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The Ongoing Nakba: The Forcible Displacement of the Palestinian People

[Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights Map] [Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Refugee and Residency Rights Map]

Israeli practices and policies are a combination of apartheid, military occupation, and colonization. Together, they aim to ethnically cleanse the territory of historic Palestine from its indigenous Palestinian presence.

This Israeli regime is not limited to the Palestinians living in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), but it also targets Palestinians residing on the Israeli side of the 1949 Armistice Line as well as those living in forced exile. Reflections on whether a one or a two-state solution would be the appropriate means to end the injustice and suffering in historic Palestine overlook the fact that one legal entity has already been established within that specified territory. Indeed, Israel’s treatment of non-Jewish Palestinians throughout Israel and the oPt constitutes a comprehensive discriminatory regime aimed at controlling the maximum amount of land with the least number of indigenous Palestinians.

The main components of that structure discriminate against Palestinians in areas including nationality, citizenship, residency rights, and land ownership. Israel initially applied this system in 1948 in order to dominate and dispossess all forcibly displaced Palestinians, including the 150,000 who remained and who later became Palestinian citizens of Israel. After Israeli forces occupied the remaining part of historic Palestine in 1967, this territory became subject to the same Israeli regime in addition to military occupation. Israel’s settler-colonial regime was not necessitated by military expediency or broader national security concerns, to the contrary, its inception dates back to the beginnings of the Zionist Movement, decades before the creation of the State of Israel.

Zionist Movement

Zionist leaders established a movement in the late nineteenth century with the aim of creating a Jewish home through the formation of a

“…national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.”

As such, the Zionist enterprise combined Jewish nationalism, which it aimed to create and foster, with the colonial project of transplanting people, mostly from Europe, into Palestine drawing on the support of European imperial powers. The Zionist Movement constructed a specific Jewish national identity in order to justify the colonization of Palestine. The Zionist Movement had to define the global Jewry as a “people” in order to create a national identity. Moreover, this identity had to be linked to Jewish presence in Palestine during the first century BC. Significantly, like all other national identities which are a modern concept, Jewish nationality cannot be traced back to a natural origin. Instead, groups of persons constructed nationality based upon their own self-perceptions and desires.

As Ilan Pappe rightly concludes, however,

“Zionism was not… the only case in history in which a colonialist project was pursued in the name of national or otherwise non-colonialist ideals. Zionists relocated to Palestine at the end of a century in which Europeans controlled much of Africa, the Caribbean, and other places in the name of ‘progress’ or idealism…”[1]

What is unique to Israel, however, is the effect of Zionism on the people it has claimed to represent. By basing itself on the idea that Judaism is a national identity, Zionism in Israeli law and practice has redefined all Jewish people as its “nationals” without their consultation or consent. To date, Israel continues to define its citizenry extra-territorially.

The creation of a Jewish nation state in a land with a very small Jewish minority could only be possible through the forced displacement of the existing indigenous population alongside the implanting of the new Jewish settlers. For the indigenous Palestinians who managed to remain within the boundaries of what became Israel, their own national identity was revoked by decree and, at best, was relegated to inferior status.

Beyond being subject to institutionalized discrimination, these Palestinians who managed to remain within the part of historic Palestine usurped in 1948 — of whom today there are over 1.2 million — are forced to be citizens of a state in which they are ineligible for nationality.

As mentioned above, however, the main phenomennon of Zionist apartheid has been forced population transfer. The task of establishing and maintaining a Jewish state on a predominantly non-Jewish territory has been completed by continuously forcibly displacing the land’s non-Jewish majority population. Today, nearly seventy percent of the Palestinian people worldwide are themselves, or the descendants of, Palestinians who have been forcibly displaced by the Israeli regime. The idea of “transfer” in Zionist thought has been rigorously traced by Nur Masalha in his seminal text Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. Israel Zangwill, one of the early Zionist thinkers, captured the concept of “transfer” in 1905, when he explained:

“If we wish to give a country to a people without a country, it is utter foolishness to allow it to be the country of two peoples.”

 Zionism is, therefore, aptly summarized as the creation and fortification of a specific Jewish national identity, the takeover of the maximum amount of Palestinian land, the diminishment of the number of non-Jewish persons on that land, and the implantation of the maximum number of Jewish nationals.

