Israel, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Palestine

The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape.

Today is the 67th anniversary of the Nakba, the Palestinian exodus. In a poem written forty years after he fled his village, Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali described that evening of the catastrophe:

We did not weep

When we were leaving

For we had neither

Time nor tears

And there was no farewell.

We did not know

At the moment of parting

That it was a parting,

So where would our weeping

Have come from?

occupied pal/Nakba, photo via Occupied Palestine/

To mark the 67th Nakba anniversary, I am posting an excerpt from Ilan Pappé’s essay The State of Denial: The Nakba in the Israel Zionist Landscape. This essay can be found in the book After Zionism: One State For Israel and Palestine.

Pappé writes about Nakba denial in 20th century (in Israel), and the way it changed in 21st century. I think it captures the essence of Nakba issues today – today we all know about Nakba, we know what happened and how it happened, but it’s what we do with that knowledge that differentiates us. What’s being done with what we know is what we should focus on.

Nakba Denial and the Israel/Palestine Peace Process

“Even before the U-turn in American pulic opinion after 11 September 2001, the movement of academic critique in Israel and the West and its fresh view on the 1948 ethnic cleansing was not a very impressive player on the local, regional or international stages. It did not in any way impact the Israel/Palestine peace agenda; and Palestine was the focus of such efforts at exactly the time when the fresh voices were heard. At the centre of these peace efforts were the Oslo Accords, which began rolling in September 1993. The concept behind this process was, as in all the previous peace endeavours in Palestine, a Zionist one.

Hence, the peace process of the 1990s, the Oslo Accords, was conducted according to the Israeli perception of peace – from which the Nakba was totally absent. The Oslo formula was created by Israeli thinkers from the Jewish peace camp, people who have played an important role in the Israeli public scene ever since 1967. They were institutionalised in an ex-parliamentary movement, ‘Peace Now’, and had several parties on their side in the Israeli parliament. In all their previous discourses and plans, they had totally evaded the 1948 issue and sidelined with the refugee questions. They did the same in 1993 – this time with the dire consequences of raising hopes of peace as they seemes to find a Palestinian partner for a concept of peace that buries 1948 and its victims.

It is noteworthy that the potential partners withdrew from the process twice at the last moment; ultimately, they could not betray the Palestinian Right of Return (nor is any leader empowered to do so, as the right is an individual one). The first was Yasser Arafat at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. He was later followed by Abu Mazen in the various, admittedly much less significant, attempts to reach a solution  with the Israeli governments of Olmerr and Netanyahu.

AlNakbaExpulsion3/Expulsion from Ramie, November 1948. Photo via Desip/

When the final moment came, and the Palestinians realised that on top of not witnessing a genuine Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, there was no solution offered for the refugee question, they rebelled in frustration. The climax of the Oslo negotiations – the Camp David summit meeting between then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat in the summer of 2000 – gavethe false impression that it was offering the end of the conflict.

Naive Palestinian negotiators located the Nakba and Israel’s responsibility for it at the top of the Palestinian list of demands, but this was rejected out of hand by the Israeli team, which succeeded in enforcing its point of view on the summit. To the Palestinian side’s credit, we should say that at least for a while the catastrophe of 1948 was brought to attention of a local, regional, and, to a certain extent, global audience. Nonetheless, the continued denial of the Nakba in the peace process is the main explanation for its failure and the subsequent second uprising in the Occupied Territories.

Not only in Israel but also in the United States, and even in Europe, it was necessary to remind those concerned with  the Palestine question  that this conflict entailed not only the future of Occupied Territories, but also that of the Palestinian refugees who had been forced from their homes in 1948 (and indeed from the whole area that was once Palestine). The Israelis had earlier succeeded in sidelining the issues of the refugees’ rights from the Oslo Accords, an aim helped by ill-managed Palestinian diplomacy and strategy.

