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May 21, 2001
A Second Nakba ?

By Uri Avnery


I was giving a lecture last week to a group of Palestinian intellectuals and foreign diplomats in East Jerusalem, when a Palestinian professor asked: "Do you think that a second Nakba is possible?"

I was going to answer with a categorical "No". But suddenly I was seized by doubt: Was I lying to him? Was I lying to myself? When a Palestinian says "Nakba" (disaster), he means the expulsion of more than half the Palestinian people from the territories that became the State of Israel in the course of the 1948 war. Can the present confrontation lead to a similar disaster?

On the face of it, it seems impossible. How indeed? Who even thinks about it? Are Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres capable of it? Definitely not! But this week some disturbing speeches were made in the Knesset. Doubly disturbing, because they were broadcast on television without anyone being shocked or protesting. It was said that if the Palestinians continue with their violent acts, they should not be surprised if a second nakba befalls them.

Who said this? Not Minister Rehavam Ze'evi, who is already boring the public with his endless prattle about "transferring" the Palestinians. Not Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who looks and sounds like an extra-terrestrial from a distant Russian planet, but the "moderate" Minister of Justice, Me'ir Shitreet and the Ecology Minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, both members of Sharon's own party.

If some German neo-Nazis or the Austrian Joerg Haider had said anything like that about the foreigners in their countries, there would have been a world-wide protest. Here the speeches were met with indifference, as if they concerned the weather.

That's scary, because it shows that these things are "in the air". Massive expulsion, "transfer", "nakba", are gradually becoming legitimate, even routine threats.

In the 1948 war, some 750,000 people were uprooted from their homes and lands. It is not so important exactly how this happened; how many fled in order to save their children from the approaching fighting, how many fled in panic after Dir Yassin and similar massacres, how many were physically expelled by the victorious Israeli forces. It's more important to realize that the expulsion was an integral part of that war. The Jewish side wanted to acquire as much territory as possible in order to establish a homogeneous Jewish state, without Arabs. The Arab side wanted to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state and give the whole country back to the Arabs. Therefore, there was no need for a special decision on expulsion; things were done more or less automatically. Whether the intention was there beforehand or not; when the opportunity presented itself, it was seized. Now Ariel Sharon says that the present confrontation ("Arab violence") is a continuation of the 1948 war. Sharon was a soldier in that war, therefore he knows what happened then. Meaning: the possibility of ethnic cleansing is indeed hovering somewhere in the air.

There is no need for Sharon and Peres to sit down and take an official decision. It is enough to tell the army that every officer has a "free hand" - as they already have been told. Nothing more is needed. When the opportunity arises, it may happen.

In the last few days, a question was raised in several of the media: Is Israel interested in escalating the confrontation? The commentators who ask this question point to the facts, but wonder about the reasons. The facts say that there is now a fierce competition between army officers, especially the brigade and battalion commanders, about who can escalate more. It is orchestrated by Shaul Mofaz, the chief-of-Staff, who in turn is pushed by Ariel Sharon and his hatchet-man, Fuad Ben-Eliezer.

The escalation process is manifest. First snipers were employed to kill unarmed demonstrators. Then helicopters, tanks and cannons were engaged. Now fighter planes are sent into action. The incursions into the Palestinian territories have become routine. Acts like the killing of the five sleeping policemen in Beitounia and the bombing of the nine prison-guards in Nablus are announced on television like the weather report, even if some day they may reappear in indictments of an international war crimes court.

This is just the beginning. The escalation is built into the process: Palestinian mortars and Israeli fighter planes, Islamic suicide bombers and Jewish settlers. Acts that today seem extreme may be looked upon tomorrow as moderate, acts bordering on war crimes are considered as expressions of self-restraint.

What motivates Mofaz and his officers? The naive answer is that they act like officers in every colonial war. Generals facing a popular uprising do not understand the phenomena and are not trained to deal with it. They are lost. Their only answer is force, more force and even more force, until the whole colonial apparatus comes crashing down. That's what happened to the French in Algeria, to the British in all their colonies, to the Americans in Vietnam, to the Soviets in Afghanistan, to the Russian in Chechnia. Now it is happening to us.

But one can find a much more sinister reason for the escalation. When Shitreet and his like say that the escalation may lead to a second nakba, one can turn the sentence around; in order to make a second nakba possible, there must be an escalation. This can be a conscious, semi-conscious or even unconscious intention.

It is possible to foresee that in a few weeks or months Israeli escalation of the conflict will lead to the massive employment of fighter planes, tanks and infantry against the civilian population, in order to induce hundreds of thousand to flee. It will be explained as a "reaction" to Palestinian attacks. The settlers will cooperate enthusiastically, helping to cleanse the villages and to eradicate them from the face of the earth. Their spokesmen already demand just that.

Militarily, this will not be difficult. Even now, all the Palestinian enclaves are surrounded by soldiers and settlers.

Is it possible politically? The heart wants to answer with a categorical "No". The brain is not so sure. After the Americans put a veto on the sending of an international peace force to the Palestinian territories and desisted from preventing just such a calamity; who knows what they will do tomorrow, after an intensive brain-washing campaign? Will Europe, which has always been silent, speak out in such a situation? Will the feeble United Nations be able to intervene in spite of the American attitude? Will the "world's conscience" wake up? Will "enlightened international public opinion" rise up?

Quite possibly, yes. There is a vast difference between 1948 and now. Then, Israel was seen as the state of the holocaust victims, which could do no wrong. Then, there was no television, which could bring the dreadful scenes into every living-room around the world. Then, there were no active peace and human rights groups in every country, able and ready to influence public opinion. The world after Kosovo is not the world before Kosovo, a fact Ariel Sharon, the enthusiastic supporter of Milosevic, should ponder.

Israel is a strong country, but not strong enough to withstand the onslaught of an aroused world public opinion. If I were a brigade commander in the Israeli army, I would start right now to read the protocols of the Hague trials very carefully.

But as an Israeli, I put my trust in the Israeli public. In spite of the intensive brain-washing that is going on in Israel these days; in spite of the general silence of the lambs while terrible things are happening every day in the occupied territories; in spite of my bitter disappointment with our media; I am certain that at the right moment Israeli public opinion will rise up against an act of mass expulsion. The hundreds, who even now demonstrate almost daily against the actions of Mofaz-Sharon-Peres, will turn into hundreds of thousands; as happened after Sabra and Shatila.

At the decisive moment, the Israelis will say: NO.

Editor's Note: Uri Avneri is the 'grand old man' of the Israeli Peace Movement. His articles can be found on www.gush-shalom.org and www.mediamonitors.net.