Colonizing Palestine

The Zionist Movement, when setting the scene to colonize Mandate Palestine in 1897 under the motto, “people without land will get a land without people”, faced three major obstacles:

  • The indigenous Palestinian people who were living in that territory;
  • Palestinian property and land rights within that territory; and
  • Lack of a sufficient number of Jewish people in that territory.

Overcoming these three obstacles necessitated a legal system able to maintain the newly established status quo in the aftermath of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Zionist Movement, and later Israel, had no interest in simply creating a system of domination of one “racial” group over another. Rather, the intention was to establish a homogeneous Zionist-Jewish state predominantly for Jewish people.

Nur Masalha demonstrates that between 1930 and 1948 the Zionist Movement planned the forcible transfer of the indigenous Palestinian population in nine different strategies, starting with the 1930 Weizmann Transfer Scheme up to Plan Dalet carried out in 1948.

After the initiation of this ‘historic transfer’ the Zionist Movement initiated a series of pro-active and preventive measures in the form of laws, practices and policies to deal with the three challenges mentioned above. The following section will briefly elaborate the most central of these measures.

Privileged Migration

To ensure a sufficient number of Jewish people in the colonized territory, Israel legislated the Law of Return (1950). It provides that every Jewish person in the world is entitled to Jewish nationality and can immigrate to Israel and acquire Israeli citizenship. Under the Law of Return, a Jewish national is “…born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion.” Article 4(a) ensures the privilege of entry and citizenship to “the child and a grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of a grandchild of a Jew, except for a person who has been a Jew and has voluntarily changed his religion.”

Thus Jewish nationals enjoy the right to enter Israel even if they were not born in Israel and have no connection whatsoever to Israel. In contrast, Palestinians, the indigenous population of the territory, are excluded from the Law of Return on grounds that they are not of Jewish national origin, and as such do not enjoy the legal status of nationals under any other Israeli law; and have no automatic right to enter the country. The Law of Return has aimed to simplify and encourage the immigration of Jewish persons to Israel in order to achieve the exclusive Jewish state envisioned by Zionism.

Next to this, the Israeli nationality law embodies in law the separation of citizenship ('Israeli'), from nationality ('Jewish'). This separation was confirmed by the Israeli Supreme Court in George Raphael Tamarin v State of Israel (1972). Such a distinction allows Israel to discriminate against its Palestinian citizens and, even more severely, against Palestinian refugees by ensuring that certain rights and privileges are conditioned upon Jewish nationality. The Israeli regime has essentially divided the Palestinian people into several distinct political-legal statuses. Despite their differing categorizations under Israeli law, Palestinians across the board maintain an inferior status to that of Jewish nationals living within the same territory or beyond.

Category 1: privileged status:

  • Jewish Nationals
  • Living abroad and in Israel
  • Full political, social and economic rights and full access to benefits

Category 2: Inferior status:

  • Palestinian citizens of Israel        
  • Palestinians in the OPT
  • Palestinian refugees living abroad, forcibly displaced, made stateless and no right to return to their homes”.

Property Rights

Related to the second obstacle mentioned above, Israel legislated and deployed the Absentee Property Law (1950) to confiscate Palestinian property legally owned by forcibly displaced Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons. The term “absentee” was defined so broadly as to include not only Palestinians who had fled the newly established State of Israel but also those who had fled their homes yet remained within its borders. In fact, the term even included many Jews. However, an ostensibly race-neutral provision exempted absentees who left their home because of, among other things, “fear of Israel’s enemies” - thereby effectively excluding the Jewish population from the law’s force. Once confiscated, this land became State property.

Israel enacted the Land Acquisition Law (1953) to complete the transfer of confiscated Palestinian land, which had not been abandoned during the attacks of 1948, to the State. In the words of former Israeli Finance Minister Elilezer Kaplan, its purpose “…was to instill legality in some acts undertaken during and following the war.” An almost identical process took place in the oPt in the aftermath of the 1967 occupation.

As a result of overall Israeli land strategy, Palestinians today own only a few percent of Mandate or historic Palestine. The expansion of existing Palestinian localities in Israel and the oPt has been severely curtailed as a result of Israel’s highly discriminatory planning policy. Since the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, Israel has not permitted the establishment of any new Palestinian municipalities. Military Order 418 created a planning and building regime which gives full control of all areas related to planning and development in the oPt to the Israeli state. As a result, Palestinian communities often find themselves separated from their surrounding lands. In contrast, even the smallest Jewish localities have detailed building plans and regulations regarding land use. In sum,

“Israeli space has been highly dynamic, but the changes have been mainly in one direction: Jews expand their territorial control by a variety of means including on-going settlement, while Palestinians have been contained within an unchanged geography.”

