15 May 2018

Al-Nakbah, 70 years later

Today was another ‘catastrophe’, in fact a massacre, with over 60 Palestinians killed and over 2,000 more injured by live fire from the IDF as they stood nonviolently protesting at the border fence on the border of Gaza. Meanwhile, 40 miles away, our national disgrace of a head-of-state presided over the opening of a brand-new embassy in Jerusalem, to much fanfare from his hosts.

Actually, even that isn’t quite right. It wasn’t ‘another’ catastrophe; it was the same long catastrophe. As I’ve mentioned before, the term al-Nakbah النكبة was coined by Dr Qustantîn Zurayq to refer to the mass expulsion, of 750,000 Palestinians, from over 400 villages in the land of Palestine between 1947 and 1949.

One of the sadder anecdotes from From the Holy Mountain was when William Dalrymple interviewed refugees who had fled their villages when the Israelis took over. He interviewed three residents of the refugee camp of Mar Elias, a Greek Orthodox camp on the Lebanese side of the border. Their names as recounted in the book (but perhaps changed to protect the innocent) were Sarah Daou, her mother Samira and her sister Ghada:
Inside, we found the room full of Palestinian women. Our host was called Sarah Daou, and we had dropped in on the morning she happened to be entertaining her mother, Samira, and her pretty teenage sister Ghada. Her two small daughters, Rana and Rasha, fetched us a pair of plastic chairs, while Sarah went off to the kitchen to make us coffee… None of the family spoke English, so Abed acted as interpreter. Soon we were hearing a recital of the depressing, but familiar, Palestinian story of loss and dispossession.

‘Since the time of Saladin my family had owned several hundred acres of land in the village of Kafr Bir’im,’ said Samira, Sarah’s mother. She was a large, cheerful middle-aged woman with a wide smile, but her face was heavily lined and there was a weariness in her voice as she told her story. ‘The village was north of Acre, near the border with Lebanon. I was only five when we fled, but I remember that Kafr Bir’im was a very beautiful place…’

‘My father was working in Haifa at the time of the catastrophe… I was at a Sisters of Charity school. I very well remember when the planes were bombing and a house nearby was destroyed. We were all very frightened. We had no idea what was happening or what to do.

‘My father was about 25 at that time. He was a butcher and worked for a Jewish company in Haifa. He had a very good relationship with his Jewish employer. The man said, “If you are frightened, send your family to Lebanon. Stay here and work for us. Then when the war is over go and collect them.” But my father was too afraid. Everyone knew what had happened to the Palestinians massacred by the Jewish terrorists at Deir Yassin, and he was worried that maybe the border would close and he would be separated from us. Then the Jews began firing their mortars into the Arab areas of Haifa and our building was completely destroyed. Luckily, by some miracle, none of us were in at the time, but it made up my father’s mind.

‘His employer gave him a month’s leave and lent us his van. That was how we left Palestine… We left everything behind. The only thing of any value that we had with us was my mother’s gold earrings. How were we to know the Israelis would never let any of us return to our homes? Later, when the Israeli planes destroyed Kafr Bir’im – they bombed every house in the village – everything we owned, everything we had worked for, was destroyed. Only the church was left standing. Our land was divided between new Jewish settlements, and given to people from Poland and America.’
The troubles of this one family, the Daous, are presented in Dalrymple’s book as a microcosm of the Nakbah as a whole. Israelis would promise families that they would be able to return home; none of them ever could. Like Kafr Bir’im, many Palestinian villages were flattened by mortar fire. In others, like Deir Yassin, the inhabitants were ethnically cleansed. The Nakbah was indeed a crime, one which has gone unaddressed. And it is not one from which we who live in the West can easily wash our hands. The Nakbah is not simply a crime committed by settlers and local terrorists, who later organised themselves into an occupying army.

The Palestinian Arabs themselves understood this. There was, from the beginning, no anti-Semitic canard among the Arabs, apart from a Francophile crank or two (like Najîb ‘Âzûrî, who became an anti-Dreyfusard). Palestinian Christian historian George Antonius, writing before the Nakbah even took place, diagnosed the problem perfectly, when he said:
The treatment meted out to the Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace to its authors and to modern civilisation; but posterity will not exonerate any country that fails to bear its proper share of the sacrifices needed to alleviate Jewish suffering and distress. To place the brunt of the burden upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilised world. It is also morally outrageous. No code of morals can justify the persecution of one people in an attempt to relieve the persecution of another. The cure for the eviction of the Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of the Arabs from their homeland; and the relief of Jewish distress may not be accomplished at the cost of inflicting a corresponding distress upon an innocent and peaceful population.
As tempting as it is for Americans, British and Western Europeans to see it that way and to address it that way, the Nakbah is not a ‘Middle East problem’. The problem of Palestinian suffering is, in fact, very near to us, and we are not, in fact, ‘bystanders’. We are participants. As Antonius astutely observed, we Westerners ourselves are implicated, by our indifference to the Jewish plight during the war and by our irresponsibility in addressing it afterwards.

It has always been incumbent upon those of us who have the historical responsibility, and those of us who have the means and might to do so, to end the catastrophe and broker a just peace that acknowledges the Palestinian right of return. But this is a responsibility we have always dodged, and we have always acted as a partizan patron of Israel. The most recent move of the embassy did not begin our nation’s failures of the Palestinian people; it merely recapitulated them in the most visible possible way. God willing, the good that might come from these 60 deaths, accompanying such an egregious violation of our obligations on the part of our government, would be that we begin to see our own faults and walk the way of repentance.

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