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Daniel G. Saunders

Deconstructing the Naqba Narrative

I was talking to my parents about something unrelated to Israel. The TV news was on in the background. Earlier in the evening, right after Shabbat, we had seen that Hamas had delayed (at that time, totally prevented) the release of Israeli hostages on a pretext. This type of behaviour was predictable. While I was talking, a journalist on Sky News was interviewing the pro-Palestinian (anti-Israel) march in London. They did not show the antisemitic banners, and other offensive banners, that can be seen on The Daily Telegraph’s reporting of the march. They were trying to make it seem calm and humanitarian, not a bed of antisemitism.

The journalist spoke to a smug-sounding middle aged Muslim man. “We are just marching to save lives. Who could disagree with that?” he asked, rhetorically. At which point, I totally lost control and, despite being in a totally unrelated conversation, I bellowed, “BECAUSE YOU DON’T CARE ABOUT THE BLOODY HOSTAGES!” My Mum jumped about a foot in the air. I think both my parents thought I had shouted at them. I apologised profusely.

I am not proud of this. I am not an angry person, nor a shouty or sweary person. Like Rambam (Maimonides), I think we should try not to feel anger and never to act on it, though it is sometimes necessary to feign anger to convince people how serious something is (perhaps we as Jews need to take Rambam’s advice when talking to the media). But I was just so upset about what has happened over the last seven weeks and how sane, rational people in the West (most journalists, except the most conservative, it seems) can be taken in by Hamas’ propaganda, that I momentary lost control.

After seven weeks of this, I really have no sympathy for Palestinians any more, even those with no connection to Hamas just caught up in the conflict (which, as I’ve said previously, is fewer than the Western media presents). Even the children get a cursory bit of empathy for me now. Not my problem. I’m sorry, but they’re not. They’re Hamas’ responsibility. I did care about them in previous conflicts. I had some empathy for “ordinary Palestinians” on 6 October. No more.

If Hamas’ aim was to polarise everyone around this conflict, then they’ve succeeded. A different Sky News reporter said to him today that a Palestinian woman said that the unborn embryos in the wombs of Palestinian women will be Hamas supporters. The reporter did not draw from this the conclusion of how much the Palestinians gear their society around terrorism and violence and have death while killing Jews as their highest aim for their children. I think he just repeated the usual platitudes about the cycle of violence.

For Israel, the conflict has always been about politics, about territory that can be conceded for a compromise peace deal. This was how I saw the conflict. I supported Oslo, I supported land for peace. Doesn’t everyone want peace, deep down? We don’t need the whole of biblical Israel. Only a fringe of Religious Zionists saw it as about religion.

But I realise now that the perspective of many Israelis and diaspora Jews circa 1993, my perspective, has failed and will always fail, because for the Palestinians, and the Muslim world in general, this is not about politics, territory or even, in the usually understood sense, religion (in terms of dogma and practice). It is about identity, about an Islamist (or possibly Islamic) identity posited on the inherent superiority of Muslims, especially Arabs (Asian Muslims are not seen in so positive a way, African Muslims even less so) and the inherent inferiority of Jews, “al-Yahud,” seen as weak, cowardly and treacherous. For “brave, strong” Arab Muslims to be repeatedly bested by “weak, cowardly” Jews, and for those Jews to occupy Muslim land once held by Mohammed’s heirs, is an unbearable shame and dishonour to the Arab and Islamic world and one that can only be expunged in Jewish blood, buckets and buckets of it.

According to the Palestinians, this is all about their “Naqba,” their dispossession from their homes in 1948. Newsflash: it didn’t have to happen. If the Arab world had agreed to the UN Partition plan, they would have had a state of their own alongside the Jewish state and communities in the Jewish State. No one would have had to lose their homes. But this wasn’t enough for them. They wanted, and they still want, it all. So they fought against the nascent Israeli state and lost and in the process a lot of people were displaced, as tragically always happens in wars, particularly when civilians support combatants, as happened in 1948, and particularly when other civilians followed the Arab leadership’s request for them to get out of the way for a few weeks so they could kill the Jews, as also happened. And, yes, maybe some were displaced illegally by Israelis. We’ll probably never know for sure about any of this.

