Barry Rubin, one of the most astute observers of the Middle Eastern scene, has the following reflections on the Palestinian Nakba. They explain a critical episode in the long and painful tale of Palestinian suffering.
May 19, 2008
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.”
That’s an old and persisting story. It’s hard for Westerners to imagine how thoroughly Arab culture throttles dissent with this technique of considering any criticism as betrayal. It’s the dynamic that led the French Revolution to the terror. It’s a daily norm in the Palestinian territories. Their unity — 80% approve suicide terror — is itself the product of a regime of both physical and mental terror.
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?
There are four basic reasons:
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.
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.
Arab states competed for influence, seeing the future Palestine either as their satellite or a place they could seize land for themselves.
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.”
I would add to this another reason, perhaps the meta-reason that explains everything from al-Husseini’s genocidal Jihad to the force of public opinion on even vaguely rational and cautious Arab leaders — the horror of an autonomous dhimmi state in the heart of dar al Islam. The following paragraph comes from my essay on the Arab-Israeli conflict:
With Zionism, this challenge of civil society became far more disturbing, threatening even more fundamental fears of the prime-divider elites. As the Athenian general explained to the Melians before killing all their men and selling their women and children into slavery: “One is not so much frightened of being conquered by a power which rules over others, as Sparta does, as of what would happen if a ruling power is attacked and defeated by its own subjects.” For Sparta, read the Christian West, for subjects, read Jews. A successful Zionism in the heart of the Islamic world represented not only an indignity, it represented a shame so staggering, that it could only herald the death of the dominant culture that allowed it to happen.
And this is both a problem for Islamic theological honor and for Arab imperial honor. Add to that the eagerness of Christian Arabs to find a common ground with their far more numerous Muslim brethren, and you have a perfect anti-Zionist storm. And, like the 30-year feud in Afghanistan, this one has its own inertia. And since the “state” that could intervene — say, the UN, or Western powers — seems more interested in prolonging the feud, it could go on forever. (Actually, I think that since 2000 it has taken a .)
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.
This notion that, with sufficient numbers and self-sacrificing enthusiasm the enemy can be destroyed, lies at the heart of the Intifadas, especially the second, in which images like al Durah inspired rioting in Israel as well as the most ferocious hatreds and violence among Palestinians. Anyone unfamiliar with the longue durée of Arab hate-mongering needs to visit Palestinian Media Watch and MEMRI.
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….”
This was the same logic that launched the Second Intifada — a wave of mass attacks will route the enemy. Most Westerners cannot imagine that the Palestinians in late 2000 thought that they could drive the Jews from Israel the way that Hizbullah had driven them from Lebanon. And yet, if one puts oneself in their shoes, listens to the preaching of their Imams, reads the contents of their newspapers, this was the beginning of a wave of outrage that would sweep the Israelis into the sea. Such is the nature of apocalyptic hopes, whether the Xhosa, or the Lakota Sioux.
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.
Here we get at the core of the Palestinian tragedy. Palestinian nationalism — whatever some rank and file Palestinians might have thought — was never more for Arab elites (including Palestinians) than an anti-Zionist slogan for Arab nationalism, which was neither nationalist, nor concerned with the lives of Palestinians. On the contrary it was imperialist, with concern for the pride and power of Arab elites.
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.
In other words, the Israelis must go, and until they do, the Palestinian people will be held hostage in concentration camps, built by their fellow Arabs (the elites), so that their suffering can provide a “lethal narrative” with which to assault the enemy.
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.
Precisely. No subject offers a more terrifying view of the depths of depravity of Arab political culture than the miserable fate of Arab refugees from the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you want a good example of apartheid, try Lebanese treatment of Palestinian refugees. And nothing illustrates better the way that Westerners who sympathize with the Palestinians by embracing these narratives of Israelis victimizing the poor Palestinian people end up victimizing them. Since the victim narrative needs the Palestinians to suffer so that the Israelis can be blamed, by eagerly adopting the accusations against the Israelis, “sympathetic outsiders” actually reinforce the grip that a predatory elite has on the Palestinian people. No people have gotten more international sympathy and support than the Palestinians, and none have benefited less.
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.
The key here is honor-shame. When Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egyptians hung their heads in shame all over the Arab world, at conferences, gatherings, even in personal contacts. It was a collective shame for the Egyptian people. The “cold peace” is not only the product of paranoid elements that claim Israeli gum causes impotence and Israeli shampoo causes baldness, it is also the product of a culture for whom admitting the Israelis into the fold of nations represents a Nakba even greater than all the suffering of the Palestinian refugees.
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.
Are you listening, Condi?
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….”
Indeed, it’s one of the more fascinating (and depressing) phenomena of Western liberal thought in the late 20th century that it can’t absorb the cognitive dissonance of having the underdog win. How pathetic to turn against the underdog because he survived and thrived for so long…
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?
How could he anticipate the emergence of a post-modern sado-masochism which would lionize Palestinian shame, shamelessly paraded in front of the West to gain the sympathy of the Christian enemy in order to get at the still more humiliating Jewish enemy? How pathetic all around.
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.