Nakba, shmakba

We keep hearing that the Palestinians ‘yearn for a state’, they ‘deserve’ a state, their ‘plight’ is ‘unsustainable’, and so on. President Obama even went so far as to compare it to the Holocaust in his 2009 Cairo speech:

Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust…

On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation. Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.

What is implicit here is the nakba myth: that a flowering Palestinian civilization was invaded by European Jews who forcibly dispossessed them from their homes and made refugees of them. Ever since then, they yearn for ‘justice’ in the form of return.

The nakba myth is what gives legitimacy to those like the President who argue that Israel must be pressured to imperil its own security to create a Palestinian state, because ‘it’s the right thing to do’ for the Palestinian Arabs.

It is called upon to ‘explain’ or even justify Arab ‘resistance’, from ‘nonviolent’ attempts to vandalize the security fence to launching rockets at random into civilian areas, to firing antitank missiles at yellow school buses, to slitting the throats of 3-month old babies.

The nakba myth is what underlies the Palestinian refusal to recognize a Jewish state — they believe that it belongs to them. The national identity of the ‘Palestinian people’ is as closely connected to the nakba myth as that of Americans is to our Revolutionary War.

But the myth is false in very significant ways:

  1. The Zionists did not dispossess the local Arabs, forcibly or otherwise, before 1948
  2. Zionist development of the land of Israel actually caused an increase in the number and prosperity of local Arabs
  3. The exodus of Arabs from what would become Israel in 1947-48 was forcible in only in a few cases — and overall due to the decisions of their leaders and Arab neighbors

It’s also true that the Arabs practiced ethnic cleansing of Jews in eastern Jerusalem and Judea/Samaria before and during the War of Independence, and that more Jews fled Arab countries during and after the war than Arabs left Israel, but we can leave this aside for now and concentrate on the nakba.

The area that is now Israel was home to less than 200,000 Arabs and somewhat fewer Jews (who lived in places like Jerusalem, Tzfat and Hebron) when Zionist immigration began in the 1880’s.  Did the Zionists forcibly dispossess the Arabs? In an article entitled “Not Stealing Palestine but Purchasing Israel,” Daniel Pipes writes,

In Jerusalem Besieged: From Ancient Canaan to Modern Israel, Eric H. Cline writes of Jerusalem: “No other city has been more bitterly fought over throughout its history” … The PA fantasizes that today’s Palestinians are descended from a tribe of ancient Canaan, the Jebusites; in fact, but they are overwhelmingly the off-spring of invaders and immigrants seeking economic opportunities. Against this tableau of unceasing conquest, violence, and overthrow, Zionist efforts to build a presence in the Holy Land until 1948 stand out as astonishingly mild, as mercantile rather than military. Two great empires, the Ottomans and the British, ruled Eretz Yisrael; in contrast, Zionists lacked military power. They could not possibly achieve statehood through conquest.

Instead, they purchased land. Acquiring property dunam by dunam, farm by farm, house by house, lay at the heart of the Zionist enterprise until 1948. The Jewish National Fund, founded in 1901 to buy land in Palestine “to assist in the foundation of a new community of free Jews engaged in active and peaceable industry,” was the key institution – and not the Haganah, the clandestine defense organization founded in 1920…

Only when the British mandatory power gave up on Palestine in 1948, followed immediately by an all-out attempt by Arab states to crush and expel the Zionists, did the latter take up the sword in self defense and go on to win land through military conquest. Even then, as the historian Efraim Karsh demonstrates in Palestine Betrayed, most Arabs fled their lands; exceedingly few were forced off.

This history contradicts the Palestinian account that “Zionist gangs stole Palestine and expelled its people” which led to a catastrophe “unprecedented in history” (according to a PA 12th-grade textbook) or that Zionists “plundered the Palestinian land and national interests, and established their state upon the ruins of the Palestinian Arab people” (writes a columnist in the PA’s daily). International organizations, newspaper editorials, and faculty petitions reiterate this falsehood worldwide.

The population of Native Americans declined drastically with European immigration into the New World, but what happened to the Arabs of Palestine as a result of the Zionist ‘invasion’? From about 200,000 in 1890, the Arab population of what would become Israel rose to almost 1.3 million in 1947 (see “MidEast Web: Population of Ottoman and Mandate Palestine“)! This fact alone refutes claims of violent dispossession.

Indeed, it was the opposite. George Gilder explains what happened (Gilder: The Economics of Settlement):

In ancient times, as [Walter Lowdermilk, an American soil expert] knew, Palestine was largely self-sufficient, with a population of millions. Replete with forests, teeming with sheep and goats, full of farms and wineries, the landscape evoked a European plenitude. By 1939, however, when Lowdermilk arrived in the area, it was largely an environmental disaster. As he recounted in his 1944 book, Palestine, Land of Promise, “when Jewish colonists first began their work in 1882…the soils were eroded off the uplands to bedrock over fully one half the hills; streams across the coastal plain were choked with erosional debris from the hills to form pestilential marshes infested with dreaded malaria; the fair cities and elaborate works of ancient times were left in doleful ruins.” In the late 19th century around the current Tel Aviv, Lowdermilk was told, “no more than 100 miserable families lived in huts.” Jericho, once luxuriantly shaded by balsams, was treeless.

What amazed Lowdermilk, though — and changed his life — was not the 1,000 years of deterioration but the some 50 years of reclamation of both the highlands and the lowlands by relatively small groups of Jewish settlers. As one of many examples of valley reclamation, he tells the story of the settlement of Petah Tikva, established by Jews from Jerusalem in 1878, in defiance of warnings from physicians who saw the area outside what is now Tel Aviv as hopelessly infested with malarial mosquitoes. After initial failures and retreats, Petah Tikva became “the first settlement to conquer the deadly foe of malaria,” by “planting Eucalyptus [locally known as ‘Jew trees’] in the swamps to absorb the moisture,” draining other swamps, importing large quantities of quinine, and developing rich agriculture and citriculture …

In draining swamps, leaching saline soils, redeeming dunes into orchards and poultry farms, in planting millions of trees on rocky hills, in constructing elaborate water works and terraces on the hills, in digging 548 wells and supporting canals in little more than a decade and irrigating thousands of acres of land, establishing industries, hospitals, clinics, and schools, the 500,000 Jewish settlers who arrived before the creation of Israel massively expanded the very absorptive dimensions and capacity of the country. It was these advances that made possible the fivefold 20th-century surge of the Arab population by 1940.

There’s one more chapter to this story. In 1948, Israel became independent, and somewhere between 600,000 and 650,000 Arabs fled, to become the ancestors of the 4.5 million who today claim refugee status (Palestinian refugee status is the only such status recognized by the UN as hereditary) and who are slavering at the gates of Israel demanding to ‘return’ and take what is ‘theirs’.

But in fact only residents of a few Arab villages, mostly those on the Tel-Aviv — Jerusalem Road, from which attacks were launched against convoys supplying besieged Jerusalem, were removed by force. Most left in fear that they would be caught up in fighting or massacred (although actual massacres of civilians by Jews were almost nonexistent — another story), and in many cases were encouraged to leave by their own leadership. Here is how Efraim Karsh describes it (Karsh: Reclaiming a Historical Truth):

While most Palestinian Arabs needed little encouragement to take to the road, large numbers of them were driven from their homes by their own leaders and/or the “Arab Liberation Army” that had entered Palestine prior to the end of the Mandate, whether out of military considerations or in order to prevent them from becoming citizens of the prospective Jewish state. Of this there is an overwhelming and incontrovertible body of contemporary evidence – intelligence briefs, captured Arab documents, press reports, personal testimonies and memoirs, and so on and so forth.

In the largest and best-known example of Arab-instigated exodus, tens of thousands of Arabs were ordered or bullied into leaving the city of Haifa (on April 21-22 ) on the instructions of the Arab Higher Committee, the effective “government” of the Palestinian Arabs. Only days earlier, Tiberias’ 6,000-strong Arab community had been similarly forced out by its own leaders, against local Jewish wishes (a fortnight after the exodus, Sir Alan Cunningham, the last British high commissioner of Palestine, reported that the Tiberias Jews “would welcome [the] Arabs back” ). In Jaffa, Palestine’s largest Arab city, the municipality organized the transfer of thousands of residents by land and sea; in Jerusalem, the AHC ordered the transfer of women and children, and local gang leaders pushed out residents of several neighborhoods, while in Beisan the women and children were ordered out as Transjordan’s Arab Legion dug in.

[Shlomo] Avineri mentions the strenuous Jewish efforts to persuade the Haifa Arabs to stay but not the AHC’s order to leave – which was passed on to the local leadership by phone and secretly recorded by the Haganah. Nor does he note the well-documented efforts of Haifa’s Arab leadership to scaremonger their hapless constituents, reluctant in the extreme to leave, into fleeing. Some Arab residents received written threats that, unless they left town, they would be branded as traitors deserving of death. Others were told they could expect no mercy from the Jews…

Nor was this phenomenon confined to Palestinian cities. The deliberate depopulation of Arab villages too, and their transformation into military strongholds was a hallmark of the Arab campaign from the onset of hostilities…

War is Hell, as much or more so for civilians as soldiers, but a great deal of the Hell that characterized the experience of the Arabs of Palestine was of their own making or that of their Arab neighbors. Very little was the responsibility  of the Jews, who ought not to be asked to pay the price for it.

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