The Nakba (catastrophe) refers to the expulsion of the Palestinians from Palestine in 1948, their transformation into refugees in the remainder of Palestinian land in Gaza and the West Bank, neighbouring Arab countries and elsewhere in the Palestinian diaspora, and the Israeli massacres and other war crimes that brought this about. The Palestinian Nakba was a catastrophe for the Arab countries that took part in a war against what they saw as gangs of fanatics bent on realising a historical myth and that ended up building camps for the Palestinian refugees in anticipation of their eventual return to their homeland.
The second Nakba occurred in June 1967 when Israel defeated three Arab countries and occupied the West Bank and Gaza. The whole of historic Palestine had now fallen under the Israeli occupation. The October War in 1973 opened horizons to a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Egypt succeeded in regaining the occupied Sinai, Syria regained some of its occupied territory and the Palestinians, through organised resistance and popular uprising, succeeded in creating the first Palestinian national governing authority on Palestinian land.
Before the first Nakba, UN Resolution 181, the Partition Resolution, gave the Jews 55 per cent and the Palestinian Arabs 44 per cent of historic Palestine and declared Jerusalem an international zone. The Palestinians and Arabs rejected the plan that they regarded as unjust and prejudicial. Israeli acceptance was tactical. It paved the way for international recognition for a state that would come to encompass 78 per cent of historic Palestine. The remaining 22 per cent became the subject for negotiations between the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) and Israel in the framework of the Oslo process, which envisioned the establishment of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel.
Today, the Palestinians are facing a looming third Nakba thanks to Washington’s so-called “Deal of the Century”. Israel has already annexed East Jerusalem and has won recognition for Greater Jerusalem as the Israeli capital from the US and other countries. Israel now plans to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Annexation includes not just the settlements, which house some 450,000 Jewish settlers, but also their surrounding land, infrastructure and connecting thoroughfares. Israel also plans to annex the Jordan Valley. Not only will the third Nakba, like its predecessors, bring expulsions of Palestinians from the annexed land, it could augur a fourth: a mass expulsion of Palestinians from the whole of Palestine.
Current Israeli moves and the American actions that have encouraged them are playing out against a regional and international backdrop completely different to that which existed at the times of the previous catastrophes. Whereas then, the Arab-Israeli conflict was the main Middle Eastern issue, today it is rivalled by several other issues, because the existential threats to Arab countries have multiplied, especially those coming from Iran and Turkey, and the entire region is bristling with heavy weapons, warring ideologies and blood-soaked legacies. The collapse of states, civil warfare and general upheaval that was ushered in by the so-called Arab Spring greatly weakened the Arab side in Arab-Israeli equations. More serious yet is the enduring Palestinian rift. The Palestinian political forces that were once able to create the first Palestinian governing authority are now effectively split into two geopolitical entities: one in Areas A and B in the West Bank and the other in Gaza. Otherwise put, the Muslim Brotherhood, in its Hamas edition, managed to achieve what it has tried and failed to do in other Arab countries. It has destroyed one of the most important prerequisites of statehood, geographic unity, even before the establishment of the state in this case. This success is due, at least in part, to the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) failure to achieve another important criterion of statehood: monopoly on the legitimate use of force. While this is the most serious case of Palestinian division, it is hardly the first. The militant Palestinian resistance has been beset by division from the outset. The PLO would lock horns with the PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) at first, and then with other organisations that sprouted and vied for leadership. Each of these organisations had their own foreign policy based on which countries they were affiliated with and which they opposed. Each had their own concept of Palestinian national security.
In the 70 years since the first Nakba, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been governed by a basic law called the power to create realities on the ground. On the one hand, waves of Jewish migrants to Palestine gave rise to permanent social and economic entities, statehood, transfers of settlers into the territories occupied in 1967 and continued construction and expansion of settlements until they reached their current size. On the other, the Palestinians succeeded in remaining on Palestinian land despite all. Currently, there are about six million Palestinians and six million Israelis in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Despite the demographic parity (Palestinians may even outnumber Israelis slightly), there is a gross geographic disparity that gives the Israelis far more land than under the Partition Resolution, much more than the boundaries before the 1967 War and even more than the situation on the ground stood at the time of the Oslo Accords. Also, despite the demographic parity, Palestinians are divided into those living in Israel, fighting for equal rights and simultaneously advocating a single civil democratic state for both Arabs and Jews, Hamas in Gaza which has its sights set on establishing an Islamic state for itself at all costs and is prepared to live with an endlessly protracted truce with Israel in order to accomplish that end, and the Palestinians in the West Bank who are divided between those who favour the one-state solution and the approximately 37 per cent who favour continuing negotiations towards the two-state solution out of the belief that the trend globally and in the US and Europe in particular may be favourable to Palestinian rights.
Paradoxically, after annexing Jerusalem and declaring its intent to unilaterally annex West Bank settlements and the Jordan Valley, Israel asked to resume negotiations with the Palestinians in the framework of the two-state solution. Effectively this would mean repartitioning the West Bank since Gaza would opt to stay out of the negotiating process. The PA, for its part, sent a message to the International Quartet (Russia, the EU, the US and the UN), expressing its willingness to resume negotiations, but on condition they pick up where they left off after the previous round. That occurred years ago, between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
The distance between the two sides is enormous. Israel wants ratification of its annexation of Palestinian territories. The PA wants to resurrect the Oslo framework and the progress it had so far made towards the realisation of an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. It is a situation that offers little prospect for concrete results, unless Israel either presses forward with its plans, as it has done before, or offers concessions on things to which it had no right to begin with, such as the Jordan Valley. It could freeze its plan to annex that in exchange for economic gains from Arab countries, for example.
Whatever the case, the Arabs need at this stage to take a fresh look at a reality shaped by a complex weave of local, regional and international factors, and to derive a new strategy accordingly.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly