Where’s the Palestinian Arab self-criticism over 1948?
..... by Shlomo Avineri

Published: 13 May 2011
Briefing Number 283

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Summary:  This Briefing contains an article by doveish Israeli professor Shlomo Avineri highlighting the absence of self-criticism by Palestinian Arabs over past decisions for which they have been responsible, including the decisions which caused the ‘Naqba’ – catastrophe - of 1948.  Avineri expresses the hope that political reform and revolution in the Arab world will trigger a readiness among the Palestinians to be honest about the past. Avineri explains that this self-criticism would help to achieve a two-state solution.  Avineri’s article first appeared in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz on 11 May 2011 (www.haaretz.com)

Key message: It was not the creation of Israel which caused the Palestinian refugee problem. It was first and foremost the Arabs’ political decision to reject the creation of Israel and go to war to try to prevent it coming into being.  A crucial feature of the ‘Naqba’ mindset is to blame Israel entirely for what happened in 1948.  But the Palestinian Arabs have to face up to their own historic responsibility, too.

Prof Shlomo Avineri on ‘Israel at 63’, and the anniversary of the ‘Naqba’

In May 2011 Israel marked the 63rd anniversary of its independence.  And the Palestinians mourned what they call the Naqba – the ‘catastrophe’ - of 1948. 

These events prompted the article below from Shlomo Avineri, which we have reprinted verbatim in this new Beyond Images Briefing.
Shlomo Avineri is one of the best-known academics and commentators in Israel.  He is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University and the author of several leading studies on modern Israeli history, and Israeli national identity.   He was formerly the Director-General of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is considered left-of-centre in his views.

For decades Avineri has been a strong exponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this article he calls on liberal Israelis, advocates of a two-state solution, and above all the Palestinians themselves, to “honestly” face up to the Palestinian/Arab responsibility for the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1948.

This article should be read in conjunction with an earlier piece Avineri wrote on a similar theme: see Beyond Images Briefing 276: ‘Beyond the Naqba mindset’

‘Mideast peace requires Palestinian self-criticism’

by Shlomo Avineri, Ha’aretz, 11 May 2011

Showing respect for the Palestinian experience
Efforts by members of Israel’s far right to forbid the country’s Arab citizens from commemorating the ‘Naqba’ (catastrophe) are mean, foolish and destined to fail.   But initiatives by the extreme left to turn Naqba day into a joint memorial day for all of Israel’s citizens are also doomed.  Israel is not a binational state, and with all due liberalism and humanism, it is hard to treat victory and defeat in the same way.  

What can be demanded of the Jewish majority is that it show respect for the mourning of the Palestinians.  But this has been made difficult by the way the Palestinian narrative has until now presented the Naqba, and Israeli liberals must be honest enough to deal with that issue.

The Naqba is not a natural disaster, but the result of Arab political defeat

First, the very concept of the Naqba, the Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster – as though the events of 1948 were a natural disaster rather than the result of human action – blurs the historical context of the events.  The so-called Naqba was not a natural disaster.  It was the outcome of a military and political defeat resulting from political decisions for which specific people were responsible. 

The comparison between the ‘Naqba’ and the Holocaust is morally obtuse

Second, in the Arab world in general, and among Palestinians in particular, there is great reluctance to confront the Holocaust.  Nevertheless one sometimes hears comparisons between the Naqba and the Holocaust.  But the very comparison is morally obtuse: what happened to the Palestinians from 1947-1948 was the result of a war in which they were defeated, while the Holocaust was the planned, methodical mass murder of civilians.  The six million Jews of Europe who were killed in the Holocaust had not gone to war against Germany.  German Jews were in fact good German citizens, and many of the Jews of Eastern Europe saw German culture as the apex of European civilisation.

The ‘Naqba’ was caused by Arab political decisions

Third, and this is the most important point: The Palestinian discourse does not address the fact that Arab political decisions are what brought the terrible disaster down on the Palestinians.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of articles and books in Arabic about the war of 1948, and there are expert analyses of the reasons for the Arabs’ military failure.  But to this day there is no willingness to deal with a simple fact: the decision to go to war against the UN resolution to partition Mandatory Palestine was a terrible political and moral mistake on the part of the Arab world.

If the Palestinians and the Arab countries had accepted the partition plan, the Arab state of Falastin would have been established in 1948 and there would have been no refugee problem.  It was not the establishment of the State of Israel that created the refugee problem, but rather the fact that the Arabs went to war against the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine.

The consequences of rejecting partition
Israelis seeking reconciliation may be permitted to ask the Arab side to face these issues.  Just as it is impossible to detach the deportation of 12 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe after 1945 from Germany’s attack on Poland in 1939, so it is impossible to ignore the moral dimension of the Arab decision to go to war against the idea of partition.  When you go to war and lose, there are consequences, even if the winners must still be held responsible for their own actions.         

If we are indeed heading towards a two-state solution, some self-criticism should be expected from the Arab side, something like what S. Yizhar’s book ‘The Story of Hirbet Hizah’, about the expulsion of Arab villagers by an Israel Defence Forces unit acting under orders, symbolised for the Israeli discourse.  That would make it much easier for Israelis to share Palestinian pain.

The democratic winds beginning to blow in the Arab world should raise the hope that one of the next steps after Tahrir square will be their development of a critical discourse – the beginning of liberation, not from autocratic regimes, but also from the inability to take a good hard look in the mirror.

Some Related Beyond Images Briefings
Beyond Images Briefing 276: ‘Beyond the ‘Naqba’ mindset: What a real change of Palestinian attitudes would involve.... by Shlomo Avineri’