On September 20, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, will take his case for Palestinian statehood to the United Nations. This is a matter of basic justice, Abbas will argue, because the Palestinian people were dispossessed by the new state of Israel in 1948, and the current Israeli government is still preventing the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
But Abbas’s claim is based on a big historical lie.
In fact, Abbas has lately been lying about his own life story as one of those “dispossessed” Palestinians. Last May, he published an op-ed article in the New York Times titled “The Long Overdue Palestinian State,” in which he recounted his own “expulsion” by the Jews in 1948, at the age of 13. Abbas wrote that “shortly after” the U.N. General Assembly voted to partition the “Palestinian homeland” into two states in 1947, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.” Abbas claimed that he and his family were forced out of their home in the Galilean city of Safed and fled to Syria, where they “took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees.” For dramatic effect, the Times provided an illustration above Abbas’s article depicting a young boy standing next to a tent in the desert and gazing forlornly at the verdant hills of Galilee just over the horizon.
In his Times op-ed, Abbas also wrote, “Minutes after the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948, the United States granted it recognition. Our Palestinian state, however, remains a promise unfulfilled.” Abbas didn’t explain how any country could have recognized a United Nations–designated Palestinian state that the Palestinians and the Arab states themselves rejected. The Arab Higher Committee (AHC) was the recognized representative of the Palestinian people at the time of the U.N. partition vote. The Zionists accepted the partition plan. The AHC and the Arab states rejected any proposal to share the land and vowed to drown the fledgling Jewish state in “rivers of blood.”
Following instructions from the AHC, Palestinian militias and volunteers from neighboring Arab countries began attacking Jewish settlements after the U.N. partition plan was announced in November 1947. The irregular Arab units were ordered to take strategic strongholds and hold on until the expected invasion of Israel by regular Arab armies after the British withdrawal on May 14, 1948. What happened in Safed was typical of the bloody inter-communal warfare that soon convulsed the country. Elements of the Arab Liberation Army — the main Palestinian armed force — plus Jordanian irregular units, entered Safed’s Arab neighborhoods and began sporadic attacks on the Jewish quarter. Facing a full-scale invasion of Galilee by the Syrian and Jordanian regular armies, Jewish military commanders couldn’t afford to have armed Palestinian units behind their lines. On the night of May 8, reinforcements from the Palmach, the elite Jewish strike force, counterattacked and took the key Arab strongholds in the city. Almost immediately, Safed’s Arabs began streaming out toward the Syrian border. There were no expulsions of Arab civilians by Israeli forces.
In his Times op-ed, Abbas even contradicted previous accounts he had offered in which he conceded that his family left Safed voluntarily — in part because of fear that the Jews would seek revenge for a murderous rampage by local Arabs against the Jewish community in 1929. In an interview on Palestinian radio, Abbas said, “We left [Safed] on foot at night to the Jordan River. . . . Eventually, we settled in Damascus. My father had money, and he spent his money methodically. After a year, when the money ran out, we began to work.” There was no mention by Abbas in that earlier interview of living in a canvas tent.
President Abbas’s historical distortions (clearly not fact-checked by the Times) are at the very heart of the Palestinian nakba myth (nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe”) and emblematic of the Palestinian leadership’s century-long refusal to accept a Jewish state in any part of the Arab Middle East. That obstinate rejection, not the Israeli government’s positions about borders or West Bank settlements, remains the No. 1 obstacle to peace in the Holy Land.
Last week, as he prepared for his statehood initiative at the U.N., the Palestinian president reaffirmed that the issue for the Palestinians is not the occupation of the West Bank, but the very creation of Israel. In a New York Times report from the Palestinian capital of Ramallah, Abbas was quoted: “Some Israelis complain that this is a unilateral move, but when you address 193 countries, that is not unilateral. We are going to complain that as Palestinians we have been under occupation for 63 years.” The Times reporter didn’t bother commenting that the 63 years of “occupation” Abbas was complaining about goes back to 1948 and the original sin, for the Palestinians, of the creation of the modern state of Israel.
Resolving the Israel–Palestine conflict is tough enough; it becomes almost impossible when one side insists on lying about the conflict’s origins.
— Sol Stern, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor to City Journal, is the author of the just published A Century of Palestinian Rejectionism and Jew Hatred (an Encounter Broadside).