Gottfried Hutter
Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts

Naqba – how a new interpretation of facts on both sides can create a reality in which both sides become winners

The experience of grave injustice can easily be the beginning of a long road of calamity. Something of that kind, it seems, has occurred in the Middle East when the Palestinians, in 1947, were expected to share their country with the Jews, not by accepting them as fellow citizens, but by surrendering to them a part of their country. – After their experience of centuries of Ottoman hegemony and Western colonialism such a demand seemed like pure impertinence.  They refused their consent from the very outset in 1917, when the British Foreign Secretary Balfour declared the approval of the United Kingdom for setting up a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

Today, 99 years after that declaration the Palestinian administration explicitly condemns the British project as “criminal” and “colonialist”, and is demanding reparations.

To many Westerners that Palestinian statement may sound crass. To my mind it is not surprising. Thinking of the special relationship of the Jews with that country, I can understand the outrage.

If the Jews were allowed to build their own state in and around Jerusalem, it was to be expected that they would, sooner or later, question the legitimacy of one of the most important Muslim shrines, Al Haram ash Sharif, since it was built – more than 1300 years ago – on the site of the ancient Temple of the Jews. That, I believe, Muslims could not accept. Mainly for this reason they did not want to accept a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It called their very identity into question.

And today, with the State of Israel already existing for seven decades, it is indeed only the peace agreement with Jordan that is preventing this question from being on the agenda, because in this treaty it was agreed that the Holy Mount with the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque is a purely Muslim shrine and that, while Jews do have the right to visit the mount as tourists, they do not have the right to pray there.

But the numbers of Jews who no longer feel subject to this “status quo” are increasing; they are praying on their Temple Mount anyway; and thus we are getting closer to the day when this question could lead to open conflict.

In this connection, the Mufti of Palestine, Sheikh Muhammad Ahmad Hussein, on 25. October 2016 stated again on Israeli TV that there never had been a Jewish Temple at that site.

All of these problems were already foreseeable in 1947, when the United Nations wanted to divide Palestine in order to give the Jews a national home in their onetime homeland – 30 years after the Balfour Declaration, but now with the terrible wounds of the Holocaust quite fresh.

But when the UN pleaded with the neighbors of Palestine to agree to the division of the country and to make their suggestions, the neighbors refused. Obviously, they were not able to feel empathy for the Jews, neither could they see that in the wake of two World Wars similar demands had been imposed in many places. In other areas most of the peoples accepted these decisions as inevitable, but the neighbors of Palestine did not seem to be able to do that. They were determined to fight against that division.

Their fight against this UN imposition has finally led to a series of events which the Palestinians today call the “Naqba”, the “disaster”. One might even say, that this fight caused the disaster, because, had the Arab States in 1947 responded differently when the UN asked them to contribute to setting up a home for the Jews in Palestine, had the Arab states cooperated with the UN – at a time when the major powers had already decided upon this project with or without Arab consent – then the war of 1947/48 would not have taken place. And without that war nobody would have had to flee from Palestine, because then the entire matter would have been resolved on a basis of negotiations.

But in the minds of the mostly Muslim neighbors, who at that time spoke for the Palestinians, there was no way to yield to the request for a home for the Jews on this territory – even if it cost the lives of countless people. One of the reasons for their refusal surely was that the colonialists had supported the Zionist immigration. But, in my view, their refusal was based mainly on old religious convictions and claims:

Only the Palestinians had a right to this country, for this was not Jewish, but Muslim Holy Ground. After 2,000 years of absence, Jews could assert no claims to their former biblical homeland. The mostly Muslim neighbors had no room in their minds for any alternative view, and that included the view of the UN. To them rejection of the UN request seemed absolutely self-evident, it filled the entire range of their perception – and even today this reasoning determines the perception of most people in the Muslim world. Only recently the Iranian government confirmed its intention to destroy the State of Israel. In 1947 such a view could, of course, not permit cooperation with the UN.

War and Naqba were the result. The immeasurable suffering that arose from that has continued to this day.

In theory, in 1947, the behavior of the Christians in the year 638 could have served as a role model for the Muslims. In 638 Jerusalem was the capital city of Christendom – being the place of the work, the death and the resurrection of Jesus. But the emperor of Byzantium was no longer able to withstand the Muslim onslaught. And the Christians wanted to avoid any bloodshed. Thus they handed over Jerusalem to the Muslims peacefully – without labeling the Muslim conquest as a “crime” nor as “colonialism” – even though that was in fact the onset of the Muslim colonization of the entire Christian world south of Constantinople and the Pyrenees.

Had the Muslim neighbors in 1947 followed the Christian example of 638 they could have transferred one part of Palestine peacefully to a Jewish administration. Not only would they have avoided bloodshed, they would have had the right of co-determining how the country was to be divided. The convictions they held did not allow them to do that. Their convictions compelled them to fight. But their fight was not successful, on the contrary, it led to their defeat and thus to the flight and the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, about half of the population, and to the Jewish occupation of an area still larger than the UN had foreseen for the Jews. Hence the Palestinian name “the disaster”, “Naqba”.

Everything began with the distress of European Jews, specifically the pogroms in 19th century Russia, just when the idea of nationalism was at its peak. The solution, in order to meet the recurrent risk of persecution, was seen as the creation of a state for the Jewish nation. Several areas were considered including areas in Uganda and Argentina. But the old biblical homeland was given priority – and that choice was favored by historical circumstances, because back then Palestine was one of the territories of the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire was about to be dissolved, since it was on the losing side of the First World War.

