A History Lesson for Nakba Day
Tomorrow is Nakba Day.
Nakba is a word that makes most Israelis cringe. And for good reason.
This one word embodies the denial of the Jewish people’s historical and religious connection to the land of Israel and the delegitimization of our return to it after 2000 years of oppressive exile.
This one word also tells a story, a “narrative”, of European Jews, Holocaust survivors, coming to the “State of Palestine” after WWII, looking for new homes to replace their old ones destroyed by the Nazis and their collaborators and, with hate and rage in their eyes, conquering and massacring and ethnically cleansing hundreds of thousands of Arabs until the land was Palestinian-rein and completely theirs. (A story which, of course, is false. You knew that, right? Just making sure.)
But, as I consider the actual meaning of the word “Nakba” more and more, I am less and less convinced that it needs to be feared or even avoided the way it has been in Israel for the past seven decades. In fact, I think it could be used to describe exactly what has been happening in this corner of the world for the past 70 years.
Most people know that, in Arabic, Nakba means “catastrophe” and the truth is that there really was a Nakba —a catastrophe— that took place here in 1948, and has been going on ever since.
It’s actually two-fold.
First, there has been a catastrophic mistelling of the story of the modern-day Jewish return to the land of Israel by many Palestinians as well as activists and leaders in the international community, accusing Jews of atrocities that never took place and demonizing our nationalistic aspirations.
Secondly, there’s been a catastrophic obsession in Palestinian and Arab society with hurting and destroying the State of Israel. So much time, energy and resources have been dedicated to bringing down the Jewish state that an insufficient amount remains to properly invest in the building of a healthy, strong and viable Palestinian society.
With this in mind, on the 73rd anniversary since the beginning of this “Nakba”, I present a crash-course style list of important facts to know about the creation of the State of Israel and its continuance. Facts that are necessary to know if any of us are to have intelligent conversations about Israel and the conflict as well as engage in informed dialogue with those who fight against the legitimacy of the Jewish state’s existence.
These facts might be known to some, even obvious, but as a teacher on the front lines of Israel education today, I see with my own eyes that this knowledge is severely lacking. Not only by students, many of whom will face intense anti-Israel activism on their college campuses, but also adults who deal with and speak about the conflict in their work and in their social circles. Without an understanding of these facts, Jews as well as others cannot fully appreciate or grasp the necessity, and absolute legality, of Israel’s existence.
Ready? Here we go:
Israel did not come into existence because of the Holocaust. The Jews were not “dumped on the Arabs” after World War II, nor were the Arabs being forced to “take in” the Jews after the destruction they experienced in Europe. Zionism, which desired to return self-rule, self-defense and self-pride to the Jewish people after 2000 years of anti-Semitism, expulsions and oppression, began in the mid-1800’s, many decades before the Nazis came to power in Germany. On the eve of the Holocaust there were already approximately 450,000 Jews living in Palestine. The success that Zionists brought to Palestine also inspired many Arabs living in neighboring lands to move there in search of job opportunities and a better life.
If anything, the Holocaust could have been prevented (yes, prevented) if Israel was already established by 1939, which, as we will see below, could have been the reality. This would have given the Jews of Europe, who at that point still had opportunities to flee, a safe haven at a time when they most needed it.
At the beginning of the Zionist movement, the land of Israel was under the control of the Ottoman Empire and broken up into different districts or provinces. The name Palestine was only officially used after World War One under the Mandate of Palestine given to the British by the League of Nations, as will be discussed below. There was no official country called Palestine when the first Zionists arrived, nor has there even been throughout history.
The land that the Jews lived on and built upon was legally purchased from Arab owners.
There were only about 300,000 Arabs living in Palestine when the earliest Zionist Jews arrived. Considering that there are now about 12 million people living on the same area of land today, it’s easy to see that the land was not highly populated at the end of the 19th century.
After decades of hard work, Zionism received its first big breakthrough on November 2nd, 1917 when the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, expressing its support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was part of how the British envisioned the new Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s eventual defeat in World War One. While it was a very promising letter and brought great excitement to the Zionist world, in the end, it was just a letter with no real legal weight.
The Balfour Declaration did receive legal and political significance in 1920 at the San Remo Conference, when its principles and commitments were endorsed, signed and recognized internationally. It was at this conference that the Mandate for Palestine was created, which declared that Britain was “responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” The formal objective of the League of Nations mandate system (Britain also had a mandate in Iraq and France had a mandate in Syria/Lebanon) was to administer parts of the former Ottoman Empire “until such time as they are able to stand alone.” The British government’s presence in Palestine, therefore, was to facilitate the creation of the Jewish state there, maintaining that presence only as long as it takes for the state to be created.
There was no mention in the Mandate’s charter of the creation of an Arab country in Palestine, but it did repeat the words of the Balfour Declaration by saying, “that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Arab states, of course, were being created in the other 99% of the Middle East.