Forced Population Transfer

The central obstacle to the Zionist Movement, the Palestinian people themselves, has been addressed by various means throughout the last six decades. More than seven million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced – including their descendants- from their homes.  Israeli laws such as the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954) and Military Orders 1649 and 1650 have prohibited Palestinians from legally returning to Israel or the oPt. This deliberate and planned forced displacement amounts to a policy and practice of transfer of the Palestinian population, or ethnic cleansing. This process started prior to 1948, and continues to this day.

Forced population transfer is illegal and has constituted an international crime since the Allied Resolution on German War Crimes, adopted in 1942. The strongest and most recent codification of the crime is found in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which clearly defines forcible transfer of population and implantation of settlers as war crimes.

The greatest outflow of refugees took place in April and early May 1948, coinciding with the start of operations by Zionist paramilitary organizations. This period in recent Palestinian history is defined as the Nakba, the Palestinian catastrophe. The Nakba fundamentally altered Palestine. However the idea of forced displacement of the indigenous Palestinian people did not end with the establishment of Israel in 1948, rather it began that year. Since the Nakba, almost every passing year has witnessed a wave of forced displacement, albeit varying in degree. While 400,000 Palestinians became refugees in 1967, in 2008, Israel revoked the residency rights of nearly 5,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites.

This ethnic cleansing is carried out today by Israel in the form of the overall policy of silent transfer. This displacement is silent in the sense that Israel carries it out while trying to avoid international attention, displacing small numbers of people on a weekly basis. It is to be distinguished from the more overt transfer achieved under the veneer of warfare in 1948. Here it is important to note that Israel’s transfer policy is neither limited by Israel’s geographical boundaries nor those of the oPt.

Israel’s Silent Transfer Policy Today

The Israeli policy of silent transfer is evident in the State’s laws, policies, and practices. Israel uses its power to discriminate, expropriate, and ultimately effect the forcible displacement of the indigenous non-Jewish population from the area of historic Palestine. For instance, the Israeli land-planning and zoning system has forced 93,000 Palestinians in East-Jerusalem to build without proper construction permits because eighty-seven percent of that area is off-limits to Palestinian use; most of the remaining thirteen percent is already built up. Since the Palestinian population of Jerusalem is growing steadily, it has had to expand into areas not zoned for Palestinian residence by the State of Israel. All those homes are now under the constant threat of being demolished by the Israeli army or police, which will leave their inhabitants homeless and displaced.  

Another example is the government-approved Prawer Plan, which calls for the forcible displacement of 70,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel due to an Israeli allocation policy, which has not recognized over thirty-five Palestinian villages located in the Naqab (Negev). Israel deems the inhabitants of those villages as illegal trespassers and squatters, and as such, they face the imminent threat of displacement. This is despite the fact that, in many cases, these communities predate the State of Israel itself.

The Israeli Supreme Court bolstered the Zionist objective of clearing Palestine of its indigenous population in its 2012 decision prohibiting family unification between Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and their counterparts across and beyond the 1949 Armistice Line. The effect of this ruling has been that Palestinians with different residency statuses, such as Israeli citizen, Jerusalem ID, West Bank ID or Gaza ID (all of which are issued by Israel), cannot legally live together on either side of the 1949 Armistice Line. They are thus faced with a choice of living abroad, living apart from one another, or taking the risk of living together illegally. This system aims to further diminish the Palestinian population. This demographic intention is reflected in the High Court’s explanation that “…human rights are not a prescription for national suicide.”

The Way forward

Israel's commission of internationally-sanctioned crimes, namely apartheid, military occupation, and colonization, are intended to create an unbearable situation in order to drive the indigenous population out. This continuous and calculated strangulation of the Palestinian people must be properly challenged by the international community by codifying that state’s actions and policies into elements of an international crime against humanity. Israel's regime must be judged accordingly and its impunity must be brought to an end because the silence, if not complicity, of powerful members of the international community, in the face of practices and policies that violate fundamental rights and laws, further entrenches politics, to the detriment of law.


[This article was originally published in BADIL’s al-Majdal magazine]


[1] Ilan Pappe, “Zionism as Colonialism: A Comparative View of Diluted Colonialism in Asia and Africa”,South Atlantic Quarterly 107:4 (Fall 2008), pp. 611-633, p. 612. 

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