The eve of Yom al-Nakba, “the Day of the Catastrophe” for
Palestinian Arabs commemorating the displacement, dispossession,
and disenfranchisement of over 700,000 people during the years
1947-1949 and ever since, marks an opportunity to set foot on a
new common path of truth, reconciliation, and peace through

While Yom al-Nakba itself falls on the anniversary of the
declaration of the State of Israel (14 May 1948), the Nakba
experience is an everyday reality for Palestinians still
suffering the reality of Israeli apartheid as second-class
citizens of Israel; as objects of military rule in the West Bank
and strategic strangulation in Gaza; or as refugees of the
1947-1949 conflict and subsequent campaigns of ethnic cleansing
illegally denied the right to return to their ancestral

For Israel ever since its founding in 1948, as for the State of
Mississippi in the U.S.A. for a sad era extending from the
notorious Compromise of 1877 through the Civil Rights Movement
culminating in the early to middle 1960’s, the tragedy of human
oppression may be measured in good part by the gap between the
relevant constitutional charters and the facts on the ground.

In Jim Crow Mississippi, the (theoretically) governing charter
was the United States Constitution, and more specifically, for
example, the provisions of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth
Amendments guaranteeing “due process of law,” “equal protection
of the laws,” and nondiscriminatory voting rights. The world well
knows the realities of lynchings, legal segregation, and
disenfranchisement over eight shameful decades and more.

In Nakba-ist Israel, the relevant documents are the Balfour
Declaration of 1917 protecting the “civil and religious rights”
of the “non-Jewish” communities of Palestine — i.e. the
Palestinian Arabs; and United Nations General Assembly Resolution
181 (29 November 1947), requiring that the “Jewish state” to be
formed with an initial Palestinian Arab population of 40% or so
adopt a written constitution guaranteeing equal minority
citizenship and voting rights, and prohibiting discrimination by
“race, religious, or sex.”

A just peace in Palestine/Israel today, while it must address the
unique conditions of that country and its two peoples, must more
generally confront the same issues as beset the people of
Mississippi in 1960, and the people of South Africa in 1990:
equal citizenship and democratic power sharing. The common theme
of all three struggles is “Peace Through Inclusion.”

May 13, 1948: A tale of two communities

The eve of Yom al-Nakba is an opportunity to reflect on two
tragedies in 1948’s chronicle of humanitarian disaster which may
yet point the way to peace with justice and reconciliation.

After the massacre of the inhabitants of the Palestinian Arab
village of Deir Yassin on 9 April 1948 by Zionist paramilitary
forces, many other Palestinians fled their ancestral towns and
villages in fear of a similar fate, a fear often encouraged by
psychological warfare and “whispering campaigns” on the part of
what would soon become the military and military intelligence
apparatus of the State of Israel.

While dozens of massacres of Palestinian Arabs ranging from Deir
Yassin with its 125 to 200 or more dead (estimates widely vary)
and Dawayima (29 October 1948, evidently with even more victims)
punctuated the ethnic cleaning of al-Nakba, one of the less
common massacres of Zionist Jews occurred on 13 May 1948 at Kfar
Etzion, a community located in the land then allocated by
Resolution 181 for an “Arab state” (i.e. a Palestinian Arab
state), and now part of what is called the West Bank.

The massacre at Kfar Etzion was evidently in part an example of
what Robert McNamera, himself an architect of the Indochina War
with its many massacres by ground forces and from the air, has
termed “action-reaction”: a response to the massacres of
Palestinians at Deir Yassin and elsewhere, perpetuating the cycle
of violence. Here is one account according to Wikipedia.

However, the immoral and deadly logic of “action-reaction”
should not obscure the utter strategic and moral asymmetry
between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews both in 1948 and
today. The purpose of understanding the tragedies of both sides
should not be to draw or imply a false moral equation, but to
seek a common human ground that can resolve the real and
asymmetrical injustices of al-Nakba over the last 63 years.

