Yom Ha’atzmaut and al-Nakba: Hardly have two words been more antithetical in their hopes and aspirations. The former Hebraic word denotes a national day that celebrates the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948 and the realisation of the Zionist dream. The latter Arabic word recalls the flight, expulsion, dispossession or displacement of 750,000 Palestinians from their villages, homes and properties upon the founding of the state of Israel and whose 7 million descendants today still cherish the hope of returning to the homes they lost 66 years ago.
And as historians have gradually gleaned from the archives, the Palestinian losses have been colossal. Readers can get a rough idea of the scale of Arab villages lost since Israel’s war of independence by simply clicking on this interactive link where a sequence of maps shows how hundreds of Arab villages and towns were abandoned, attacked and de-populated during Israel’s war of independence in 1948 and the concomitant Palestinian catastrophe.
However, the globalised village that our world has become today makes it easier to access those facts and refute the denial that any such wholesale expulsions took place. Zochrot is another Hebrew word that denotes “remembering” (or “memories” in Arabic), but it is also a new phone app that has been devised by a joint Israeli-Palestinian venture and takes people to all those villages and towns that were once Palestinian and have now either disappeared or have Jewish names to them. The key idea is to raise the Nakba to the awareness of the broad Israeli Jewish public.
Some 66 years ago, the world community decided to provide Jews with a national home that it carved out of a populated land called Palestine. In so doing, many rulers – both within the region itself and worldwide – pretended that the ensuing Palestinian problem was an ephemeral blip that was admittedly not a textbook outcome but one that could still correct itself.
But what happens when denial and recognition clash in two competing and mutually exclusive narratives? Is it a question of never the twain shall meet when Israeli officials continue to populate Palestinian lands with Jewish-only settlements that are illegal under international law and refuse point blank to consider a right of return for Palestinians to their ancient homes? Or conversely when Palestinians in all those refugee camps across the MENA region still romanticise their cause as one that is symbolised by the key to a door and a lemon tree in the garden?
Hollow sense of loss
Is one man’s meat truly another man’s poison? What can be done with the legitimate and hollow sense of loss felt by millions of Palestinians for their own homes, lands and villages versus the reality of another people living in those same lands and properties for well over six decades?
Much as a historical wrong was committed against one people, surely righting it can no longer be at the expense of traducing the reality of another people altogether?
This is where we stand in terms of this conflict in 2014: Does one right of return abnegate another, and does one reality obviate the other? Why is it for instance that any Jew anywhere in the world has the right to make aliyah (immigrate) to Israel – and earn considerable state subsidies in the process – while a Palestinian cannot have the same right?
Yet, if one were reasonably to expect all those Palestinian refugees and their descendants in the myriad refugee camps to return to their 1948 – and later also 1967 – lands, not only would the Jewish identity of Israel be forever compromised, there will simply be no geographical space for them to inhabit in those lands any more. After all, this is one argument used by those who dismiss the two-state solution in favour of a bi-national entity.
Here is where diplomacy and politics have to lock hands in negotiations – with large measures of good will and good faith that are both sorely absent today. This means that Israel has first and foremost to come clean that it contributed to the Palestinian refugee problem. Recognition of this travesty is not a remedy but rather a moral imperative and an ethical response to an egregious wrong that could pave the way for more pragmatic solutions to a seemingly intractable core problem between two peoples.
After all, many of those Palestinians – Christian or Muslim – feel as much aggrieved by the loss of their physical properties as they feel by the spoliation of their personal identities. Perhaps it is possible to absorb a number of refugees into Israel let alone help re-build some of those villages (like al-Wallaja) that have been deleted from the landscape today?
Perhaps it would also be possible to welcome many of those refugees into a nascent Palestinian state as much as offer some of them the choice to settle elsewhere? But none of those options are feasible unless the impregnable dam of official denial and the loitering sense of ostrich-like tactics exercised by Israeli politicians are replaced by a genuine attempt to meet the Nakba face on and refuse to relate to one man’s meat only through the receptacle of another man’s poison.
An ephemeral blip
Some 66 years ago, the West decided to provide Jews with a national home that it carved out of a populated land called Palestine. In so doing, many rulers – both within the region itself and worldwide – pretended that the ensuing Palestinian problem was an ephemeral blip that was admittedly not a textbook outcome but one that could still correct itself. So it merely turned its back on those homeless refugees, used them like showcases for their own purposes and fed some money into their accounts in order to assuage their consciences. As a result, we are left today with a bitter human legacy where 750,000 refugees have grown into 7 million.
But what I sadly fear today is that this same fickle world community is facilitating another “nakba” on the backs of well over 3 million Syrian refugees that also include Palestinians. Will all those refugees facing their own catastrophe be able to return to their homes, workplaces or camps amid the shifting boundaries of their brittle country? And if so, will they not find them wiped out or under the rubble too? Surely there is no doubt that this will inevitably leave a bitter legacy and an unanswerable political dilemma some decades down the historical timeline.
A poem by the late Ahmed Shawqi, an outstanding Arab poet laureate from Egypt, affirms that neither time nor space can truly sever the enduring nexus to one’s own homeland. Indeed, when I think of Palestine today, with all its ills, I cannot but think of Syria with all its ills too. But no, let me in fact correct myself and be more ontological: By thinking of Palestinians today and standing in solidarity with their hopes, I cannot but think of Syrians and stand in solidarity with their lives too.
Dr Harry Hagopian is a London-based international lawyer, political adviser and ecumenical consultant on the MENA region. He is also a second-track negotiator and works closely with European institutions.