Seventy years ago, in May 1948, both the state of Israel and the Palestinian nakhba (catastrophe) were created. The anniversary of Israel’s establishment – declared on 14 May, one day before the final withdrawal of British troops – will be marked by some with joyous celebration. For others, though, this month is a time to remember the 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that has only grown in magnitude since then.
On 1 May a one-day conference was held at King’s, co-sponsored by the History Department and the Balfour Project (a charitable organisation working for justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East), to consider the events of 1948, their legacy today, and possible ways forward. Both the morning and the afternoon panels comprised a Palestinian, an Israeli and a British speaker. The day focused particularly on the role of Britain. As the colonial power in Palestine during the thirty-year ‘British Mandate’ period from 1918, Britain bears considerable responsibility for the division and suffering that followed after May 1948. More recently British foreign policy on the Palestine / Israel conflict has tended to follow the lead of the United States. However, if Britain is to play a role as a force for positive change in the future, then a more active and imaginative approach will almost certainly be necessary.
Both Palestinian and Israeli speakers spoke about the personal human consequences of the conflict. Ghada Karmi, a London-based Palestinian doctor, reflected on her experience of exile, which she has recounted in her memoir In Search of Fatima (2002). Her family left their home in Jerusalem during the conflict in 1948, expecting to be able to return when the situation calmed down – but they were never able to do so. Alon Liel, an retired Israeli diplomat, observed that his primary-school-age grandchildren have already been indoctrinated with a hatred of Arabs, and noted that with similar hatred inculcated among Palestinian children the challenges standing in the way of a genuine peace are immense.
In a radical break with long-standing international consensus, the United States will mark this anniversary month by moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel is labouring hard to induce other countries to follow suit, in the hope that this will erode the commitment of the international community to a negotiated settlement on the sovereignty of Jerusalem. In Britain, several political parties – including Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party – are committed to the recognition of Palestinian statehood. This would follow the 2014 lead of Sweden, which remains the only European country to recognise Palestine, though several other countries might follow if a major player such as Britain took this step. In the afternoon session, Vincent Fean, former British Consul-General in Jerusalem (representing the UK in the Palestinian territories), advocated this step. Others wondered if any future British government would be committed enough to put this policy into action, given the likely response from Israel, which Alon Liel suggested might include the breaking of diplomatic relations with the UK.
Discussion also focused on the deteriorating situation in the Palestinian territories. Leila Sansour, a Palestinian film-maker based on Bethlehem, described the increasing demoralisation in her home city, hemmed in by the Israeli ‘separation barrier’ and with access impeded by checkpoints: those with the means to leave Bethlehem have mostly already done so. In the Gaza Strip conditions are increasingly desperate, and the United Nations has projected that the territory will become effectively uninhabitable by 2020 if current trends continue. There was a broad consensus at the conference that the Gaza Strip is facing a humanitarian crisis, which urgently requires international attention and structural change.
However, the clash between the competing historical narratives of 1948 and its legacy provoked heated disagreement between members of the audience. For most Israelis the conflict of that year is remembered as their ‘War of Independence’, establishing a secure Jewish refuge after centuries of persecution in Europe and initiating their nation’s continuing embattlement against a ring of hostile Arab neighbours. The Palestinian memory of 1948, in stark contrast, is of dispossession and disaster, compounded by further calamity in 1967, when Israel established control over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and soon established Jewish settlements in both places, and a deepening sense of frustration and hopelessness since then. Sustaining civil debate on this topic is, because of the depth of this division, perhaps more difficult than on any other international issue. Precisely for this reason, it is vital that universities continue to rise to this challenge, and to host broad-based, challenging and controversial events such as this one.