The Nakba: Catalyst for pan-Arabism
By Lamis Andoni, 13 Jul 2009 07:22
One of the narratives often repeated in the West is that the Arab states sent their armies to crush the nascent state of Israel in 1948. But by miracle and might, the tiny entity emerged victorious over “the organised armies” of seven Arab countries.
But there is a different story that became pivotal in the shaping of modern pan-Arab nationalism, and collective Arab memory: “the great armies,” mainly of Jordan, Egypt and Iraq were neither well-equipped nor really independent.
The Jordanian army was under the command of the British military, while Egypt – under King Farouq – and Iraq – under King Faisal II – were acting under British political influence.
Palestinians found no relief from the Arab armies who could neither prevent the dispossession nor loss of their homeland.
Reasons for the defeat are not to be found in the alleged cowardice of Arab soldiers. Rather, they are linked to the continued legacy of colonialism and of Arab government complicity which rendered the intervention of these armies a tragic joke in Arab memory.
In 1948, King Abdullah I of Jordan accepted a compromise allowing Israel’s creation in return for Zionist and British approval of the continuity of the Hashemite Kingdom on the East Bank of the River Jordan.
Abdullah’s father, Sherrif Hussein bin Ali, once the proud and patriotic leader of the 1916 Great Arab revolt, had adamantly refused to compromise on the question of Arab unity and argued vehemently for maintaining and securing the Arab identity of Palestine.
His unwavering position on Palestine earned him the wrath of western powers who eventually exiled him to Cyprus; his leading role in ousting the Ottomans from Transjordan and ushering in the Sykes-Picot agreement all but forgotten.
And in Egypt and Iraq, the pro-Western governments did not possess the wherewithal to act independently as they relied heavily on Britain.
Egypt and Jordan would later actively strangle the continued Palestinian struggle to establish a Palestinian entity and identity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The suppression of the Palestinian movements and identity became prerequisites for the survival of both monarchies that would later become front lines states and the only Arab nations to have signed peace treaties with Israel.
The Nakba or catastrophe, which has come to symbolise the uprooting of Palestinians and the destruction of their towns and villages and substitution with Jewish immigrants and towns, has since 1948 became the rallying cry of Arab nationalism, both against Israel and pro-Western governments.
The failure of Arab governments to prevent the Nakba gave impetus to the formation of an organised ideological pan-Arab nationalist movement.
Nationalists labelled the defeated Arab governments “lackeys of imperialism” and called overthrowing them a prerequisite for stamping out colonialism and liberating Palestine.
The two goals of bringing down western-backed governments and the liberation of Palestine became the rallying cries of all nationalist movements – from the Baath party to the pan-Arab Nationalist movements (Qawmeyoun Al Arab) and their offshoots.
These movements did not believe Israel was founded to provide a homeland for Jews but for the creation, strengthening and maintenance of a colonial structure in the heart of the Middle East.
The Nakba left the Arabs embittered and yearning for drastic change.
In an almost domino effect, Arab governments fell to fiercely nationalistic movements shortly after the assassination of King Abdullah I in Jerusalem in 1951, by a young Palestinian nationalist.
This was followed by the 1952 overthrow of Egypt’s King Farouq and the emergence of the phenomena of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the 1958 overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq, and the establishment of the Baath party there and in and Syria.
For these post-revolutionary governments, there was no stronger unifying cause for pan-Arabism than the liberation of Palestine. It provided a specific goal and was regarded as testimony against an entrenched colonialist dominance on Arab lands.
Israel itself – seen as a foreign entity – built on the ruins of Palestinian homes and identity, became a physical manifestation of that colonial power.
Birthing the PLO
The Palestinian cause was seen as an integral part of the Arab goal of independence and unity. But it was not until Palestinians became disillusioned with the new pan-Arab nationalist regimes that they decided to take control of their own cause and establish their own liberation movement.
However, this did not fully materialise until the real organisational break between a pan-Arabism movement and a separate Palestinian movement, in the wake of the resounding Arab defeat in 1967.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), created by Arab governments in 1964, was gradually taken over by independent clandestine Palestinian groups, led by Fatah.
While the Nakba was the main impetus for pushing organised pan-Arab movements to the fore of Arab political life, the 1967 war was in effect the beginning of its decline and the emergence of a separate Palestinian movement.