A non-governmental organisation shows Israeli Jews that there is another, more brutal, version of the story of their nation's birth.
Israelis shown a glimpse of the Nakba
RAMALLAH, WEST BANK // Somewhere outside Tel Aviv yesterday two busloads of Israelis were taken on a tour of their history. It is a history many of them will have heard a version of before, but few will have heard the one presented to them on this trip through long-destroyed indigenous Palestinian villages in the greater Tel Aviv area. The tour was organised by Zochrot, an Israeli non-governmental organisation whose mission is to teach Israeli Jews about the Palestinian Nakba, or catastrophe, when about 800,000 Palestinians fled or were forced to flee their homes and lands in 1948, never to be allowed to return. Organisers take Israelis the length and breadth of the country, mapping Palestinian villages destroyed by Israeli paramilitary units in the aftermath of 1948, planting signs in the appropriate places and advocating the right of return of Palestinian refugees. Zochrot has even, according to its director and founder, Aytan Bronstein, produced a full educational package on the Nakba to be taught in schools, although the NGO is not trying to persuade any ministry to include it on the national curriculum. "We are not going to the institutions of government. We are trying to reach teachers directly," Mr Bronstein said. To Palestinians, who marked the 61st anniversary of the Nakba on Friday, the events of 1948 are deeply embedded in the national psyche. People still hold on to old keys for the front doors of long-destroyed homes, or faded ownership deeds. Indeed, it is impossible to understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict without understanding what happened in 1948. "The Palestinian Nakba is important to all Palestinians no matter where they live," Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement released on Friday. "It is a defining moment in the collective history of our people and seminal to the history of the Palestinian national movement." But to most Israelis, only one version of 1948 is known, that of a nation-state in the making beating back surrounding Arab armies before declaring victory and independence. "Israelis know quite a lot about 1948, but only from a Zionist perspective," Mr Bronstein said. "From any other perspective, of the tragedy, of the expulsions and the refugees, they actually know very little." Mr Bronstein said there are two layers of ignorance about the Nakba in Israel. "At a certain level, many thousands of Israelis know a lot because they were there, they saw the refugees leaving, maybe they even participated in the expulsions. But this layer is quite suppressed. The main layer is what people are taught in the curriculum and what we hear on Independence Day; that we were attacked." That main layer is the one that Zochrot seeks to reach and educate. But if Yisrael Beiteinu, the party of Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right Israeli foreign minister, gets its way, it is an education that will never reach the masses. On Friday, the day of the Nakba commemorations, a spokesman said the party was seeking legislation next week to bar citizens of Israel from commemorating the Nakba or even using the term. If successful, the legislation would seek to punish violators with prison sentences of up to three years. "The draft law is intended to strengthen unity in the state of Israel and to ban marking Independence Day as a day of mourning," said a party spokesman, Tal Nahum. Mr Bronstein, who served in the Israeli army but was imprisoned twice when he refused to engage in combat in Lebanon during the first Lebanon invasion or in the occupied territories during the first intifada, said the proposal and the general unwillingness of Israelis to learn about the Nakba proves that "there is something there to know". "In a way [the Yisrael Beiteinu proposal] is very good. It really puts very clearly on the agenda what we are talking about. It is not about two states; it is not the 1967 occupation. It's the Nakba: it's the refugee issue." Today, the number of Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of the 250,000 Palestinians made homeless in 1967, runs to well over six million, nearly five million of whom are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). It is believed to be the world's largest and longest-existing refugee population. UN General Assembly Resolution 194, passed in 1948, asserted the right of Palestinian refugees wishing to return to their lands to be able to do so, while international humanitarian law on refugees similarly asserts a right of return for all refugees who were displaced for reasons of conflict. Yet successive Israeli governments have refused to countenance any kind of return of Palestinian refugees to land inside the 1948 borders. The furthest Israeli leaders have been prepared to go has been to agree to a right of return to a future Palestinian state. It was reported that the 2001 Taba negotiations between Yasser Arafat, when he was Palestinian leader, and Ehud Barak, then prime minister, came to an agreement on a largely symbolic return of a few hundred thousand refugees, predominantly from Lebanon. But those were non-binding talks, and Mr Barak himself has long ago stepped back from expressing any similar position. The current Israeli government, in which Mr Barak is defence minister, has a very clear position on the matter, as recently expressed by Mr Lieberman. "I am not ready to even discuss the 'right of return' of a single Palestinian refugee," Mr Lieberman said in late April. Mr Bronstein said the rhetoric of Mr Lieberman, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, who have all addressed the issue directly in recent years, is an indication that Israeli leaders are beginning to take the issue seriously, even if in a "dangerous direction". "A few years ago nobody cared," he said. Mr Bronstein said taking the issue of Palestinian refugees seriously was a necessary first step, even if the initial reaction might be "very dangerous and very violent". Ultimately, he said, without a proper understanding of the Nakba, there could be no peace. "It's crucial that Israelis understand the Nakba. Without addressing it, we will never have a chance to change anything and we will have to be colonisers forever. Understanding that we are colonisers of this country, in a very violent way, is the only way to secure dramatic change." firstname.lastname@example.org