return to ICG Spaces home    ICG Risk Blog    discussions    newsletters    login    

ICG Risk Blog - [ Obtuse diplomatic blunder and journalistic ignorance: US inadvertently agrees to celebrate al-Nakba, the 1948 destruction of Palestine ]

Obtuse diplomatic blunder and journalistic ignorance: US inadvertently agrees to celebrate al-Nakba, the 1948 destruction of Palestine


Short of dispensing with the pretence of its role as honest broker in the Middle East by attacking Palestinian Arabs, the US could not have blundered more in Arab eyes. About as bad, the Western high street press has ignored the slight. No wonder that Arabs have such dim views of the US. Most US readers will wonder what happened.

Buried in lower paragraphs on the eve of Bush43's departure from Israel to Kuwait were variations of this snippet:

Earlier, in Tel Aviv, Bush said he would return to the Mideast in May to mark ally Israel's 60th anniversary and to continue pushing for a peace pact between Israel and the Palestinians. It was an indication that hopes to crown his final year in office by putting a personal stamp on peacemaking efforts.

I was astonished. A sitting US president who is claiming a mandate of fairness and seeking an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement flagged his intent to return on the Levant on the anniversary of Israel's founding which is also the thermonuclear epicenter of Arab humiliation:

May 15th, 1948, was the Palestinian Al-Nakba (the Catastrophe), or what Israel refers to as the "Day of Independence." To Palestinians, it symbolizes the dispossession, displacement, and uprooting of 800,000 Palestinians from their homes in what then became Israel. Many of these refugees and their descendants, who now number more than 4 million, still languish in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding Arab countries. While Al-Nakba embodies the first major wave of forced expulsion of Palestinians from their land, Israel's premeditated campaign of ethnic cleansing continues to this very day. [Before Pro-Israeli readers brand me as biased, Israeli historians such as Benny Morris specifically use the term 'ethnic cleansing.']

Where were Bush43's advisors? Where was SecState Rice? She was accompanying POTUS on this trip. And where were Western journalists to flag the offense? I have already given my assessment of Rice in The ventriloquist, the ventriloquist's dummy and SecState Rice, but I find this insensitivity jaw-dropping.

Update: English translations of Arabic displeasure are now appearing, but not in our high street press.

Citing Al-Khalij (UAE), Ma'an News Agency (MNA) is stating:

Arab states are demanding that the United States clarify the purpose of a planned return trip by US President George W. Bush to Israel in May to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, an Emirati newspaper reported on Sunday.

The Arab League and a number of Arab governments want the American government to explain the nature of the trip, as May will also mark the 60th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, the Catastophe of the violent expulsion of Palestinians from 1948 Palestine.

Citing Al Halij (UAE?), Israel National News ( is stating:

The Arab League and individual Arab countries have sent a letter of protest to U.S. President George W. Bush following reports that Bush accepted Israeli President Shimon Peres's invitation to participate in Israel's 60th anniversary celebration.

[The] Arab League expressed disappointment and protest over Bush's intention of participating in the celebration and said that the creation of Israel was accompanied by a catastrophe ("nakba") for Arabs and their expulsion from their land.

Al-Nakba and an-Naksah: Israeli victories; Arab humiliation

While Arabs and Israelis have warred in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and 2006, it was two, the 1948-49 War that formed the Jewish state and known to Arabs as al-Nakba (The Catastrophe) and the 1967 Six-Day War that brought Israel to its current borders and known to Arabs as an-Naksah (The Setback), that together humiliated Arabs and undermined their faith in their governments. It was a third, the 2006 Second Lebanon War, that humiliated Israel and their Prime Minister, Olmert, and brought jubilation to Arabs and a wider Muslim audience even though the Muslim victor was Shia and not Sunni.

Constantin Zureiq [Zurayk] coined Al-Nakba in the aftermath of partition in 1948:

The Syrian historian Constantine Zurayk, who in the early 1950's published Ma'na al-nabka (The Meaning of the Disaster), reflecting on the destruction of Palestinian society and the establishment of Israel. Less than two decades later, he published Ma'na al-nakba mujaddadan (The Meaning of the Disaster Revisited), which discussed the stunning defeat of 1967. His books all stress the urgent need to transform the Arab world "from an emotional, illusionary, mythological and poetic society into a practical achievement-oriented, rational and scientific one." Two reasons for the disaster are singled out by Zurayk--scientific underdevelopment and the weakness of the spirit of activism or militancy. The first lies in the "civilizational differences" between Arab and Israeli societies. He calls Israel a "modern civilization... in the area of science and rationality." But being modern in this sense is not enough; the strength of the spirit of activism enabled Algeria and Vietnam to defeat their enemies in spite of the opponents' scientific superiority. Zurayk traces the lack of a spirit of activism among Arabs to their lack of clarity of purpose, which he attributes to divisiveness and fragmentation into "nationalist," "socialist," and "reactionary" camps.

