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The Nakba Explained

The State of Israel was formed following the mass expulsion of nearly a million Palestinians. We take a look back at what happened.

May 15, 2017 at 9:31 pm

15 May 1948 marks the Nakba, the Catastrophe inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionists. To the Israelis though, the date marks the establishment of the Jewish State. Today, some 6.5 million Palestinian refugees cling to their right to return to their land. But how did it all start?


Despite popular belief that the Palestine-Israel conflict is thousands of years old, it only really goes back to about the early 1900s.

In the late 1800s, Palestine was under Ottoman rule. At the time, Jews accounted for around 3% of the population, Muslims to 87% and Christians 10%. People from all three faiths lived together in peace.

Following the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, convened and chaired by Theodor Herzl, and continuing into the early 20th century, Jewish immigration to Palestine intensified. Between 1920 and 1939, the Jewish population of Palestine increased by over 320,000 people.

World War I brought the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine became a British mandate. Then WWII broke out and with it, the holocaust. The post-WWII period saw a rise in anti-colonial nationalist sentiments and the winding down of colonial powers. Zionists saw an opportunity to establish a state for themselves during this period of decolonisation, ironically kick-starting a settler-colonial enterprise of their own.

With the defeat of Germany, a steady flow of Jews came from eastern Europe to settle in Palestine. Tensions ran high in the holy land, and on 29 November 1947, and against the will of the indigenous Palestinian population, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181, stipulating the partition of Palestine between Arabs and Jews and giving the Arab population 43% of the land. The Arab League unanimously rejected the partition plan as unjust. War became inevitable.

The Nakba of 1948

15 May 1948 was the day set for the official termination of the British mandate. David Ben-Gurion, the Executive Head of the World Zionist Organisation at the time and later the first Prime Minister of Israel, declared the establishment of the State of Israel the day before.

War broke out and some 750,000 Palestinians were forced out, many of them fleeing as a result of direct assaults on their towns and villages, and others out of fear of massacres by Jewish militias. This exodus came to be known as the Palestinian Nakba, or the Catastrophe. Soon after, the first Israeli government passed a series of laws banning refugees from returning their homes or claiming their property.

In the 3 years from May 1948 to the end of 1951, some 700,000 Jews settled in the newly founded state. 19 years later, in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and started constructing illegal settlements across the Palestinian territories.

The right of Return

During the Nakba, more than 400 Palestinian villages and town were depopulated or destroyed. Many of them were then either resettled by Jewish immigrants or rebuilt as Jewish towns and given Hebrew names. Following the Palestinian exodus of 1948, the UN set up refugee camps and humanitarian relief for the refugees, creating the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) in the process.

Today, the Palestinian refugees and their descendants are estimated to number more than 6.5 million. The UN passed Resolution 194 on 11 December 1948 to guarantee the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and villages and to be compensated for their loss, and has reaffirmed it every year since.

…the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property…

Israel, however, maintains that the return of Palestinians to their homes “threatens” its Jewish character, in what critics consider a demonstration of religious and ethnic discrimination against the indigenous Palestinian Muslim and Christian populations, particularly as Jews from all over the world are allowed to immigrate to Israel under Israel’s “Law of Return”.

Although UNRWA was set up as a temporary agency to provide relief for refugees until their return, the General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees. Today, UNRWA is severely underfunded, leaving millions of refugees vulnerable.

Palestinians continue to see the right of return as an essential component of a comprehensive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, addressing historical injustices levelled against the indigenous non-Jewish population.

The Nakba that began in 1948 is still in living memory, and until it ends it will remain in the memories of those Palestinians still denied the right to live on the lands of their grandfathers.