On May 15, 1948, the Saturday the British Mandate in Palestine expired, armies of neighboring Arab countries attacked the Jewish community of Israel (the “Yishuv”) and laid waste to everything in their path. Their goal was to destroy the Jewish state in the Land of Israel that the leaders of the Yishuv had declared a day earlier, on Friday, May 14.
Every Jewish community that was conquered by the Arab armies was turned to rubble, and their defenders who survived the battles were either taken captive or executed. In the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem, Jordanian forces destroyed the quarter’s synagogues, some of them hundreds of years old. Similar atrocities occurred in Gush Etzion and in Mishmar HaYarden on the banks of the Jordan River, and the kibbutzim of Nitzanim and Yad Mordechai in the south. The new State of Israel, however, was able to overcome its enemies and its army stopped the Arab forces and eventually pushed them back.
The military invasion was the second phase of the campaign for the Land of Israel, which had begun back in 1947 with the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. The Arabs of the land rejected the UN proposal and began to attack Jewish communities. The Arabs, however, failed in their objective, and when all was said and done, the Jews had the upper hand. Due to this failure on the part of the local Arabs, Arab countries decided to intervene in the war and invade the new State of Israel.
The war launched by the Arab states was disastrous for the Arabs of the Land of Israel. Many of them became refugees and, needless to say, the invading Arab countries preferred to keep their conquered territories to themselves (the Gaza Strip and West Bank), and prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state in either of those places.
This disaster, therefore, wasn’t the work of some higher power, and the attempt to blame the Jews for fighting and defeating those who came to kill them doesn’t hold up to historical scrutiny. This disaster was the work of the local Arab population and its leaders, who refused proposals of compromise, opted for the path of violence and lost everything.
What has the lesson been for the Arabs since then? Apparently, it is to keep trying to do what they failed to do in 1948. This instead of the obvious conclusion that violence simply breeds more calamity for them, and that only acceptance and dialogue can extricate them from the endless cycle of bloodshed and defeat.
One clear expression of the Palestinian decision (and the decision of some Arabs of Israel) to cling to the past is Nakba Day “celebrations.” These are not events of self-introspection and commemoration, but rather of incitement, agitation and hatred that send just one message—certainly for the Jewish public that sees them—which is: We will not accept the existence of the State of Israel and the Jewish side should know that this conflict is absolute; a “zero-sum game” in which a Palestinian victory means the eradication of the Jewish state.
It’s possible, of course, to downplay these shows of hatred and what they represent, but one should be troubled by the message hidden within: Even if Israel is strong and powerful right now, it is still a “country on probation,” which in our hearts we don’t accept, and that when the time comes and the conditions arise—we will raise our heads and our hands against it. This message, which often feeds periods of unrest in the Arab sector, isn’t predicated on economic distress, nor even anger at what happens on the Temple Mount, but rather on the rejection of the State of Israel, whose apparatuses are again failing to contend with the issue.
The State of Israel has lived by its sword since its inception, and in a complex region such as ours, it will have to keep up the fight for the foreseeable future. The Palestinians were unable to defeat it, but by fomenting and cultivating a culture of “Nakba,” they don’t just hurt Israel, but mainly themselves.
It would make sense, therefore, that after 150 years of conflict they would choose a different path instead of continuing to encourage and celebrate hatred and incitement. This, it seems, won’t happen, and the Palestinians are destined to live—and continue to choose the path they are on—from catastrophe to catastrophe.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.