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Yawm al-nakba (The Catastrophe) and Yom Ha'atzmaut (The Independence Day) occur on May 14 each year. But this year is the 60th anniversary of the events of May 14, 1948 that the Israelis celebrate as their independence day and the Palestinians recall the horrors of massacres of Palestinians and expulsions from their homes in what is now the state of Israel.
For a long time, the Israeli textbooks have either not mentioned or completely denied any violence and forced expulsions of Palestinians by Israelis. This is beginning to change. In July of 2007, the Israeli Education Ministry agreed to approve a text book for use in the state's Arab schools that for the first time describes Israel's 1948 war of independence as a "catastrophe" for the Palestinian population. However, it balances it by also including the Jewish narrative of the establishment of the state, including that the Arab parties rejected the United Nations' 1947 partition plan for Palestine while the Jews were willing to accept it.
For many decades since 1948, the Israeli narrative in the history textbooks and the media claimed that the Palestinians had simply abandoned their country, not fought hard enough for it and left for friendly Arab countries. The narrative conveniently defined the Palestinians as ignorant and cowardly. But since the opening of the Israeli archives in the past decade, that myth has been destroyed by a younger generation of Israeli historians - Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris, Ilan Pappe, Tom Segev and others - who have argued that the period from December 1947 to May 1948 involved a series of massacres designed to terrorize the native population into abandoning their homes and fleeing to safety.
Benny Morris is considered one of the most important Israeli historians of the 1948 war. From his first book 20 years ago, Morris has documented Israeli atrocities and the expulsion of the Palestinians. He was considered part of a group of so-called ‘revisionist’ historians who challenged conventional Israeli thinking about 1948. However, unlike his critics to the left, Morris did not consider the expulsions to be part of a systematic Israeli policy of transfer.
Though there were many reports of the massacres of the Palestinians by the Jewish settlers in 1947 and 1948, the horrors of Dir Yassin are well documented. It was the killing of between 107 and 120 villagers, the estimate generally accepted by scholars, during and possibly after the battle at the village of Dir Yassin near Jerusalem in the British Mandate of Palestine by Jewish irregular forces between April 9 and April 11, 1948. It occurred while Yishuv forces consisting of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, fought to break the siege of Jerusalem during the period of civil war that preceded the end of the Mandate.
Contemporary reports, originating apparently from a commanding officer in Jerusalem of one of the irregular forces involved (particularly the Irgun, headed by Nobel Peace Prize winner Menachem Begin, who later became Israel's prime minister), Mordechai Ra'anan, gave an initial estimate of 254 killed. The size of the figure had a considerable impact on the conflict in creating panic and became one of the major causes of the 1948 Palestinian exodus.
The Dir Yassin incident was universally condemned at the time, including repudiations from the Haganah command and the Jewish Agency. The Haganah were the Jewish paramilitaries in Palestine that later became the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
Instead of recognizing each others' great suffering, the Israelis and the Palestinians have often engaged in either denying or belittling each others suffering. Many Palestinians deny or belittle the Holocaust and many Israelis reject the Nakba. And both continue to suffer, though some might justifiably argue that the Palestinians have suffered much more than the Israelis in the last several decades. In the words of former US President Bill Clinton, the Palestinians have been "dispossessed and dispersed".
And both sides have continued to undermine mutual trust and further exacerbate the situation: Israel by insisting on Israeli settlement expansions and by building walls of separation and both parties by perpetuating a cycle of violence by recklessly (even deliberately) attacking each others' civilians.
The United States remains the only country in the world with significant leverage on both sides of the ongoing violence. But the US has not exercised that leverage wisely in the last seven years of the Bush administration, with the US foreign policy held hostage by the neo-cons, the right-wing Israeli lobby and the far right evangelical Christians. Unless the next US administration begins to play a serious and patient mediation role as an honest broker, the chances of peace will remain elusive. And both the Israelis and the Palestinians will continue to suffer.
UPDATE: A video presentation by Miko Peled, author of the General's Son: