The Nakba, Arabic for ‘catastrophe’, refers to the 1948 Palestinian exodus where an estimated 750,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee from their homes and villages that came under the attack of Zionist militias in a bid to establish a Jewish state.
Almost 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
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 on 14 May 1948 with the termination of the British mandate over Palestine on 15 May. This date would later be celebrated by Israelis as Independence Day and commemorated by Palestinians as Nakba Day.
The first major exodus occurred between 1947 and 1949 following the United Nations partition of Palestine, as a full-scale war erupted between the Arabs of Palestine and neighbouring Arab countries on the one hand, and the Jewish forces on the other. In the three years from May 1948 to the end of 1951, some 700,000 Jews settled in the newly founded Israeli state and the Palestinians displaced by Israeli forces have since not been permitted to return.
First Generation Refugees
Palestinians that were forced out as a result of direct assaults on their towns and villages or fled out of fear of massacres by Jewish militias are now known as first generation refugees.
Following the mass exodus, the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) was set up to temporarily provide humanitarian relief for the refugees in the surrounding areas to which they fled until their return, but the UN General Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate pending the just resolution of the question of the Palestine refugees.
When refugee camps were set up for the Palestinians after the establishment of Israel, UNRWA looked after some 750,000 refugees. Today, there are some five million UNRWA-registered Palestine refugees as the agency grants refugee status to the offspring of the first generation of refugees according to the principle of patrilineal descent.
The legal status of the Palestinians of the diaspora varies from one host country to another. The Arab League has instructed its members to deny citizenship to Palestinian refugees or their descendants “to avoid dissolution of their identity and protect their right to return to their homeland”. Jordan is the only Arab nation that has integrated large numbers of Palestinians as full-fledged citizens, leaving millions of Palestinians in Lebanon, Syria and Gulf countries stateless.
Second Generation Refugees
The children of Nakba survivors who were born in refugee camps or in the diaspora became known as second generation refugees. Registered descendants of UNRWA Palestine refugees inherit the same Palestine refugee status as their fathers.
Third Generation Refugees
The grandchildren of Nakba survivors are known as third generation refugees and they count for the largest number of Palestinian refugees today, many of them living under occupation in the Occupied Territories while others continue to live in refugee camps in surrounding Arab countries or as foreign nationals in the diaspora.
The Right of Return
On 11 December 1948, the UN passed Resolution 194 to guarantee the right of Palestine refugees to return to their homes and villages from which they were driven out, and to be compensated for their loss. The resolution has been reaffirmed 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…
According to the UN, Palestine refugees are defined as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.”
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”.
The Palestinian refugee problem is undoubtedly a politically charged issue and has been a focal point in the conflict. Today, UNRWA is severely underfunded, leaving millions of refugees in camps in the Occupied Territories, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan extremely vulnerable.
The world’s oldest refugee population sees 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.
This year, a six-week mass demonstration and sit-in, dubbed the Great March of Return, kicked off in the besieged Gaza Strip on 30 March calling for the implementation of the Right of Return. Intended to culminate on Nakba Day, the rally has been one of the biggest, longest and deadliest over the past seven decades where tens of thousands of Palestinians converged on the Strip’s eastern border with Israel reaffirming their right to return to their ancestral homes and villages in historical Palestine.
During the Nakba, some 500 Palestinian villages and towns were depopulated or destroyed. Many of them were then either resettled by Jewish immigrants or rebuilt as Jewish towns and given Hebrew names.
However, Palestinians have kept the memories of their ancestral homes and villages alive over the decades. When they fled their homes between 1947 and 1949 , they took their keys with them in the belief that their return was imminent. These keys have been passed down from one generation to another, along with land-deeds bearing the names of historical Palestinian villages.
Several projects have been launched to preserve the history of some 500 depopulated or destroyed Palestinian villages. On 15 May 2014, a free mobile app called iNakba was launched in Arabic, English and Hebrew by an Israeli NGO called Zochrot with the hope of “acquainting Israel’s Jewish population with the facts of their past”.
From 1948, Israel just erased Palestine and its localities and heritage. So we put Palestine back on the map
Powered by Google maps, the application “provides coordinates and maps of Palestinian localities that were completely demolished and obliterated after their capture, partially demolished, or remained standing although their residents were expelled.”
Brown pins across the Google Map of the region signify each of the 500 historical villages. Clicking on a pin reveals details about the village including its former name, population size as well as its fate post-1948. Photos, videos and testimonies are also available for some of the villages, with users being able to upload their own content.
Just north of the entrance road into Jerusalem lies Lifta, one of the few Palestinian villages to remain largely intact after Israeli attacks between 1947 and 1949. It is the only Palestinian village that was not repopulated or destroyed after the eviction of its residents, and most of the houses left in Lifta remain unoccupied.
Palestinians see Lifta as a standing testament and symbol of the Nakba. The village’s residents and their descendents who were forced out in 1948 – referred to today as Liftawis – have not been permitted to return to their homes, some of them living only a few kilometres away in occupied East Jerusalem.
Lifta has been under the threat of demolition for years, since the Israel Land Administration approved a redevelopment plan to build high-end luxury housing for Jews in the village. An unlikely coalition of Palestinian and Jewish activists, including the descendants of the former residents of the village, as well as architects, planners and preservationists contested the plan.
Calls for the rejection of the redevelopment plan and for the protection of Lifta continue to mount. The area is described as a unique place of heritage and memory for the benefit of all citizens of Jerusalem. It has been named as one of 25 endangered sites on the 2018 World Monuments Watch list.
Today, Lifta is on the list of UNESCO’s tentative world heritage sites for bearing “unique testimony of the traditional village life”.
A video published on YouTube in 2012 shows a unique visit to Lifta by a survivor of the Holocaust and a Palestinian who was expelled from this village in 1947.