schools and rely on meagre handouts from the agency.
The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has proven to be extremely intractable. But a precondition for its resolution is for numerous outside forces to stop interfering. Presenting Israel as a universal oppressor inevitably promotes a crass narrative, with Israel cast as a fount of evil. Pushing the Palestinians into the role of universal victim is arguably even worse. It has proved to be another catastrophe for the Palestinian people.