One of the few Jewish survivors of Kfar Etzion was a woman, Eliza
Fauktwanger, who had sought to defend this community as a member
of the Palmach or “Strike Force” (as it is often translated into
English) of the military organization Hagannah (“Defense”) which
would form the nucleus of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

She survived with the assistance of a soldier of the
Transjordanian Arab Legion, Captain Hikmat Mihyar, who reportedly
rescued her from an attempted sexual assault by some Arab
irregulars and treated her humanely, declaring, “You are under my

A similar anecdote tells of how, elsewhere in Palestine during
1948, a Palestinian Arab woman, fearing sexual assault or worse
from Israeli forces, was assured by an Israeli soldier speaking
fluent Arabic that she was perfectly safe.

Such acts of humanity and generosity occurred on all sides during
al-Nakba — but were not enough to halt or reverse the ethnic
cleansing of over 700,000 Palestinians from within what would
become the 1949 borders of the State of Israel. A far smaller
number of Jews were ethnically cleansed from places such as Kfar
Etzion which according to Resolution 181 should have become part
of a Palestinian Arab state with equal rights for these minority

Another tragic incident of 13 May 1948 illustrates this general
pattern of Palestinian Catastrophe: the ethnic cleansing of the
community of Najd, now the site of the Israeli town of Sderot,
from time to time in recent years the target of rockets fired
from Gaza.

As it cannot too often be emphasized, missiles such as rockets or
even the more emblematic stones have not been the most common or
essential forms of Palestinian resistance, but rather nonviolent
action in its many varieties, ranging from strikes, boycotts, and
demonstrations to the elemental daring of _sumud_, “steadfastness”
or sheer staying power, as we might say, the courage to continue
living in one’s country despite cruel and even sometimes lethal
pressures to make one leave.

Today Gush Etzion, the site of the May 13 massacre of 63 years
ago, is again populated by Jews — but under military rule which
imposes a crushing burden on their Palestinian neighbors, rather
than the system of equal citizenship and inclusive democracy
contemplated by Resolution 181 through all parts of what we now
call Palestine/Israel.

Meanwhile, the former inhabitants of Najd and their descendants
remain in exile, not by choice but because of their continual
denial by Israel of the basic Right of Return. It is tragic and
counterproductive, but not inexplicable, that some residents of
Gaza, the house of “absentees” (refugees officially denaturalized
by Israel through its Absentee Property Law in violation of
Resolution 181) and land of the dispossessed, should have
attempted to avenge the bitterness of their “dream deferred” by
firing rockets at the Israeli Jews now inhabiting Sderot/Najd.

As the Palestinian movement increasingly affirms the conclusion
that violence, however small a part of the resistance or modest
in scale by comparison to Israel’s overwhelming military might
and willingness to use it to suppress this resistance whether
armed or otherwise, is incompatible with the predominant strategy
of nonviolence and _sumud_, one wonders if the symbolic rocket
bombardment of Sderot/Najd will be replaced by peaceful but
determined demonstrations for open housing and integration,
reminiscent of those led by Martin Luther King in the suburbs of
Chicago as well as the South.

Overcoming al-Nakba means moving beyond not only the violence of
armed conflict, of action-reaction, but also the structural
violence of involuntary exile and disenfranchisement for the
Palestinian refugees of 1948. This means nothing less than the
ethnic _uncleansing_ of Israel, and more specifically of the
portion within the 1949 armistice lines or “Green Line,”
regardless of what arrangements are made as to the territories
occupied in 1967. (In my view, incorporation of these territories
into the State of Israel with equal citizenship for all is the
most just and practical solution.)

Just as Israel Jews have returned to Gush Etzion, so Palestinian
Arab refugees must be free to return to the neighborhoods of Deir
Yassin and Najd/Sderot and other communities whose names are
synonymous with the course of al-Nakba itself. While the homes
they or their forbears inhabited may have been long since
destroyed or occupied by other families, they have a right under
international law to return to the “vicinity” of those homes,
adding to the ethnic and cultural diversity which is a mark of
Israel today.

Such a return for refugees who choose repatriation, however, must
be in one respect, as the Palestinian refugee movement agrees,
radically different from the post-1967 occupation of the West
Bank of which the reestablishment of Gush Etzion was a part. No
new displacement must occur, nor new oppression: rather, equal
citizenship and peace through inclusion must be the emerging
order of the dawning day when we may truly begin moving beyond
the six decades and more of al-Nakba.

Margo Schulter

Margo Schulter