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Nakba denial

Jun 05,2023 - Last updated at Jun 05,2023

Israel and its hardline supporters will go to great lengths to snuff out any recognition of Palestinian humanity. In their “acceptable narrative”, only Israelis are victims, experience loss, and have rights that must be acknowledged. Critics who question this narrative are silenced and/or demonised. And when Israel violates the rights of Palestinians, they deny, lie, and obfuscate what actually occurred. The Israelis will say: It didn’t happen. If it did happen, we weren’t responsible. Maybe it happened, maybe not, but we didn’t do it and blaming us is a ‘blood libel’.”

The classic example of this approach is the nightmarish events that resulted in the Nakba.

The first thing to know about the Nakba is that it did happen. Palestinian victims provided contemporaneous eyewitness accounts. Israeli military and political archives contain detailed reports by the plan’s designers and executers, as Yigal Allon noted, to clean the upper Galilee and create territorial Jewish continuity.’

To accomplish this goal, Israeli forces used forced expulsions and killed civilians to terrorise others into leaving, ultimately uprooting 700,000 Palestinians. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, called it a double miracle a state that was larger and more Jewish. Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, praised it as a “miraculous cleaning of the land”.

The Israelis denied massacres had happened or their forces had terrorized and evicted civilians. Victim testimonies were ignored and investigations by international entities were dismissed as biased. If that failed, the Israelis countered that Arabs fled because their leaders ordered them to, to clear the path for the “invading Arab armies”. Denied, lied, and then obfuscated.

In 1971, I experienced my first immersion into the Nakba reality. Travelling to Lebanon and Jordan on a grant to collect the stories of Palestinian refugees only 23 years after the expulsions, I interviewed many with vivid memories of the horrors they experienced, personal, detailed and compelling.

Shortly thereafter I had my first experience of Nakba denial. Upon my return, I wrote about what I had learned. A university dean wrote a letter to the editor, denouncing my work as an example of “neo-Nazi, neo-Bolshevik, antisemitism”. When I was invited to speak about the articles, some audience-members responded with violent rejection.

A representative of the group that had invited me explained the hostile reaction: They’ve been conditioned to see Palestinians as objects. By making them see Palestinians as real people, you threatened that denial that protects them from acknowledging Israeli culpability.’

This same dynamic of denial is still at work today.

A Palestinian-American member of Congress, planned to host a Nakba commemorative event on May 10 at the Capitol Visitors Center, featuring Palestinians who lived through it and Palestinian historians. A major American Jewish organisation wrote to the Speaker of the House of Representatives objecting to the event.

Speaker McCarthy responded that the event “almost feels like” antisemitism and pledged that ‘I will never allow it to happen in this body. He withdrew permission for the venue, forcing the Nakba event organisers to seek another space. McCarthy then used the venue from which he had evicted the Palestinians to host an Israel Independence celebration, apparently missing the irony.

In November 2022, after the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution commemorating the Nakba, the Palestinians began planning a Nakba commemoration at UN headquarters. In response, the Israeli delegation called for a boycott and pressured member-states to avoid participation. In a letter to the other delegations, the Israeli Ambassador called the Nakba a “distortion of history” and a “horrifying falsification” that fed into “Jew-hatred” and antisemitism. The planned UN event was called “shameful” and “despicable”.

Israel and its supporters use extreme language to silence critics and Palestinians, to deny an uncomfortable reality and in desperation over losing the battle of narratives. They signify growing panic with their insistence that criticising Israel is tantamount to antisemitism, saying critics single Israel out for criticism. In fact, these Israeli apologists are insisting that Israel is the one country that can’t be criticised and, in the process, denying Palestinians the right to tell their story and have their humanity recognized. That is racism and it’s at the root of Nakba denial.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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