The Nakba had been so efficiently kept off the agenda of the peace process that when it suddenly appeared on it, the Israelis felt as if a Pandora’s box had been prised open in front of them. The worst fear of the Israeli negotiators was that there was a possibility that Israel’s responsibility for the 1948 catastrophe would now become a negotiable issue; this ‘danger’ was, accordingly, immediately confronted. In the Israeli media and parliament, the Knesset, a position was formulated, no Israeli negotiator would be allowed even to dicuss the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees to the homes they had occupied before 1948. The Knesset passed a law to this effect, and Ehud Barak made a public commitment to it on the stairs of the plane that was taking him to Camp David.

The mechanism of denial therefore was crucial not only for defeating counter claims made by Palestinians in the peace process, but, more importantly, for disallowing any significant debate on the essence and moral foundation of Zionism.

The struggle over Nakba denial in the 21st Century

When the twentieth century came to an end, it seemed that the struggle against Nakba denial in Israel had had a mixed impact on the society and its politics. The appearance of the ‘new history’ and a far more concentrated effort to protect the Nakba memory by the Palestinians in general, and those within Israel in particular, did crack the wall of denial and repression that surrounds the Nakba in Israel. The new atmosphere has also been helped by a clarification of the Palestinian position on the refugee issue towards the end of the Oslo peace process.

As a result, after more than fifty years of repression, it became more difficult for Israel to deny the expulsion and destruction of the Palestinians in 1948. However, this relative sucess  has also brought with it three negative reactions, formulated after the outbreak of the Al Aqsa Intifada. The effect of these reactions is still felt today, and it characterises the state of the Nakba denial in Israel in this century.

45190f/An early refugee camp. Late 1940s, Palestine. Photo via Jacobin/

The first reaction was from the Israeli political establishment, led by Ariel Sharon’s two governments (2001 and 2003), through the Ministry of Education, to expunge the actual history of 1948 from the education system. It began systematically removing any textbook or school syllabus that reffered to the Nakba, even marginally. Similiar instructions were given to the public broadcasting authorities.

The second reaction was even more disturbing and encompased wider sections of the public. Although a very considerable number of Israeli politicians, journalists and academiccs ceased to deny what happened in 1948, they were nonetheless wiling to justify it publicly, not only in retrospect but also as a prescription for the future. The idea of ‘transfer’ entered Israeli political discourse openly for the first time, gaining legitimacy as the best means of dealing with the Palestinian ‘problem’.

Transfer was and is openly discussed as an option when the captains of the nation meet annually in one of Israel’s most prestigious academic centres, the Centre for Intersdisciplinary Studies in Herzliya. It was openly discussed in the early twenty-first century as a policy proposal in papers presented by senior Labour Party ministers to their government. It is openly advocated by university professors and media commentators, and very few now dare to condemn it. As the very end of the last century, the leader of the majority in the American House of Representatives openly endorsed it.

There was a third reaction that followed in the footsteps of the renewed denial and worse disregard for the Nakba; this was the appearance of a neo-Zionist professional historiography of the war, some of it written by a former new historian. This U-turn was led by Benny Morris, formerly one fo the most important new historians of the 1990s. Murris has not changed his narrative: Israel was still in his eyes a state that was built with the help of ethnic celansing of the Palestinians. What he changed was his moral attitude towards that policy and crime. He justified it and did not even rule it out as a future policy. This justification appears also in his latest book on 1948, aptly called 1948: every means is justified in a war against a Jihadi attempt to destroy the state of Israel.

Morris’s retraction was typical to the whole professional historiography of the 1948 war in Israel in the twentieth century. As I have shown elsewhere, the pattern in the new century is very much the same. The facts that the ‘New Historians’ exposed about 1948, in particular those concerning the depopulation of the indigenous people of Palestine, are not doubted any more.

What changed is the total acceptance of the moral validity of this policy. In many ways, the professional historiography in Israel once more regards 1948 as the miraculous pristine moment of the state’s birth.”

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