Nakba, the Arabic word for "catastrophe," has entered the English language in reference to the Arab–Israeli conflict. As defined by the anti-Israel website The Electronic Intifada, Nakba means "the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands [of] Palestinians from their homes and land in 1948."
...The Nakba ideology presents Palestinians as victims without choices and therefore without responsibility for the ills that befell them. It blames Israel alone for the Palestinian-refugee problem....
...In his new tour de force, Palestine Betrayed, Efraim Karsh of the University of London offers [historical accuracy]. With his customary in-depth archival research ...Karsh argues the opposite case: that Palestinians decided their own destiny and bear near-total responsibility for becoming refugees.
In Karsh's words: "Far from being the hapless victims of a predatory Zionist assault, it was Palestinian Arab leaders who, from the early 1920s onward, and very much against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival which culminated in the violent attempt to abort the U.N. partition resolution." More broadly, he observes, "there was nothing inevitable about the Palestinian–Jewish confrontation, let alone the Arab–Israeli conflict."
Yet more counterintuitively, Karsh shows that his understanding was the conventional, indeed the undisputed interpretation in the late 1940s. Only with the passage of time did "Palestinians and their Western supporters gradually rewr[i]te their national narrative," thereby making Israel into the unique culprit, the one excoriated in the United Nations, university classrooms, and editorials.
Karsh successfully makes his case by establishing two main points: that
(1) the Jewish-Zionist-Israeli side perpetually sought to find a compromise while the Palestinian-Arab-Muslim side rejected nearly all deals; and
(2) Arab intransigence and violence caused the self-inflicted "catastrophe."
The first point is more familiar, especially since the Oslo Accords of 1993, for it remains today's pattern. Karsh demonstrates a consistency of Jewish goodwill and Arab rejectionism going back to the Balfour Declaration and persisting throughout the period of British rule. (To remind, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 expressed London's intention to establish in Palestine a "national home for the Jewish people," and the British conquest of Palestine just 37 days later gave it control of Palestine until 1948.)
In the first years after 1917, Arab reaction was muted, as leaders and masses alike recognized the benefits of the dynamic Zionist enterprise that helped revive a backward, poor, and sparsely populated Palestine. Then emerged, with British facilitation, the noxious figure who would dominate Palestinian politics over the next three decades, Amin al-Husseini. From about 1921 on, Karsh documents, Zionists and Palestinians had many choices to make; while the former invariably opted for compromise, the latter relentlessly decided on extermination.
In various capacities — mufti, head of Islamic and political organizations, Hitler ally, hero of the Arab masses — Husseini drove his constituents to what Karsh calls "a relentless collision course with the Zionist movement." Hating Jews so maniacally that he went on to join the Nazi genocide machine, Husseini refused to accept their presence in any numbers in Palestine, much less any form of Zionist sovereignty.
From the early 1920s, then, one witnessed a pattern still in place and familiar today: Zionist accommodation, "painful concessions," and constructive efforts to bridge differences, met by Palestinian anti-Semitism, rejectionism, and violence.
Complementing this binary dramatis personae, and complicating its stark contrast, stood the generally more accommodating Palestinian masses, the disgracefully anti-Semitic British mandatory authority, a Jordanian king eager to rule the Jews as subjects, feckless Arab state leaders, and an erratic American government.
Despite the radicalization of Palestinian opinion by the mufti and despite the Nazi rise to power, Zionists kept seeking an accommodation. It took some years, but the mufti's zero-sum policy and eliminationism eventually convinced reluctant Labor leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, that good works would not facilitate their dream of acceptance. Still, despite repeated failures, they continued the search for a moderate Arab partner with whom to strike a deal.
In contrast, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the forerunner of today's Likud party, already in 1923 understood that "there is not even the slightest hope of ever obtaining the agreement of the Arabs of the Land of Israel to 'Palestine' becoming a country with a Jewish majority." Yet even he rejected the idea of expelling Arabs and insisted on their full enfranchisement in a future Jewish state.
This dialectic culminated in November 1947, when the United Nations passed a partition plan that nowadays would be termed a two-state solution. In other words, it handed the Palestinians a state on a silver platter. Zionists rejoiced but Palestinian leaders, foremost the malign Husseini, sourly rejected any solution that endorsed Jewish autonomy. They insisted on everything and so got nothing. Had they accepted the U.N. plan, Palestine would be celebrating its 62nd anniversary this May. And there would have been no Nakba.
The most original part of Palestine Betrayed is the half that contains a detailed review of the flight of Muslims and Christians from Palestine in the years 1947–49. Here Karsh's archival research comes into its own, allowing him to present a uniquely rich picture of the specific circumstances of Arab flight. He goes one by one through the various Arab population centers — Qastel, Deir Yassin, Tiberias, Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Safad — and then takes a close look at the villages.
...In only one case (Lydda) did Israeli troops push Arabs out. The singularity of this event bears emphasis. Karsh explains about the entire first phase of fighting: "None of the 170,000–180,000 Arabs fleeing urban centers, and only a handful of the 130,000–160,000 villagers who left their homes, had been forced out by Jews."
...In sum, Karsh explains, "it was the actions of the Arab leaders that condemned hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to exile."
In this book, Karsh establishes two momentous facts:
- that Arabs aborted the Palestinian state and
- that they caused the Nakba.