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Review: The Palestine Nakba

Bernard Regan reviews Nur Masalha’s account of Palestinian history and the significance of the Nakba in the Israel-Palestine conflict

June 18, 2012
6 min read

If most of us were asked to recommend books on Palestine and the Palestinians we would almost certainly list authors like Avi Schlaim, Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé. Some might suggest Edward Said but too few would propose the long list of Palestinian authors who have written on Palestinian history. The works of historians like Rashid Khalidi, Abboushi, Kayyali, Antonius and many more all too often go unmentioned. It has been as if many in the West have not been prepared to accept accounts about what happened to the Palestinians unless the author was not a Palestinian.

Nur Massalha is another author people interested in the history of Palestine should be familiar with. For those who aren’t this book on the Nakba is a good place to start for those who want to explore accounts following the events that lead to the establishment of the state of Israel following British imperialism’s occupation and the suppression of the people of Palestine.

Massalha’s book provides a rich and challenging account of the Nakba, expanding our knowledge of the history of the Palestinians and raising some fundamental questions about just who writes history and how it is written. In my view this book breaks new ground in a number of ways which may well encourage a much wider debate on authorship and narrative in the history of Palestine.

It is a fact that the word ‘Nakba’ remains largely unknown to much of the world – and to others it is just the name given by Palestinians to 1948. Its significance to the Palestinians is of course much greater and Masalha’s new book begins to redress this, revealing its multi-layered character and the way in which the Israeli state, its army and agencies like the Jewish National Fund worked and are continuing to work assiduously to erase any record of the Palestinians from their homeland.

As Masalha says, ‘The Palestinians share common experiences with other indigenous peoples who have their narrative denied, their material culture destroyed and their histories erased or reinvented by European white settlers and colonisers.’ What might shock the reader is the systematic nature of this process which was inflicted on the Palestinians. The book details some of the massacres which took place, many after fighting had finished. Lydda where between 250-400 men and women were gunned down inside the city whilst hundreds more died of starvation fleeing it.  The list of atrocities has never fully been catalogued but the numbers in brackets indicate just some of the ‘white flag’ massacres that were carried out by Zionist para-militaries which subsequently merged to form the Israeli army: Balad al Shaykh (14); Semiramis Hotel, Jerusalem (12); Al Husayniyya (15); Safad (70); Acre (100); Al Tantura (70); Asdud (10); Safsaf (50); al-Dawayma (80). In each case I have quoted it is the lower figure of what is believed to have happened.  The list is much longer and does not include the cases of rape and sexual assault carried out by Zionist forces in towns like Acre, Al Tantura, Qula and more, the victims murdered more often than not after their assault.

Towns and villages have been destroyed and their names changed, mosques turned into bars and restaurants, theme parks and nature reserves developed on Palestinian lands. Moshe Dayan, a former General in the Israeli Defence Force and Foreign Minister, said, ‘Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these villages and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist.’ The object quite literally was to wipe the Palestinians off the map.

Many academics perpetuate the myth that there are no Palestinian archives. The truth is that many Palestinians records have been destroyed, books burnt and archives plundered, in Beirut and Jerusalem to name but two cases.  In an act of what Masalha, and others, have called ‘memoricide’ the aim is to remove all evidence of the Palestinians presence in the land substituting for it a synthetic history of Jewish continuity.  The expression ‘History is written by the victor’ has almost become a cliché but in contrast to these one sided and highly partisan accounts Masalha explains the importance of the role of Oral History in recapturing the past. He rightly asserts the validity of this process as way of regaining authorship of Palestinian history.  It is an important way for the victim or subaltern, to regain their voice.

There is much to commend in this book, not least the critique of the ‘new historians’ and analysis of the different approaches adopted by Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim and Ilan Pappé in particular. The three, once friends, have of course long since parted company with Pappé once describing Morris as a ‘Zionist fascist’.  Differentiating between Morris and Shlaim on the one hand and Pappé on the other, Maslaha points out that Morris and Shlaim write as though everything began in 1967 and the events of 1948 belong to another time. Their weakness, he identifies as stemming from their inability or refusal, unlike Pappé, to really accept the nature of the ethnic cleansing undertaken by the Zionist forces.  Morris’s subsequent claim that the problem was that the Zionists did not go far enough in 1948 has led to his work being put under a more rigorous scrutiny.  Shlaim’s work however has not been subject to a similar process of evaluation and although far from the position of Morris, it suffers from the fact that it considers the contenders of 1948, the Zionist terrorist and the Palestinians, as engaged in a symmetrical struggle.

The Palestine Nakba is a major contribution to redressing the gaps in our understanding of the Nakba and the way in which it is presented in the west. Palestinian history didn’t begin with the ‘new historians’: Nur Maslaha’s work and that of the large number of Palestinian historians that there are, deserve to be much more widely read and appreciated. Begin by buying this book!

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