GEORGE BROWNING. The power of narrative: Nakba, annexation and antisemitism

Friday, 15 May, was Nakba Day, ‎ Nakba, (al-Nakbah, literally disaster, catastrophe, or cataclysm), is a commemoration of the events in 1948/1949 which saw approximately half the pre-war Palestinian Arab population driven from their homes.

  • Secretary of State Pompeo is currently in Israel discussing Israel’s proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley, a significant proportion of Area C in the Palestinian West Bank. AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) claims annexation will not complicate Israel/US relations.
  • Despite advice from Jerusalem UN chiefs that children in detention be released to protect them in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic, Israel continues to detain large numbers of Palestinian children.
  • Governments around the world are being pressured to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, at a time when the accusation of antisemitism is being weaponised to protect Israel from criticism.

The thread running through these realities is not hard to follow.

Historical details of the 1948/1949 Arab Israeli conflict are highly contested, as is the manner and implication of Britain’s withdrawal. But the indisputable facts are that 400 – 600 Palestinian villages were raised, Palestinian urban life was virtually wiped out and a majority of those who fled, or were driven out, have been denied any right to return, despite the fact that many still sleep on a pillow under which rest the keys to their still cherished home.

There can be no doubt that the holocaust stands amongst the most horrific crimes of the modern era and one of the worst ever to be perpetrated by humanity against fellow human beings. So horrendous was this evil that minimising it, or denying it, is aptly described as a crime. However, because this was so awful, there has been a tendency to down-play or minimise, by comparison, other crimes against humanity. This is particularly true of the Nakba which has been downplayed and minimised all too often by international media. It is an inconvenient truth. The State of Israel requires the minimising or downplaying of Palestinian suffering to promote its colonising strategy without accruing opprobrium. To admit a majority Palestinian population prior to WW2 with cultural rights, property rights, and historical connection to the land which European colonisers could never claim, is to undermine the Zionist settlement enterprise. International law, constantly re-enforced through UN resolutions, requires that these rights are honoured and protected. Israel, with the protective covering of the US and the shameful acquiescence of Australia, denies any breaking of international law, implying these rights do not exist.

It is rightly a crime to minimise or deny the holocaust, but equally it is becoming a crime in Israel to support the facts of history, that the Palestinian people have suffered the Nakba, and that the Nakba continues to be perpetrated. To lay bare these truths is to be inflicted with the antisemitic slur.

For some time, Netanyahu has been promoting the annexation of the Jordan Valley, even proposing a timeline for its implementation. The Jordan Valley is a significant proportion of the West Bank and is its most fertile – it is called the food bowl of Palestine. When the Oslo accord was struck in the 1990’s there was to be a five-year transition towards Palestinian sovereignty. To facilitate progress, the Palestinian Authority was established, and the West Bank areas A, B and C were created. Area C, the majority of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley remains, to this day, totally under Israeli control. In area C it is virtually impossible for a Palestinian to gain a building permit, on the contrary hundreds of houses, even whole communities, have been demolished. Clearly Israel seeks a cleansing of Palestinians from Area C. Cleansing enables the exponential expansion of settlement communities on Palestinian land, further thwarting the delivery of a two-State solution. On a daily basis, these settlers harass, demean, burn, destroy, the property and lives of the Palestinian community with the same motive in mind, to cleanse the area of the Palestinian population.

The proposed annexation of the Jordan Valley makes this motive abundantly clear. The Nakba is far from concluded. Annexation in the Wes Bank was a central plank in the recent negotiation for an Israeli unity party. Annexation is occurring in fact, even if not yet finally declared. It is clear the dominant political parties in Israel have no intention of supporting a two-State solution. If there are not to be two States, then there is one State.

The incremental continuation of the Nakba, the involuntary removal of Palestinian people and the denial of their human rights, must come to an end. But how is this going to happen? It has been suggested the Palestinian leadership might abandon the Palestinian Authority, hand back whatever limited responsibility they have retained (largely exercised on behalf of Israel) and tell Israel they can annex everything with a view to the establishment of a bi-cultural, prosperous, democratic state. This is of course exactly what Israel’s political interests do not want. They do not want to include Palestinians as equals in a democratic society. Israel’s political leadership want maximum Palestinian geography with minimal demography. They wish the Palestinian population to be corralled into tiny pockets with no contiguous connection and with absolutely no capacity to develop a viable, vibrant, autonomous state.

Israel must defend its actions against the claim that it is deploying ethnic cleansing and establishing an apartheid state. If these charges are inaccurate, a dreadful distortion of truth, explain why. What words would better describe the present Israeli strategy?

Let me conclude where I began, with the continuing struggle of Israeli politics for a dominant moral narrative against a background which contradicts it. Facts do not matter if you possess a winning narrative.

I warmly commend Sophie McNeil’s recent book, “We can’t say we didn’t know”. Her anecdotal accounts throw light upon Middle Eastern struggles (and foreign meddling) from Yemen to Syria. Her chapter on Palestine reveals what we already know, Israel will use every tool at its disposal to insist that its narrative must be accepted and believed and any who dare to publicise facts showing the narrative to be threadbare are to be reviled, condemned and if possible punished.

Yes of course there are many other scandalous atrocities in the world, but this is the only one that I am aware of where my government continues to intervene in defense of the oppressor.

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George Browning is president of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN) and a retired Anglican Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn.

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