By Rami G. Khouri
Daily Star staff
Here's a little event that may have big implications. The Israeli
Education Ministry has approved a textbook for Arab third-graders in Israel that for the first time describes the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as a "catastrophe" for the indigenous Palestinians and their society. The Palestinians have always referred to 1948 as the "Nakba," or a
catastrophic national shattering, dispersal, exile, occupation and disenfranchisement.
This may be the first ever tangible sign that the Israeli establishment is prepared to move in the direction of acknowledging what happened to the Palestinians in 1948, which is a vital Palestinian demand for any serious peace-making effort to succeed. Israelis in turn would expect a reciprocal Palestinian acknowledgment of Israel's core narrative in due course.
The new textbook states that the "Arabs call the war the Nakba, a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation, and the Jews call it the Independence war." It adds that, "some of the Palestinians fled and some were expelled following the War of Independence," and that "many Arab-owned lands were confiscated."
Unfortunately, the official textbook for Jewish Israelis in the same grade does not offer this Arab view, but sticks to the Israeli version of 1948 history as a moment of Jewish valor and national rebirth. Yet the new Arabic text may be significant if it reflects an Israeli capacity to become more historically honest and sensitive to the legitimate political rights of their Palestinian foes.
The facts of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 are quite well documented now by Israeli, Arab and foreign historians. Something like 750,000 Palestinians (about half the population) were driven out of or fled their homes and lands in 1948, for various reasons. Those refugees now number over 4.5 million.
One of the biggest debates on 1948 involves motives. The Palestinian view is that Zionist leaders and militias implemented a pre-planned ethnic cleansing campaign to systematically drive out the Palestinians in order to make room for a Jewish state. Israelis argue that Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave so that Arab armies could attack the Jewish forces, or that Jewish attacks on Arabs were only in self-defense.
Much of this debate has been resolved by respected scholars. The most recent and complete treatment of this issue is a book by the Israeli historian and University of Haifa lecturer Ilan Pappe, entitled,
appropriately: "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine." Using mostly Israeli official sources, Pappe recounts the entire process that started in the minds of pre-state Zionist leaders who knew they would have to forcibly expel the Palestinians to create a Jewish state in Palestine. That's because in 1948 the Jewish minority in Palestine owned just 5.8 percent of the land. Pappe describes in detail the planning before 1948 - including the preparation of files on every Arab village and its inhabitants - that would allow the Jewish militias in 1947-1948 to attack, terrorize and drive out Palestinians as soon as the British Mandate formally ended.
Pappe goes through the details of Plan Dalet, "the blueprint for ethnic cleansing," and shows how Israeli forces worked systematically in every part of the land to attack, frighten, and expel the Palestinians, in order to secure the land for Jewish colonies and settlers. The historical details he provides are chilling, and worthy of serious discussion to understand exactly what happened in 1947-1948. The Zionist attacks against Arabs started well before the May 1948 end of the mandate. The first Jewish militia attacks to terrorize Palestinians into fleeing came in December 1947, against Deir Ayyub and Beit Affa in the central plain.
The main mission to drive out as many Palestinians as possible was formally approved by Zionist leaders on March 10, 1948. When it ended six months later, he says, some 800,000 Palestinians had been uprooted, 531 villages destroyed, and 11 urban neighborhoods in cities emptied of their inhabitants. Pappe concludes that the plan and its systematic
implementation "was a clear-cut case of an ethnic cleansing operation, regarded under international law today as a crime against humanity."
Many Israelis will challenge Pappe's account. Such a process should ideally spark honest, comprehensive analysis that could lead us to an accurate narrative of what happened in 1947-1948 - accurate for both sides, if it is to have meaning for either side.
An Israeli official textbook for Palestinian third-graders that fleetingly acknowledges the Palestinian trauma of exile and occupation in 1948 is an intriguing sign of something that remains largely unclear. This something seems worth exploring, and reciprocating, if it indicates a capacity to move toward the elusive shared, accurate, truthful account of Israeli and Palestinian history that must anchor any progress toward a negotiated peace.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice-weekly by THE DAILY STAR.
Copyright (c) 2007 The Daily Star