Nakba Day is a reminder that George Mitchell can’t ignore Palestinian refugees

Proximity talks signaling the restart of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which have been on hold for years, are beginning amidst an important reminder of the root cause of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Saturday, May 15, marked Nakba Day. The Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” was the depopulation of Palestine of its native inhabitants which took place around the emergence of the state of Israel from 1947-1949. Little known to most Americans is the massacre of Palestinians at Deir Yassin, which left dozens of women and children slaughtered. It is marked on April 9, a date which highlights the fact that Palestinians were being ethnically cleansed even before the Arab armies declared war on Israel in May of 1948. The Dahmash mosque massacre, marked on July 12, witnessed the gunning down of Palestinian civilians seeking refuge in a mosque. It was one of the worst massacres of the period.

Yet the day on which the Jewish state was established, is the day Palestinians mark their suffering. This is not, as some would suggest, because Palestinians oppose the existence of a safe haven for Jews. Rather it is because the existence of this state means that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees could not return to their homes – and still cannot to this day.

Some will say that Palestinians and Israelis have two irreconcilable narratives and for this reason ought to avoid talk about history. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in other countries have, however, played a key role in helping victims of terrible injustices to understand in more detail what was done to them and by whom. The facts known today tell of the reality that befell Palestinians and tragically and terribly altered the trajectory of their individual and collective existence. Yet there is much more that will surely come to light as Israeli archives are examined and as aging conquerors examine their consciences.

At the moment, there remains a difference in the telling of the history. Some historians argue that the Palestinians fled from their homes. Other historians, including leading Israeli historians, argue that there was a systematic effort on behalf of the Israeli forces to expel the Palestinians. These different historical perspectives remain dueling narratives, but the weight of evidence is increasingly favoring the Palestinian perspective of a concerted and planned drive for ethnic cleansing to clear the way for a more homogeneous Jewish state.

But one simple historical reality – which no objective person, Israeli or Palestinian will deny – transcends the entire debate over who is at fault for the ongoing predicament of the refugees. The creation of the state of Israel meant a Jewish majority in Palestine would be maintained by force, and this state, now in control of still-more-expansive borders, has refused to permit refugees to return to their homes and land.

Frankly, whatever one’s view of history, it doesn’t matter why Palestinians left Palestine during the war. All that matters is that after the war, refugees should have been allowed to go back to their towns and villages in accordance with international law.

The right to return to one’s country is a human right ensured by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. By preventing the return of Palestinian refugees to their country, Israel is and has been violating the human rights of the refugees for 62 years.

Much of the discussion today is centered on settlements and borders, but the idea that an agreement on settlements and borders would end the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is rooted in a fundamental ignorance of history. While the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967, the conflict existed well before that. The roots of the conflict are in the refugee issue.

Former National Security Advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft have recently suggested that Palestinians should take back East Jerusalem in exchange for dropping demands for the right of return. This reminds me of when we used to play tricks on the younger kids on the playground: “If you give me that dime,” we used to say, “I’ll give you this big, shiny nickel.”

The patronizing tone that accompanies such suggestions is insulting to Palestinians who have been subjected to dispossession and occupation. Now we are being told to accept the former to end the latter, when both are ethically and morally abhorrent.

On this Nakba day, as Special Envoy George Mitchell prepares to shuttle back and forth between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, it is critical to keep in mind that until the human rights of Palestinian refugees are acknowledged, there can be no lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yousef Munayyer is executive director of The Palestine Center.

About Yousef Munayyer

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, The Palestine Center.
Posted in Israel/Palestine

{ 17 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. javs says:

    there never should have been a state for the jews in the first place, if they want exclusive land for just them…go to the desert or australia or back to russia where majority of came from in the first place. I will never understand how an entity which aparthied (israel) created in the first place could be so
    screwed up when it comes to their own people. Hammas was only elected as a punishment to pa and would have ousted soon after, but as usual they never miss an oportunity to bend over and take it hard. I guess after 60+ years of shell shock and being put into these cages and walls along with all the other horrors place upon Palestinians it is to be expected…look at how many junkies and suicide bombers the aparthied created. Dispair and stress etc.etc. etc. The people in Palestine could have been better off if they wacked all the cabinet members like dacqlan and others who poisoned arafat. If it were not for the 84 or 48 million in weapons given to the pa for strict use to qwell the sane people from taking control of their future and country, but it is obvious the aparthied never intends for the Palestinans to have any of their homeland at all, which means they are far from done till the last Palestinians is gone from the land they were born in and is rightfully their own. I guess it proves they are evil schmucks with never a good intention between the millions of them. Have any of these people here on this site ever gone to the roots of the problems at least to find out if they plan on the worlds biggest mass murdering spree ever. Come on, 60+ years etc… beats out any holocaust. I wonder if there will ever be justice in this world… ever, or will evil just keep running amuck.

