Israelis often misunderstand the political meaning of the word Nakba which Palestinians apply to the events in 1948 that led to the dispossession and disbursement of the Palestinian people.
Watching CNN on Tuesday, I was surprised to hear the interpretation by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu. His explanation was that, since Palestinians remember 1948 as the year of the catastrophe, then that means that they consider the creation of Israel a catastrophe, and therefore, Netanyahu went on to claim, Palestinians have yet to come to terms with the existence of Israel. The Palestinian remembrance is meant as a sign that Palestinians want to destroy Israel, the former Likud leader said.
Nothing can be further from the truth. True, the catastrophe that befell Palestinians occurred as Israel was declared a state. And there is no doubt that Palestinians remembering this date insist on the internationally guaranteed right of return as declared in the UN General Assembly Resolution 194. But a “just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem,” as the later UN Security Council Resolution 242 states, doesn’t mean that Israel must fear for its existence.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat referred to the need for a just solution to the refugee problem in his speech to the nation on the memory of the 1948 Nakba.
Palestinian officials, as well as negotiators, have repeatedly indicated that the implementation of this right need not upset the delicate demographic balance in the State of Israel. The most repeated statement is that recognizing the right of return doesn’t mean the implementation of that right for every Palestinian who qualifies.
Israelis, however, have refused to accept this as the ultimate Palestinian position. Statements by Netanyahu have been repeated by other Israeli officials as well as Israeli apologists. This sentiment has become a major issue of discussion in Jewish circles around the world. This false claim that Palestinians are interested in the annihilation of the State of Israel has also made it into major world newspapers.
Palestinians, of course, have a difficult time in convincingly rebutting this argument. Palestinians insist that, after much consideration, long discussions and debates, they took a strategic decision in support of recognizing Israel within the policies commonly referred to as the “two-state solution.” Since 1988, the highest representative body in the PLO, the Palestine National Council, resolved to declare the state of Palestine alongside the State of Israel.
Since that date, no credible Palestinian official, thinker, politician or PLO faction has deviated from that strategy.
If there has been any problem in this ideology and policy, it has been with the fact that Palestinians have been unable to accomplish the first portion of that aspiration, namely the independent state of Palestine. And because the State of Israel, represented largely by its army and army-protected settlers, has been the obstacle to this realization, much of Palestinian anger has been directed to Israel.
It is naturally a major mistake and misrepresentation of Palestinian thinking to try to equate this opposition to the Israeli occupation and the illegal Israeli settlement activity as opposition to the very existence of the State of Israel within the internationally recognized borders of June 4, 1967.
Israel and Israeli apologists are unconvinced. They argue that this Palestinian position is merely the result of their weakness on the ground and that any time they become strong they will attempt to destroy the State of Israel. They cite the rather ineffective mortar shells to areas in Israel as proof that Palestinian aspirations go further than the Green Line.
Again Palestinians find themselves in the position of having to answer the unanswerable question “when did you stop beating your wife?” Because the moment you give a date, the impression is that before this date you beat your wife, and in the context of Palestinians, before that date you wanted to “annihilate the State of Israel.”
As to the random shellings inside the green line, this has been explained in two ways – that mostly these are attacks by Islamic extremists, and secondly that, as part of a violent conflict, people and groups attack the other side. In fact, Palestinians scoff at those who use the shelling of Israel as a proof of anything at a time when Israel is shelling the Palestinian areas 100% of the time. So, Palestinians argue, why is nobody attacking Israel for refusing to recognize the Palestinian existence?
The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is full of emotionally driven issues; the last thing it needs is to add the false claim that Palestinians are trying to destroy the State of Israel. As Palestinians remember the catastrophe that destroyed the inner fiber of their society, and as they attempt to regroup with a national goal of having a small plot of land which they can call home, Israelis of all people should understand and appreciate this Palestinian yearning.
The sooner we can reach that understanding, the sooner we can lay the groundwork for an independent and democratic Palestine alongside a safe and secure Israel.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.