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Tlaib’s Nakba Bill Is Inherently Revisionist and Antisemitic

On May 17, Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent and part of a group of ‘progressive’ Congresswomen dubbed “Squad”, announced she would introduce a congressional bill for the United States to recognise the Nakba, cosponsored by AOC, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, Marie Newman, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush. Nowadays, the Nakba is defined as the exile of 700,000 Palestinians before and during Israel’s Independence War in 1948. Before and during that war, Israeli forces expelled thousands of Palestinians. The war was started by the Arab League with the outspoken and stated goal of ethnically cleansing Jews from the area. The notion of “Nakba”, which means catastrophe in Arabic, coined by Constantin Zureiq, who, in his pamphlet, The Meaning of the Disaster, used the term to describe the Arab failure to annihilate the nascent State of Israel. The term Nakba was used again to describe the Arabs’ loss in 1967; it was used to describe self-inflicted wounds. In the late 1980s, after decades of intense anti-Zionist and antisemitic Soviet propaganda, the Nakba started being depicted as caused solely by Israel, a view now largely upheld, and yet totally inaccurate and ahistorical. Some scholars also argue that the term was coined before Zureiq, by George Antonius who, in 1920, 28 years before Israel’s creation, to describe the widespread anger amongst Palestinian Arabs, who were unhappy with the way the Near East had been partitioned by French and British colonisers; Palestine was under British jurisdiction, but modern-day Syria was under French jurisdiction; at the time, the Arabs of Palestine identified as Syrian, and saw this separation as a catastrophe (Aam An-Nakba, as Antonius wrote). 

Back to the bill. In her press release, Tlaib repeatedly claims that the ‘right of return’ of Palestinians is enshrined in international law. To back her claim, she invokes UN Resolution 194 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

What she, and her cosponsors (AOC, Ilhan Omar, Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and others), seem to conveniently forget, is both that UN Resolutions are non-binding and they are not settled law, and also the fact that the Arabs, including the Palestinians, rejected UN Resolution 194. Furthermore, nothing in the UDHR protects a “right of return”; indeed, further in the bill, she asserts that Article 13 of this Declaration provides a right of return, in this case for Palestinian refugees. That is inaccurate and it shows a clear misinterpretation of this article; Palestinian refugees from 1948 were not Israeli citizens, and their right to “leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country” does not exist. Even if we consider that Palestinians who left or were expelled from the territory that became Israel have a right to return under this article, that would mean that they would have to recognise Israel as a country, that the widespread Palestinian narrative that Palestinians are stateless would have to be ended (if they are stateless, Article 13 doesn’t apply to them at all). Moreover, the claim that descendants of refugees also have a right of return, which is defended by UNRWA, is an inanity and is a concept created for Palestinian refugees and a concept exclusively and singularly applied to Palestinians.  

It is also important to remember that Israel has taken steps to resolve the refugee issue times and times again, notably by giving citizenship to some 130,000 Palestinians between 1993 and 2003. 

The bill begins with a critique of the UN Partition Plan, which she says was “against the wishes of Palestine’s majority indigenous inhabitants”. If we are talking about the Palestinians’ representatives, the plan did go against their wishes, which were to cleanse Jews from the area; Jamaal Husseini, part of the influential Palestinian Husseini family, pledged to make the “blood […] flow like rivers in the Middle East” should the UN move forward with the partition plan. Unlike her claim that “indigenous Palestinians” (who did not call themselves Palestinians at the time and did not fit the indigenous criteria in any way) According to historian Ian Bickerton, most Palestinians favoured partition because they knew that if the Arab League invaded Palestine, they wouldn’t gain statehood, something that unfortunately turned out to be true. Just a few years prior to Israel’s creation, Amin al-Husseini, seen by many scholars as the leader of Palestinian society at the time, actively collaborated with Adolf Hitler. Two decades before, Palestinians went on a killing rampage in Hebron, murdering over 100 Jewish civilians in cold blood. Had the world followed the Palestinian leadership’s demands, Jews would have been thrown into the sea (quite literally). After having thoroughly delegitimised the plan, Tlaib conveniently picks what in the resolution is relevant, quoting the part which ensures protection of local population. This claim also delegitimises the partition plan and therefore Israel’s initial borders, as it portrays the partition plan’s frontiers as illegitimate since the Palestinians didn’t approve it.