    • zamaaz says:

      George Mitchell should ignore this Palestinian issue. If they can help humanitarian way, they should focus on that; but never attempt to join nor resolve this conflict… This conflict has no path towards permanent peace. These are the rationale:

      1) This was rooted on the total rejection of Arabs of paths towards peace…
      2) This rejection constantly happened (since 1947), and remain until the present;
      3) Indicating peace for the Arabs is only through the Arabs way. This concept of peace is best summarized in Nasser’s words:

      On March 8, 1965 he said:

      [… the full restoration of the rights of the Palestinian people. In other words, we aim at the destruction of the State of Israel. The immediate aim: perfection of Arab military might. The national aim: the eradication of Israel. (notes from Yonira May 16, 2010 at 8:58 pm )]

      This categorically showed the only meaning peace for Arabs is the eradication of Israel.

      4) Pursuing peace after this ‘pattern of antagonism’ is just throwing away scarce American resources… which could been spent for research on green energy technologies.

    • Sumud says:

      ” if they want exclusive land for just them…go to the desert or australia”

      Oh javs – don’t say that! Australian aborigines are the oldest continuous culture on earth ~40,000 years.

      The deserts were inhabited. Tribal boundaires in pre-colonial Australia:
      link to

      Seven-part documentary on the settlement of Australia, told from an indigenous perspective (you can watch online or d/l the podcasts):
      link to

      I was outside Au. when it was broadcast so am just watching it now. Not for the first time I’m struck by the parallels between the settlement of Australia and that of Israel. Colonialism is colonialism.

  2. Pamela Olson says:

    I once toured a right-wing Jewish-American friend with family in Israel around the West Bank. We happened to arrive in Dheisheh Refugee Camp near Bethlehem on the night of a spirited performance by refugee youth about their home villages that lay in rubble just a few miles away. My friend visibly turned pale.

    When I asked him what was the main thing he took away from his visit, he shook his head and said, “I always thought we could ignore the right of return because it was unreasonable. Now… I’m not so sure. I’m not sure peace is even possible.”

    I think by “peace” he meant “peace without justice.” And I think he’s right.

    • potsherd says:

      “They’ll forget.”

      No, they won’t.

    • zamaaz says:

      In this Palestinian conflict, peace can only be viewed by either side… nobody wanted to view it on both sides… so there is no reality of peace.
      Thus peace becomes a mockery, a taunt … to whom it is painful…

  3. NormanF says:

    There is no collective right in international law to return to a country… and secondly millions of Palestinian Arabs are denied by their own leaders basic individual rights: to decide to return to Palestine, to settle in an Arab country as full citizens where they already live or to accept compensation if they have no interest in returning. The Palestinian Arab leaders colluding with Arab countries in the oppression and discrimination of Palestinians is the most shameful event in Arab history. History will not forgive them.

    • RoHa says:

      But the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is well established.

      The treatment of the Palestinians by the Arab governments is shameful, but it does not reduce Israel’s responsibility.

      Israel was evil in conception, evil in creation, and is evil in conduct.

  4. “Frankly, whatever one’s view of history, it doesn’t matter why Palestinians left Palestine during the war. All that matters is that after the war, refugees should have been allowed to go back to their towns and villages in accordance with international law.”

    From what I read of Israeli history, this was intended by the labor governments in power, until skirmishes erupted (very violent ones), that indicated that that doing the right thing, would have resulted in more violence and strife, than doing the wrong thing.

    I don’t know if that is true or not. Noone here or on the planet knows. Hypotheticals are not known.

    The big change was making it permanent, which occurred with three laws in 1950 -51, making it impossible to physically return, difficult to gain access to Israeli courts (and some bias within them), and the biggest impact from the law quickly declaring that “abandoned” lands and property revert to the state (which was quickly transferred to the Jewish National Fund and other national trustee organizations, and then settled.)

    • Julian says:

      Despite the fact the Arabs went to war to exterminate the Jewish population, and the need to settle the 1 million Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab countries, Israel was still willing to allow 100,000 Arabs to return. The Arab countries responsible for the Palestinian disaster refused to take any.

      • The question though is of present.

        What is possible now?

        A just 2010 peace is.

        • Julian says:

          Richard, the Palestinians rejected Olmert’s generous offer because their bottom line is 5 million Palestinians “returning” to Israel. Israel is never going to allow 5 million Palestinians to “return”. What is left to discuss?

        • Shmuel says:

          Olmert … generous offer … Olmert … generous offer …

          Repeating action hasbara. Smith and Wesson would have been proud.

  5. DavidSiden says:

    Julian your totally right what you say.
    The Palestinians want 2 states, their own state and to flood Israel with millions of Arabs for the 2nd state.
    The Olmert offer proved this once and for all.
    Yet the left still doesn’t get it.