Memorial Day: The Catastrophe
Memorial Day emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War, which claimed the highest American casualties from any war. Over time, the holiday expanded to honor American military deaths across every war. The Second World War (WWII) shares a special relationship with Memorial Day: the Allied forces defeated the fearmongering, ethnonationalist Nazi regime on this same month, in 1945, bringing a close to the European theater of the war. As we remember the lives and sacrifices of the American soldiers who died fighting against the perpetrators of the Holocaust, it is important to note another day of remembrance this month — the Nakba — whose existence is inextricably tied to WWII. Occurring in parallel with the events of WWII was the creation of a condition of the Jewish people leaving Europe, pressed for the need to create the Jewish state of Israel. And thus, one injustice gave birth to another. On May 14, 1948, Israel entered statehood. Less than 24 hours upon inception, Israel instituted an ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and the violent upheaval of their society, forcing over 700,000 Palestinians to become refugees. Palestinians observe that day, May 15, as the Nakba, which translates to “the Catastrophe”, to commemorate the destruction. The Nakba deserves to be commemorated by giving voice to those who have lost everything and continue to suffer. Without hope for relief from over 70 years of misery, the cycle of violence will only continue. In order to do justice to this commemoration, it is imperative that we equip ourselves with a deeper understanding of the history of the Palestinian struggle.
The forced dispossession of Palestinian lands and the displacement of the Palestinian people actually began much earlier than 1948. In response to the early Zionist efforts, a small number of European Jews began migration to Palestine aspiring for a Jewish homeland in the late 19th century and in the years before WWI. What changed history was the First World War, which began in 1914, and put the Ottoman Turks on the side of Germany against Britain and the other allies. During the war, Britain and France developed the secret Sykes-Picot treaty to grant Palestine, Jordan, and Iraq to Britain while France would claim Lebanon and Syria. Finally, in the Balfour Declaration issued in 1917, the British government promised the Jews that they could establish a “national home” in Palestine, as long as it did not harm the rights of the Arabs.
Palestine thereby became a British Mandate, or colony. Britain then opened up the door to Zionist immigration. By 1922, the time of the first British census, the total population was 757,000, of whom only 84,000 were Jews. The Jews of Europe began to come, financially supported by a network of donors in the West. In order to buy land, they often went to absentee landlords in Beirut and then got the British authorities to enforce title and evict the Palestinian peasants to make room for Jewish farms.
Despite significant inflows, by 1932, the Jewish population comprised only 18% of the population in Palestine. The vast majority were Palestinians, but their perspectives on the dispossession of their lands was never considered by the British or the Zionists. Palestinian lives, lands, and society were being altered to serve the neemd of a Jewish European ideology at the point of a British gun. This represents a historical injustice and should be recognized as such.
In 1932, the Jewish community was just too small to be the basis of a state. But in 1933, the Nazis gained power in Germany, and the flow of Jews accelerated. The genocide and overall rampant anti-Semitism throughout Europe pushed European Jews to seek out a Jewish homeland that would fulfill the promise of safety and hope. Over the next six years, the Jewish community reached a critical mass. By 1944, Jews made up a majority in only one of Palestine’s 18 districts (the area around Tel Aviv). And despite an aggressive program of land purchase, Jews owned less than 10% of the land of Palestine.
By 1947, Britain, debilitated from World War II, had had enough. They declared their intent to leave Palestine, but turned over the disposition of the country to the U.N. At this point, the Jews constituted about 30% of the population, but they were well-armed and organized. The U.N. Special Commission on Palestine, which was heavily lobbied by the Zionists and the Truman Administration, voted for a partition plan in November 1947. This plan was terribly unfair to the Palestinians, who did not consent to having their country ripped in two by bureaucrats in a building in New York. The bizarre plan envisaged giving the Jews a state that would have over 50% of the land area of Palestine, and whose own population would be almost 50% Palestinian in what was supposed to be the Jewish state. This plan was rejected by the Palestinians but accepted by the Zionists.
The British deemed the plan totally unworkable, and did nothing to try to enforce it. Instead they retreated to their barracks while civil war erupted in Palestine. The better-armed and led Zionist forces quickly took the offensive and began to seize control of areas not assigned to them by the partition plan. In addition, a wave of ethnic cleansing began punctuated by such acts as the massacre of 100 villagers at Deir Yassin near Jerusalem by Menachem Begin and his men. Over the next five months, over 300,000 Palestinians were made refugees. Among the most egregious case of ethnic cleansing is documented in Yitzhak Rabin’s memoir, where he relates how his men, after receiving direction from David Ben-Gurion, forcibly expelled 50,000 people from the Palestinian towns of Lydda and Ramle.
The British Mandate did not end until May 14, 1948, at which point much of the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians had already occurred. Before the neighboring Arab states had attempted to intervene, Israel declared statehood, while Egypt and Jordan sent small armies to fight in Palestine. Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq were nominally combatants, but had no real military to speak of, except for a few thousand armed irregulars. Jordan’s army was actually commanded by British officers, while Egypt’s small forces were operating at the end of a very long supply line, and had limited offensive capacity. The fighting continued on and off over the next several months, at the end of which Egypt held onto a narrow strip of land (the Gaza Strip) while Jordan had taken what became known as the West Bank. Israel had taken half of the land that was assigned to the Palestinians and now claimed it for itself. Meanwhile 700,000 Palestinians ended up in refugee camps and were barred by force from returning to their homes once the fighting had ended. Israel then passed a series of laws allowing it to confiscate their land and property left behind without any compensation. The UN in 1949 passed Resolution 194, which stated that the refugees have a right to return to their homes, but Israel has remained in defiance of it.
For Palestinians, the creation of Israel is not the heroic redemption of an oppressed and dispossessed people who reclaim the land of their ancient ancestors. Palestinians see creation of modern Israel as a European settler state set up under the protective shield of the
British colonizers. The European Jews that came to Palestine did so uninvited and without the consent of the Palestinians, and the creation of Israel in 1948 was made possible only through the deliberate ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, which resulted in 700,000 Palestinian refugees. These refugees and their descendants have a legitimate moral claim to redress the ethnic cleansing that occurred.
The Nakba began well before 1948 — from the moment Palestine came under British colonial power — and continues to this day. The 700,000 Palestinian refugees have now grown to about 5 million. Generations of Palestinian youth and tens of thousands of civilians and combatants have perished from the devastation of Israel’s never-ending assault. Many more, including women and children, continue to die as punishment for living in their own homeland. Palestinians should not have been forced to suffer for the atrocious crimes committed against Jews in Europe or elsewhere. As individuals committed to justice, who are called to speak out on behalf of those who are oppressed, American Muslims can play an important role in raising awareness about both the past and present suffering of the Palestinians. Edward Said captured the sentiment beautifully, “We can not fight for our rights and our history as well as future until we are armed with weapons of criticism and dedicated consciousness.”