The Tribe that Lost Its Head

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

The Nakba – the catastrophe – is the Arabic word used to describe the Zionist expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland in 1948/49, the destruction of some 500 of their villages, the plunder of their remaining property, the theft of their land and the seizure of their cities.

Most of the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza came from somewhere else. Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod, the targets of Hamas’ backyard rockets, were all built over the ruins of Arab villages. The city of Beersheba was almost wholly Arab until purged of its Arab population by Zionist forces and the story is the same the length and breadth of Palestine. Those asking why Hamas is firing its Qassam rockets into Israel cannot answer their own question without grasping the enormity of the crime committed against the Palestinians six decades ago.

Yet the Nakba did not end six decades ago. 1948 was only the beginning. The atrocities now being committed in Gaza are no more than an extension of what has been happening without cease for these past sixty years, even if there is something especially brazen about the way Israel is currently obliterating entire families in full view of the world. The scenes of massacre and destruction shock, anger and traumatize the Palestinians but they will not surprise them because they have seen or experienced all of this before. In the 1950s and the 1960s the refugee camps of Gaza, then under Egyptian control, and the villages of the West Bank, then in Jordanian hands, took the brunt of unrestrained Israeli violence. In the 1970s and 1980s it was Lebanon’s turn for small massacres and large ones: civilians killed in their ‘terrorist’ camps or blitzed in their cities; 1500 or so dead in the ‘incursion’ of 1978;  between 18,000 and 20,000 in the invasion of 1982; more than 100 killed when Israel bombarded the UN compound at Qana in 1996, during another election campaign; and then the 1200 or more civilians killed, mainly in Beirut and the villages of the south, in 2006. One third of them were children, many of them were infants; of the 800 people killed in Gaza so far, the great majority of them civilians, about 200 are children.  

Invariably, Israel’s massacres are someone else’s fault. According to an editorial in the Jerusalem Post (January 6): ‘How do Israelis feel when our artillery strikes a UN-run school building, killing dozens of people? The answer is: deeply shaken, profoundly distressed, sorrowful at the catastrophic loss of life. But we do not feel guilt. We are angry at Hamas for forcing this war on us; for habitually using Gaza’s civilians as human shields; and – in this latest outrage – for transforming a centre where people had sought refuge into a shooting gallery and weapons depot. To paraphrase Golda Meir, there may come a time when we will forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, ‘but it will be harder for us to forgive them for having forced us to kill their sons’.

The root cause of the violence is the Nakba.  Israel has consistently denied all legal and moral responsibility for 1948. Without its admission of guilt, without its acknowledgement of the Palestinian right of return, the Nakba cannot end, and as it prevented from ending, it must continue, trapping both Israelis and Palestinians indefinitely, until the Palestinians finally give in or Israel finally starts a war it cannot win. In view of the complete failure of the ‘international community’ to enforce the law, all other options seem rapidly to be shrinking to these two.

No other situation illustrates so clearly the comprehensive failure of the world system to bring order to the world. No matter what crimes Israel commits it is ‘supported’ by the US. Other ‘western’ governments fall into line because they are too cowardly to challenge the US, because they need US money, or because they also see the world in terms of power and not justice. The US controls the UN Security Council through its veto so nothing can be done there, and it seems nothing will be ever  be done there beyond calls for ‘restraint’ and an ‘end to the violence’ at times such as this. Yes, the violence eventually will end and the ‘peace process’ will be resumed, until it no longer suits Israel’s  purposes and then the whole cycle will start up all over again.

The process is so engrained that it does not seem to occur to ‘western’ leaders (or to Israel) that the day may come when someone else will tear up the script and write their own.  In fact, in 2001, this is exactly what Usama bin Laden did, disrupting a continually, repetitively violent western narrative with one massive act of criminal violence of his own – but that was terror, whereas what Israel is doing in Gaza and what the United States has done to Iraq is apparently something else.     

Far from acknowledging that the state was built on stolen property, Israel has continued to steal more: the Golan Heights, taken from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed to the state; East Jerusalem, captured, annexed, and subjected to a process of demographic racism aimed directly at the Palestinians; the West Bank, chopped up, hacked about by outposts, roads, checkpoints, curfews, the wall, the seizure of land and the building of settlements, all designed to choke the life of the Palestinians unless they do exactly what Israel tells them to do. In Mahmud Abbas they have their man. In Ismail Haniyah and Khalid Misha’al, the only elected Prime Minister and the Hamas leader in Damascus, they don’t. That is why these two ‘militants’ and their organization are targets for Israeli destruction but it could be someone else. It was Fatah and the PLO, but if Hamas goes, then the next Palestinian movement that refuses to obey orders will face exactly the same fate irrespective of its ideological orientation.

Patrick Seale, the most experienced commentator on the Middle East in the English-speaking world, describes Israel’s onslaught on Gaza as ‘insane’. The British author Nicholas Monsarrat, a best selling author in the 1950s, once wrote a book called The Tribe that Lost its Head.  Israel is a tribe whose head was never screwed on the right way, and this attack shows that it has completely lost it.

For electoral purposes, for the purpose of sending a warning to Lebanon and Hizbullah that next time around this is what we are going to do to you;  for the purpose of daring Iran to intervene (because it knows the Arab states won’t), Israel has rained more death and destruction down on Palestinian heads. It has ‘western leaders’ on its side but around the world the Palestinians have people on theirs. They are appalled at what they seeing.  It is hard to see how Israel can recover from this. It has lost any shreds of moral credibility, it has completely destroyed what is left of the standing not only of Palestinian ‘moderates’ such as Mahmud Abbas but of Muslim leaders who were doing their best to help reconstruct the ‘peace process’ when Israel struck. Foremost among them is the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now being portrayed  in the Israeli media as Israel’s enemy because he dared to speak the truth when he talked in righteous anger of Israel’s war crimes. 

Even while these crimes are being committed, even before this war has ended, the same Israeli media is full of talk of the need to confront Iran. Yet, against this historical background, against this latest aggression, against the background of ‘propaganda’ film of dead children and apartment blocks reduced to rubble in the towns and refugee camps of Gaza, Israelis cannot understand why the rest of the world regards their state as a standing threat to regional and world peace. Is there no other end to this but for one Nakba to end up as two? 

– Jeremy Salt is associate professor in Middle Eastern History and Politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. Previously, he taught at Bosporus University in Istanbul and the University of Melbourne in the Departments of Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science. Professor Salt has written many articles on Middle East issues, particularly Palestine, and was a journalist for The Age newspaper when he lived in Melbourne. He contributed this article to

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