The 1967 Six-Day War only compounded the losses of 1948, often being described as the second Nakba. Gamal Abdel Nasser had to choose a name of equal gravitas for the debacle of the 1967 Six-Day War in which Israel bested the combined forces of "Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Algeria," gaining possession of "eastern Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights":

[Nasser and Heikal] turned to discuss Nasser's speech and [the] selection of Arabic word Naksah (setback) to describe the 1967 military debacle. Heikal came up with Naksah and when Nasser asked about his choice of a singular word to describe the 1967 War they went down the list of words Hazimah (defeat), Sadmah (shock), and Karithah (catastrophe) as well as the 1948 War that is called Nakbah (another Arabic dialect for catastrophe).

The choice of words to describe a catastrophic military setback for Egyptian arms such as the 1967 War was a matter of great importance. According to Heikal, Nasser was obsessed with the right description of this military defeat; he wanted to leave his successor enough political room to rebuild and place Egypt once again on the offensive. To describe the Six Day War as a Hazimah (defeat) would leave no room for reconstruction and would upset the Soviets who provided the bulk of the military hardware that Syria and Egypt incompetently deployed...

Many of today's readers fail to ask if there is a West Bank, where is the East Bank?

Israel has emerged from being one fragment of the West Bank in Palestine to become the occupier of the West Bank. (To no avail, Israel has asked that the East Bank be included prior to partition in 1948.)

Hisham Melhem (An-Nahar) spoke to Arab shock of the Six-Day War:

Many Arabs convinced themselves that victory would be easy and, in fact, in the first few days of the conflict, the whole military operations were covered with lies, claims about achieving decisive breakthroughs against the Israelis... [Arabs] initially believed all these myths surrounding the military operations at that time. Hence, the shock afterwards, six days later, total humiliation, total disaster. It was an unmitigated disaster, although the leader of Egypt at that time, General Abdel Nasser, called it "an-Naksah," which means in Arabic "setback." It was an unmitigated disaster.

But then the Arabs at that time lived maybe in denial. They were totally humiliated, and they went to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, for the first Arab summit, in which they said no to the recognition, no to negotiations, no to peace. But at that time, these governments were seen as -- the defeat was seen as a defeat for Arab nationalism and its Nasserite stripe in Egypt and its Baathist stripe in Damascus.

At that time, ironically, the Palestinians came into their own. And from that moment, they projected themselves as the alternative to these weak, corrupt Arab governments. And they gained a tremendous popular support in those countries and throughout the Arab world.

And it was at that time, by the way -- interestingly enough, historically enough -- when the Islamists began their long project of inheriting the Arab world, because they presented themselves as the alternative to these failed so-called secular ideologies that dominated the Arab world at that time.

The seeds of Zurayk's "spirit of activism or militancy" were now planted.

It is interesting to track changes in coverage in the Western press around the pivot point of the Six-Day War. Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to the media coverage in the US, UK and Europe during the Six-Day War, i.e., what the non-Arab world was seeing:

I'll read you something from Time Magazine that was from their June 9 issue, which I guess was published right before the war began [in 1967].

"Tiny dagger-shaped Israel," Time reports, "whose 2.7 million people cling to 7,900 square miles on the shore of the Eastern Mediterranean, faced the implacable hostility and cocked guns of 14 Arab nations and their 110 million people." This sort of blatantly pro-Israel viewpoint was apparent not only in Time but in the other news weeklies and the daily newspapers and on the three networks. And the really amazing thing is if you go back into the BBC archives, you'll see that kind of sympathy as well for Israel.

One of the astonishing things to remember - and this is 40 years ago - was that Israel was considered by the media to be the underdog in this conflict. Israel was seen as this plucky outpost of Judeo-Christian values battling these monstrous Arab dictatorships, and so the coverage remained very, very sympathetic for years to come...

The conflict only slowly began to flip in the non-Arab press in the period after the Six-Day War:

Israel was clearly the underdog in 1967. Palestinians didn't really have a voice yet. Remember, Palestinians had been under military occupation by Jordan and the West Bank and Egypt and the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967. But Palestinian nationalism grew and developed, and over the years the conflict has been recast, if you will, instead of one between Israel and 20 different Arab states in which [you] could pretty much easily identify the underdog, to one between Israel and these occupied Palestinians.

