Between 1947 and 1949, armed Zionist forces ethnically cleansed and eradicated over 500 villages and cities in Palestine, displacing 750,000 Palestinians and taking over 78% of the land. This mass exodus is known by Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
1948 saw the worst period of concentrated extermination and destruction. On May 15th, the day Britain ended its mandate in Palestine, Israel’s future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion announced the creation of Israel. Thus, May 15th is marked annually around the world as Nakba Day. But the process that culminated in the events of 1948 began decades earlier.
WHY DID THE NAKBA HAPPEN?
Palestine was part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire until it fell at the end of World War One in 1918. During the war, in 1916, the British and French governments carved up the Ottoman Empire between them (the Sykes-Picot Agreement); part of Britain’s share was Palestine. The population of Palestine at that time was about 800,000, of whom around 90% were Palestinian Arabs.
By the late 19th-century, Zionism, the belief that the Jewish people constitute a national group entitled to realise self-determination by establishing a state in Palestine, established itself as a political ideology in Eastern Europe. In 1896, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl gave new life to this movement with the publication of his pamphlet, ‘The Jewish State’, which advocated for the creation of a Jewish state as a means of protecting European Jews from widespread and systematic anti-Semitism.
Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, , lobbied British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour to great effect, securing a pledge from Balfour (known today as the Balfour Declaration) for a Jewish national home in Palestine. This, and subsequent pledges of support from the British establishment for the Zionist project, were not motivated by shared ideological beliefs. Instead, the British saw an opportunity to gather support from US and Russian Jews for the Allied forces, and also to establish control of Palestine. From the start of the British Mandate period (1920-1947) the British facilitated the mass immigration of European Jews to Palestine.
With the rise of fascism and an increase in anti-Semitism across Europe, particularly when the Nazi’s took power in Germany, tens of thousands of European Jews had moved to Palestine by 1936, leading to a dramatic increase in the Jewish population to around a quarter of Palestine’s population.
Though the British government, who sensed tension growing between Palestinians and Zionist settlers, periodically attempted to halt the immigration of European Jews to Palestine, effective lobbying by Zionist groups ensured that the flow of immigrants continued with little interruption.
The 1936 Arab Revolt was a Palestinian uprising against British rule and its support for the Zionist settler-colonialist project. The British responded to the revolt with brutality, destroying Palestinian homes, deporting Palestinian leaders, and interning civilians and fighters in prison camps, where torture and abuse was rife.
By 1944, armed Zionists had turned on the British, launching several deadly attacks against British administrative personnel. Recognising that it had created a humanitarian disaster, the British handed over responsibility of Palestine to the United Nations in 1947, ending its own period of colonisation in Palestine, and ultimately resulting in the UN adopting Resolution 181 on November 29, 1947, calling for the partition of Palestine into two Arab and Jewish states.
Though the Jewish population of Palestine accounted for a third of the population, the UN allocated 55% of the land to the Jewish population, including many of Palestine’s most culturally, historically, and politically important towns and cities, which contained Palestinian majority populations, as well as the entire coastline from Haifa to Jaffa.
Palestinians rejected the partition plan, though the plan was accepted by the Zionists (as a temporary tactical measure.)
From March 1948 the Zionists put a carefully prepared strategy into effect (Plan Dalet), the purpose of which was to seize all the military hardware and installations left by the British, to use force to remove as many Palestinians as possible from their land, to destroy their villages and to take over the main towns.
Zionist paramilitary groups orchestrated a brutal and extensive process of ethnic cleansing through massacres and mass expulsions of Palestinians from their towns and cities, in an attempt to remove Palestinians from the land designated to them by the UN, and to extend the boundaries of the Jewish state.
Some Palestinians were forcibly transferred to villages within Israel’s new borders, while others were taken to the West Bank in trucks or marched at gunpoint across the borders. Those who tried to return home, to find missing relatives, harvest crops or recover possessions were shot, including women and children.
On May 15th, 1948, following the end of the British mandate period and a ‘declaration of independence’ by Zionist forces, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian forces invaded Zionist-occupied territories and launched a war that would last until March 1949. By August, 750,000 Palestinians had been made refugees.
Many of those who fled went to Lebanon and Syria, believing they would return within weeks. Now, those refugees number around 7 million people, and are scattered around the world and over two million refugees live in 27 refugee camps in the West Bank and Gaza served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). UNRWA was founded in order to respond to the humanitarian crisis that resulted from the Nakba. A further 35 camps in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon and Jordan house around 3 million Palestinians who are denied the right to return by Israel.
WHEN DID THE NAKBA END?
The massacres, land theft and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians did not halt with the creation of Israel. By 1951, 200 new Hebrew names were issued for Palestinian villages and cities which had been destroyed and entirely erased from the map. Since 1948, Israel has created 30 laws to transfer Palestinian land to the Israeli government.
The Nakba continues today.
Israel is ethnically cleansing and displacing Palestinians from within Israel and from the territories recognised as occupied under International law. Israel has been militarily occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza since 1967, and Gaza has been living under a crippling siege since 2007.
In violation of international law, Israel routinely demolishes homes and villages, denies access to land and residency, colonises the land through unlawful settlement building, and uses lethal violence against civilians.
Al Jazeera’s award-winning four part series on the Nakba can be viewed here
Salman Abu Sitta’s The Atlas of Palestine (1917-1966) can be accessed here
Palestinian Journeys, a project of the Palestinian Museum, the Institute for Palestine Studies and Visualizing Palestine, can be accessed here
Israeli NGO, Zochrot, and it’s iNakba app can be accessed here
For more information on human rights in the occupied territories, visit btselem.org
For more on Palestinian rights in Israel, visit adalah.org
For more on the military detention of Palestinian children, visit dci-palestine.org
For more on home demolitions, visit icahd.org
For more on Israeli settler and solider violence, visit yesh-din.org