Quite a few of the changes resulting from that war were completely arbitrary; in many areas they included brutal shifts of borders and the relocation of populations. 1.2 million Greeks, for instance, were relocated from their land in present-day Turkey to the European mainland without any possibility to object. Thus, the inconveniences which the affected people in Palestine would have had to expect were by no means worse than those suffered by populations in many other regions.

The main difference between the planned division of Palestine and border shifts in other areas at that time was the unique religious sensitivity of the area for both Muslims and Jews. It made the intended division appear as absolutely unacceptable to the Muslims. Therefore, the neighbors refused to cooperate with the UN.

For the Jews, however, the scars of the Holocaust were still vividly present in 1947; to them this refusal meant an absolutely unacceptable existential threat.

The Jews were thus firmly committed to defend their part of Palestine and their new state by all means. Hence, everything had to unfold as it did after the UN divided the country: the war of the neighbors against the planned Jewish partition, the proclamation of the State of Israel, the flight and expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, the “Naqba”, an unsatisfactory ceasefire, continued threats against the new Israel leading to the 1967 war, the occupation of the entire West Bank by Israel, ultimately disappointed hopes placed on the Oslo peace process, the murder of Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, two Intifadas, the construction of the wall with its vexatious check-points, the constant expansion of Jewish settlements, etc.

The Palestinians saw – and see – the Israelis as the sole cause of their sufferings.

Yet, the Palestinians could perhaps today find release from all these burdens – 100 years after the Balfour Declaration, with its demand for a home for the Jewish people in Palestine, if they could, for the first time, reconsider, the UN demand of 1947 and the concrete political possibilities it entailed.

Just now, with the geopolitical upheavals in the world and in the entire region, and last but not least, with the declaration of Israeli intellectuals of September 2016, urging their government – in Israel’s interest – to withdraw from all occupied territories, a new chance is opening up. However, a real withdrawal will be possible only if the parties identifying with the Palestinian cause are now willing to recognize Israel as the home of the Jews, as the Balfour Declaration had intended, and also to permit appropriate international guarantees, because only this will give the Israelis the security they will need to enable their government to give the Palestinians their independence.

With that, of course, the original injustice suffered by the Palestinian people, the division of their country, will not be undone! To address that injustice a process of reconciliation will have to be initiated. Appropriate measures of compensation will have to be taken. Yet a retroactive acceptance will open up opportunities that will enable the Palestinians to put their sufferings behind them.

Initially, they will have to accept two states in Palestine, just as the UN had demanded. But could one of them be a Jewish state?

That is precisely the question that has caused all peace negotiations fail to this day – most spectacularly that at Camp David in 2000, when agreement had been reached that Jerusalem was to be the joint capital of Palestine and Israel. Only the Western Wall was to be granted to the Jews! And yet Arafat could only respond: if I will sign this today, I will be a dead man tomorrow. Why?

In my eyes, as has already been said, one of the causes is to be found in religious competition, because for the past 1,300 years one of the most important Muslim shrines has occupied the space once occupied by the Temple of the Jews. And twice a day Jews pray to be allowed to rebuild their Temple in their lifetime. And that aspiration raises fear on the Muslim side.

A solution will thus be possible only if some fundamental change could occur in their system of convictions — perhaps a change similar to the one which occurred in the belief system of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council when, for the first time, it became possible for Catholics to attribute autonomous validity to other faiths.

Muslims have already taken two steps in this direction.

The first one was a request from the House of the Jordanian King, formulated in the letter “A Common Word,” authored by the Jordanian Prince Ghazi, and supported by many of the highest religious scholars of the entire realm of Islam. The letter asked, in interreligious dialogue, to relate to the one word, which is common to both faiths: “love.” The letter was intended as a response to a speech by Pope Benedict XVI, who had made a connection between the religion of Islam and the sword.

The second step was a visit by the Imam of the Al Azhar University, which is acknowledged as the highest teaching authority in Sunni Islam, to Pope Francis. Thus, the Imam of the Al Azhar addressed, at least indirectly, the changes the Second Vatican Council had brought to the Catholic Church.

Still missing until now, despite these steps, is the dearly needed admission of one central fact: recognition that the great “Noble” Shrine, Al Haram ash Sharif in Jerusalem was built on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, which had been destroyed by the Romans.

That recognition could break the spell that still holds the Palestinians in its thrall.

After that it will be only natural — given Islamic Mercy — that the Muslims should allow the Jews at first to pray on the site of their former Temple and then to adopt an agreement entailing at least temporary sharing of the site, namely, pending Jewish clarification whether there is to be a New Jewish Temple, and if yes, where it is to be built.

Jewish respect and mercy will of course guarantee that its construction will in no way endanger the Muslim sanctuaries.

At that point, peace between Palestinians and Israelis will arise everywhere – whether in one or in two states.

About the Author
Gottfried Hutter is a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts, studied Catholic theology, history and political science in Salzburg, Austria. For five years he lived in the US. Insights there enabled him to meet a highly respected Sufi Master. One year with him in Egypt confirmed his understanding of the basic unity of all religions. He became a psychotherapist. Today he mentors severely traumatized Muslim refugees from the Middle East. 9/11 provided the idea and impetus to write this book: 100 Years of Middle East Conflict. HONORABLE PEACE. How Can Lasting Peace be Secured between the Muslim World and Israel?