Arabs never forgot the ethnic cleansing needed to create the State of Israel

While I could point neutral readers to sites such as Palestine Remembered, The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now, Searching for meaning from the respected Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Nakba: The Continuing Catastrophe, the pro-Israeli partisan could find cause for offense, thus I prefer to use Ari Shavit's interview of the Zionist historian, Benny Morris, Survival of the fittest (parts one and two), to shape the wounds that Arabs continue to feel so keenly. (Readers should note that I am not making a value judgment; I am merely choosing a largely unimpeachable source to describe the historical record.)

Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist."... If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."...

"From April 1948, Ben-Gurion is projecting a message of transfer. There is no explicit order of his in writing, there is no orderly comprehensive policy, but there is an atmosphere of [population] transfer. The transfer idea is in the air. The entire leadership understands that this is the idea. The officer corps understands what is required of them. Under Ben-Gurion, a consensus of transfer is created."...

"If [Ben-Gurion] was already engaged in expulsion, maybe he should have done a complete job. I know that this stuns the Arabs and the liberals and the politically correct types. But my feeling is that this place would be quieter and know less suffering if the matter had been resolved once and for all. If Ben-Gurion had carried out a large expulsion and cleansed the whole country - the whole Land of Israel, as far as the Jordan River. It may yet turn out that this was his fatal mistake. If he had carried out a full expulsion - rather than a partial one - he would have stabilized the State of Israel for generations."...

[On] October 31, 1948, the commander of the Northern Front, Moshe Carmel, issued an order in writing to his units to expedite the removal of the Arab population... There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide - the annihilation of your people - I prefer ethnic cleansing."...

"A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population. It was necessary to cleanse the hinterland and cleanse the border areas and cleanse the main roads. It was necessary to cleanse the villages from which our convoys and our settlements were fired on."...

"I know [the term 'to cleanse'] doesn't sound nice but that's the term they used at the time. I adopted it from all the 1948 documents in which I am immersed."...

"Twenty-four [acts of Israeli massacre were perpetrated in 1948]. In some cases four or five people were executed, in others the numbers were 70, 80, 100. There was also a great deal of arbitrary killing... "The worst cases [of Israeli massacre] were Saliha (70-80 killed), Deir Yassin (100-110), Lod (250), Dawayima (hundreds) and perhaps Abu Shusha (70). There is no unequivocal proof of a large-scale massacre at Tantura, but war crimes were perpetrated there. At Jaffa there was a massacre about which nothing had been known until now. The same at Arab al Muwassi, in the north. About half of the acts of massacre were part of Operation Hiram [in the north, in October 1948]: at Safsaf, Saliha, Jish, Eilaboun, Arab al Muwasi, Deir al Asad, Majdal Krum, Sasa. In Operation Hiram there was a unusually high concentration of executions of people against a wall or next to a well in an orderly fashion."...

"I feel sympathy for the Palestinian people, which truly underwent a hard tragedy. I feel sympathy for the refugees themselves. But if the desire to establish a Jewish state here is legitimate, there was no other choice. It was impossible to leave a large fifth column in the country. From the moment the Yishuv [pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine] was attacked by the Palestinians and afterward by the Arab states, there was no choice but to expel the Palestinian population. To uproot it in the course of war...

"Ideologically, I support the two-state solution. It's the only alternative to the expulsion of the Jews or the expulsion of the Palestinians or total destruction. But in practice, in this generation, a settlement of that kind will not hold water. At least 30 to 40 percent of the Palestinian public and at least 30 to 40 percent of the heart of every Palestinian will not accept it. After a short break, terrorism will erupt again and the war will resume."...

"We have to try to heal the Palestinians. Maybe over the years the establishment of a Palestinian state will help in the healing process. But in the meantime, until the medicine is found, they have to be contained so that they will not succeed in murdering us."... "Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."

Were I Jewish, I might feel relieved; were I Arab, I'd likely be deeply angry. It is easier to understand the what drove Abu Nidal into terrorism when you know what was taken from him:

Multiply that anger by hundreds of thousands and one begins to get a flavor of the hatred, hopelessness, and opportunity void that marks Palestinians and has seeped into the fabric of Arabs and a goodly number of Muslims. Go to the (tame by comparison) English al Jazeera and look at The Sharon Land-Grab Segregation Wall. Look at the maps of proscribed land, the walls, the isolation adjacent to relative plenty, and ask yourself what would you do in their place. I believe that the Security Wall is a failure of imagination, and will not bring Israel long term security as it will insure the economic collapse of what I call "Paltustan," the Palestinian Bantustan on its doorstep.

