This Nakba Day was different because it fell amidst the many recent developments in what we call the Arab Spring. It is probably correct that Palestinians have been feeling left out, as the attention of the world and of their Arab brothers turns to reform, politics, revolts, elections, constitutions, criminal trials—everything but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, this Nakba Day had to be used to recover the stage and demand attention. With President Obama speaking later this week on the Arab Spring and receiving Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu next week, the timing must have seemed right for putting themselves back on the world’s front pages. We are still here, Palestinians were saying.
It is striking that the sum total of demonstrators who got across from Jordan into Israel was zero, while there was violence at the Lebanese and Syrian borders. This fact alone makes it clear that what happened was mostly manufactured by Hezbollah and the Assad regime. The king of Jordan was opposed to trouble, so there were demonstrations but no border breaches or violence along the Jordan River and its crossings. The Syrian regime and Hezbollah were seeking to use this Nakba Day to divert attention from the revolt in Syria, so they organized trouble. Several days ago Assad’s cousin and partner in financial crime Rami Makhlouf issued a threat, saying, "If there is no stability here, there's no way there will be stability in Israel." So this Nakba Day was different because it saw the Syrian regime, fighting for survival, hijacking the occasion to cause bloodshed. The only comic aspect—black comedy, admittedly—of this picture was provided by Bashar al-Assad, who took time from murdering protesters all over Syria to issue a statement condemning Israel for violence against demonstrators.
This Nakba Day is also different from those of past years because it arrived just as Palestinians were celebrating a Hamas-Fatah unity agreement. The goal is to bring Hamas into the Palestinian government and the PLO, the body charged with negotiating peace with Israel. So when Hamas officials spoke on Nakba Day this year, they did so not as enemies of the PLO, not as leaders being hunted by Palestinian security forces, and not as people being excluded from an increasingly moderate Palestinian political leadership. Instead they spoke as future officials of the Palestinian Authority and future PLO members and leaders.
This was bad enough. Yet the worst aspect of Nakba Day 2011 was not the differences from past years; it was the continuity. The catastrophe being commemorated was not the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, and a Camp David-type agreement about the West Bank would not reverse it. The catastrophe was not settlement expansion—and Palestinian demands could not be met by freezing construction. Nor were they focused on the coming September vote on admitting a Palestinian state to membership in the U.N., and their demands could not be satisfied by announcing the United States would agree not to use its veto. The demand of Nakba Day is that the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 be reversed. When Hamas’s prime minister Ismail Haniyah spoke on Sunday in a Gaza speech, he told the crowd they were demonstrating "with great hope of bringing to an end the Zionist project in Palestine." And last week Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said, "We will never give up the right of return."
This is what Palestinians’ leaders continue to feed their people and teach in their schools. For Israelis and all those who seek peace in the Middle East, this is the real catastrophe.