In 1921, approximately 75% of Mandatory Palestine, all of the land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, was separated and closed off to Jewish settlement by the British. This area was designated as Arab territory and was called Transjordan (later to be known as the country of Jordan). This separation strengthened the idea that the remaining 25% of Mandatory Palestine, all of the land west of the Jordan River, was meant exclusively for the establishment of the Jewish national home.
During the years of the British Mandate the Jewish community there built up the economic, political, social and defense infrastructure necessary for independence and statehood. As the British were not meant, nor permitted, to stay in Palestine indefinitely, the question must be asked, at what point were the Jews ready for self-rule? One can confidently say that by 1939, on the eve of the Holocaust, the Jews in Palestine were ready. As mentioned above, Jewish statehood at the time could have prevented the tragedy of the Holocaust as the countries of the world were not willing to give refuge to the Jews of Europe, as demonstrated by the failure of the American-organized Evian Conference in 1938.
So why did the British not leave at that time? Long story short, British policy was influenced by oil interests in the region as well as by the violent reactions of the Arabs in Palestine to the growth and success of the Zionist movement. As a result, their commitment to fulfilling their responsibilities to the Jews as determined by the Mandate weakened and waned with time as they often sought to calm the tensions in Palestine by appeasing the Arab community there. This commitment hit rock bottom in 1939 when the British issued their infamous MacDonald White Paper which declared “that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State” and limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 Jews over a period of five years. Exactly the years of the Holocaust when 6 million Jews died because they had
nowhere to go.
In 1947, after 30 years of control in Palestine, the British requested from the United Nations to find a solution to the increasingly tense situation in Palestine. The United Nations Special Committee on Palestine spent months investigating the situation and on November 29, 1947, the U.N. General Assembly voted on their plan to partition the western part of Palestine into two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state. This was the original two-state solution. The plan was expressed in U.N. General Assembly Resolution 181, better known as the U.N. Partition Plan, with 33 countries voting yes, 13 voting no and 10 abstentions. As it came from the General Assembly, it was a non-binding resolution that did not give the UN the ability to enforce partition through military means.
Though this plan went against the original intention of the Mandate for Palestine, as inscribed into international law by the League of Nations, the Jewish leadership in Palestine accepted the plan, but the Arab leadership rejected it outright as they did not want any Jewish state to exist in Palestine.
Let’s pause here for a second and make sure that one thing is very clear. The idea of a two-state solution that has been hailed in the past two decades as the only possible way of bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians did not appear for the first time in post-Oslo world. The idea is over 70 years old and over 70 years ago Israel agreed to it, but the Arab leadership did not. In fact there was an earlier two-state solution in 1937 offered by the British which, again, the Arabs rejected. Part of the catastrophe for the Palestinian side of this conflict is that the amount of land they were offered in 1937 and in 1947 is far greater than what Israel would ever give, or the Palestinian Authority would ever ask for, in any future agreement.
Arab denial of the U.N. Partition Plan in 1947 left it with no legal weight whatsoever, as no agreement was signed by both parties based on the resolution. Additionally, the plan was never implemented because the very next day there were Arab attacks on Jews in Palestine, which swirled into a full blown civil war between the two that lasted nearly a year and a half. Six months into the fighting, with the final departure of the British from Palestine complete, Zionist leaders declared independence. Reacting to this, five Arab countries sent forces across the border in hope of eradicating the newly born Jewish state. It was the job of the newly formed Israel Defense Forces to ensure victory and survival, despite being outnumbered and out-weaponed by the Soviet-supported Arab nations and facing a U.S. arms embargo in the region.
The War of Independence resulted not in Israel’s destruction but rather in victory for the nascent state. At its conclusion, Israel signed armistice agreements with neighboring Arab countries and an armistice line, popularly known as the Green Line, was drawn between them. This line was not intended to be a final political or territorial boundary, but rather a demarcation line. Though the Green Line is often referred to as the “1967 lines”, it was actually drawn in 1949. This is the well-known Green Line that separates between the West Bank and Israel proper today.
The year 1948 is a very important year in understanding the Palestinian experience at this time, their narrative on the events that unfolded and how their identity today is still very much shaped by the events that took place 70 years ago. As a result of the War of Independence, approximately 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled their homes, mostly voluntarily or coerced by Arab leaders (in order to make it easier for them to fight the war), while some were forced out by Jewish troops. They were not permitted by Israel to come back after the war and became refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. A complete analysis of this specific issue is way beyond the scope of this blog, but it will suffice to say: no war, no refugees. Had the Arab countries not launched a war of destruction against Israel in 1948, the Palestinian refugee issue simply wouldn’t exist today.
After the War of Independence the Arabs of Mandatory Palestine were left with two pieces of land, the Gaza Strip and the land south and north of Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria respectively. These lands could have and should have become the independent Palestinian state. The reason it did not become the independent Palestinian state is due to the fact that Egypt illegally took control over the Gaza Strip immediately after the war while Jordan illegally occupied Judea and Samaria, which they renamed as the West Bank.
