Al-Nakba is not the Holocaust


Today is a day that I and other Palestinians write about on an annual basis. However, this year when I pitched an article to a leading Australian publication in which I asserted that ethnic cleansing took place in Palestine in 1948, the editor told me the claim "was spurious, as how do you explain the one million Palestinians now living in Israel if it were true".

The response highlights the very serious issue of Al-Nakba Denial.

Al-Nakba marks the dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians driven out of historical Palestine, in a process acknowledged today as ethnic cleansing, illegal under international law.

"Catastrophe Day" is, however, much more than just a date. It is the day when Palestinians collectively remember massacres such as Deir Yassin, where 90 Palestinians were killed, the 400 plus villages levelled and the hardships of over 4 million UN registered refugees still living in camps.

Nearly every Palestinian family has a "nightmare" that is retold with ritualised passion during this week. Homes and gardens destroyed, fields set alight, water wells poisoned, uncles shot, fathers beaten or sisters raped.

These discussions include complicated issues such as, for example, understanding the Absentee Property Law passed by the Israeli Government, which cleared the way for the confiscation of refugee property.

In an act of collective responsibility and social consciousness, Palestinians commemorate this tragedy through oral and other forms of documentation, ensuring generations to come will not forget; a feature they share with the very people who inflicted their suffering upon them, as Jews worldwide remember the crimes of the Holocaust.

And herein lies the difficulty. Al-Nakba is not the Holocaust. It was not genocide or the mass murder of a people, and it is offensive to many Jews to compare the two.

However, there is little dispute today that a process of ethnic cleansing did take place in Palestine between 29 November 1947, when the UN voted to partition Palestine, and the mass exodus post the Declaration of Israeli Independence on 8 May 1948. And as Israeli Government archives have become available in the last decade, this Palestinian narrative is finding new factual validity from unlikely sources.

Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev and Simha Flapan are the more prominent of Israel’s historians to have concluded that ethnic cleansing took place during the 1947-9 period. They have backed this with historical data, facts and analysis from archives and documentation.

For example, in his latest book, The Ethnic Cleansing Of Palestine, Pappé draws from the archives of David Ben-Gurion, Haganah and Irgun to reveal a deliberate plan by Jewish leaders to ethnically cleanse Arab cities and villages getting in the way of the creation of the Jewish State. The intention of the infamous Plan Dalet of 10 March 1948 is still in some dispute, but the consequence remains the same: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine’s indigenous population.

Denialism is used to describe the position of rejecting propositions on which a scientific consensus or widely accepted historical evidence exists. Strangely, Al-Nakba Denial seems to be much more socially acceptable than other forms of rejectionism.

It acts on several levels. First is the manner in which Palestinians are repeatedly admonished to "forget the past", that looking back is "not constructive" and "doesn’t get us closer to a solution".

It seeks to undermine history out of fear of claims for compensation or restitution, in much the same way the recent Apology to Australia’s Indigenous people was feared.

The Right of Return illustrates this, as Palestinians are castigated for forwarding a "Trojan horse for the destruction of Israel", despite the validity of the claim under international law, cemented in UN resolution 194. Histories of Al-Nakba and Palestinian suffering are belittled as narratives of victimhood.

On the extreme end, the Al-Nakba experience is argued to be a fabrication and deception, despite the historical evidence – a proposition that raises its ugly head a lot more frequently than most would believe.

This prejudiced argument is founded in colonial Eurocentric concepts of history and cultural identity typified by the Zionist catch cry of the time: "a land without a people for a people without a land", in much the same manner that "terra nullius" informs anti-Indigenous rhetoric in Australia.

Worse still is the argument against the Palestinian right to self-determination, which correlates directly to the colonial attitude typified by Golda Meir’s infamous statement: "There is no such thing as a Palestinian people … It is not as if we came and threw them out and took their country. They didn’t exist."

This argument – which was rejected during the 1980s – has re-emerged as a major facet of mainstream Israeli politics, with more than one Israeli Minister publicly arguing for the "transfer solution" to the Arab population, which would remove Palestinian citizens from Israel.

A series of Israeli Government-funded surveys have shown growing support among Israelis for this solution: 33 per cent of Israelis in 2003, compared to 24 per cent in 1991.

The proposal completely disregards that the "deportation or forcible transfer of population" is defined as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court. This euphemism for ethnic cleansing is being accepted with little argument or rebuttal internationally.

To the contrary, any suggestion that the Israeli State or Zionism has any undertones of racism is met with hysterical counter claims of anti-Semitism. Discussion of Al-Nakba is often met with pejorative disregard at best and blatant prejudice at worst.

Ethnic cleansing refers to various military policies or practices aimed at achieving security during war through displacement of an ethnic group from a particular territory. In the defining words of Andrew Bell-Fialkoff, commenting on the Yugoslav phenomenon: "ethnic cleansing […] defies easy definition. At one end it is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of a population from a given territory."

By their very nature, various Al-Nakba narratives will remain in the grey area of history. But to deny a process of ethnic cleansing occurred at all is a serious injustice that the Australian media should not be perpetuating.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.