Today, Palestinians and their supporters, as they have done increasingly over the years, mark what they call the “naqba” (Arabic for catastrophe) day. But commemoration is only one aspect of the day. The clue to the real meaning of the naqba lies on the previous day, May 14, the day Israel declared independence upon the termination of British rule.
On the actual day in 1948 now commemorated as the naqba, neighboring Arab armies and internal Palestinian militias responded to Israel’s declaration of independence with full-scale hostilities. Tel Aviv was bombed from the air, and the head of Israel’s provisional government, David Ben-Gurion, delivered his first radio address to the nation from an air-raid shelter.
Israel successfully resisted invasion and dismemberment - the universally affirmed objective of the Arab belligerents - and Palestinians came off worst of all from the whole venture. At the war’s end, more than 600,000 Palestinians were living as refugees under neighboring Arab regimes.
In the immediate years that followed, the refugees generally resisted the term naqba. That implied a permanence never contemplated. After all, they largely had evacuated the scene of hostilities under the impression that they would be returning speedily on the heels of Israel’s imminent defeat. When that failed to materialize, they yet hoped for a speedy return upon the destruction of Israel in a renewed round of fighting. When that, too, failed to materialize, however, the term naqba and the commemorations around it held on May 15 became fixtures.
So the term naqba is misleading. It smacks of falsehood, inasmuch as it implies a tragedy inflicted by others. The tragedy, of course, was self-inflicted.
As Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Abba Eban, was to put it, “Once you determine the responsibility for that war, you have determined the responsibility for the refugee problem. Nothing in the history of our generation is clearer or less controversial than the initiative of Arab governments for the conflict out of which the refugee tragedy emerged.”
However, the Palestinians do not mourn the ill-conceived choice of going to war to abort Israel. They mourn only that they failed.
This is contrary to normal historical experience of disastrous defeat. Germans today mourn their losses in World War II, but not by lauding their invasion of Poland and justifying the attempt at European subjugation. They do not glorify Nazi aggression.
The Japanese mourn their losses in World War II, but not by lauding their assault on Pearl Harbor and their attempt to subjugate Southeast Asia. They do not glorify Japanese imperialism.
The very fact that naqba commemorations are held today is therefore instructive in a way few realize: It informs us that Palestinians have not admitted or assimilated the fact - as the Germans and Japanese have done - that they became victims as a direct result of their efforts to be perpetrators.
It informs us that Palestinians still would like to succeed today at what they miserably failed to achieve then.
It also informs us that they take no responsibility for their own predicament, which is uniquely maintained to this day at their own insistence.
If readers doubt my word, consider this vignette from January 2001. That month, Palestinian rioters in the West Bank burned in effigy John Manley, then foreign minister in Jean Chretien’s Canadian government. His sin? Mr. Manley had offered to welcome Palestinian refugees and their descendants to Canada after a peace settlement. The Palestinian response? Legislator Hussam Khader of Fatah, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ party - not Hamas or another of the Islamist groups - threatened Canada, saying, “If Canada is serious about resettlement, you could expect military attacks in Ottawa or Montreal.”
Though scarcely a typical response by a government official to an offer of refugee relief, Mr. Khader’s was nonetheless illuminating. Setting up a Palestinian state and resettling the refugees and their descendants inside it or abroad would remove any internationally accepted ground for conflict. That is why helping to solve the Palestinian refugee problem is regarded as a hostile act - by Palestinians.
Thus, naqba commemorations inform us that the conflict is about Israel’s existence, not about territory, borders, holy places, refugees or any other bill of particulars.
Only when Palestinians accept that Israel is here to stay will the possibility of the conflict’s end come into view.
In the meantime, responsible governments can discourage and repudiate naqba commemorations as a small but important step toward bringing that day closer.
Daniel Mandel is a fellow in history at Melbourne University in Australia and director of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Middle East Policy.