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The real origin of the Palestinians’ catastrophe

They rejected a two-state solution with Israel in 1948 and have paid the price ever since.

A Palestinian woman refugee and her child are separated from their home by the "green line" after the 1948 war.AFP

May 15 is the anniversary of Israel’s birth in 1948. It is also the date on which Palestinians in recent years have commemorated their “nakba,” or “catastrophe.” The events of 1948 were indeed catastrophic for the Arab refugees, as many as 700,000, who fled their homes to escape the war that raged after Israel proclaimed its independence. But the nakba was self-inflicted. Contrary to the mythology promoted in many quarters today, the war that created the refugees was not launched by the infant Jewish state in order to drive the Arabs out. It was launched by the Arabs to smother that infant in its crib.

The contemporary nakba narrative is a masterpiece of ahistorical distortion and antisemitic propaganda. It casts the events of 75 years ago as a monstrous crime successfully committed by Jews against Palestinians. The opposite is closer to the truth.


In November 1947, the United Nations concluded that the only way to bring peace to Palestine was to divide it between the two populations that had “irreconcilable” claims to the land. By a lopsided majority, the General Assembly voted to partition the land — which had been under British rule since 1917 — into “independent Arab and Jewish states.” The Jews agreed to this two-state solution. The Arabs, as they had in the past and would in the future, refused. They immediately commenced a campaign of murderous aggression to prevent a Jewish state from becoming a reality. On May 15, 1948, the Zionist leaders, in accordance with the UN resolution, proclaimed Israel’s independence. Within hours, bombs were falling on Tel Aviv. Arab armies from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Transjordan, and Egypt crossed Israel’s borders. “This will be a war of extermination and a momentous massacre,” promised Azzam Pasha, the secretary-general of the Arab League, “which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades.”

They had every expectation of a quick victory. How could Israel, with a minuscule population of 600,000, hope to withstand the combined might of Arab nations that numbered in the tens of millions? “It does not matter how many [Jews] there are,” Azzam said. “We will sweep them into the sea.


But Israel survived the Arab onslaught, albeit at a steep price — fully 1 percent of its population was killed in the fighting. Across the Middle East, meanwhile, antisemitic fury erupted against Jews living in Arab countries. “Jews In Grave Danger In All Moslem Lands” reported The New York Times. Within months, pogroms, expropriations, and expulsions had driven as many as 850,000 Jews to flee. Most made their way to Israel, which accepted them as new citizens. Over time, the traumatized and impoverished refugees rebuilt their lives, dealing with their shock and loss as best they could, starting over in a new country and moving on.

No one today speaks of the Jewish “nakba” of 1948. That is because Israel strove to absorb the Jewish refugees into mainstream society. By contrast, many of the Palestinians who fled Israel were housed by the surrounding Arab states in permanent refugee camps, barred from citizenship, deliberately not integrated into the societies where they had ended up. With cruel cynicism, three generations of Palestinians have been encouraged to see themselves as victims of an unspeakably terrible calamity — and to believe that it is only a matter of time until the Jewish state is eliminated and replaced by an unpartitioned Palestine, the world’s 22nd Arab nation.


It is hard to overstate just how abnormal and unhealthy this is. In the years following World War II, scores of millions of human beings became refugees. At least 12 million ethnic German civilians, to take one example, were expelled from their homes in Central and Eastern Europe. The 1947 partition of India and Pakistan turned 14 million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims into refugees, unleashing a wave of ghastly violence that left as many as 2 million dead. Nearly all wars produce refugees, and refugees’ best hope nearly always lies in resettlement — not in clinging to fantasies of return, fueled by hatred and channeled into terrorism.

“Palestinian nationalism,” Edward Said told an interviewer in 1999, “was based on driving all Israelis out.” That attitude is the true Palestinian catastrophe.

Much of the Arab world has abandoned the inflexible rejection of Jewish statehood that led them to attack Israel in 1948. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s historic outreach to Israel in 1977 culminated in a peace treaty signed in 1979. Jordan followed suit in 1994. Three years ago, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan signed the Abraham Accords. There is reason to hope that Saudi Arabia may be the next to normalize relations with the Jewish state.


Of all the world’s Arabs, though, it is the Palestinians who would gain the most from casting off the hatred that has kept them immiserated for so long. In 1948, they said no to partition, believing that a short “war of extermination” would put a quick end to the newborn Jewish state and leave the whole of Palestine for the Arabs. The Zionist leaders pleaded with them to reconsider. “We appeal . . . to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel,” the Israeli declaration of independence implores, “to preserve peace and participate in the building up of the state on the basis of full and equal citizenship and representation in all its institutions.” But the Arabs spurned the Jews’ plea. The nakba was the result.

For 75 years, Palestinians have paid a painful price for their refusal to grasp the hand of friendship that was offered to them. Will it be another 75 before they are ready to live in peace with their neighbors? The catastrophe of 1948 was self-inflicted. It doesn’t have to be self-perpetuating.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit