Israel must change its attitude toward the Nakba - comment

In the Palestinian narrative, the Nakba ('The Catastrophe') marks the departure/escape/expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territory of the State of Israel.

A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the ‘Nakba’ at the Israel-Gaza border fence in 2019. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS)
A woman holds a Palestinian flag during a protest marking the 71st anniversary of the ‘Nakba’ at the Israel-Gaza border fence in 2019.

Last week, Itamar Fleischman – a commentator and occasional anchorman on TV channel 14, who served in the past as Naftali Bennett’s assistant and spokesman – stated during a discussion on the channel’s program “The Patriots”: “What is happening here is that the Arabs have forgotten the Nakba, and it is time to start reminding them of the it – to tell them that if they will not wake up soon, and if they will continue to try to murder our children, their next station will be across the River Jordan, or in the al-Yarmuk [refugee] camp in Syria. 

“This will happen if things continue… We shall simply load them onto trucks, and throw them across the border, and this is how it will all end.”

In the Palestinian narrative, the Nakba (“The Catastrophe”) marks the departure/escape/expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from the territory of the State of Israel in the course of the Arab-Israel War of 1948-1949, which led to their losing their homes and property, and turned them into refugees.

Some left-wing commentators reacted to Fleischman’s statement by saying – seriously, or cynically – that at least someone in the Israeli Right admits that the Nakba actually took place, and that it involved Israeli forces actively throwing Arab inhabitants across the borders to Jordan, Syria, the Gaza Strip (then held by Egypt), and Lebanon.

Till today, official Israel is ambivalent when it comes to the Nakba, which is very different from the Israeli narrative of its War of Independence: the victory of the few against the many, more or less a military miracle, which had it ended differently would have constituted the end of the Zionist dream.

It is no accident that the Nakba is not dealt with in the Jewish national education system, and to all effects and purposes is largely forbidden in the Arab education system in Israel. Before the “Nakba Law” was approved by the Knesset in 2011 there were thoughts about turning the marking of Nakba Day in Israel into a criminal offense.

But when this proved impractical, besides being both morally and legally dodgy, amendment No. 40 to the Foundations of the Budget Law was passed. It stipulates that a body that receives funding from the state may be subject to economic sanctions should it:

• spend money for purposes that involve the negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state

• incite racism, violence or terror

• support an armed conflict and terror against the State of Israel

• mark Israel’s Independence Day, or the day on which the state was established, as a day of mourning

• engage in an act that dishonors the national flag and emblem of the state.

The main purpose of the amendment was, in fact, to prevent state financing for the events of Nakba Day by bodies in the Arab sector. It effectively prevents any activity in the Arab education system in Israel connected to the Nakba.

Demonstrators gather for Nakba Day protests in the town of Sakhnin (credit: JOINT SPOKESPERSON)Demonstrators gather for Nakba Day protests in the town of Sakhnin (credit: JOINT SPOKESPERSON)

THERE ARE three reasons why Israel is so hysterical about the issue. Firstly, many sincerely believe that the total Arab defeat in the 1948/49 war, and the consequences, were mainly the fault of the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular. The Palestinians refused to agree to a state of their own, which was offered them by the UN Partition Plan of 1947. According to this position, the Palestinians themselves are responsible for their tragedy; not Israel.

Secondly, Israel feels that should the issue of the Nakba be legitimized by Israel, the loyalty of the Israeli Arabs to the State of Israel will be further undermined, and that is undesirable.

Thirdly, Israel likes to present itself as a highly moral country, and the narrative of the Nakba totally rejects this position. Officially, Israel has always acted to minimize the cases in which Israel’s conduct may be construed as being immoral, and is wary about admitting that deliberate massacres and expulsions of Arab civilians took place.

Right-wingers like Fleischman have no problem admitting that the Nakba actually took place, nor do they conceal the fact that as far as they are concerned, under certain circumstances it may be repeated. 

In fact, we were exposed to this point of view on October 13, when during a Knesset debate, MK Bezalel Smotrich (leader of the Religious Zionist party) said to Arab MKs: “I do not speak to you – anti-Zionists, supporters of terror, enemies. You are here by accident. You are accidentally here because Ben-Gurion didn’t complete the job, and didn’t throw you all out in 1948”.

This is the very same Bezalel Smotrich, who in the elections to the 24th Knesset was pushed over the qualifying threshold by then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu did everything in his power to get Smotrich’s National Union-Tkuma party to run in the elections on a single list with Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, and Avi Maoz’s Noam. The latter two make Smotrich look like a bleeding-heart liberal.

I admit that I could not find a single utterance by Netanyahu about Nakba Day, even during a Knesset debate on no-confidence motions on May 16, 2011, the day after the Nakba Law was passed; and after groups of Palestinians tried to cross the border from Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip into Israel to commemorate Nakba Day – the Gregorian date of the establishment of the State of Israel.

But other Likud MKs did, including Ofir Akunis, who served as deputy speaker of the Knesset at that sitting, who stated from the speaker’s seat that the Nakba had been invented by a non-Palestinian Syrian scholar several years previously. Indeed, the term was coined by a Syrian professor, but it was in 1948, when the Arab armies that had invaded the Jewish state faced military defeat. 

Over the years, the term was adopted by the Palestinians for what had befallen them. In the late 1990s, they started to mark May 15 – the Gregorian date of Israel’s independence – as Nakba Day, with rallies and processions.

It is a mistake for Israel to adopt an ostrich approach to Nakba Day. Contrary to what Fleischman said last week, neither Israel’s Arab citizens, nor the Palestinians outside of Israel, have forgotten what happened to them in 1948/49, and again following the Six Day War in 1967.

Undoubtedly, the Palestinian narrative is full of factual inaccuracies and myths, just like ours. It would serve our long-term interests if we did our best to get rid of all these on both sides, and thus help develop conditions for a more sincere and fruitful dialogue.

Hopefully, it is only a minority in Israel who dream of “finishing the job” that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, allegedly failed to complete.

The writer was a researcher in the Knesset Research and Information Center until her retirement. She recently published a book in Hebrew, The Job of the Knesset Member – An Undefined Job, to be published in English by Routledge.