Re-enacting Nakba crimes

Ever since 1948 Israel had been engaged in trying to erase the collective memory of the Nakba, writes Tony Greenstein

On the day it was announced that Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi will likely be indicted at the International Criminal Court at The Hague for war crimes, there was a strange omission. Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and ‘defence’ minister Ehud Barak, who have been jointly responsible for the murder of thousands of Palestinians, were omitted from the list of potential war criminals.

The latest killings occurred on May 15, when peaceful and unarmed demonstrators at the Lebanese border, the Golan Heights, Gaza’s Erez Junction and many other places were killed in cold blood and hundreds injured, tear-gassed and arrested, as they commemorated Nakba Day, marking the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-48. Thousands of Syrians and Palestinians marched to the ‘border’ with Israel - in reality the illegally occupied Golan Heights that Israel captured in 1967. The ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ used its customary murderous force to repel the native population seeking access to their own lands.

People often say, why do the Palestinians not take up peaceful protest like Ghandi (leaving aside the myths around the man)? But the reason has historically been that Israel’s only reaction to peaceful demonstrators is, in the words of assassinated Israeli premier Yitzhak Rabin, to “break their bones” or today to simply shoot to kill.

Israel, despite its democratic pretensions, is demonstrating very clearly that it refuses to be left out when it comes to the violent suppression of demonstrations in the Middle East. The Israeli government has already been panic-stricken over developments in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. It has not even condemned Syria’s Bashir al-Assad for mowing down demonstrators, since it knows that the Arab regimes, including Iran, despite their rhetoric, are Israel’s reliable collaborators and allies.

But, whenever things go wrong for Israeli public relations, one can always rely on the BBC to step in to lend a helping hand. So John Humphrys, on the Today programme, managed to describe the demonstrations as marking the creation of the state of Israel! Presumably by that feat of logic, Holocaust Memorial Day is really about remembering the creation of the Third Reich. Ever since it was badly bitten by New Labour over the Iraq war, when its suggestion that the dodgy dossier had been sexed up, the BBC has been running scared of even the slightest criticism of imperialism - indeed director-general Mark Thompson is known to be a Zionist politically.

Despite the BBC and Israel’s friends, the Christian Zionists and Europe’s far right (the Jews’ traditional anti-Semitic enemies) the reputation of Israel amongst trade unionists and the public has never been lower. Slowly but surely, the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions is beginning to make ground. But for socialists the aim of a democratic Israel/Palestine as part of a democratic and secular Middle East is one that should be the highest priority. Israel is the only settler-colonial state still active in the world.

Nakba myth

Nakba means ‘catastrophe’ and that is how it is seen by Palestinians. Between 1947 and 1948, Zionist militias deliberately massacred thousands of Palestinians in order to ‘encourage’ 750,000 Palestinians to leave for neighbouring Arab countries, never to return. The aim was the creation of a ‘Jewish state’ in Israel - established on May 15 1948. To do so in a land where the majority of the population was non-Jewish, it was absolutely vital to expel the vast majority of Palestinians from the territory. That was why ‘transfer’ committees had been set up under the Jewish Agency to plan the mechanics of the expulsion.

In subsequent years Israel created the myth about how the Arabs had voluntarily left their homes in order that the armies of the neighbouring Arab states could enter. This is, of course, standard practice for colonialism. Eventually Israeli historians, for different reasons, decided that the time had come when Israel had to come to terms with its past. It could not live forever on what was clearly fabricated history. Historians such as Simha Flapan, who had been national secretary of the ‘left’ Zionist Mapam Party and director of its Arab department, effectively broke with Zionism in his path-breaking The birth of Israel myths and realities (New York 1987). Another ‘new Zionist historian’, Benny Morris (The birth of the Palestinian refugee problem, 1947-1949 Cambridge 1987), and Ilan Pappe (The ethnic cleansing of Palestine Oxford 2006) demolished this revisionist attempt to rewrite history. Morris though has become, in the words of the late professor Yehoshua Leibowitz, a Judao-Nazi. His only regret is that the expulsion of the Palestinians did not end until not a single Palestinian remained.

In fact, the myth that the Arabs fled on orders from their leaders had already been debunked in the early 1960s. A Palestinian historian and an Irish journalist, Erskine Childers, nephew of the Irish president, had investigated Zionist claims that Arab leaders had ordered an evacuation. In The Spectator of May 12 1961 he explained: “I next decided to test the undocumented charge that the Arab evacuation orders were broadcast by radio - which could be done thoroughly because the BBC monitored all Middle Eastern broadcasts throughout 1948. The records, as companion ones by a US monitoring unit, can be seen at the British Museum.”[1]

Childers found the opposite of “evacuation orders”: repeated appeals, “even orders, to the civilians of Palestine to stay put”.[2]

Walid Khalidi, a Palestinian American, working in radio archives, independently confirmed this:

“There are in fact two monitoring collections for 1948: one compiled by the BBC, the other by the CIA, both from Cyprus ... Both collections give detailed daily coverage of broadcasts from Arab capitals and of such Zionist radios as Haganah Radio (in Hebrew, English and Arabic), the Free Hebrew Station (Stern) and the Voice of Fighting Zion (Irgun) ... the complete CIA collection here in Princeton also overwhelmingly confirms and elaborates the results that Mr Childers and I have arrived at independently of each other ... There are countless broadcasts by Zionist radios which indicate deliberate psychological warfare against the Arabs. There is not one single instance of an Arab evacuation order or hint of such an order. There is an impressive stream of explicit Arab orders to the Palestinian Arab civilians to hold their ground and remain in their towns and villages ...”.[3]

Ever since 1948 Israel had been engaged in trying to erase the collective memory of the Nakba. The names of over 250 Palestinian villages, out of 530 destroyed, were uncovered and mapped by the late professor Israel Shahak, a holocaust survivor himself and a noted Israeli human rights activist. Zionist organisations like the ‘charity’, the Jewish National Fund, which today tries to cover itself in ‘green’ credentials, planted forests and parks over those Palestinian villages that the kibbutzim - the symbol of ‘socialist Zionism’ - had not already confiscated and built over.

But, the more the Zionists try to ban and erase the memory of the crimes of 1948, the more it is embedded in the consciousness of Israel’s Palestinians. Laws to outlaw historical events do not have a notable record of success. Those who deny the Nakba are no different from those who deny the holocaust. The principle - the erasure of memory, the denial of witness testimony - is exactly the same.


  1. E Childers, ‘The other exodus’ in W Lacquer and B Rubin (eds) The Arab-Israeli reader London 1987, p146.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The ‘Spectator’ correspondence (from May-August 1961): www.palestine-studies.org/enakba/exodus/Erskine%20Childers,%20Walid%20Khalidi,%20Jon%20Kimche,%20et%20al.pdf