65 Years After ‘Catastrophe,’ Palestinians Have Little to Cheer About

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

On May 15, the Palestinians will commemorate 65 years of their “Nakba” – “the Catastrophe.” This is how they describe 1948, which saw the destruction of Palestinian society, 750,000 Palestinians forced from their homes, and over 450 Palestinian towns wiped off the map. Today, there are over 5 million Palestinian refugees registered with the United Nations’ UNRWA. But while 1948 was a terrible trauma for the collective Palestinian memory, the reality is that it was only the beginning of a long journey of displacement, dispossession, and exile. The real Nakba is ongoing, and the Palestinian people live it on a daily basis both inside and outside the Palestinian territories. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry throws himself into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we have to ask: Will his efforts bring this human tragedy a step closer to the end? Or only make it worse?

On a recent trip to Lebanon, I made sure to visit the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. While under control of the Israeli army that occupied Beirut in 1982, approximately 800 to 3,500 Palestinian refugees were massacred at the hands of Christian militias. In the camps today, the bitter reality of the Palestinian refugees’ life in exile is on full display: an enormous mass grave in the camps’ center holds the victims of 1982 massacre. It is a daily reminder to the refugees of their continuing human tragedy.

The Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp have hardly been spared the bitterness of displacement and dispossession. Since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the estimated 150,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk have reportedly been subjected to terror, horror, and murder of all kinds. Many have fled the camp to become “double refugees” in Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan. Um Mazen, one of these twice-displaced told the Financial Times, “It’s the Nakba of Yarmouk.”

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, too, have their share of Nakba. An Israeli policy of collective punishment has left 1.7 million Palestinians trapped in a besieged Gaza, the world’s largest prison. In the West Bank, the modern-day Nakba can be seen in continued settler violence, settlement expansion, and a dividing wall that encroaches on Palestinian land and, in many cases, deprives people of their livelihoods. This is in addition, of course, to the many Palestinians of Jerusalem who lost the right to return home after living only a few years abroad.

Against this grim backdrop, Kerry has made a public commitment to bring peace to the region through his intensive personal diplomacy. But while it may be too early to pass judgment on his initiative, the traditional American approach to this conflict has been predictable – and unworkable. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, suggested ending the agony of Palestinians refugees’ exile by sending them to…Chile and Argentina.

As Edward Abington told me, Arafat urged President Bill Clinton to ask Benjamin Netanyahu to stop or at least delay the construction of the Har Homa colony – a colony that threatened the collapse of the entire peace process. Abington – former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem and the key U.S. contact with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 1996 – said that Arafat repeatedly entreated Clinton, but to no avail. Finally, Clinton is said to have passed the request on to newly appointed Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She seemed to done nothing. It was then, Abington said, that Arafat knew he could not count on the Americans to make a real difference.

The Palestinian Nakba is one of the root causes of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict; if Secretary Kerry is to succeed, he will need to address it. The economic package he plans to introduce would affect the Palestinians in the West Bank. But it would do nothing for the Yarmouk’s double refugees or Shatila – surrounded by death, past and present.

Kerry’s major step to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been the adjustment of the 11-year-old Arab Peace Plan to include mutual land swaps. The plan will now accommodate the illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank – including Har Homa. It is absurd that Washington’s position has shifted from freezing settlement activities during the Obama administration’s first term to accommodating those settlements in the second term.

By pressuring the Arabs to accept land swaps even before negotiations begin, Kerry has set up his mediation efforts for failure. He has left no incentive for the Netanyahu government to negotiate; on the contrary, now that the Arabs have in principle accepted land swaps, Netanyahu will likely take advantage of this concession to further intensify settlement activities.

By presenting the land swap to Netanyahu without a firm commitment to stop settlement building, Kerry has sabotaged himself. As he will discover, Netanyahu’s right-wing government is only interested in exploiting every possible opportunity to sabotage peace efforts, building more colonies – and as a result, continuously exacerbating the crisis of America’s image and credibility in the Middle East. To be certain, Netanyahu government has just announced, in response to Kerry’s land swap, the building of 300 units at the heart of the West Bank’s city, Ramallah. This outcome has shown clearly there is nothing innovative about Kerry’s peace plan and that his efforts align perfectly with traditional Washington mediation efforts of appeasing Israeli governments, damaging American image and credibility in the region, and of course making the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba more painful.