69 years on, al-Nakba is history and Iran is the Arabs’ enemy
Beirut - Sixty-nine years ago, on May 14, the state of Israel was proclaimed by its founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion. A few hours later, the armies of Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon invaded Palestine, under the auspices of the recently established League of Arab States, promising to annihilate the Zionists by Christmas 1948.
The league’s secretary-general, Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, famously vowed: “It doesn’t matter how many Jews there are, we will sweep them into the sea.”
They didn’t. Some 6,000 Jews were killed in the fighting along with nearly 5,000 Arabs. More than 400 Arab villages were razed and Palestine disappeared from the map of the world.
The Arabs had been woefully unprepared for war. And as events would show with a terrible clarity, they were equally unprepared for the crushing defeat by a heavily outnumbered foe that followed.
Celebrated Syrian philosopher Constantine Zureik, then president of the American University of Beirut, declared what he called “al-Nakba” — “the Disaster” — a description that, seven decades later, has come to encapsulate the Palestinian catastrophe.
Despite much lip service to the cause of liberating Palestine and crushing the Jewish state, Arab rulers have done little of any practical use in pursuit of that objective.
They have, by and large, used the Palestinian cause for their own ends, exploiting it to justify authoritarianism, militarisation of society, massive arms expenditures and one-party rule.
The 1948-49 war triggered coups in Damascus and Cairo, brought down the democratically elected government of Lebanon and sparked a bloody revolution that overthrew the Hashemite dynasty in Baghdad in 1958.
Military officers seized power in one Arab capital after another, all promising to liberate Palestine from the Zionists — a distracting call to arms that was eventually picked up by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran after his Islamic Revolution overthrew the Peacock Throne in 1979.
He closed the Israeli Embassy in Tehran and presented it to Yasser Arafat, who had helped train the ayatollah’s revolutionaries.
Khomeini’s inflammatory speeches, distributed on cassette throughout the region, translated from Persian into Arabic, spoke of all the injustices done to the Palestinians since al-Nakba of 1948-49.
But few paid heed because, by the time Khomeini had joined the struggle for Palestine, the Arabs were already deeply divided.
At the time, Palestine had been gone for 31 years. The war of 1948-49 seemed like a minor skirmish compared to the disaster of 1967, when Israel single-handedly crushed the armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan and occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and most of Syria’s Golan Heights.
Then came Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to occupied Jerusalem in 1977 followed by the Camp David accords, the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state. Arafat made peace with Israel in 1993.
The new generation of Arab youth began to abandon any hope of one day defeating Israel and reclaiming Palestine. Although briefly galvanised by the first Palestinian uprising in 1987 and another in 2001, young Arabs were clearly distracted by the US occupation of Iraq, followed by the collapse of governments in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya during the upheaval of the “Arab spring.”
On the 69th anniversary of al-Nakba, none of the pre-2011 manifestations of Arab nationalism prevail in capitals such as Damascus and Baghdad.
Gone, too, are the public rallies on May 14, followed by inflammatory speeches and front page editorials in the Arab media. The Arabs are too busy burying their dead and fighting off the new occupation of the Islamic State (ISIS) to remember — let alone commit — to the Palestinians.
The only state that still claimed to be totally committed is non-Arab Iran, with its proxy militia in Lebanon, the army of Hezbollah.
But if the Arab masses were sceptical in 1979 about the emergence of the Islamic Republic and its exhortations to reclaim Palestine, they are now totally alienated from Iran and its drive to dominate its Arab neighbours, its confrontation with Saudi Arabia and its open involvement in the Syrian carnage.
Many in the Sunni-dominated Arabian Gulf see Shia Iran as more of a threat to their national security than Israel and have even set up secret channels with the Jewish state, hoping that it would one day smash Hezbollah and rid them of Iranian influence in the Levant.
Iran’s track record in Iraq since 2003 has not helped. It was accused of destroying the country’s Sunni elite and replacing it with Iranian proxies such as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Then the Syrian war erupted in March 2011, destroying whatever residual trust mainstream Arabs may have had in Iran. Saudi Arabia’s deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed Asiri, has even said that the kingdom shares concerns with Israel about Iran.
The biggest losers in all this are the Palestinians themselves. With the region in flames and ferment, the 69th anniversary of al-Nakba is attracting little attention.
Few — if any — offer anything but lip service to the Palestinian cause while Iranian expansionism gathers momentum and may even ignite a war far more destructive than the one that brought Israel into being.