When Palestinian refugees were gunned down by Israeli soldiers upon marching towards their homeland during unarmed Nakba Day demonstrations, the floodgates of historic revisionism opened.
What is this ‘Nakba’? Where did these refugees come from? Who should be responsible for them? Readers undoubtedly raised these questions when the spilled blood of demonstrators brought the discussion of the most pivotal year in Palestinian history, 1948, back into the headlines.
Often, the events of this period are recited like this in mainstream media:
After Israel declared independence on May 14, 1948, armies from neighboring Arab states attacked the new nation; during the war that followed, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes by Israeli forces.
As a student of history and the grandchild of Nakba survivors, I find it not only inaccurate to suggest Palestinian refugees are merely the unintended consequence of war, but also offensive and disgusting.
Both describe the refugees as a result of the “Arab attack” in 1948. But even a cursory look at history reveals how flawed this is. Before a single Arab soldier crossed into Palestine on May 15, 1948 more than half the total refugees were created. Arab mobilization then became a reaction to massive refugee flows and not the cause of it. When Israel declared independence, its military had already succeeded in depopulating Palestine’s largest cities of Jaffa and Haifa as well as Tiberias, Safad and Beisan. Perhaps those writing today’s New York Times should read their own reporting from this period because they’d quickly learn they are peddling distortions that are simply unfit to print.
The depopulation of Palestine was no accident. The Zionist movement sought to create a Jewish state in a territory where Jews were a minority. On the eve of the Nakba, Jews constituted 30 percent of the population and owned 7 percent of the land. Within months, they forged a state on 78 percent of the territory where they flipped the demographic ratio from 30:70 Jews to Arabs to 90:10. To think such dramatic demographic change happens by accident—only coincidently suiting decades old Zionist aims—is dangerous naiveté. Such things happen only by design.
Thousands of declassified files in Israeli military archives speak to the intent behind depopulation operations targeting Palestinian villages and the planning of these actions which began long before the war. In 1940, for example, the pre-state Jewish government began a clandestine intelligence operation that collected sensitive data on every Palestinian village. Prior to the depopulation, the Zionists had detailed information on the villagers, including name, age, property, political affiliations, wages, occupations, relationships. They documented water resources, roads, access to media and if the village had any weapon. They kept lists of villagers in each village believed hostile to Zionism. An expose in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed what historians have known for years.
In 1947, the UN General Assembly passed a plan to divide Palestine into four entities, one Arab (which was 99 percent Palestinian Arab on 43 percent of the land) one Jewish (which was 55 percent Jewish and 45 percent Palestinian Arab and on 55 percent of the land) a third entity to be internationally monitored around Jerusalem which was 51 percent Palestinian Arab and 49 percent Jewish and a fourth isolated enclave around the Palestinian city of Jaffa. For Palestinians, this partition divided their population into 4 and gave 55 percent of their territory to the 30 percent of the population which was Jewish, most of which just arrived in Palestine in the previous two decades. For the Jews, this plan would create the state they long desired. In short, the Palestinians had a great deal to lose while the Jews had a great deal to gain. That is why Palestinians justifiably rejected this deal and the Jews accepted it.
From 1919, the United States knew creating a Jewish State in Palestine meant disaster for the native Palestinian Arabs. An American fact finding team, the King-Crane commission, noted that a Jewish state could not be established without the “gravest trespass upon the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The commission was shocked after meeting with Zionists at the time who “looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine.” Perhaps this insight led Washington to make a decision few people recall. On March 19, 1948, the United States withdrew its support for the partition plan. The Zionists knew the state they coveted was in jeopardy since the US, a global power after WWII, backed away from the plan. With the British Mandate ending in less than two months, it was time to take it by force. During this six week period the Israeli forces accelerated their attacks on Arab villages and committed massacres including at Deir Yassin on April 9, 1948. At this point, the depopulation was in full swing and masses of refugees were created either by direct force or fear for their lives before the Arab armies entered Palestine.
As a student of history and the grandchild of Nakba survivors, I find it not only inaccurate to suggest Palestinian refugees are merely the unintended consequence of war, but also offensive and disgusting. In many countries, Holocaust denial will land you in jail but in the U.S. Nakba denial may land you on the pages of major newspapers.
Some Nakba denials are particularly vile. Michael Medved denies the Nakba happened in his distorted history and argues Palestinians never had it so good and benefited from Zionist colonization of their land. Like Cecil Rhodes, who more than a century ago led the English colonization of Africa, Medved asserts proudly that the colonization of the natives by European newcomers was to their benefit. This twisted defense of colonialism is as repulsive as it is supremacist and archaic. Medved and his frankly racist approach are relics with a “heart of darkness” that are incompatible with the 21st century. They should be opposed in all their forms by people of conscience.
Until candid discussions about the events of the Nakba will be part of our discourse in the United States, we shouldn’t think we can ever be a fair mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Sadly, as the willingness of some readers to welcome Medved’s brazen distortion proves, we are far from that point.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, The Palestine Center.