But hundreds of thousands of Jews were certainly expelled illegally from their homes across the Middle East around the same time (ignoring the Jews expelled by Palestinians from their homes in earlier incidents like the Hevron (Hebron) Massacre of 1929, when 67 Jews were killed by Palestinian rioters, resulting in the end of a community that had existed there for thousands of years, before Zionism and before the Palestinians lived in the area). Literally millions of Hindus and Muslims lost their homes in the violence around the Partition of India the year before Israeli independence. Millions of ethnic Germans and Poles lost their homes after World War II as boundaries were redrawn and they were expelled to avoid an ethnic minority presence among an otherwise ethnically homogenous state, which was assumed to cause wars. These were not Nazis, but communities that had existed in Eastern Europe for centuries, but happened to speak German. Millions of Jews lost their homes in the Holocaust (and no, before you ask, they don’t want to go back to somewhere where they weren’t indigenous and where their neighbours tried to kill them).

We are not still dealing with refugees from these conflicts, because these people dealt with it. Some, like the Jews, were lucky enough to have people who felt responsible for them and resettled them quickly. The Palestinians, sadly, become pawns in power politics for the Arab world, in their effort to wipe out the shame and dishonour of defeat by al-Yahud. Soon, the Arabs became allied to the Soviet Union, and a whole extra layer of Cold War power politics and geopolitical chess playing became involved (the USSR backed the Arabs long before the USA backed Israel, again contrary to common understanding).

The result was that the Palestinians were not treated like other refugees. UNHCR, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, deals with all refugee situations in the world bar one (guess which one?). It has strict rules for refugees. They must either return home or be resettled in a safe country. There is no option to be a refugee indefinitely. Only those displaced from a country are considered refugees. Their descendents are not.

UNWRA, The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East, does not resettle Palestinian refugees. It has no mandate from the UN to do so. Nor does it restrict refugee status to those who were actually displaced. Any descendent of a displaced Palestinian is eligible to be considered a refugee, hence the existence of people who have lived in the same place all their life, but who consider themselves refugees because their parents, grand-parents or even great-grandparents were refugees. The number of Palestinian “refugees” has sky-rocketed since 1970, the result of this policy, combined with a high Palestinian birth rate, rising life expectancy and falling infant mortality under Israeli “Occupation” (yes, really). If this model was adopted more widely, most Jews alive today would be able to consider themselves refugees.

Similarly, of the Arab states, only Jordan allows Palestinians to apply for citizenship. The Arab world wants the Palestinians to be refugees, existing on the margins of society, as a weapon against Israel. They care about the Palestinians rather less than the West does.

The result: cities made of concrete buildings that are full of people who were born there to parents who were born there, but which are considered “refugee camps.”

The Palestinians have never taken ownership of what happened to them. While Jews endlessly pore over the morality of their actions from 1948 onwards, agonising over every imperfect decision, however justified, the Palestinians have dumped all the blame for what happened to them on the hated al-Yahud. End of story. The world has enabled them to do this.

For the Western world, the Palestinians became something else. Slowly, the West has come to use the conflict between Jews and Palestinians as a kind of screen on which they can project all their guilt about centuries of empire, racism and antisemitism and absolve themselves of it. The Jews are transformed into the West’s uneasy conscience, re-imagined as settler-colonists, imperialists and war criminals in the model of the West’s nastiest episodes. Hence all the references to Israel as a “Nazi, apartheid, settler-colonialist state.”

For this to work, the Palestinians had to be re-imagined in turn as the perpetually innocent victims who can do no wrong. No wonder so many in the West now think that “Jesus was a Palestinian.” Senior Hamas figure Ghazi Hamad recently said, “We are the victims… therefore nobody should blame us for the things we do.” Many in the West take him at his word. The violence that the West fears should be directed against itself by those it wronged elsewhere in the world is directed against the Jews by the Palestinians. By siding with the Palestinians, the West gains a vicarious release. “This time, we are on the right side of history!” “Decolonisation!” “Resistance! Exhilarating!” Of course, for many there’s unconscious current antisemitism here too. “How dare those Jews survive all those pogroms and Holocausts. Now they’ll pay! Then we won’t have to think about them, and our guilt, ever again.”

Until the West understands this, it will go on misunderstanding the Middle East. Until we Jews understand this fully (and I only fully understand it now, after years of reading about the conflict), we will fail to take the appropriate action to protect ourselves. Until the world reforms UNWRA, stops letting aid money and resources be used for terrorism and especially until it ends the Naqba culture of Palestinian blame and dependency and makes the Palestinians take responsibility for their lives and their history, the conflict will never end.

About the Author
Daniel Saunders is an office administrator, proofreader and copy editor living in London with his wife. He has a BA in Modern History from the University of Oxford and an MA in Library and Information Management.
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