Poltical amnesia in Washington

The Palestinian-Israeli crisis is becoming increasingly worse. Any hope of a peace accord is looking highly unlikely. Listening to the news you would think that the Palestinians are entirely to blame.

Khaled Elgindy from the Brookings Institute explains.

 Political amnesia in Washington: From the Nakba to the occupation

Within less than a generation, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington, writes Khaled Elgindy. This piece originally appeared in Foreign Policy.

This week’s protests at the Gaza border were the largest—and deadliest — since Palestinians began what organizers have dubbed the “Great March of Return” some six weeks ago. The protests culminated on May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (“catastrophe”), during which most of Palestine’s Arab population was expelled from the British-mandated territory in the course of Israel’s creation. Approximately 70 percent of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians are registered refugees from lands in what is now Israel.

Israel has long denied responsibility for the Palestinian refugee problem and continues to maintain that the refugees will never be allowed to return, and American policymakers now generally accepted the Israeli view. But this was not always the case. Unlike today, in the years immediately after 1948 neither the events of the Nakba nor the U.N.-mandated right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes was considered controversial in US politics. Within less than a generation, however, both the political significance of the Nakba and the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were all but forgotten in Washington.

Seventy years later, a similar process of denial is now happening—albeit at a slower pace—in relation to Israel’s half-century occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. The steady erasure of the Israeli occupation from Washington’s political discourse not only makes it impossible for the United States to resolve the conflict but places Israelis and Palestinians on a seemingly irreversible path to one state.

Although the term nakba never entered Washington’s political lexicon, U.S. policymakers understood the nature and scope of the calamity that befell Palestinians during Israel’s creation. At the time, U.S. diplomats and intelligence officers closely monitored and reported on developments in what was then British Mandate Palestine as events unfolded. Most senior U.S. policymakers therefore, including the president and secretary of state, had no illusions about the nature of the Palestinian exodus.

In the wake of the Deir Yassin massacre, in which more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed by members of two Zionist militias—the Irgun and the Stern Gang—the trickle of refugees became a full-blown exodus. Thereafter, the U.S. State Department kept regular tabs on the numbers and conditions of Palestinians fleeing the area. When the first U.S. representative to Israel, James G. McDonald, repeated Israeli claims that Palestinians fled as a result of the invasion of Arab armies, it was Secretary of State George Marshall who set him straight. Marshall reminded the representative that the “Arab refugee problem … began before outbreak of Arab-Israeli hostilities. A significant portion of Arab refugees fled from their homes owing to Jewish occupation of Haifa on April 21-22 and to Jewish armed attack against Jaffa April 25.” Marshall’s message went on to warn that the “leaders of Israel would make a grave miscalculation if they thought callous treatment of this tragic issue could pass unnoticed by world opinion.”

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