Tlaib then claims that by Israel’s Declaration of Independence, some 300,000 Palestinians were already out of the country. She asserts that they “were expelled or fled from their homes often after attacks by Zionist militias”. It is true that approximately 200,000 (300,000 is not verified, and is rather an exaggeration) Palestinians had already left the region before Israel’s creation, but the justification is inaccurate. A few days after the United Nations’ vote on the Partition Plan, Arabs started rioting, launching the Civil War. Until March 1948, Arabs were on the offensive. Most of the fighting between November and May occurred in the areas earmarked for Jewish statehood. In March 1948, French politicians René Cassin and Léon Blum (former President of the Council for the famous Popular Front) wrote that the “level of violence is such that there is serious reason to believe that the Jews will be slaughtered”. On November 30, 1947, a bus filled with Jewish passengers, was ambushed, and 5 were killed. In Jaffa, Arab started sniping civilians, killing at least one. Historian Benny Morris notes that the Civil War was divided in two parts: the first part where the Arabs “held the initiative” and the second part where Jewish militias gained the upper hand and started going on the offensive. As stated earlier, Tlaib claims that 300,000 Palestinians were already out by the beginning of the war; why is that, and how is that? In December alone, nearly 100,000 Palestinian Arabs had already left the country. It is therefore quite legitimate to ask the question of why and how.  

The first stage of the Civil War was led by the Arabs. Systematic violence against Jewish civilians spread, but Jewish militias often defended the communities, leading to battles. Originally, the British thought the Arabs would prevail due to their numerical superiority. Those fights made insecurity and unrest explode, and evidently, both sides didn’t like it. Scholars today all agree that there was a very different reaction to the violence: on the one hand, the Jewish population grinned and bore it, generally stood their ground, refusing to leave their homes and to yield to fear. In fact, they rarely evacuated their villages, rather opting for defence. Even when their food supplies were cut off (one of the most widespread tactics of attacks during the Civil War was sabotaging roads and effectively beleaguering towns. Both sides utilised it), they stood their ground and clung to their villages. On the other hand, the Palestinian Arab population decomposed. Several phenomena fuelled this disintegration: first of all, Palestinian elites, who were the backbone of Palestinian society, had left. We’ll come back to this later. Second, Arab governments made it absolutely clear that they wanted the Arab population to evacuate their homes to pave the way for the invasions that would take place a few months later: one of the events that favoured this propaganda was Deir Yacin, in which 109 Palestinians were massacred in a village near Jerusalem by Jewish militants. Arab governments profited from this massacre, using to strenghten their propaganda: Khaled el-Azzam, who was the Prime Minister of Syria during the war, later wrote in his memoirs: “Arab governments have called on the people of Palestine to leave the country and cross into neighbouring Arab countries after fear spread among them over the Der Yacin affair. […] We have been calling since 1948 for the refugees to return to their homes, but we are the ones who urged them to evacuate them! Only a few months elapsed between our call to leave and our call to the UN for them to decide on their return: is this a wise and founded policy? Is there a consistent application of a plan? With our own hands, we have shaped the fate of the Arabs through our call to leave their lands, their homes, their places of work, their factories. We turned them into uprooted, unemployed people when each of them had a job and a trade they made a living from.” In 1955, Edward Atiyah, Secretary of the Arab League, wrote that the “wholesale exodus was due partly to the belief of the Arabs, encouraged by the boasting of an unrealistic press and the irresponsible utterances of some of the Arab leaders that it could be only a matter of some weeks before the Jews were defeated by the armies of the Arab states, and the Palestinian Arabs enabled to re-enter and retake possession of the country.” 

During the Civil War, many Palestinians left deliberately. For some, it was out of fear; for others, it was out of comfort. The first wave of emigrations took place quickly after the UN vote; large, wealthy families took shelter in neighbouring countries, where many had second homes. They left out of comfort and were not necessarily planning on returning: in 1948, Palestinians were still mere Arabs and identified as such. Only a few years earlier, Palestinian leaders were still calling upon the British to incorporate Palestine into Syria, and in 1920, they even rioted for their demand to be met. The departure of this category of Palestinians left Palestinian society deprived of its ruling elite, which greatly weakened the population left behind. 

Then came the middle-class: in February, March and April 1948, the second wave began. The reasons for these emigrations are more plethoric than the first wave’s; whilst personal comfort still played a key role, fear also did its part. At that time, it was becoming increasingly clear that the Zionists were coming out on top, and Jewish militias started to perpetrate abuses, including sporadic massacres. Those who left were traders, intellectuals; they were the cornerstone of Palestinian society. They had an important economic role. This spontaneous exodus surprised unsuspecting Arab leaders, as well as Jewish leaders. 

The lower social classes which remained were mostly peasants: they were poor, rural, vulnerable, confused, leaderless and gullible. Many of them fled out of pure and sole fear, and panic easily spread amongst those populations (something some Zionist advanges took advantage of). After Deir Yacin, many of them fled, and sought shelter anywhere and everywhere: some hid in forests and caves. The Arab governments puffed up the casualties (raising the number to 245, a figure still used by many sources today, wrongly) of the massacre to help spread this fear and anxiety. 

Up to 200,000 Palestinians were already out of the country by the beginning of the war, with an overwhelming majority leaving deliberately and a significant part leaving out of personal comfort. The claim that those Palestinians fled either because of fear or because of expulsions is an inaccurate, revisionist binary.

