Sixty years of Naqba — Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Analysis: Sixty years of Naqba — Tanvir Ahmad Khan
Daily Times, May 9, 2008

The British mandate on Palestine expired on May 14, 1948. On the same day, the Jewish Peoples’ Council proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. The milestones listed in the proclamation included the First Zionist Congress that asserted the right of the Jewish people to national birth in their own country, the Balfour Declaration of November 2, 1917 and the UN General Assembly resolution of November 29, 1947 calling for the adoption and implementation of the Plan for Partition.

Reflecting the long Jewish struggle against any curbs on Jewish influx into the holy land, the proclamation unambiguously stated that the new state “will be open for Jewish immigration and for the ‘Ingathering’ of the Exiles.”

The British mandate authorities had harshly suppressed a Palestinian revolt in 1930s that left them greatly debilitated. The same decade witnessed an extraordinary empowerment of the Jewish terrorist gangs such as Irgun and Stern.

The partition resolution rekindled violence between the Arabs and the Jewish armed groups. The surviving leaders of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39 tried to fight off the planned ethnic cleansing by Hagana, the army of the emerging Israeli state, to give Israel a decisive Jewish majority.

In April-May 1948 the Jewish armies overwhelmed the Arabs — Palestinian irregulars and the Jayish al-Inqadh al-Arabi composed of poorly equipped volunteers from other Arab lands — leading to the expulsion of up to 350,000 Palestinians.

The process was indelibly inscribed in the memory of Palestinians by the infamous massacre in Deir Yasin on April 9, 1948. Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni, the legendary hero of the earlier revolt and the son of Musa Kazim al-Husayni, a towering figure of Palestinian nationalism, was martyred the same day in the battle for the village of al-Qastal.

This was the Al-Naqba, the great catastrophe, with which the Jewish army attained two major objectives: massive dispossession of Arabs and concentration of Jewish forces in areas ideally suited for taking on the Arab armies of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Trans-Jordan that intervened in a haphazard manner upon the birth of the new state on May 15, 1948.

The only worthwhile Arab fighting force was Jordan’s Arab legion which was under orders to defend the Arab part of the partitioned land but not invade the UN designated territory of Israel. In the recriminations that have haunted the Arab people, Jordan was accused of being interested only in annexing the Arab part of Palestine into the Hashemite kingdom rather than build it as a separate sovereign state. Just before Abdul Qadir al-Husayni laid down his life in the battle for al-Qastal, he had made an unsuccessful visit to Damascus to secure sufficient arms from the Arab League.

The political and military incoherence in the war of 1948 was in many ways a continuation of the disunity and divided counsels of the revolt of 1936-39 which had claimed 5000 Palestinian lives.

The Arab uprising is well documented but each time I go back to its detailed accounts I end up thinking that what the Palestinians lacked above all was a figure like Mohammad Ali Jinnah who could lead them through the Mandate’s legal and constitutional labyrinth.

Their irregulars often compensated for their primitive weapons with sheer valour and for a time they had the enemies on the defensive. Britain was also making moves that mirrored their initiatives in India. The Commission headed by Lord Peel recommended partition and his report had an incendiary effect. In March 1939, Chamberlain’s government convened a conference of Arab representatives at St James Palace while negotiating separately with the Zionists. The Palestinians invited to the parleys were divided with some of them preferring continued links with the Mandatory Palestine to the risk of seeking the kind of independence that Iraq, Syria and Egypt had struggled for.

Statesmen from the Arab states at the conference were often constrained by considerations of their respective national negotiations with the colonial powers. While the Jewish Agency, backed by tough guerrilla fighters at home and by a galaxy of strategists abroad who supported the Zionist project and gave the Jewish struggle a distinct profile and structure, the Palestinian cause looked as much in disarray as today.

The negotiations highlighted an aspect of the situation that continues to shape the Palestinian-Israel conflict. The conference led to a White Paper that recognised the need to limit the Jewish immigration. The Zionists resorted to violence against the British to defeat any such restraints. In the last sixty years Israel has successfully resisted determination of its final frontiers and continued colonising Arab lands. When the war of 1948-49 ended it had expanded far beyond the territories envisaged for it by the United Nations.

Fast forward to June 1967 and Israel was in indefinite occupation of 78 percent of Palestine. For Israel, all subsequent negotiations have been a matter of sharing the remaining 22 percent with the Arabs.

Yasser Arafat performed the miracle of welding the Palestinians into a viable nation but was defeated by interpretations of the peace process that demanded concessions from him without Israeli reciprocity.

The resultant asymmetries produced Hamas and the second Intifada. President Bush put Oslo on the back burner and his men turned a democratic transformation of the Palestinian side into a pre-condition of any future interest. When democracy made Hamas the winners the western emphasis shifted to its destruction.

Towards the end of his second term Bush has tasked Condoleezza Rice to pull off an agreement that can then officially be put on a shelf till the two sides are ready to implement it. Meanwhile the world knows that Israel has used the Oslo process and the eight years of the Bush presidency to create new demographic and other facts on the ground that make a two-state solution a fantasy.

Sixty years on, Gaza burns and the Naqba goes on. The question now is if 2008 will result in a “shelf agreement” or another war in the region.

Tanvir Ahmad Khan can be reached at

Also See:Israel at 60: the “iron wall” revisited -
Timeline: From independence to intifada - Independent


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