The "Nakba" is Not What You Think It is

The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe (cĀm al-Nakba). Read the surprising, little-known reason below.

Tags: Nakba Day
Daniel Pinner

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Daniel Pinner

Nakba and Nationalism

On Wednesday 15th of May there were ceremonies and parades throughout the world to mark the 65th anniversary of the “Nakba” – the Disaster, which is meant to be the establishment of the State of Israel.

Google “Nakba Day”, and one of the first results (maybe the first result, depending on your location and language) will be the Wikipedia entry “Nakba Day”.The Wikipedia entry starts by defining with the definition: “Nakba Day (Arabic: يوم النكبة Yawm an-Nakba, meaning ‘Day of the Catastrophe’) is generally commemorated on 15 May, the day after the Gregorian calendar date for Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For the Palestinians it is an annual day of commemoration of the displacement that followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948”.

So far, so simple. The re-establishment of Jewish independence in the ancient Jewish homeland was, for some people, the day of catastrophe.

But just three short paragraphs into the Wikipedia article comes this intriguing historical titbit: “Prior to its adoption by the Palestinian nationalist movement, the ‘Year of the Catastrophe’ among Arabs referred to 1920, when European colonial powers partitioned the Ottoman Empire into a series of separate states along lines of their own choosing”.

The footnote there quotes The Arab awakening: the story of the Arab national movement by George Antonius: “The year 1920 has an evil name in Arab annals: it is referred to as the Year of the Catastrophe (cĀm al-Nakba). It saw the first armed risings that occurred in protest against the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries. In that year, serious outbreaks took place in Syria, Palestine, and Iraq”.

The Wikipedia entry gives no further information about those protests against “the post-War settlement imposed by the Allies on the Arab countries”. But what that silence conceals, like the Arab countries’ behaviour during the “Nakba” of 1948, is central to understanding the truth about Arab nationalism

The Arab uprisings of 1920 in British-mandated Palestine were largely instigated and led by Mohammed Amin el-Husseini. Husseini was born in Jerusalem, then an obscure village in the Turkish Ottoman Empire, in 1895 and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1913, thereby earning the title Haj. With the outbreak of the First World War he became an artillery officer in the Ottoman Army – a natural enough step for a loyal denizen of the Ottoman Empire.

Following his country’s defeat in 1918 he founded the Jerusalem branch of the Syrian al-Nadi al-Arabi (“Arab Club”) in 1919, and at the same time began writing articles for the Jerusalem newspaper Suriyya al-Jannubiyya (“Southern Syria”).

All this gives an accurate indication of Husseini’s ideology and of the predominant Arab ideology at the time. He was an Arab nationalist (what in today’s world would be termed a pan-Arabist). None of the modern Arab states east of Egypt yet existed: Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait – all would be invented very soon afterwards by European colonial interests, primarily Britain and France. Husseini, and indeed the Arab population as a whole, saw the entire region as Syria.

(In the 1930’s Haj Amin el-Husseini would go on to found the World Islamic Congress and the al-jihad al-muqaddas (Holy Jihad) youth movement. In the summer of 1941 he would support the pro-Nazi revolution in Iraq and the farhud pogrom in which hundreds of Jews were murdered. Upon the defeat of the pro-Nazi coup by British forces, Husseini fled to Persia. Ending up in Berlin on 6th November, he was formally received by Hitler three weeks later. Husseini would go on to recruit tens of thousands of Bosnian Moslems into the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar, which had the distinction of being the only non-Aryan division of the otherwise racially pure Waffen-SS.)

In 1920 Britain and France divided up the remains of the Ottoman Empire between themselves, a decision which would be rubber-stamped within weeks by the San Remo Conference and later ratified by the League of Nations on 24th July 1922, and formally accepted by Turkey upon signing the Treaty of Lausanne a year later.

In 1920, the Arabs of southern Syria suddenly found themselves cut off from their motherland, and a new and unwanted and foreign identity was imposed on them by the European conquerors. Suddenly they were told they were Palestinians, denizens of Palestine – an entity they had no connexion with.

This imposition of a Palestinian identity on the Arabs of southern Syria, as George Antonius wrote, was the primordial Nakba (“Catastrophe”). The Nakba was not the loss of Palestinian Arab independence, nor was it Palestinian Arab defeat; rather, it was the invention of a hated Palestinian identity and its imposition on the Arabs by the European colonial powers.

So at the time, Arab nationalism was violently, indeed murderously, opposed to the very existence of “Palestine” or a “Palestinian” identity. It was this context that a local Arab leader, Auni Bey Abdul-Hadi, testified to the British Peel Commission in January 1937: There is no such country as ‘Palestine’; ‘Palestine’ is a term the Zionists invented! There is no Palestine in the Bible. Our country was for centuries part of Syria”.

It was in this context that on 31st May 1956 Ahmed Shuqeiry, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the UN, told the Security Council: “It is common knowledge that Palestine is nothing but Southern Syria”.

What makes Shuqeiry’s view particularly significant is his personal history. Born in Tebnine (today in southern Lebanon) in 1908, Shuqeiry was a member of the Syrian delegation to the UN from 1949-1951. During his tenure he became assistant Secretary General for the Arab League, a post he held until 1956 before becoming Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the UN.

In the January 1964 Arab League summit in Cairo, Egypt, he was given a mandate to establish a Palestinian entity, and four months later he was elected the first Chairman of the PLO.

The Arabs, indeed the “Palestinians” themselves, conceded quite openly that “Palestinian Arab” identity was false.

It is now apposite to take another look at the “Nakba” of 1948. Six Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq) invaded Israel a few hours after independence, in an attack which Azzam Pasha, the General Secretary of the Arab League, declared at a press conference in Cairo, would “be a war of extermination, a momentous massacre which will be spoken of like the Mongolian massacres and the Crusades”.

Whatever else their motives were for their “war of extermination” against Israel, liberating Palestine for the Palestinians was most certainly not on their agenda. The historical fact is that three of those countries – Transjordan (later Jordan), Egypt, and Syria – managed to conquer parts of “Palestine”: Jordan occupied Judea and Samaria (which they renamed the West Bank), including half of Jerusalem; Syria occupied the Golan Heights; and Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip. Not one of these countries gave the “Palestinians” so much as a square nanometre of land.

But there was a perfectly valid reason. At the time, they still knew that the real “Nakba” was the invention of the fictitious “Palestinian” identity and its imposition on the Arabs by European colonialists.