Israel at 61: Denial of Catastrophe is at the root of the 'conflict'

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As we celebrate the sixty-first anniversary of the creation of our state, Palestinians commemorate their Catastrophe, al-Nakba in Arabic. After all these years, it is time for us to recognize what has happened, and continues to happen in our name, and by our hands.

Our national denial of the events of 1948, of the dispossession of at least 418 Palestinian villages, is at the root of our so-called conflict.  Many historians have uncovered what has actually happened, though the Israeli state and its educational system refuse to change the denial narrative. 

Until it is recognized, no peace talks can take place in good faith. Maram Massarweh, a Palestinian descendent of survivors of the 1948 expulsion from al-Haram (Sidna Ali) illuminates this in a testimony to Zochrot, an Israeli organization dedicated to the commemoration of the uncovered events of that year.

“This denial has been the method chosen by Jewish society to cope with the story of the Nakba in general.”  She then poses two questions we have been running away from for more than six decades. “Is Israeli-Jewish society so immersed in its own pain that it is emotionally unavailable to deal with or acknowledge the suffering of others?  Is there a competition here on degrees of pain, as if pain is a monopoly, or has the right to be a victim been appropriated?” I hope not.

Al-Nakba, I think, is not the right term. At least not for the Israelis. I agree with historian Ilan Pappe, who in a 2006 article wrote, “The term Nakba does not directly imply any reference to who is behind the catastrophe -- anything can cause the destruction of Palestine, even the Palestinians themselves.  Not so when the term ethnic cleansing is used. It implies an accusation and reference to the culprits of/for the events that took place not only in the past but happen also in the present.”

On November 4, 1995, then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a right wing Jewish Israeli for “compromising” with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over the Oslo Accords.

While their historic handshake may have won them the Nobel Peace Prize, illegal Jewish settlements continued to expand in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Rabin has thus become remembered as Israel’s most “dovish” leader, but in early July 1948, he gave Moshe Dayan the order to expel the Palestinians of al-Lydd and the surrounding Ramla region.

Today, al-Lydd doesn’t exist. Its symbols and names have been erased and replaced. It is renamed Lod and is a Jewish-majority town with a large Arab minority of 1948 refugees, most from neighbouring areas.

In school, we were taught that in April 1948, surrounding Arab nations went on the offensive against the Jews and that we miraculously withstood their wrath in an attempt to “drive us into the sea,” thus creating the State of Israel.

In The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Ilan Pappe draws a different picture.  Writing on the Arab League Army, he notes that, “In general, the [ALA] adopted a defensive policy and focused on organizing the people's fortification lines in cooperation with the national committees.”

Another Israeli claim is that the infant country was faced with massive militaries, but Pappe illustrates that by the end of May, 1948 (only nine days after Israel declared itself independent) this wasn’t the case. Thanks to arms deals with the USSR and the Eastern Bloc, he reports Israel “possessed artillery unmatched not only by the Arab troops inside Palestine, but by all the Arab Armies put together.”

Instead, Pappe goes on to illustrate how David Ben Gurion, the leader of the pre-state Jewish Agency, and Israel’s first Prime Minister developed a plan by which the Jewish militant forces, Haganah, Irgun, and Palmach, would ethnically cleanse the areas the Agency coveted for a Jewish State by force.  They were nearly entirely successful.

Al-Lydd wasn’t a tough fight for the Israeli forces.  Roughly 5000 faced-off with a resistance of 1500 local men who surrendered after a few short hours. 

Al-Lydd was the sight of one of the first Israeli air bombardment.  It was also the site of the biggest massacre of the war.  The Israeli troops left behind them a depopulated town, and 426 dead men, women and children.  One hundred and seventy-six were machine gunned in a mosque for attempting to resist the expulsion.

Another Israeli historian, Benny Morris, argues this expulsion was strategically calculated to secure to route from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. Today, driving along this route, one can still see rusting tanks on the countryside.

Turning the truth upside down “is typical for a young nation, and it's part of nation-building, that the establishment would try to shape history and dictate history, and provide some kind of national mythology,” says Tom Segev, Israeli historian and journalist. It is time we turn the truth right side up.

In 1948, as Israeli forces expelled the residents of al-Lydd, they set them marching East, towards the West Bank and Jordan.  Hundreds died on the way.  Today, ethnic cleansing in Israel is far less dramatic, and far more systemic and invisible.

Through legal tools (such as the Building and Planning Law), Israel has institutionalized the restriction of housing sales to Arab citizens in Jewish areas.  It prevents Arabs from building homes by denying them building permits, and if they build regardless, demolishes them.  Since 1967, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions reports that 24,145 houses have been demolished in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Last year, on the 60th anniversary of 1948 the Committee’s founder and director, Jeff Halper, asked, “Can we really expect to 'win?' To frustrate the Palestinian aspirations for freedom in their homeland forever? And if we do, what kind of society will we have, what will our children inherit?”

Back in Lod, a Palestinian municipal council member, Aaraf Muharab, attempts to answer this question in his testimony to Zochrot. “Jews here think that they are continuing the path of [Zionism founder, Theodor] Hertzel … You're talking here about a demographic problem and that is the basis of racism.  If Jews don't relate to the Nakba as a one-time event, maybe they will understand what is happening today."

A peace agreement cannot begin to take shape until the systemic denial of history is reversed.  As our first Prime Minister put it, "If I were an Arab leader, I would never make terms with Israel. This is natural, as we have taken their country. There has been anti-Semitism, Nazis, but was that their fault?  They see only one thing, we have come here and stolen their country, why should they accept that?"

In another 1948 testimony to Zochrot, Ziyad Mahajneh, a survivor of the al-Lujjan expulsion makes a plea that brings to mind a metaphor once told to me by an indigenous Haudenosaunee woman in Canada. She described the white man’s occupation of North America as a guest who entered her home, but then took over the living room.  He then took over her kitchen, and bedroom, until her family was forced to live in the moldy basement.  The white man would then store his garbage in the basement, and so her family developed illnesses.  When they protested and sued, the white man’s courts forced him to build floors and refurnish the basement. When he was done, he demanded her family be grateful for all he has done for them. But in the end of the day -- the garbage was never thrown out, and her family is left living in the moldy basement of the home they once knew.

“I imagine that my plot there is a few tens of dunums, or a few hundreds maybe, because my father had six sons,” says Mahajneh.  “But take everything. Give me just a room.”

Today, Israel’s idea of a room for Palestinians is a seemingly never-ending project of ethnic cleansing.  It takes shape in the form of a fragmented West Bank, divided by Jewish settlements and ethnically restricted roads.

This cannot change until Israel admits the house it occupies must be shared.

Lia Tarachansky is a producer and journalist for The Real News Network.  She grew up on a Jewish Settlement in the West Bank, and today reports from Washington D.C.

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