The bill also purports that Israel conquered parts of Palestine, effectively portraying Palestine as a sovereign state that was invaded or “conquered” by Israel; the area she refers to as Palestine encompasses Israel’s borders, therefore legitimising calls for the dismantlement of the Jewish state as it purportedly is “Palestinian land”. In the same paragraph, she says Israel conquered an “additional 23% of Palestine”, suggesting that the original 77% of the partition plan were also conquered and were not Israeli.

Later on, Tlaib claims that the Nakba refers to an ongoing phenomenon. That definition is not confirmed by academic

sources. In the same paragraph, she describes Israeli settlements as “illegal”; that is also inaccurate. While settlements are most assuredly an obstacle to peace, they are not illegal. First of all, Israel’s acquisition of the West Bank took place after a war it did not start, namely the Six-Day War of 1967. Under international law, territorial gains through defensive wars are lawful. Meanwhile, Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions, very commonly invoked to prove the alleged unlawful character of those settlements, prohibits forcible transfers of populations into occupied territories. Israeli settlers were not forced to move there, and they were not “transferred”. The bill then mentions the “outposts”, which she still claims are erected by Israel: that is a flat-out lie. Under Israeli law, those outposts are illegal, and this was recognised countless times by Israeli courts. Just a few months ago, the outpost of Homesh was emptied by Israeli forces. In 2017, the outpost of Amona was dismantled. In 2009, some 50 outposts were evacuated, and in the early 2000s, the Israeli government evicted inhabitants from several outposts. While many Israeli politicians do support those illegal outposts, that is not the position of Israeli courts, and it is therefore untrue and dishonest to claim that Israel is establishing outposts. 

The bill endorses and praises UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine). There are two things to remember and note about this agency.

Firstly, UNRWA dedicates 60% of its budget to education, but this education is inherently flawed. Numerous reports from numerous watchdogs show an institutional antisemitism problem. UN Watch, for example, proved that over a hundred UNRWA teachers have held antisemitic and pro-Nazi behaviours. UNRWA schoolbooks are also filled with antisemitic incitement, including depictions of Jews as enemies of Islam, glorification of jihadists who went on deadly rampages against Jewish civilians. Those books also reject Israel’s existence, calling the territory that is Israel the “Zionist occupation”. A report published by the Georg Eckert Institute and funded by the European Union shows that the use of this expression questions Israel’s very legitimacy and its right to exist. The same report showed that UNRWA textbooks promote bigotry, terrorism, and incites violence. This incitement led the EU to cut its UNRWA budget by 40%. 

Despite repeatedly vowing to clamp down on the rampant antisemitism that has been an integral part of the agency for years, watchdogs have shown that those pledges were not fulfilled. 

Secondly, the treatment of Palestinians is unique. No other group of refugees benefits from the same treatment. In fact, Palestinians are the only refugees who have their own agency; other refugees fall under UNHCR care. 

UNHCR promotes local integration and resettlement, and its goal is to relieve refugees of their refugee status; UNRWA’s refugee status is irrevocable, lifelong and hereditary. UNHCR seeks to swiftly resettle refugees in their host country to help them get a fresh start; UNRWA keeps them herded in refugee camps and takes no step to resettle them as that is not their policy. 

UNRWA labels West Bank and Gaza Palestinians as refugees, but this denomination is factually untrue: those who were displaced are internally displaced persons; the Mandate for Palestine included the West Bank and Gaza, and thus, they did not leave their country but moved in it. 

UNHRC does not provide refugee status for descendents of refugees. It also does not give refugee status to people who were once refugees but who acquired citizenship in another country. It does not give this status to internally displaced persons. The amount of refugees from UNHCR does not keep growing years after years; it decreases as the agency strips refugee status from those who have been resettled. UNRWA does all of that, and this dichotomy is deeply criticisable and unfair. 

Taking both of those points into account, making the lionising comments regarding UNRWA that Tlaib’s bill makes is reckless, dangerous, and it justifies, tolerates and even endorses double standards and antisemitic incitement. 

Recognising Palestinian suffering, including the one caused by the 1948 War, is necessary, that makes no doubt. But this bill does not promote that. It promotes a revisionist version of Israel’s creation, and portrays this creation as the source of all evils. The bill fails to mention that this war was started by the Arab League with the clear and unconcealed goal of committing, at best ethnic cleansing, possibly genocide. 

This bill isn’t about human rights or recognition. It’s about gross revisionism, and it’s about sending to the House floor a text that could be mistaken for an Arab government propaganda document. 

About the Author
Jonathan Haden is a 16-year-old student from Paris, France. He is involved with several political as well as apolitical groups and think-tanks, and is passionate about geopolitical issues, political science and history. He is a Jewish activist active on social media.
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