Missing the Epic Story of the Middle East

Missing the Epic Story of the Middle East
Rami G.Khouri; Agence Global, August 11, 2007

Beirut - Here's a little event that may have big implications. The Israeli education ministry has approved a textbook for Arab third graders in Israel that for the first time describes the 1948 war that gave birth to the state of Israel as a “catastrophe” for the indigenous Palestinians and their society. The Palestinians have always referred to 1948 as their nakba, or catastrophic national shattering, dispersal, exile, occupation and disenfranchisement.

This may be the first ever tangible sign that the Jewish, Zionist Israeli establishment is prepared to move in the direction of acknowledging what happened to the Palestinians in 1948, which is a vital Palestinian demand for any serious peace-making effort to succeed. Israelis in turn would expect a reciprocal Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel's core narrative.

The new textbook states that “The Arabs call the war the Nakba, a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation, and the Jews call it the Independence war.” It adds that, “some of the Palestinians fled and some were expelled following the War of Independence,” and that “many Arab-owned lands were confiscated.”

Unfortunately, the official textbook for Jewish Israelis in the same grade does not offer this Arab view, but sticks to the Israeli version of 1948 history as a moment of Jewish valor and national rebirth. Yet the new Arabic text may be significant if it reflects an Israeli capacity to become more historically honest, and sensitive to the legitimate political rights of their Palestinian foes.

The facts of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 are quite well documented now by Israeli, Arab and foreign historians. Something like 750,000 Palestinians (about half the population) was driven out of or fled their Palestinian homes and lands in 1948, for various reasons. Those refugees now number over 4.5 million.

One of the biggest debates on 1948 is about motives, especially the Palestinian view that Zionist leaders and militias implemented a pre-planned ethnic cleansing campaign to systematically drive out the Palestinians in order to make room for a Jewish state. Israelis argue that Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave so that Arab armies could attack the Jewish forces, or that Jewish attacks on Arabs were only in self-defense.

Much of this debate has been resolved by respected scholars. The most recent and complete treatment of this issue is a book by the Israeli historian and University of Haifa lecturer Ilan Pappe, entitled, appropriately, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006, One World Publishers, Oxford, UK).

Using mostly Israeli official sources, he methodically recounts the entire process that started in the minds of pre-state Zionist leaders who knew they would have to forcibly expel the Palestinians to create a Jewish state in Palestine -- given that well over 90 percent of the land was Palestinian in the early 20th Century, and by 1948, the Jewish minority in Palestine owned just 5.8 percent of the land. He describes in detail the planning before 1948 -- including files on every Arab village and its inhabitants -- which would allow the Jewish militias in 1947-48 to start attacking, terrorizing and driving out Palestinians as soon as the British mandate ended.

Pappe goes through the details of Plan Dalet, “the blueprint for ethnic cleansing”, and shows how the Israeli forces worked systematically in every part of the land to attack, frighten, and expel the Palestinians, in order to secure the land for Jewish colonies and settlers. The historical details he provides are chilling, and worthy of serious discussion to understand exactly what happened in 1947-48 (because the Jewish Zionist attacks against Arabs started well before the May 1948 end of the British mandate; the first Jewish militia attacks to terrorize the Palestinians into fleeing were in December 1947, against the Palestinian villages of Deir Ayyub and Beit Affa in the central plain).

The main mission to drive out as many Palestinians as possible was formally approved by Jewish Zionist leaders on March 10, 1948. When it ended six months later, he says, some 800,000 Palestinians had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed, and eleven urban neighborhoods in cities emptied of their inhabitants. Pappe concludes that the plan and its systematic implementation “was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity.”

Many Israelis will challenge Pappe’s account. Such a process should ideally spark an honest, comprehensive analysis that could lead us to an accurate narrative of what happened in 1947-48 -- accurate for both sides, if it is to have meaning for either side.

An Israeli official textbook for Palestinian third graders that fleetingly acknowledges the Palestinian trauma of exile and occupation in 1948 is an intriguing sign of something that remains largely unclear. This something seems worth exploring, and reciprocating, if it indicates a capacity to move towards the elusive shared, accurate, truthful account of Israeli and Palestinian history that must anchor any progress towards a negotiated peace.

Rami G. Khouri is an internationally syndicated columnist, the director of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, and co-laureate of the 2006 Pax Christi International Peace Award.

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