Nakba Day

Palestinians and their supporters around the world refer to 15 May as “Nakba Day” — a day marking the anniversary of the creation of the State of Israel.

This year, the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign is calling for a “workplace day of action” on 15 May. The proposed actions include:

“Organise a short stoppage or lunch-time walk-out in solidarity with Palestinians. Gather outside your workplace for a photo or organise a delegation to visit a nearby student encampment if there is one in your town or city. … Organise a lunch-time teach-in or film screening to educate colleagues about the Palestinian struggle for freedom.” And so on.

But what actually happened on 15 May 1948? As the PSC explains in one of their “factsheets”:

“1948: What Israel calls its ‘war of independence’, Palestinians call the Nakba (catastrophe) as Israel’s forces raze over 400 villages to the ground and drive more than 750,000 Palestinians from their homes.”

In the view of groups like the PSC, in 1948 the Jews arrived in Palestine for no obvious reason, launched brutal and unprovoked attacks on the innocent and defenceless civilian population among the Arab Palestinians, burned their villages to the ground and expelled hundreds of thousands of them. End of story.

But it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Just three years before, the Second World War had ended. The German Nazi state had murdered over six million innocent Jews, including a million children. Thousands of survivors were trapped in displaced persons camps in Cyprus and elsewhere, desperate to come home to a country that would have them.

On 15 May 1948, the leadership of the Jewish community in British Mandatory Palestine proclaimed the creation of the first independent Jewish state in nearly 2,000 years.

Their leader was David Ben Gurion, the head of Mapai, Israel’s social democratic party. Ben Gurion had previously headed up the Histadrut trade union federation as well. Politics in the Jewish community in Palestine at that time was dominated by the moderate Left. The political party that eventually grew into Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud was then a fringe group, never winning an election during the first thirty years of the state’s existence.

A coalition of all the political parties from left to right rallied around the new state. Even Meir Vilner, the leader of the Palestine Communist Party, was one of the signatories of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.

The declaration made an appeal to the whole Arab world. “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness,” it said, “and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land.”

What happened next is not in dispute: The Arab countries had rejected the Partition Plan which had been adopted by the United Nations General Assembly the previous year. With the end of the Mandate and the withdrawal of the British forces on 14 May and the declaration of Israeli independence the following day, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq then launched a multi-front invasion of the newly-born Jewish state.

This rejection of Partition followed by the Arab invasion of Israel is the starting point for everything that followed. This is where the Palestinian tragedy begins.

But there is not a word about it on the PSC’s “factsheet”. It is unlikely to be discussed at the “lunch-time teach-ins” being organised as part of the “workplace day of action” this year.

The essential facts of the story — of the UN Partition Plan, its rejection by the Arab states, and the invasion which followed, triggering decades of conflict — are not in dispute. No reputable historian claims otherwise.

But maybe the Palestinians are right to refer to 15 May 1948 as “Nakba Day”. Because on that day, the reactionary, authoritarian leaderships of the Arab countries sought to crush the infant Jewish state before it could stand on its feet.

Their failure to do so, and the surprising military victory of the Jewish forces against all odds, ensured that no independent Palestinian state emerged in 1948 or since.

That is the true meaning of “Nakba Day” for the Palestinians.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.