Al-Ahram Weekly Online
16 - 22 May 2002
Issue No.586
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Demons of the Nakbah

Israel has long denied its responsibility for the events of 1948, the Nakbah, that forced the Palestinian population from Palestine at the point of Israeli guns. However, today when recognition of the wrongs done to the Palestinians in 1948 is finally dawning, many Israeli politicians are openly advocating a new "Transfer Option", writes Ilan Pappe*

As a Jewish child, born in Haifa in the early 1950s, I did not encounter the term Nakbah (catastrophe), nor was I aware of its significance. Only in my high- school days did the term make its first appearance. There were three Israeli Palestinian pupils in my class, and we all participated in joint and guided tours around Haifa and in its vicinity. In those days, there was still evidence of Arab Haifa in the Old City: beautiful buildings, remnants of a covered market later destroyed by the Israelis in 1948, mosques and churches.

These relics testified to the city's more glorious past. Many of these residues of the past are gone now, demolished by the bulldozers of an ambitious city mayor who has erased any urban characteristics that could point to the city's Arab past. But in those days there were quite a few Arab houses squeezed between the modern concrete buildings. The guides on the school tours used to refer to them as Hirbet Al-Shaych, a vague reference to an Arab house from an unidentified period. My Palestinian classmates muttered that these were houses left from the 1948 Nakbah, but they did not dare to challenge their teachers, nor did they expand on what they meant.

Later, as a young doctoral student at Oxford University I chose 1948 as the subject of my thesis. I wrote on British policy in that year, but incidentally discovered evidence in the Israeli and British archives that, when put together, gave me for the first time a clear idea of what the Nakbah had been about. I found strong proof for the systematic expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine, and I was taken aback by the speed at which the judaisation of the formerly Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods was carried out.

These villages, from which the Palestinian population had been evicted in 1948, were renamed and resettled within a matter of months. This picture contrasted sharply not only with what I had learned at school about 1948, but also with what I had gathered as a BA student in Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, even though quite a few of my courses dealt with the history of Israel. Needless to say, what I found also contradicted the messages conveyed to me as a citizen of Israel during my initiation in the army, at public events such as Independence Day, and in daily discourse in the country's media on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When I returned home to Israel in 1984 to begin an academic career, I discovered the phenomenon of Nakbah denial in my new environment. It was in fact part of a larger phenomenon -- that of excluding the Palestinians altogether from local academic discourse. This was particularly evident, and bewildering, in the field of Middle Eastern Studies in which I had commenced my career as a lecturer. Towards the end of the 1980s, as a result of the first Intifada, the situation improved somewhat, with the Palestinians being introduced into Middle Eastern Studies as legitimate subject matter. But even then this was done mainly through the eyes of academics who had been Intelligence experts on the subject in the past, and who still had close ties with the security services and the IDF [Israeli Defence Force]. Thus, this Israeli academic perspective erased the Nakbah as a historical event, preventing local scholars and academics from challenging the overall denial and suppression of the catastrophe in the world outside the universities' ivory towers.

For a short while at the end of the 1980s, several academics, including myself, caught public attention by publishing scholarly books that challenged the accepted Israeli version of the 1948 War. In these books, we accused Israel of expelling the indigenous population and of destroying the Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods. Although our early works were hesitant and cautious, and mine were not even translated into Hebrew, it was still possible to gather from them that the Jewish State was built on the ruins of the indigenous people of Palestine, whose livelihood, houses, culture and land had been systematically destroyed.

Public response in Israel at the time moved between indifference to the total rejection of our findings. Only in the media and through the educational system did we succeed in directing people towards taking a new look at the past. However, from above, the establishment did everything it could to quash these early buds of Israeli self-awareness and recognition of Israel's role in the Palestinian catastrophe, a recognition that would have helped Israelis to understand better the present deadlock in the peace process.

The struggle against the denial of the Nakbah in Israel then shifted to the Palestinian political scene in the country. Since the 40th anniversary of the Nakbah in 1988, the Palestinian minority in Israel has associated, in a way that it never did previously, its collective and individual memories of the catastrophe with the general Palestinian situation and with their predicament in particular. This association has been manifested through an array of symbolic gestures, such as memorial services during Nakbah commemoration day, organised tours to deserted or formerly Palestinian villages in Israel, seminars on the past, and extensive interviews with Nakbah survivors in the press.

Through its political leaders, NGOs and media, the Palestinian minority in Israel has been able to force the wider public to take notice of the Nakbah. This re-emergence of the Nakbah as a topic for public debate was also helped by the climax of the Oslo negotiations -- the Camp David summit meeting between the then Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and Arafat in the summer of 2000. The false impression at the time, which had it that the end of the conflict was about to be achieved, placed the Nakbah and Israel's responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands. And, despite the collapse of the summit meeting, mainly due to an Israeli wish to enforce its point of view on the Palestinian side, for a while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to the attention of a local, regional, and to certain extent global, audience.

