by Hillel Schenker
In May 2008, the Israelis marked 60 years of independence, and the Palestinians marked 60 years since their Nakba (catastrophe). This was a culmination of two very different, frequently conflicting narratives.
According to the Israeli narrative, the Jews came to being a people in the area of the land of Israel, or Zion, over 3,000 years ago, as documented in the Bible. Almost all of the Jews were expelled from the land about 2,000 years ago, though some Jews remained in such joint towns as Pekiin and Shfaram and began returning to the four holy cities of Tiberias, Safed, Jerusalem and Hebron in the Middle Ages. The concept of return was originally spiritual — the return to Zion. The geographical aspect became clear only with the appearance of the modern Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, which began the campaign for the return of a significant number of Jews to their homeland, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).
While there were those in the Jewish Diaspora who believed that the area which became known as Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land,” some leading Zionist thinkers such as Asher Ginsberg (known as Ahad Ha’am), and definitely the Zionist pioneers who arrived at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, knew otherwise. From the beginning, there was a love-hate relationship between the new arrivals and the Arabs, who eventually defined themselves as the Palestinian people after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
According to the Palestinian narrative, Palestine was part of this larger Islamic empire. Its land is Islamic waqf (the collective property of the Muslim people). The Zionists were, in their majority, European settlers who were coming to colonize, usurping the land, and not a persecuted people returning to its homeland.
As World War I was drawing to a close, the British tried to square the circle by issuing the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised to create a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, without prejudicing “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
As the sun set on the British empire, they transferred the fate of the British Mandate over Palestine to the newly created United Nations, which was supposed to guarantee a stable international community after the bloody horrors of World War II. Unable to produce a bi-national one-state solution, a two-thirds majority of the UN General Assembly voted for Resolution 181, the Partition Plan, creating a Jewish and an Arab state in the Mandate area of Palestine, to the west of the Jordan River. The area to the east of the Jordan River had been removed from the area designated for Palestine to create the Emirate of Trans-Jordan in 1921 under the Hashemite Prince Abdullah, known later as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
While the modern Jewish national liberation movement, Zionism, based its claim to a state on the principle of the right to national self-determination for all peoples, there is no doubt that the murder of one-third of the Jewish people by the Nazis in the Holocaust during WWII may have been the factor that guaranteed the support of the international community for the creation of a Jewish state.
The Palestinians, naturally, did not feel that they should have to pay the price for Europe’s responsibility for the Holocaust. History says that the Jews accepted the Partition Plan, while the Palestinians and their Arab neighbors did not.
The war, known according to the Israeli narrative as the War of Independence, guaranteed the establishment of the state of Israel in the expanded territory of the 1949 Armistice Lines, known today as the Green Line or the 1967 borders. In the Palestinian narrative, it is known as the 1948 War, which resulted in the Nakba, the expulsion of about 800,000 refugees from their homeland and the destruction of about 500 villages.
According to the original Israeli narrative, a large majority of the refugees left their homes because they were asked to leave by the leaders of the neighboring Arab countries to clear the area for battle, or because of the perils of war. The term Nakba was not a part of the Israeli discourse. According to the Palestinians, they were driven out by force or intimidated by massacres and other pressurizing methods.
The Israeli narrative has changed over the years due to the work of the “New Historians,” like Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, who, using official sources, have revealed that a significant part of the Palestinian refugee problem was also caused by Israeli military actions to “encourage” the Palestinians to leave.
Today, there is a realization that a solution to the refugee problem is one of the key components of a future peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. As Israel marked its 60th anniversary, and the Palestinians marked the 60th anniversary of the Nakba, many Israelis felt that it was difficult to celebrate without reservations.
While Israel has many great economic, social, cultural and educational achievements to its credit, the ongoing conflict is a constant drain on its economic and psychological energies. And generations of Israeli mothers have continued to dream that their sons and daughters would not have to serve in a compulsory army.
Even people on the Israeli right, such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who were nurtured on the tradition of Greater Israel “on both sides of the Jordan,” now understand that a two-state solution is the key to future Israeli security and prosperity. Olmert has even declared that “without a two-state solution, Israel is finished” [as a Jewish state]. Unfortunately, their deeds have not matched their words.
The Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel peace and normalized relations with the entire Arab and Muslim world, based on the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel and an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem. Israel should declare that it welcomes the initiative as the basis for negotiations with the Palestinians and the entire Arab world.
It is clear that a two-state solution will be based on a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — with possible mutual border rectifications and equal land swaps — alongside the state of Israel. It requires a total halt to the settlements and the eventual dismantlement of almost all the settlements in the West Bank, in exchange for peace and security.
Israelis and Palestinians have been so traumatized by the ongoing conflict that we appear to be incapable of arriving at a solution on our own. The weaknesses of our respective leadership testify to this fact. We need the constructive involvement of the international community, led by the United States, to facilitate an agreement, to monitor its success and to guarantee it financially.
These mutual traumas are the primary reason why a one-state solution is not feasible in the foreseeable future. The break-up of the former Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and developments in other parts of the world indicate that nationalism is still a very potent force in the 21st century. Israelis will not easily give up their dream of a Jewish state, and the Palestinians have an equal right and motivation to achieve a Palestinian state. After we achieve a two-state solution, it will be possible to move forward towards an Israeli-Palestinian confederation, or even a Middle Eastern Community modeled after the European Union.
In 2008, it is clear that the Israelis cannot truly celebrate their independence until the Palestinians are also able to celebrate their independence.