It’s Naqba Day, and the Guardian is certainly not one to miss an opportunity to bash Israel. Yesterday’s contribution to this landmark day was an article by Khaled Diab who is:
…a regular contributor to ‘Comment is Free’. Diab hails from Egypt and lives in Belgium. While purporting to try and understand both sides of the conflict and humanise the parties involved, Diab is a staunch supporter of the one-state solution
The general premise of Diab’s article sounds fair enough, being titled “Palestinians must prioritise people over lost land”, with the sub-title “Nakba day reminds Palestinians that dreaming of the right of return stands in the way of securing more vital rights”.
However, as we read through the article, we realize that he undermines his own position. He begins with an appeal to the emotions of the reader with an evocative story of a Palestinian grandmother who experienced the events of 1948:
Perhaps few recall it better than my Palestinian neighbour, a sprightly great-grandmother who turned 90 this year. Born at the start of the British mandate to a prominent Jerusalem family, she gave birth to her second child just months before Israel’s declaration of independence. At first, she and her family were determined to stay put during the civil war that broke out following the UN vote to partition Palestine.
Then the Deir Yassin massacre occurred, leading to general panic among the Palestinian population. Fearing for the safety of their family, my neighbour and her husband packed a couple of suitcases and sought temporary refuge in Amman, then a tiny backwater of just 33,000 inhabitants.
Deir Yassin is one of those “clashes of narratives” that are at the root of Palestinian hostility towards Israel, and which will never be agreed upon by both sides. The article points the reader to the Wikipedia entry for Deir Yassin but one can gain a much more balanced understanding of the event from the Jewish Virtual Library.
Regardless of the facts and numbers of casualties at Deir Yassin, the JVL explains that the Arab propaganda about the alleged Jewish violence against Deir Yassin’s residents backfired, thus confirming Diab’s neighbour’s story:
Contrary to claims from Arab propagandists at the time and some since, no evidence has ever been produced that any women were raped. On the contrary, every villager ever interviewed has denied these allegations. Like many of the claims, this was a deliberate propaganda ploy, but one that backfired. Hazam Nusseibi, who worked for the Palestine Broadcasting Service in 1948, admitted being told by Hussein Khalidi, a Palestinian Arab leader, to fabricate the atrocity claims. Abu Mahmud, a Deir Yassin resident in 1948 told Khalidi “there was no rape,” but Khalidi replied, “We have to say this, so the Arab armies will come to liberate Palestine from the Jews.” Nusseibeh told the BBC 50 years later, “This was our biggest mistake. We did not realize how our people would react. As soon as they heard that women had been raped at Deir Yassin, Palestinians fled in terror.”14
The family has never managed to regain or be compensated for their house in West Jerusalem but, unlike many others, they managed to return to East Jerusalem and settle just a few miles from their former home. Today, millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, while significant Palestinian diasporas are found in Chile, the US, Honduras, Germany and other countries.
This above paragraph really encapsulates the whole Palestinian “right of return” issue. The family fled due to their own leaders’ propaganda, but managed to return to “just a few miles from their former home”. In this case, why are they still considered refugees? I am sure that Serbian, Kosovan, African and assorted Asian refugees would be delighted to be able to return to just a few miles from their original homes and be able to live unharmed. But instead of being happy for their good fortune, these refugees have refused to be resettled and their numbers have ballooned into millions. It is a nonsense and it is a disgrace that the international community participates in this charade and is complicit in disseminating this propaganda.
In this vein, Diab continues:
Closely related to the Nakba is another political yin-yang: the Palestinian dream, and Israeli nightmare, of return. Palestinians, particularly the disenfranchised inhabitants of refugee camps, have clung on to their dream for the past 64 years. This is most poignantly symbolised by the keys to their former homes which many families have held on to. Politically, this longing has been expressed by Palestinians in their claimed “right of return”, which has been upheld by a number of UN resolutions, including Resolution 194 of 1948.
Resolution 194 does not say what Diab thinks it says. Paragraph 11 states:
11. Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;
It does not mentiondescendantsinheriting the refugee status ad infinitum. And as proof of Israel’s compliance with this article, Diab’s grandmotherly neighbour herself, back in East Jerusalem, is but one confirmation of this fact.
Diab further relates how the Palestinian demand for “right of return” has taken over their political process but comes to the correct conclusion that this is a loser’s game.
