In 1998, Yasir Arafat, then the president of the Palestinian Authority, declared May 15 a day of commemoration of the Nakba, or catastrophe—that is, the creation of Israel. The term Nakba has long been part of Arab discourse, and has now become commonplace in pro-Palestinian circles in the West. But the “catastrophe” it refers to is not the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from their homes or deaths that occurred during the first Arab-Israeli war, but the fact that Arabs would have to live alongside a Jewish state in the Middle East. Sol Stern traces the origins of the notion of a Nakba to a 1948 book by a distinguished, Western-educated Syrian Christian historian named Constantine K. Zurayk:
The Meaning of the Disaster actually isn’t about the tragedy of the Palestinian people. According to Zurayk, the crime of the Nakba was committed against the entire Arab nation—a romantic conception of a political entity that he and his fellow Arab nationalists fervently believed in. And, it turns out, Zurayk was no champion of an independent Palestinian state. . . . Zurayk’s only comment about Palestinian refugees is that, during the fighting, “400,000 or more Arabs [were] forced to flee pell-mell from their homes.” (All italics added.)
Zurayk predicted that all Arabs would continue to be threatened by international Zionism: “The Arab nation throughout its long history has never been faced with a more serious danger than that to which it has today been exposed. The forces which the Zionists control in all parts of the world can, if they are permitted to take root in Palestine, threaten the independence of all the Arab lands and form a continuing and frightening danger to their life.”
Zurayk is left to wonder how the combined Arab armies, far outnumbering the Jews, could have allowed the Zionists to achieve their military objectives in Palestine. His answer [is] rife with anti-Semitic canards and conspiracy theories.
[Decades later], Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas revised Constantine Zurayk’s original claim that Zionism committed its crimes against the entire “Arab Nation.” But they also revived Zurayk’s big Nakba lie that “the aim of Zionist imperialism is to annihilate one people so that another may be put in its place.” By continuing to promote this hateful narrative, the Palestinian leaders signaled, and continue to signal, that the struggle is not merely about the consequences of the June 1967 war. It also means that Israel’s struggle for independence and legitimacy is not yet over.