The problem with normalizing the Nakba
Benny Morris’s recent interview in Haaretz has been summed up in one of his quoted statements about the 1948 Nakba, which he described as “a very clean war, all in all”. For Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed from their lands and subsequent generations faced with perpetual dispossession, the Israeli historian’s words ring cruel, dishonest and untrue.
The metaphor of a “clean war”, however, goes beyond generalising the Nakba denial, which is nothing new in terms of Israel’s fabricated narratives. Morris has articulated a normalised Nakba, which is also one of the reasons why the international community has exploited the Palestinian cause for so long and will continue to do so, as long as the complicity in creating Israel’s colonial presence in Palestine remains intact.
This complicity goes beyond the 1948 Nakba. Morris gives an erroneous context to the Nakba, stating, “What happened to the Palestinians since 1948 is a certain oppression, which includes, here and there, a small number of crimes – but that happened within the framework of a war between two national movements, at whose door the blame can be laid.” From this false premise, Morris goes on to dispel arguments that Israel committed genocide and attributed usage of the term to purported “Palestinian propaganda”. According to Morris, it is the numbers that define genocide, not the intent.
Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide clearly specifies the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Acts of genocide include deliberate killing, physical or mental harm, exacerbating humanitarian conditions to bring physical destruction, imposing birth control measures and forced transfer of children from one group to another. Contrary to Morris’s claims, statistics are not a determining factor in deciphering genocide.
The UN’s refusal to consider Israel’s genocidal intent and practices when it comes to Palestinians has resulted in a situation where the international community will not admit that the elimination of Palestinian rights is a direct result of Israel’s colonial violence. International politics is based upon compromising historic Palestine to the detriment of Palestinians – the two-state paradigm is the most obvious example of forcing a compromise to eliminate Palestinian rights.
This point is amplified by Morris when he speaks of the need, from an Israeli perspective to fake diplomatic intent to pursue the two-state compromise. “You have to look like you’re pursuing peace, even if you’re not.” The statement is reflective of how Israel has shunned all forms of accountability as long as the rhetoric satisfies the requirements of diplomatic engagement.
Morris exposes slivers of how Israel manipulates history to justify its present politics. Diluting Zionist atrocities has enabled Israel and the international community to alter perceptions in the aftermath of the Nakba. While the international community has refrained from backing Israel’s denial of the existence of indigenous Palestinians, it has tacitly played along with the systematic dispossession of Palestinians.
The Nakba was diluted to a conflict, with the aim being to normalise Zionist ethnic cleansing into a series of events determined by two equal participants. In turn, the international community was also able to deflect attention away from the fact that it failed to judge Israel by its own conventions as regards to genocide. This has enabled it to pursue the politics of a hypothetical two-state framework with absolute impunity.
It is true that Morris’s interview contributes to the erasure of Palestinian history and collective memory. Yet isolating this process without ruminating about its implications on present-day politics is equally dangerous. Israel has relied on its historians to disseminate its narratives and it does so to further its political gains. For Israel, there is barely any need to justify its colonisation of Palestine due to the level of international complicity in Zionist endeavours.
For Palestinians, this erasure is an impediment not only to assert their historical narratives, but also to make the case for their anti-colonial struggle at an international level. It is important not to confine Morris’s words to the academic context which he speaks of; his words contain political significance that not only damages Palestinians’ prospects, but also reveals how the dynamics of collusion between Israel and the international community have utilised compromise to eliminate the implementation of Palestinian rights and, as a result, reduce the space to claim Palestinian narratives.