I do not need anyone to teach me about the Palestinian Nakba. It is the defining moment of my existence. During the 1948 war, my family had fled our home in Talpiot in southeast Jerusalem and taken shelter in a monastery. We quickly gathered some possessions and climbed down and up the mountain to Bethany, and then to Jericho. We eventually resettled as refugees in East Jerusalem.Because I was a graduating medical student at the American University of Beirut during the war of 1967, I became a double-refugee. After finishing my residency training in the United States, I returned to Jerusalem to practice medicine, but Israeli military officials denied me permission to stay. Thus it was that I became part of the first generation of my family in over 600 years to build a life outside of Jerusalem. Mine is one of three families studied by the Israeli historian Dror Ze’Evi in his book about Jerusalem in the 1600s. It was years later, as an American citizen, that I returned to visit the city of my birth.
I recount this not to bewail my fate or dwell on the past. The four generations of Palestinians who have lived and died in refugee camps are the real face of the Palestinian tragedy. It is fitting and proper to honor historical truths, but also to learn the lessons they teach us.
Israelis and Palestinians are two peoples with traumatic histories. We must never forget them. But we must not be held hostage by history either. We must care more about the future of our grandchildren than the past of our grandparents, or even ourselves.
We must work together to build a future in which both peoples can enjoy the rights, responsibilities and dignity of citizenship and self-determination. There is only one way to actually accomplish this: by ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state to live alongside Israel. Palestinians must recognize and accept Israel, a legitimate member state of the U.N. The Palestinians must have one place on earth, the territories occupied in 1967, where they can live freely as first-class citizens in an independent state. There is no other way to end the cycle of bloodshed, pain and hatred.
To accomplish this, half measures and partial acknowledgment are insufficient. Both peoples must fully recognize each other’s national rights and states.
Since we established the American Task Force on Palestine in 2003, I have been criticized for being “too soft on Israel,” mostly by those who seek to lecture me about the Nakba and trumpet their own Palestinian “patriotic credentials.” In an insightful comment about my attendance at a recent Israeli Independence Day event, a distinguished Palestinian American friend of mine noted, “You weren’t celebrating the exodus of 800,000 Palestinians, or the destruction of Palestine, or the Nakba, but keeping the face of Palestine alive, and keeping the door for negotiations and human contact open.”
I understand the anger that the memory of the Nakba provokes, especially among young people. I remember what it felt like on the eve of war in 1967. We were excited at the prospect of the liberation of Palestine that would allow those of us who became refugees in 1948 to go back home. But this war in fact made me a refugee once again.
In the ensuing years, I have come to recognize that the wars of 1948 and 1967, like bookends holding together volumes on a shelf, form the practical margins for resolving the conflict. The Arabs were unable to prevent the Jewish people from establishing Israel in 1948. But Israel cannot incorporate the Palestinian territory and population conquered in 1967 without losing both its Jewish and its democratic character. That is why only a two-state agreement, recognizing the legitimacy and limitations of both national projects, offers a conflict-ending solution.
Our histories and narratives are precious. They must not become political bargaining chips, or the subject of negotiations. Palestinians and Israelis will not embrace each other’s narratives, nor should they abandon their own. They don’t need each other to confirm their own identities. What they need is a workable, ironclad, conflict-ending arrangement to allow them to live side-by-side in peace. Hearts as well as minds must change to make this possible.
The only way to honor our tragic histories is to create a future for our children free of man-made tragedy. This means making peace fully, completely and without reservation, between Israel and Palestine.
Ziad Asali is president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org). The full text is at The Daily Beast.