The “Catastrophe”

For Palestinians, Israel’s 60th Birthday is a Story Of Dispossession, Occupation, and Statelessness

News | Daoud Kuttab | June 2008

As the state of Israel celebrates its 60th birthday, Palestinians remember the Nakbeh, or "catastrophe" – their story of dispossession, occupation, and statelessness. But, for both sides, as well as external powers, the events of 1948 and what has followed – the occupation since 1967 of the remaining lands of historic Palestine – represents a tragic failure.

Israel is most at fault for this failure, owing to its continued military occupation and illegal settlements. Despite giving lip service to peace, the Israeli army’s refusal to leave the occupied territories continues to be in direct contravention to what the preamble to United Nations Security Council resolution 242 termed the "inadmissible taking of land by force."

But the international community, Palestinians, and Arabs all bear responsibility as well, albeit at different levels. Indeed, the list of disappointments pre-dates Israeli statehood and the Nakbeh itself: the King-Crane Commission of 1919, the 1937 Peel Report, the British White Paper of 1939, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry of 1945, and the UN Partition Plan of 1947. Since then, we have had UN resolutions 194, 242, and 338, the Rogers Plan, the Mitchell Plan, the Tenet Plan, Camp David, Taba, the Saudi plan, the "road map," the Geneva Initiative, the People’s Choice, and the Arab Peace Initiative.

To be sure, Palestinians and Arabs are also to blame for their inability to empathize, recognize, and understand the plight of the Jewish people. Although Palestinians had nothing to do with European anti-Semitism and the Nazi Holocaust, they should not have turned a blind eye to the Jews’ tragedy. Palestinians were so locked in their opposition to Zionism that they were unable to appreciate the Jews’ existential needs, just as they failed to appreciate the effects of indiscriminate acts of violence against Israeli civilians.

Consumed with legitimate anger, Palestinians and Arabs failed to come up with a serious approach to reach out to Israelis and failed to devise a workable political strategy that would address Palestinian daily needs and national aspirations. Cross-border attacks, hijackings, Arab and international diplomacy, secret talks, non-violent resistance, suicide bombings, rockets, regional Arab initiatives, international peace envoys: nothing has succeeded in ending the occupation. With each approach, Palestinian leaders, believing Arab states’ hollow proclamations of solidarity with their cause, have failed to measure accurately their own powers vis-à-vis the Israelis.

Indeed, the Arab states have come nowhere close to matching the level of US and European aid to the Palestinians, much less the even higher level of Western support – political and military, as well as financial – that has been the key to Israel’s ability to withstand Palestinian demands for freedom. While European public and private support to Israel, especially in its founding years, is believed to be very extensive, the US has created a firewall of vetoes and political protection for Israel, in addition to providing massive financial support. Writing in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Shirl McArthur, a retired US Foreign Service officer, estimates that direct US aid to Israel between 1949 and 2006 totaled $108 billion.

After the US, Germany is the principal donor of both economic and military aid to Israel. By far the largest component of German aid has been in the form of restitution payments for Nazi atrocities. Total German assistance to the Israeli government, Israeli individuals, and Israeli private institutions has been roughly $31 billion, or $5,345 per capita, bringing combined US and German assistance to almost $20,000 per Israeli.

In the face of Israel’s strength, the Palestinian national movement’s failure has now played into the hands of Islamists. The Islamic Resistance Movement (known by its Arabic acronym, Hamas), which emerged during the first Intifada in 1987, grew more powerful in the 1990’s, after the return of the PLO’s Yasser Arafat and the creation, as a result of the Oslo Accords, of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas’s rejection of the Oslo Accords bore political fruit as it became increasingly clear to Palestinians that the handshakes on the White House lawn would not produce the coveted end to the Israeli occupation, or even of Israel’s illegal settlement activities.

Yet, despite history’s long train of failures, Hamas’s June 2007 seizure of control of Gaza, and its pariah status in the West, we are repeatedly told by the US that 2008 will be the year of a peace agreement. Meanwhile, the Arab peace proposal, which calls for a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and a fair solution to the refugee problem in exchange for normalization of Arab states’ relations with Israel, appears doomed.

After 60 years of failures, and as the generation that lived through the Nakbeh passes from the scene, a political settlement that can provide Palestinians with freedom in an independent state alongside a secure Israel and a fair solution of the refugee problem is more necessary – but also appears less possible – than ever.


Daoud Kuttab, an award-winning Palestinian journalist, is currently a visiting professor of journalism at Princeton University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2008.

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