Even after they rejected the Partition Plan and started a war, in the end there was still a significant amount of land that could have become their country. This may be the biggest part of the catastrophe, the Nakba, for the Palestinians, that their own people prevented them from having a state of their own.
Even after the War of Independence, Israel suffered from ongoing terror attacks from its neighbors, and ever since has dealt with major security threats on all of its borders from both countries and terrorist organizations, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Since declaring its independence in 1948, Israel has been forced to fight in ten wars and two intifadas.
In June of 1967, Israel’s sovereignty and existence was threatened by Syria, Egypt and Jordan simultaneously. The Egyptian government led the fight and drew the region into war after it kicked out U.N. peacekeeping troops from the Sinai Peninsula, replaced them with tens of thousands of their own soldiers, and blocked the Straits of Tiran, which cut off Israel’s ability to engage in trade and commerce from its port in Eilat, an act of war according to international law. This fact turns Israel’s strike on Egypt not an offensive attack, but a defensive one. Against all odds, Israel defeated all three countries in just six days and, as a result, took control over many new territories: the Sinai, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and Judea and Samaria/the West Bank. Israel eventually gave back the Sinai (1979), annexed the Golan (1981) and left the Gaza Strip (2005). Israel still maintains a presence in the West Bank through its military and civilian settlements.
The impact of the 1967 war on Israel and the Middle East is huge and complex, way beyond the scope of this blog. Nevertheless, it is very important to note that when Israel took control over the West Bank in 1967, that land was not part of any official country. As we said above, it was illegally occupied by Jordan after the War of Independence in 1948. It was a land in limbo, not belonging fully to any specific governmental entity.
Then who’s land was it?
There were two main international agreements affecting the status of the West Bank. One was the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947, which recommended, through a non-binding General Assembly resolution, that it become part of the Arab state in Palestine. But, as stated above, since the Arabs rejected that resolution and started a war immediately after, the resolution lost any legal weight it may have had.
The other agreement was, of course, the Mandate of Palestine given to the British by the League of Nations in 1920. Again, as we said, according to the Mandate, all of the land in Palestine to the west of the Jordan River was reserved for the Jewish state (especially after creating the Arab state of Transjordan in eastern Palestine). Article 5 of the Mandate implicitly stated that “no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of the Government of any foreign Power.” Therefore, an argument can be made that in 1967 Israel was taking control over land that it was originally meant to possess according to the Mandate of Palestine and its original internationally-backed plan for the area.
Whatever one thinks about Israeli settlements, it’s important to note that at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, Israel sent a message to the Jordanians, via the U.N., telling them that if they stayed out of the war, Israel would not attack them. Jordan declined to take this path of peace with Israel. Persuaded by Egypt, Jordan began to attack Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem on June 5th, the first day of the war, to which Israel of course retaliated. Over the next couple of days, Israel won military control over the entire West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Old City.
Important to note: Had Jordan never attacked Israel in 1967, Israel would never have taken control over the West Bank and the possibility of Israeli settlements there would never have become a reality.
In a post 1967-reality, where Israel does have a presence in the West Bank, it’s also important to note that the area contains lands that were once part of the ancient Kingdom of Israel and Judea. Without denigrating anyone else’s connection to the land, it is beyond doubt the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people. An overwhelming body of religious texts as well as archaeological evidence reinforces this notion. Jews living in the West Bank do not believe they are colonizing a foreign land- they believe they are returning to the land of their ancestors, exactly as the Balfour Declaration and Mandate for Palestine envisioned and allowed for.
Despite Israel facing extreme existential threats throughout every single decade since its creation, and despite Israel’s need to dedicate a disproportionate amount of its budget to defense and security costs, Israel has grown into a thriving society and economy, becoming one of the world’s leaders in biomedical technology, hi-tech innovation, water conservation techniques and many other advancements that are solving problems and saving lives around the world.
If you made it this far, well done. It’s a lot. Even a brief telling of some of the major points in this conflict could be overwhelming and exhausting. This list does not include all of the important dates, facts and figures, but I believe it is a good start to understanding what has been going on between Israel and her neighbors for the past 70 years, ever since the real catastrophe began for Israel, for the region and, primarily, for the Palestinians. A catastrophe set into motion by the denial of the Palestinians and much of the Arab world to recognize the historical, national and legal rights of the Jewish people to be a free people, once again, in their land.
Once this denial is laid to rest and Nakba Day is transformed from a day of mourning over the creation of the State of Israel and to a day of mourning over the catastrophic missed opportunities for normalcy between the Arabs and the Jews in Israel, real progress can be made towards peace and co-existence.
Until then, nothing will change, because Nakba Day of the kind that Palestinians continue to commemorate is an annual reminder that the conflict is not about borders, or about settlements, or about exactly how much land will be swapped in a future peace agreement. It is about the very existence of the State of Israel.
Most Israelis believe that, as holy as a homeland is, peace is even holier. But only a peace that is strong enough to endure and can be trusted to secure the safety and existential rights of Israel. Unfortunately, we are not yet at that stage and, therefore, must continue to make the best of the situation at hand, as complicated and problematic as it may be.