Palestinians Observe Nakbah or Catastrophe Day, raise Hopes of Unity

Juan Cole

Thousands of Palestinians rallied in Gaza on Saturday to commemorate the Nakbah or national catastrophe of 1948, when European Jewish settlers brought into the Mandate of Palestine by imperial British policy expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel and then sealed the border, confiscating all their property without compensation. These actions turned the bulk of the Palestinians into poverty-stricken camp dwellers and/or stateless persons living under the rule of others, and prevented the rise of an independent Palestinian state such as was envisaged by the League of Nations and the British government just a decade before. [Aljazeera English has video (click link).]

Keeping the memory of their national catastrophe alive is especially important to Palestinians since the rest of the world has forgotten it and wealthy and powerful elements of the rightwing Israel lobbies in the US monitor and intimidate media figures and academics who dare depart from the fantasyland Leon Uris “Exodus” narrative of 1948. (Israelis have the right to their narrative, but not to erase the national narratives of others).

1947-48 in Palestine was a civil war of sorts between the two major populations under British rule there. But most of the 700,000 Palestinians made homeless were not politicized nor were they fighters, and permanently depriving them of their property with no compensation is illegal (not to mention immoral). And although a subcommittee of the UN had proposed a partition of Palestine, the UN Security Council never voted on the plan and it was openly rejected by the Palestinians and privately rejected by Zionist leaders like Ben Gurion (who wanted a ‘Greater Israel’ than was on offer from the UN).

The major political vehicles of the displaced and homeless Palestinians in the 1970s had been the secular, nationalist Fateh [victory] and its allies in the Palestine Liberation Organization. From the late 1980s Israeli intelligence promoted the Muslim fundamentalist movement Hamas, an offshoot in the Gaza strip of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, both in hopes of offsetting leftist and Soviet influence and in hopes of being better able to divide and rule the Palestinians. Especially after the Palestine Authority was established in the 1990s, the corruption and inability to achieve Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, the PLO gained a reputation for corruption, censorship and political heavy-handedness as well as for an inability to stand up to what Rashid Khalidi has called the “settler-industrial complex.” (Israeli colonies on the Palestinian West Bank doubled in population during the 1990s when Israel was supposedly negotiating in good faith a trade of land for peace with the Palestinians). Hamas’s extreme positions resonated with a youthful, unemployed, desperate Palestinian population that witnessed more and Israeli expropriation of their land and resources.

Hamas won the January 2006 Palestine Authority elections, an outcome unacceptable to the US and Israel, which promptly cut off aid to the PA, hurting ordinary Palestinians. Gradually a PLO coup was orchestrated on the West Bank, which confined Hamas to the Gaza Strip, which was then put under economic blockade by the Israelis. (This blockade is a war crime since it targets civilians; indeed, half of Gazans are children, so it is depriving children of food, electricity and other needs.) Israeli actions were intended to dislodge Hamas from Gaza just as it had been overthrown in the West Bank, but the Israelis failed to achieve this goal.

The US and Israel had however succeeded in contributing to a deep division of the Palestinians, which allows Israel to move thousands of new colonists into Palestinian territory annually to to use Palestinian resources for economic gain. Unfortunately the Palestinian leadership, both of the PLO and Hamas, has not shown the moral character and fiber to resist this divide and rule strategy, and sometimes PLO and Hamas fighters have fought skirmishes with one another, which reminds one of Nero fiddling while Rome burned.

Saturday’s rally was jointly sponsored by the PLO and Hamas, and raised hopes that the two would resume talks toward presenting a common front in proximity talks with the Israelis.

Another sign of new determination on the Palestinian side is an effective Palestinian boycott of the Israeli setter-industrial complex and its products.

At a small demonstration in East Jerusalem, Palestinians called the process whereby they are discriminated against in East Jerusalem and a concerted attempt is being made to encompass the city with Israeli colonies that cut it off from the West Bank a “second Nakbah.”

Millions of Palestinians remain stateless, and citizenship was defined by Warren Burger as ‘the right to have rights.’ As long as so many Palestinians do not have the right to have rights, there will be no end of trouble in the Mideast, and Israel cannot itself be a normal country. Although the current situation is often called Apartheid by analogy, it is worse, since most South Africans had citizenship, whereas the Palestinians of Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, etc. lack that basic guarantee of a decent life. And they are being actively deprived of it by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Likud-Shas-Yisrael Beitenu rightwing coalition.


PS We who study Arabic for a living have developed notations or transliteration systems for putting Arabic letters over into Latin scripts. The Encyclopedia of Islam, the Library of Congress and others have such systems. Most modern such transliteration schemes distinguish between a k and a q (the Arabic ‘q’ or qaf does not exist in English– it is a back-throated deep clicking k, though in daily life even most Arabs drop it the way Cockneys drop their t’s). The word for catastrophe is therefore Nakbah, not “Naqbah.”

I’m a little mystified as to why even Arab journalists insist on transliterating Arabic weirdly. Thus, there is no short ‘e’ or long ‘o’ sound in Arabic. Therefore, the Lebanese political party should be Hizbullah. American journalists write it the way a Persian-speaking Iranian would, not the way an Arab would, even though Lebanon is an Arab country. And the NYT delivered itself of ‘Moktada’ as the way to spell Muqtada al-Sadr’s name, making two mistakes– since there is no ‘o’ in Arabic and it is a qaf, not a ‘k’ in the original. I mean, don’t they know how to google ‘Library of Congress Arabic transliteration’?

(So *please* folks, it is al-Nakbah with a ‘k’.)




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