By Ahmad Samih Khalidi, a senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford (THE GUARDIAN, 12/05/08):
As Israel celebrates the 60th anniversary of its establishment, an inescapable counter-reality lingers over the occasion that is inextricably twinned with it. It is the nakba or catastrophe, the 60th anniversary of the destruction of Arab Palestine in 1948.
Despite a public discourse that often claimed the opposite, the Zionist movement set out to build a Jewish state in Palestine with a Jewish majority. This could only come about at the expense of the local inhabitants, the vast majority of whom were Palestinian Arabs – both Muslim and Christian. From this perspective, neither the Zionists’ intentions nor the reactions of the Palestinians are at issue: Israel could not have been built as a Jewish state except on the ruins of Arab Palestine.
In 1948, about 750,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly driven out of their homeland, creating what still stands today as the world’s largest and most longstanding refugee problem. The nakba created an entirely new politico-demographic reality. From a longstanding majority on their own soil, the Palestinians became a small, vulnerable minority and a tattered, broken nation living in exile or under foreign rule.
Nothing can convince the Palestinians that what happened to them 60 years ago was right and proper. They cannot be expected to hail the events that led to their own destruction and dispossession. They cannot be expected to extend their benediction to the establishment of Israel, or internalise its legitimacy. There can be no conceivable circumstances in which the Palestinians can concede their history in favour of the Zionist narrative, for to do so would be to deny their own.
But the conflict is not just over narratives. It is also about fundamental shifts in attitude and political perception. Almost all the major transformations have come in the wake of cataclysmic and usually unforeseen events. There is no need to welcome violence to understand its impact, neither does it follow that violence on its own necessarily leads to peace, but the history of the struggle over the land of Palestine stands in stark contrast to the adage that violence gets you nowhere.
The sad truth is that violent convulsions have always been part of the process of change in the political, psychological and material terms of the conflict. The 1948 war, including pre-state Jewish terrorism, established the state of Israel. The June 1967 war led to an Arab realisation that Israel was an irreversible reality. The 1973 war eventually brought peace with Egypt, and set the background for the Palestinian acceptance of a two-state solution. The 1982 Lebanon war resulted in the first comprehensive Arab peace offer to Israel. The 1987 Palestinian intifada drove Israel to talk to the PLO, culminating in the 1993 Oslo agreement.
Furthermore, Israel’s decision to withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000 was the result of a realisation that staying put was not worth the sacrifice. Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 was a direct consequence of the second 2000 intifada. The current debate about the need to engage Hamas is more a reflection of the Islamic movement’s military prowess than any real conviction that it is a potential partner in peace.
Today, the prospects of a final resolution of the conflict based on the two-state solution are fading as it comes up against settlement realties, Palestinian domestic divisions and the structural weaknesses of Israel’s political system. But even if such an agreement were to be reached, it would have to be ratified, implemented and sustained, and there is precious little to suggest that either side can see this through.
The alternative is unlikely to be yet another stab at a final status settlement. There is no real safety net that will allow for the process to proceed after such a failure, nor any agreed guidelines for doing so. The Palestinain Authority (PA) and its Israeli partner have no plan B, neither has the US, the putative sponsor of the process, with the international community in tow. Yet stasis is ahistorical and unsustainable. The history of the conflict suggests other alternatives, most of which point to a slide towards further and more extensive violence as an eventual catalyst of change.
As things stand, and in a situation where the vast majority of Israelis are impervious to the horrors of the occupation and shielded from its consequences, and where Palestinian aspirations are being dissipated by the daily changes on the ground and the PA’s own failures, it is hard to avoid the fear that the next shift in attitude is going to be the product of yet another cataclysm.
At the one end of the spectrum of possibilities is an open-ended and continuous spiral of conflict. At the other is a new set of relations between Arab and Jew, and new forms of association on the land of Palestine that go beyond the dying paradigm of a two-state solution towards different formulae for power-sharing, partition or sovereignty. One century after the first Zionist incursion into Palestine, and 60 years after the great determining event of 1948, it would take a brave soothsayer to predict which course will prevail.