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2 Jun, 2012

Blaming the Victim in Palestine is Like Saying Colonialism was Good for the Natives

by Yousef Munayyer

n the wake of the commemoration of the Nakba last month, several Zionist commentaries appearing in both several Israeli publications and American publications have highlighted a similar and disturbing trend; they blame the victims of the Nakba for their fate. So what does it take to describe the depopulation of 500 Palestinian villages and the human suffering that it involved, and continues to involve, as ‘self-inflicted?’ It simply takes racism.


A Palestinian child holds a key representing the key of her home during the creation of the state of Israel, at Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)


Just like those who argue that slavery was good for blacks because it rescued them from the misery of Africa, or like colonialists who argue brutish policies are ultimately good for the natives because they are becoming “civilized,” these arguments about a “self-inflicted” Nakba similarly rely on the dehumanization of the other to justify their mistreatment.

This commonly involves repeating an ahistorical narrative of events which portray the Arabs and Palestinians as monolithic, annihilationist, irrationally uncompromising and aggressive. “Those Arabs had a chance to make a deal by accepting the 1947 UN Partition,” the narrative often goes, “but they chose war and thus deserve whatever befell them.”

Yet, there is no discussion of the Palestinian Arab rationale behind opposing the 1947 plan. The reader of this narrative is not supposed to understand it as a rational decision. It is far easier to justify ethnic cleansing against people portrayed as crazy, rejectionist barbarians.

The plan called for the partition of Palestine into two states: an Arab state and a Jewish state. On the surface, this sounds similar to the conventional two-state solution often discussed today. Those wishing to portray Palestinians as rejectionists leave all analysis of the partition plan at this superficial level precisely, because they seek to convey the idea that Palestinians always rejected partition for the sake of rejecting it.

In reality, the 1947 partition plan was disastrous, and any fair-minded person could see why the native Palestinians opposed it when looking at the plan. Yes, the partition plan called for the creation of two states (two geographically unviable states) which were barely contiguous in some areas and not contiguous in others. In the proposed Jewish state, only 55 percent of the population would be Jewish, the remaining 45 percent would be Palestinian Arab. Given the discussion of ”population transfer,“ Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control.

The problem, however, was not just the demographics of the proposed Jewish state. Nor was it just that the Palestinian natives would lose rights to national self-determination in the majority of their homeland where they constituted a significant majority (Jews made up just 30 percent of the population). More than that, the native Palestinian population would be divided into four enclaves. Palestinians would be in the Jewish state, in the internationally governed territory around Jerusalem, and in the Arab state which included the Yaffa enclave, a non-contiguous speck of territory home to nearly 80,000 Palestinians.

The partition plan of 1947 was an attempt to impose on the native population of Palestine the desires of the colonial enterprise of Zionism. As in every colonial context, the natives have every right to resist this and demand equitable self-determination in their homeland. And they did resist. They chose not to be divided into four groups, not to live in part as an ethnic minority in a state which had every incentive to transfer them out, and not to accept turning over 55 percent of Palestine to 30 percent of its population.

To say that because they resisted this they got what they deserved, which essentially is what those arguing that the Nakba was ‘self-inflicted’ contend, Palestinians are robbed of the very basic human right to resist oppression.

Further, the narrative which describes the Nakba as “self-inflicted” due to an annihilationist Arab attack conveniently neglects several important facts. Half the refugees created in the Nakba were created prior to May 15, 1948. These earlier refugees resulted from, among other sources, the depopulation of the largest Palestinian cities of Yaffa and Haifa. When the most significant post-war power, the United States, withdrew its support for the partition plan in late March 1948, the Yishuv’s military plans for establishing a state by force swung into action (this included, only days later, the massacre at Deir Yassin).

In turn, Deir Yassin became a rallying cry. The influx of refugees pouring into Arab states pushed those governments into a war they were neither prepared for nor really desired. Aside from the Jordanian Army, the remaining armies had made no preparations for war. And even the Jordanians did not attack Jewish held territory.

We must reject and decry anyone blaming the victim of a tragedy like the Nakba and we must do so as vociferously as we would in rejecting similar excuses for slavery, ethnic cleansing, rape, or class differences. Racism has no place in our modern discourse; yet when it comes to the discussion of the Nakba, it sadly remains alive and well.

Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center.