The Palestinian Nakba: ‘48 and now
May 15 this year marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the Nakba (the Arabic word for catastrophe). On this day 70 years ago, Zionist forces accelerated their campaign against Palestinians, ultimately destroying around 530 villages and cities, expelling over 750,000 Palestinians and killing approximately 15,000 Palestinians.
Israelis celebrate this day, when the British Mandate was officially terminated, as the day they achieved independence. Palestinians lament this day as the day they were ethnically cleansed from their homeland and forced into refugee camps throughout the region.
In the early 1900s, Zionism was established as a political ideology. Zionism called for the establishment of a Jewish majority state in reaction to European nationalism and rampant anti-Semitism. They settled on founding a state in the territory of Palestine, where there was a religious connection, though some opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Leaders of this ideology lobbied to the international community to support their efforts, and Great Britain paid attention.
After World War I, Britain created Mandatory Palestine, where they would control the formerly Ottoman-controlled territory and facilitate the transition to independence. But it was not Palestinian independence they were facilitating, it was independence for new Israeli immigrants.
The British authorities allowed massive waves of Jewish migration, “aliyahs,” to the land. Jewish immigration was not the issue; in fact, there were Jews living in Palestine prior to the Zionist movement. These waves of immigrants created problems because they were settling on the land with the purpose of establishing an ethnic state based on the supremacy of one people. The existing population of Palestinians were not against Jews co-existing with them, but rather they were against the disenfranchisement they experienced as the Zionist movement accelerated.
From approximately 1940 to 1948, Zionist leadership commanded the Israeli military forces to gather intelligence on Palestinian villages to prepare for a future occupation. These “village files” not only included details of the geography and infrastructure of the villages, but also the sociopolitical composition of the communities living there, determining an index of “hostility”. According to Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian, the Haganah studied “how best to attack” these villages through exploiting traditional Arab hospitality and disguising themselves as Palestinians.
On March 10, 1948, eleven Zionist leaders finalized and formally adopted Plan Dalet (Plan D). Plan D’s objective was “to gain control of the areas of the Hebrew state and defend its borders.” In this document and their discussions, they ordered the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by laying siege to the villages they had already mapped out, demolishing homes and expelling residents.
The plan called for the “destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously,” as well as encircling “village[s] and conducting a search inside [them]. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”
Thus, on May 15, 1948, when the British withdrew from Mandatory Palestine, David Ben-Gurion (then-leader of the Zionist movement) proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel. Military forces began to implement Plan D, systematically expelling Palestinians from the homes that they and their ancestors had lived in for as long as they could remember.
Approximately 4.2 million acres of Palestinian land were expropriated by Israel by the end of this catastrophe. At this point, Israel controlled over 78 percent of historic Palestine.
Many people claim that the refugee crisis was an unintended result of war or partition. However, these documents and numerous accounts show that the Nakba was a planned effort of ethnic cleansing, which the United Nations (UN) defines as “rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”
The Nakba was not an isolated incident. Palestinians feel the Nakba every day, every time Israeli citizens continue their annexation of the West Bank by stealing land for “settlements.” They feel it as approximately 1 million Palestinians have been arrested by Israel since 1948. They feel it as they are economically disenfranchised, with high rates of unemployment. They feel it as they experience high levels of violence and are denied basic human rights.
Palestinians living in Gaza have been subjected to particularly inhumane conditions—the UN predicts that Gaza will be unlivable by 2020, due to Israel’s blockade of the strip of land. Now, approaching the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, they are demanding change.
Over the past six weeks, Palestinians in besieged Gaza have been protesting for their right to return to the homes from which they were forced to flee, in a campaign called “Great March of Return.” They are calling for dignity, for the rights of which they have been stripped, for justice.
On May 15, Palestinians mourn the Nakba not as a thing of the past, but as an ongoing catastrophe.