2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic. So, what was the Nakba – and what is its significance today?The Nakba refers to the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that took place with the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. Some 85-90% of Palestinians within the territory of this new, self-proclaimed ‘Jewish state’ were forced out, and four out of five Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed. In cities like Jerusalem and Haifa, neighbourhoods were emptied of Palestinians, and resettled by Jewish Israelis. The displacement of Palestinians actually began months before May 1948 and continued long after. The expulsion of Palestinians from al-Majdal wasn’t completed until 1950; with its residents driven into Gaza, al-Majdal was renamed Ashkelon.
All this matches our understanding of ethnic cleansing.
First, fear and violence were used to empty towns and villages.
We know this from the testimonies of Palestinian refugees, as well as from the work of Palestinian and Israeli historians. Massacres played a key role fomenting terror amongst Palestinians, while in many towns and villages, Palestinians were expelled at gunpoint. In Lydda and Ramla, an estimated 50,000 Palestinians were forced to march to the West Bank. In other villages, columns of refugees were ‘hurried along’ with mortar fire.
Second, the expelled Palestinians were prevented from returning.
As early as June 1948, David Ben-Gurion – Israel’s first prime minister – told his cabinet that “no Arab refugee should be admitted back”. By 1956, several thousand Palestinians attempting to return home, gather crops, or search for loved ones, had been killed by Israeli forces. Meanwhile, the Israeli government passed legislation to expropriate the properties and lands of the expelled Palestinians, while denying them the citizenship they had been entitled to as inhabitants of the new state.
Third, is the matter of intent.
In 1900, the population of Palestine was around 4 percent Jewish and 96 percent Arab, and by 1947, Palestinian Arabs still constituted more than two-thirds of the population. There was thus only one way of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine; removing the land’s non-Jewish inhabitants. In 1948, a common operational order instructed Israeli forces “to conquer the villages, to cleanse them of inhabitants (women and children should [also] be expelled)” and “to burn the greatest possible number of houses”. When Ben-Gurion was asked what to do with the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramla, his answer was short: “Expel them.” As Israeli historian Tom Segev has put it: “‘disappearing’ the Arabs lay at the heart of the Zionist dream and was also a necessary condition of its realization”.
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees
But is the Nakba just ‘ancient history’? No – and here’s why. Israeli policies of displacement and colonisation have continued to this day – an ongoing Nakba. Moreover, Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees their internationally-recognised right to return – purely because they are not Jewish. Consider the following illustration. Person A is a British Jew. Under Israeli law, Person A can emigrate to Israel tomorrow, and automatically receive Israeli citizenship. Person B is a British Palestinian, whose parents were expelled in 1948. Under Israeli law, Person B is denied the right to return to their homeland – and indeed, Person A may end up living in Person B’s family home.
Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian refugees to return, in the name of protecting its Jewish majority of citizens, reveals an important truth: that the Nakba was both central to establishing a ‘Jewish state’ in the first place, and, is the foundation on which today’s system of discrimination and exclusion has been built. The Nakba is thus at the heart of today’s so-called conflict – and realising the rights of Palestinian refugees is at the heart of any just, sustainable solution.