Nakba: What's in a name?

Whatever motives the Arabs had for their “war of extermination” against Israel, liberating Palestine for the Palestinians was certainly not on their agenda.

Rally marking Nakba in Gaza City 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
Rally marking Nakba in Gaza City 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)
May 15 saw demonstrations and ceremonies throughout the world to mark the 65th anniversary of the Nakba – the Disaster, the establishment of the State of Israel. Wikipedia defines Nakba Day as “15 May, the day after the Gregorian calendar date for Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For the Palestinians it is an annual day of commemoration of the displacement that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.”
Simple enough. The re-establishment of Jewish independence in the ancient Jewish homeland was, for some, a catastrophe. Three short paragraphs into the Wikipedia article comes this intriguing historical tidbit: “Prior to its adoption by the Palestinian nationalist movement, the ‘Year of the Catastrophe’ among Arabs referred to 1920, when European colonial powers partitioned the Ottoman Empire into a series of separate states along lines of their own choosing.”
A footnote quotes The Arab awakening: the story of the Arab national movement, by George Antonius: “The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe.... It saw the first armed risings that occurred in protest against the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries. In that year, serious outbreaks took place in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq.”
The Wikipedia entry gives no further information about those protests. But what that silence conceals, like the Arab countries’ behavior during the “Nakba” of 1948, reveals the reality of the Nakba.
The Arab uprisings of 1920 in British-mandated Palestine were largely instigated and led by Mohammed Amin el-Husseini.
Husseini was born in Jerusalem, then a backwater village in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in 1895 and made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1913, earning the title “Haj.” With the outbreak of the First World War he became an artillery officer in the Ottoman Army – a natural enough step for a loyal denizen of the Ottoman Empire.
Following his country’s defeat in 1918 he founded the Jerusalem branch of the Syrian al-Nadi al-Arabi (“Arab Club”) in 1919, and simultaneously began writing articles for the Jerusalem newspaper Suriyya al- Jannubiyya (“Southern Syria”).
This accurately indicates Husseini’s ideology and the predominant Arab ideology at the time. He was an Arab nationalist (what today would be termed a pan-Arabist).
None of the modern Arab states east of Egypt yet existed: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – all would be invented shortly afterwards by British and French colonial interests. Husseini, and indeed the Arab population as a whole, saw the entire region as “Syria.”
(In 1921 Haj Amin el-Husseini was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and a decade later founded the World Islamic Congress and the Holy Jihad youth movement. In the summer of 1941 he supported the pro-Nazi revolution in Iraq in which hundreds of Jews were murdered. Upon the British defeat of the revolution Husseini fled Iraq, ending up in Berlin on November 6, and was formally received by Hitler three weeks later. Husseini went on to recruit tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims into the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, which had the distinction of being the only non-Aryan division of the otherwise racially pure Waffen-SS.)
In 1920 Britain and France divided up the remains of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, which would be rubber-stamped within weeks by the San Remo Conference, ratified by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, and formally accepted by Turkey upon signing the Treaty of Lausanne a year later.
Consequently, the Arabs of southern Syria found themselves cut off from their motherland, with a new and unwanted and foreign identity imposed on them by Europeans.
Suddenly they had become Palestinians, denizens of Palestine – an entity alien to them. It was this context that a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, testified to the British Peel Commission in 1937: “There is no such country as ‘Palestine’; ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria.”
As late as May 31, 1956, Ahmed Shukeiri, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria.”
What makes Shukeiri’s view particularly significant is his personal history. Born in Tebnine (today in southern Lebanon) in 1908, Shukeiri was a member of the Syrian delegation to the UN from 1949-1951. During his tenure he became assistant secretary general for the Arab League, a post he held until 1956 before becoming Saudi Arabian ambassador to the UN.
In the January 1964 Arab League summit in Egypt he was charged to establish a Palestinian entity, and four months later was elected first chairman of the PLO. So even the “Palestinians” themselves conceded quite openly that their “Palestinian Arab” identity was fictitious.
It is now apposite to take another look at the Nakba of 1948. Six Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq) invaded Israel within hours of independence, in an attack which Azzam Pasha, the general secretary of the Arab League, proclaimed “a war of extermination, a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”
Whatever motives they had for their “war of extermination” against Israel, liberating Palestine for the Palestinians was certainly not on their agenda. Three of those countries – Transjordan (later Jordan), Egypt and Syria – managed to conquer parts of “Palestine”: Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria (which it renamed the West Bank), including half of Jerusalem; Syria occupied the Golan; and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip.
Not one of these countries gave the “Palestinians” so much as a square meter of land; neither did the Arabs there demand Palestinian independence.
This had a perfectly valid reason. After all, they still knew that the real Nakba was the invention of the fictitious “Palestinian” identity and its imposition on the Arabs by European colonialists.
This imposition of a Palestinian identity on the Arabs of southern Syria, as George Antonius wrote, was the primordial Nakba. The Nakba was not the loss of Palestinian independence, nor was it Palestinian defeat; rather, it was the invention of a hated Palestinian identity and its imposition on the Arabs by the European colonial powers.
The writer was born in England, made aliya in 1988, has a degree in Jewish history from the University of London, and lives in Shomron (Samaria).