But at a time when the dream of Palestinian return is perhaps more distant than ever, and more and more Palestinians are being pushed off their lands by Israel, why are so many focusing on what to much of the rest of the world seems like a futile quest?
The reasons are complex and include disappointment and frustration at the crushing of the Palestinian dream of self-determination, on the one hand, and the cynical exploitation of identity politics as a substitute for real policies, on the other. Then there is the aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements, ongoing Israeli Nakba denial, as well as Israel’s insistence on a law of return for Jews but no right of return for Palestinians.
Diab’s recitation of Israel’s “crimes” is repeating the failed propaganda exercise of the Palestinians’ early leaders in 1948. There is no “aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements” since no new settlements have been set up since the mid-1990s. Any new settlement building is done within settlements’ boundaries, and therefore does not encroach on any further land.
Mentioning Israeli “Nakba denial” would be funny if it weren’t so outrageous. By using a similar term to “Holocaust denial”, Diab sends a subliminal message equating Israeli actions to the Nazis. Israel has no need to deny the Nakba and doesn’t do so. It has never denied that many Arabs living in the country before 1948 fled or were expelled. Diab gives no basis for his inflammatory accusation.
As for Israel’s “insistence” on the Law of Return, that is a direct outcome of 2,000 years of persecution throughout the world, both in the Western Christian world and the Eastern Moslem world, culminating in the Holocaust. If Israel were to be overrun tomorrow, 6 million Jews would have nowhere to run to.
Diab is now building up to the main thrust of his article, their treatment at the hands of their fellow Arabs, although he cannot resist a malicious dig at Israel once again:
However, the trouble is that this fixation on return focuses aspirations on a remote, distant and perhaps unattainable goal, while drawing attention and energy away from the very real issues facing Palestinians across the region. Not only does Israel disenfranchise and discriminate against the Palestinian populations under its control, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in many Arab countries are denied their rights too.
Perhaps the starkest example is Lebanon where, on the back of fears of upsetting the small country’s fragile sectarian balance, some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom were born in Lebanon, are deprived of numerous basic rights – including citizenship, public healthcare and access to numerous professions – and forced to live in what are effectively ghettos, otherwise known as refugee camps. Jordan has done more than others to integrate dispossessed Palestinians by granting most of them citizenship but, even there, Palestinians still face a certain amount of discrimination and some of them have been made stateless again.
Though the status of Palestinians in many Arab countries is partly a product of classic xenophobia and a reluctance, as they see it, to pay for Israel’s crimes, much of this marginalisation stems from Palestinian and Arab fears that integrating refugees would hurt their political quest for nationhood and the ever-elusive return. But what this traditional equation overlooks is that a nation is not the land – which has been declared so “sacred” by both Israelis and Palestinians alike that any number of generations is worth sacrificing at its divine altar – but the sum of its people.
So this Nakba day, 15 May, it is time for Palestinians to prioritise the people over their lost land, and to campaign, wherever they now live, for their full civil, social and economic rights and their cultural right to be recognised as a distinct community.
I would say that it’s about time an Arab commentator stated this clearly. My one caveat is that within Arab countries, the Palestinians are no more distinct from their surroundings than any other citizen. They are a purely political construct, having the same language, religion and culture as their Arab brethren across the Middle East.
That is not to say that Palestinians should forget the Nakba. Just like Jews mourned their “exile” for centuries, Palestinians have a right to keep the memory of their dispossession alive, though this is likely to become more spiritual and symbolic with the passing of each generation. And perhaps, counterintuitively for us today, as Palestinians cement their identity as a people without a land, they may, in a more tolerant and inclusive future, also start performing a kind of Palestinian version of Aliyah to a land with two peoples.
This co-opting of the Jewish methods for mourning, commemorating the Destruction and Diaspora, and the 2,000 year-old Jewish wish to make Aliya to Israel makes me decisively uneasy. I get the strong feeling that the Palestinians are encouraged to adopt Jewish practices, so that they will in future supplant the Jewish nation itself.
Furthermore, Diab’s innocuous little phrase, “a land with two peoples” should be of great concern to us. With these few words Diab has managed to slyly insert a “one-state solution” into his article by the back door. This does not bode well for a wish for peaceful relations with the Israelis.
Diab is correct that the Palestinians must let go of their insistence of Right of Return because it is recognized as a non-starter. He is also very right in drawing attention to the miserable treatment the Palestinians receive at the hands of their brethren. However, aiming for a one-state solution will not bring the Palestinians any closer to a state of their own.