On May 15, 1948, Palestine suffered a near-total existential disintegration, which tore apart its political, social, economic and demographic fabric as its people became dispersed to the four corners of the world. A minority remained on their lands, but the majority fled or were forced to flee, and are still roaming in exile in countries far and near, which has created the refugee problem - one of the most intractable problems in contemporary history. Sixty years on, generations of Palestinians are enduring the consequences of the 1948 war, which, far from getting resolved, are intensifying and threatening the region with the prospect of renewed conflict.

In the face of a problem of this magnitude, the Palestinians recognized the imperative of a peace settlement. This option, however, calls for a reciprocal commitment. The Israeli side still needs to be convinced that its impressive arsenal and superior military force will only lead to an aggravation of the situation, and that erasing the 1948 catastrophe and its aftermath calls for a just and satisfactory solution to the refugee problem - a solution predicated on the recognition of the principle of the right of return for the refugees and their compensation for 60 years of dispossession and hardship following their forcible removal from the homes and properties they had inherited from their forefathers.

In spite of the attempts to relegate the Palestinian question to oblivion, the memory of the Palestinians remains alive. Sixty years after the Nakba, Palestinians of all ages and all walks of life are still holding tenaciously to their national culture and their collective memory, rejecting any illusory alternatives to a homeland. They are holding on to their legitimate rights and their retrieval on the basis of international legitimacy, especially United Nations Resolutions 242, 338, 181 and 194, among others.

Debunking a Received Narrative

The occupation of Palestine by the force of arms was accompanied by an ideological propaganda campaign that set out to propagate a number of falsehoods: a) that the Palestinians fled their homes of their own accord; and b) that they fled in response to calls by some Arab countries whose armies took part in the 1948 war - allegedly in order to spare the Palestinian population centers from getting caught in the crossfire.

This narrative devoid of any truth has finally been debunked as certain historical facts came to light. The most important refutation came from the New Historians, which has helped counter the received narrative from within Israeli society itself. These historians have based their views on newly available archival material, official records and declassified documents. These documents formed the blueprints for the policy of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in Palestine and the destruction and expulsion operations that were at the heart of the Zionist colonialist project to take over Palestine. This picked up speed especially after the Partition Plan was passed by the UN on November 29, 1947, and continued throughout the first half of the year 1948. The rationale was that the realization of the Zionist dream - the creation of a Jewish state on Palestinian soil - could only be achieved through the forcible removal of the Palestinian population through any means.

The flight of the Palestinians in 1948, therefore, did not come at the behest of Arab countries, but as a result of a well-studied systematic plan that dates back to the early 1930s, or even before, and that later evolved into what came to be known as Plan D (Tochnit Dalet). The strategy behind this plan, according to some Israelis, was to sow terror among the civilian population in urban and rural centers to drive them to flee, in order to empty the land of Palestine of its original inhabitants in preparation for the establishment of the Jewish state.

A Question of Terminology

A confirmation of this view came in a ground-breaking research1 by the Israeli New Historian Ilan Pappe. After an in-depth study of the documents pertaining to the Jewish National Fund (JNF), to Jewish paramilitary outfits - primarily the Haganah - and the archives and memoirs of the Zionist command and the political leadership during the last decades preceding the historic events of May 1948, Pappe offers evidence that ethnic cleansing was practiced against the Palestinian population which, judged by today's international conventions, would constitute a crime against humanity.
Pappe, as a result, rejects the concept and terminology of Nakba to describe what happened to the Palestinians in 1948. He contends that the term nakba refers to the act itself, not to the actor/perpetrator. Thus, it removes all responsibility from the side that has committed the act. In other words, nakba can very well apply to natural catastrophes like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc., for which only nature can be considered the cause or, perhaps, a force beyond nature. In the case of ethnic cleansing, the responsibility reverts solely to the perpetrator, who is first and foremost the actual decision-taker, acting with premeditation.

It is because the term is used inaccurately that it has found acceptance in official Israeli quarters. It constitutes an implicit exculpation of the perpetrators; they are relieved of the historic responsibility of the military operations carried out and the strategies adopted that led to the expulsion of the Palestinians.

The Road to Peace

Today, on this bit of historic Palestine which is allotted to the Palestinians, we are engaged in a multifaceted struggle. We are working for the consolidation of the steadfastness of our people on their land, and for the solidification our national achievements, exemplified in the establishment of a national authority on the land of Palestine, which we strive to turn into an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Simultaneously, we will continue our political struggle in the defense of our legitimate rights: the preservation of the Arabness of East Jerusalem, the cessation of settlement activities and the construction of the separation wall, the securing of the right of return for the refugees, and the ending of the occupation.

Peace cannot remain unattainable forever, and the negotiation process cannot remain at an impasse forever. Patience with Israel's evasion and procrastination has its limits, but in countering such negativism we must scrupulously cleave to the principles of peace and mutual acceptance. The terrifying alternative can only be a total collapse of the peace process and the dream of coexistence. Concurrence on the historical narrative of what took place in 1948, and an admission of responsibility on the part of the perpetrators, are the starting point on the road to a just and lasting peace on a land where all sides have a place.

1 See Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: Oneworld Publications), 2007.