Was Mahmoud Abbas's Family Expelled From Palestine?
In an op-ed in the Times today (about which more later, if I can get to it), the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas writes the following about himself: "Sixty-three years ago, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy was forced to leave his home in the Galilean city of Safed and flee with his family to Syria. He took up shelter in a canvas tent provided to all the arriving refugees. Though he and his family wished for decades to return to their home and homeland, they were denied that most basic of human rights."
This statement creates a couple of impressions. One subtle impression is that a certain group of people can't seem to help but oppress little boys from the Galilee. The second, clearer impression that it was the Zionist army that "forced" Abbas's family to leave Safed. This does not seem to be true. On other occasions, Abbas has stated that his family left Safed out of a general fear that Jews would seek "retribution" against the Arabs of Safed for an earlier slaughter of Jews by Arabs. Here is his 2007 recounting of his family's self-exile from Safed:
When Abbas was 13, "we left 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. "People were motivated to run away... They feared retribution from Zionist terrorist organizations - particularly from the Safed ones. Those of us from Safed especially feared that the Jews harbored old desires to avenge what happened during the 1929 uprising [Muslim pogroms instigated by the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, known later for his Nazi sympathies]. This was in the memory of our families and parents... They realized the balance of forces was shifting and therefore the whole town was abandoned on the basis of this rationale - saving our lives and our belongings."
There is no particular reason to hope for a successful peace process when the leader of the Palestinians is selling a false history of Israel's independence. Abbas writes of the United Nations vote to partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish, one Arab: "In November 1947, the General Assembly made its recommendation and answered in the affirmative. Shortly thereafter, 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."
Reaching a successful settlement of this dispute will require both sides, Arab and Israeli, to grapple with their mistakes. Mahmoud Abbas cannot bring himself to note that the Jews accepted the partition plan, while the Arabs rejected it, and went to war to extinguish the new Jewish state in the cradle, and then lost their offensive war. During this war, many Arabs were expelled from Palestine by Israeli forces; many others fled. This is not a unique historical event; most wars cause massive population dislocations. It is worth noting that some Jews, a smaller number, were also expelled from their towns and farms by Arab forces. Larger numbers of Jews -- 800,000 -- were subsequently expelled from Arab countries, where they and their ancestors had lived for hundreds, even thousands, of years. These Jews are not considered refugees today because they were taken in by Israel and given citizenship. The Arab refugees from Palestine were not treated nearly so well by their brethren.
Reciting this history is depressing, of course, because it means the two sides are still battling it out over what happened in 1948. A more constructive discussion would center on the aftermath of the 1967 war. Mahmoud Abbas won't be returning to Safed. But he could be president of an independent state of Palestine on the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in Jerusalem. If only he -- and, of course, Prime Minister Netanyahu -- could find a way to avoid rehearsing old grievances and instead work toward a future in which both parties don't get all that they want, but get enough to live.