Inside Out: Nakba lessons

With the passage of time, the desire to “return” will not necessarily die out, but will become less personal and more abstract.

Palestinians at the Damascus Gate on 'Nakba Day' 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinians at the Damascus Gate on 'Nakba Day' 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Palestinians and their supporters commemorated Nakba Day on Tuesday, marking the 64th anniversary of what they refer to as the “catastrophe” of the fall of Palestine and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. In the course of the War of Independence in 1948-9 hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their homes and livelihoods, and subsequently found themselves unable to go home.
Many of the refugees and their descendants still live in squalid refugee camps across the Middle East, clinging to a dream of a personal return and national restoration.
Israelis commonly view the commemoration of Nakba Day as a national affront, taking insult at the depiction of the creation of their nation-state as the supposed cause of the Nakba. Revisiting the plethora of facts and historical accounts, they enumerate other factors that produced the war and shaped its outcomes, one of which was the creation of the refugee problem.
Israelis and their supporters cite in this context the Arab leadership’s role in rejecting any partition plan, the repeated armed attacks on the Yishuv, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes across the Arab world, the oft-repeated Arab threat to throw the Jews into the sea and Haj Amin al- Husseini’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.
But Israelis respond angrily to the commemoration of the Nakba and a demand for a right of return not only because they feel that are being unjustly accused of responsibility for this past event, but because see it as a sign of continued Arab unwillingness to accept the legitimacy of the Zionist state and an unending desire to destroy it.
That might be true for some and even many of the Palestinians who commemorate the Nakba. Yet even if that is overwhelmingly the case, Israeli Jews can nevertheless allow themselves to feel empathy for the individual Palestinian refugees and their descendants, while adamantly refusing to accept their presumed political beliefs and goals. As members of a people that spent two millennia as refugees and strangers facing a daunting and uncertain future, it should not be difficult for Jews to sympathize with those Palestinians’ feelings of displacement and loss, as well as their gnawing sense that their lives would have been completely different and far better had it not been for the fateful turn of events that occurred 64 years ago.
Israeli Jews need not accept personal and national responsibility for those Palestinians’ ongoing plight to be capable of identifying with that mix of emotions that resonates so keenly with Jewish experience.
The resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem cannot be achieved by means of a return of refugees and their descendants to the physical homes and places that were lost in 1948-9. First of all, there is the practical impossibility of doing so – can any reasonable person imagine, in just one example among hundreds, digging up swaths of southern Tel Aviv to rebuild the homes and replant the long-gone orchards of Salame? Secondly, the integration of millions of people who are hostile to the State of Israel and its population would be an unthinkable act of political suicide and a recipe for bloody civil war.
Rather, the plight of the refugees and their descendants must be resolved in the framework of a national solution. The Palestinians with refugee status, most of whom were born well after the war was already over and, therefore, for whom any “return” to their specific homes and villages would be no return at all but a first sighting, should be given the opportunity either to become full citizens of the host countries in which they have lived for the past 64 years or should be allowed to “return,” in the national sense, to the future State of Palestine.
UNRWA, which has been the central international apparatus for facilitating the perpetuation of these people’s refugee status, should either be dismantled or have its mandate changed to conform to the UNHCR’s mandate, which is to rehabilitate refugees and does not allow for refugee status to be inherited.
The Zionist dream was to establish a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Once this national home took on real form as the State of Israel, Jews “returning” to this national home could make their Zionist dream come true by establishing a private physical home anywhere in the State of Israel, be it Kfar Saba, Jerusalem, Moshav Kfar Uriah or Kibbutz Degania. So too should all Palestinians be given the opportunity to live within the State of Palestine, restoring their sense of national belonging and providing them with a physical home in which they can put down real roots. This is the solution that should be actively advanced by Israel and the international community that is intent on resolving the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.
Many of the Palestinians, refugees and others, still reject the idea of national return instead of personal return. They want to return not to a political entity but to a specific parcel of land. That is not a solution that either the State of Israel or the Israeli people can accept, and nor is it one the international community should abide. It can never be implemented, and allowing Palestinians to cling to it will only serve to perpetuate the conflict.
Establishing a Palestinian state might not resolve the conflict and put an end to Palestinian dreams of “returning” to what is now Israel. It might not change the views held by some Palestinians that in a perfect world Israel would not exist. That said, a Palestinian state will provide uprooted Palestinians with a place to put down new roots and to call home, thereby taking the sting out of the personal plight suffered by refugees and their descendants these past 64 years.
With the passage of time, the desire to “return” to places such as Salame will not necessarily die out, but will become less personal and more abstract. Without the establishment of a Palestinian state, the Palestinian refugee issue will remain incisively personal for an ever-increasing number of Palestinians.
The author is a veteran Israeli writer and translator.