Not only in Israel, but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it was necessary to remind those concerned with the Palestine question that this conflict did not only entail the future of the occupied territories, but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their homes in 1948. The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issue of the refugees' rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

Indeed, the Nakbah had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a Pandora's box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel's responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue, and this "danger" was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a consensual position was formulated: no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to discuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The media and other cultural institutions were also recruited to discourage discussion of the Nakbah and its relevance to the peace process, and it was in this atmosphere that I became involved in the Tantura Affair. This erupted after an MA student at my university, Haifa, exposed an hitherto unknown massacre, one of the largest yet known, carried out during the 1948 War by Israeli forces in the Palestinian village of Tantura. This student was taken to court in December 2000 accused of defamation, and later, in November 2001, he was expelled from the university for daring to add yet further evidence of Israel's responsibly for the Palestinian catastrophe. The court system, it transpired, thus willingly joined the denial process.

This year, as I look back over the attempts that I have made, together with those of others, to introduce the Nakbah onto the Israeli public agenda, what emerges is a very mixed picture. I can now detect cracks in the wall of denial and repression that surrounds the Nakbah in Israel, coming about as a result of the debate on the "new history" in Israel and the new political agenda of the Palestinians in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugees issue towards the end of the Oslo Peace Process. As a result, now, in mid-2002, it is, after more than 50 years of repression, more difficult in Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this relative success has also brought with it two negative reactions, formulated after the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada.

The first reaction has been from the Israeli political establishment, with the Sharon government, through its minister of education, beginning the systematic removal of any textbook or school syllabus that refers to the Nakbah, even marginally. Similar instructions have been given to the public broadcasting authorities. The second reaction has been even more disturbing and has encompassed wider sections of the public. Although a very considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academics have ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they have nonetheless also been willing to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The idea of "transfer" has entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the best means of dealing with the Palestinian "problem".

Indeed, if I were asked to choose what best characterises the current Israeli response to the Nakbah, I would stress the growing popularity of the Transfer Option in Israeli public mood and thought. The Nakbah -- the expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine -- now seems to many in the centre of the political map as an inevitable and justifiable consequence of the Zionist project in Palestine. If there is any lament, it is that the expulsion was not completed. The fact that even an Israeli "new historian" such as Benny Morris now subscribes to the view that the expulsion was inevitable and should have been more comprehensive helps to legitimise future Israeli plans for further ethnic cleansing.

Transfer is now the official, moral option recommended by one of Israel's most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Herzeliya, which advises the government. It has appeared as a policy proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their government. It is openly advocated by university professors, media commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. And, lately, the leader of the Majority in the American House of Representatives has openly endorsed it.

A circle has thus been closed. When Israel took over almost 80 per cent of Palestine in 1948, it did so through settlement and ethnic cleansing of the original Palestinian population. The country now has a prime minister who enjoys wide public support, and who wants to determine by force the future of the remaining 20 per cent. He has, as did all his predecessors, from Labour and Likud alike, resorted to settlement as the best means for doing this, adding the destruction of independent Palestinian infrastructure. He senses, and he may not be wrong in this, that the public mood in Israel would allow him to go even further, should he wish to repeat the ethnic cleansing not only of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, but if necessary also that of the one million Palestinians living within the pre-1967 Israeli borders.

The Nakbah thus is no longer denied in Israel; on the contrary, it is cherished. However, the full story remains to be told to the Israelis, as there may still be some among that state's population who are sensitive about their country's past and present conduct. This segment of the population should be alerted to the fact that horrific deeds were concealed from them about Israeli actions in 1948, and they should be told, too, that such deeds could easily now be repeated, if they, and others, do not act to stop them before it is too late.

* The writer is a professor of political science at Haifa University and a notable member of Israel's New Historians.

Note from the editor

As Dr Ilan Pappe notes in his article, written for Al-Ahram Weekly on the occasion of the anniversary of the Nakbah, an MA student at Haifa University in Israel was expelled from the university in November 2001 for exposing a hitherto- unknown Israeli massacre carried out against the Palestinian residents of the village of Tantura during the 1948 War.

Now it is Dr Pappe's turn to be expelled, as the Israeli authorities crack down on freedom of speech, threatening academic freedom within the country's universities.

In a letter circulated last week, Pappe writes that the Dean of the Humanities Department of Haifa University has demanded his expulsion from the university as a result of the strong stand he took in support of the student and of academic freedom.

"Judging by the way things have been done in the past," Pappe writes, "the verdict has already been decided ... A fair trial does not exist, and hence I do not even intend to appeal against this McCarthite charade."

Dr Pappe, who holds a doctorate in history from Oxford University and is one of Haifa University's best-known and most-respected historians, appeals in his letter to the international academic community "not to prevent my expulsion, since Israeli academia has decided to support the government and help silence any criticism."

Rather, he calls upon universities worldwide to debate a boycott of Israeli institutions, given their contempt for basic principles of academic freedom and for dispassionate research.

"Many of you have access to the world's media," he writes in his letter, calling upon researchers and scholars everywhere to help "expose the already dismal picture and false pretence of Israel being the "only democracy in the Middle East."

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