Update: 14 January, 2008

Part 2: Intersection of al-Nakba, The Second Lebanon War and Ehud Olmert

Maps of Palestine before and after al-Nakba
This map recommended (Note: This is a large map in terms of area so let it load as it opens with text about affected villages)

Arab states seek clarification on Bush visit planned for Nakba anniversary
Ma'an News Agency (MNA)
13 / 01 / 2008 Time: 11:37
Mirror The Palestine Media Unit/Zajel
1/13/2008 5:39:00 AM

Arab League to Bush: Don't Celebrate Nakba
Israel National News (
6 Shevat 5768, January 13, '08

Bush Promises to Return to Israel
New York Times
January 12, 2008

11:00News Roundup - Hour 2
Diane Rehm with guest journalists Hisham Melhem (Al-Arabiya TV and "An-Nahar"), Barbara Slavin (U.S. Institute of Peace) and Warren Strobel (McClatchy)
Diane Rehm Show
January 11, 2008

Bush visits Kuwait to promote peace deal
By Terence Hunt
Associated Press
January 11, 2008

Arabic papers react to Bush tour
al Jazeera
14:39 MECCA TIME, 11:39 GMT

President Says Mideast Peace Accord Possible Within a Year
Originally Aired: January 10, 2008

Bush Begins Peace Effort Bonded With Olmert
New York Times
January 10, 2008

Skepticism, Anger Greet Bush in Middle East
By Challiss McDonough
Voice of America (VOA)
08 January 2008

US uses Arabs to promote itself on Arabic sites
State Dept. team posts pro-US comments
DUBAI (Hayyan Nayouf,
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid)
Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Experts Assess Mideast Progress Four Decades After Six-Day War
Forty years ago, Israel entered the Six-Day War, the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Two regional experts give their perspectives on the Middle East then and now.
News Hour
Originally Aired: June 7, 2007

Name This War
BROOKE GLADSTONE and Jeffrey Goldberg
On The Media
June 01, 2007

Him and them
Al-Ahram Weekly
Issue No. 879
10 - 16 January 2007

The Palestinian Catastrophe, Then and Now
By Sandy Tolan
Embeded within Tomgram: Sandy Tolan, Deja Vu in Gaza
posted July 10, 2006 4:09 pm
The catastrophe that never ends, Tolan's release in Salon, Jul. 11, 2006

The Palestinian Diaspora: A History of Dispossession
Global Exchange
last updated October 02, 2005

Searching for meaning
The nakba was not just a tragic moment in the history of Palestinians, but touches the core of the struggle -- now as in the past -- for Arab dignity, identity and justice in the face of power
Azmi Bishara
Al-Ahram Weekly
Issue No. 690
13 -19 May 2004

The Heikal Papers: A Discourse on Politics and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser
by LCDR Youssef Aboul-Enein, MSC, USN
Strategic Insights
Volume IV, Issue 4
April 2005

Benny Morris's Reign of Error, Revisited
The Post-Zionist Critique
by Efraim Karsh
Middle East Quarterly
Spring 2005

Al-Nakba: The Continuing Catastrophe
BADIL Occasional Bulletin No. 17
BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights
May 2004

Survival of the fittest [Part I]
By Ari Shavit
Last update - 18:18 09/01/2004

Survival of the fittest (cont.) [Part II]
When ethnic cleansing is justified
By Ari Shavit
Last update - 21:45 09/01/2004

Survival of the Fittest (an interview with Historian Benny Morris) [parts I & II]
By Ari Shavit
Haaretz, Magazine Section
9 January 2004
Mirror Deir Yassin (HTML)

HTML version of Parts I & II on the Palestine Remembered site with links to items within the site

text has links to items on Survival of the fittest By Ari Shavit [Parts I & II]
Haaretz, Thu., January 08, 2004

Right of reply / The judgment of history
by Various (Responses to Benny Morris)
Ha'aretz Daily
16 January 2004

Traces of poison
Salman Abu-Sitta
Al-Ahram Weekly
Issue No. 627
27 Feb. - 5 March 2003

Flashback: Palestine's catastrophe
BBC News
Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK

The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State
By Halim Barakat
University of California
ISBN 0520084276

Gordon Housworth

InfoT Public  Strategic Risk Public  Terrorism Public  


  discuss this article

<<  |  June 2020  |  >>
view our rss feed