[This article is part of a bouquet developed by the Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (15 May 1948), the day that marks the beginning of an ongoing struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination in the face of the violent establishment of the state of Israel on the land of historic Palestine. This day would mark the displacement of 750,000 Palestinians, the razing of over 500 Palestinian villages, the murder and internal displacement of countless more, and 75 years of settler-colonial rule. Read the rest of the articles featured in this bouquet at the bottom of this page.]
The 15th of May 1948 marks the seventy-fifth commemoration of the Nakba, or Catastrophe, denoting the elimination of Palestine from the map, the ethnic cleansing of its indigenous inhabitants, and the dispossession of an entire people that persists to this day.
The Nakba commenced almost immediately after the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on 29 November 1947, adopted Resolution 181(II) recommending the partition of Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state. But the groundwork for it had been laid during the previous half-century. First, by the Zionist movement which during the late nineteenth century initiated the colonization of Palestine with the ambition to transform it into a Jewish state. Second, and more importantly, by Great Britain, which seized control of Palestine at the conclusion of the First World War and for the next several decades ruled it with the objective of developing a European Jewish protectorate that would safeguard the eastern approach to the Suez Canal. Without the benefit of what the pre-eminent Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi termed this “British Shield”, the Zionist movement, which possessed neither the military, economic, geopolitical, nor demographic resources to achieve its objectives, would have entered the history books, if at all, as a failure born of delusion.
Although the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine consisting primarily of foreign-born Europeans, in 1947 comprised thirty-three percent of the total population and owned less than seven percent of the land, the UNGA partition resolution allocated fifty-six percent of Palestine to a Jewish state. While Resolution 181(II) in Article B.10(d) explicitly called upon the proposed states to guarantee their inhabitants “equal and non-discriminatory rights” and thus proscribed population transfers, and in Article C.2(8) expressly prohibited “expropriation of land owned by an Arab in the Jewish state”, it did not require an advanced degree in political theory to understand the real-world consequences of endorsing statehood on behalf of a nationalist movement dedicated to achieving unassailable territorial and demographic supremacy.
In the words of Walid Khalidi, the UN’s adoption of Resolution 181(II) “heralded the cataclysm.” The systematic mass expulsions perpetrated by Zionist militias, and their pre-meditated territorial expansion well beyond the UN boundaries, set forth in Plan Dalet of March 1948 and other operational plans, created several hundred thousand refugees in the months before Israeli statehood was proclaimed on 15 May and the first Arab-Israeli war ensued. Subsequent to that date the Israeli military picked up where the pre-state militias left off.
The expulsions were carried out with extraordinary ferocity and brutality, and included numerous mass killings, forced marches, systematic looting, as well as rapes, and sexual slavery. These would continue into the early 1950s, by which time in excess of 75 percent of Palestinians in territory conquered by the nascent Israel state had been uprooted and dispossessed. Accompanied by legislative and military measures to prevent their return, Israel for good measure razed more than 500 Palestinian villages to the ground.
In contrast to Hollywood depictions of the Palestine War as a miraculous triumph by a solitary David over hordes of Goliaths, the outcome, as with most conflicts, reflected the balance of military power. At its conclusion, Israel was in control of seventy-eight percent of Mandatory Palestine. Of the remainder, twenty-one percent, situated on the west bank of the River Jordan, was in 1950 annexed by Jordan, and one percent, comprising a narrow strip of coastal territory in southwest Palestine centered on Gaza City, was administered by Egypt.
Virtually overnight the Palestinians had become a stateless people and the world’s largest refugee population. In the Gaza Strip, whose population almost tripled in the space of a year on account of Nakba refugees, the humanitarian situation was particularly dire. Conditions in the West Bank, where refugees accounted for perhaps forty percent of the population, and in refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, were similarly horrendous. UNGA 194(III), adopted on 11 December 1948 and re-confirmed on an annual basis since, established the right of Palestine refugees to “return” to “their homes”, as well as to “compensation” for “loss of or damage to property” by “the Governments or authorities responsible.” UNGA 273 of 1949 concerning Israel’s admission to the United Nations explicitly references this resolution, in effect making it a condition for Israeli membership in the world body.
The Palestinians that remained within Israel’s borders collectively constituted less than fifteen percent of the state’s population. Often also uprooted from their original homes, they were confined to ethnic enclaves and for most of the next two decades ruled by a military government, which facilitated the expropriation of almost all their lands for exclusive Jewish use. The solemn declaration in Article C.4(1) of Resolution 181(II) that its prohibition against expropriation of Arab land and its ban against “discrimination of any kind … between the inhabitants on the grounds of race, religion, language or sex” as specified in C.2(2), “fell under the guarantee of the United Nations”, conveniently disappeared down the memory hole.
In 1967 Israel occupied the remaining twenty-two percent of Mandate Palestine (it had previously seized and sought to annex the Gaza Strip during the 1956 Suez Crisis). On account of initiatives it implemented during and in the months after the June War to depopulate these territories, the Palestinian population would not recover its pre-war levels until the 1980s. Many of the new exiles, such as those from the virtually emptied Aqabat Jabr Refugee Camp outside Jericho, the West Bank’s largest, had previously been uprooted in 1948.
Since 1967, Israeli strategy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has consisted of a mutually reinforcing triad of settler colonization, apartheid, and creeping annexation. Enabled by a combination of military rule and state terror, it aspired to permanent control over “maximum territory with minimum Arabs.” The 1982 invasion of Lebanon, culminating in the Sabra-Shatilla Massacre, was primarily launched to make the occupied territories safe for annexation. Frustrated in this endeavor by the Palestinian national movement, culminating in the 1987-1993 popular uprising, Israel in 1993 resorted to the Oslo agreements. The process it set in motion has been dominated by co-optation, fragmentation, pauperization, and siege warfare. The punishing blockade of the impoverished Gaza Strip, now nearing its third decade, and punctuated every few years by devastating Israeli military assaults, is the most visible manifestation that the Nakba was not a mid-twentieth-century catastrophe but rather an ongoing campaign of dispossession.
Just as the establishment of Israel was primarily a product of British imperial policy, its subsequent policies were enabled by the protective embrace offered by the United States and Europe, who together provided it with the weaponry and funding to commit its crimes, and immunity from the consequences of its actions. After treating UNGA 194(III) as a dead letter for seventy years, Western governments would similarly shrug their shoulders when Israel in 2018 adopted the Nation-State Law insisting that Jews alone among the new state’s citizens have the right to self-determination. Further emboldened, Israel’s current government proclaimed the following guiding principle for its policies: “The Jewish people have an exclusive and indisputable right to all parts of the Land of Israel [i.e. Israel and the territories it rules beyond its boundaries]. The Government will promote and develop [Jewish] settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel – the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan Heights, and Judea and Samaria.”
Speaking on the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of Israel’s establishment the President of the European Commission and European Union’s most senior official, Ursula von der Leyen, did not quite ignore these repeated official proclamations of apartheid. Describing Israel as a “home” for “the Jewish people” in the “Promised Land,” and like its far-right government collectively excising the remainder of its citizens, the stateless Palestinians living under its rule, and those it had forced into lifetimes of exile, she found the occasion one for “celebrat[ion]” rather than condemnation. Lauding “our shared culture” and “values”, Von der Leyen praised Israel for being “a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East” that had produced “seventy-five years of dynamism, ingenuity, and ground-breaking innovation.” Stopping just short of crediting Yitzhak Shamir with developing a cure for cancer, she resorted to the ultimate Zionist trope that Israel had “literally made the desert bloom.”
Belatedly, the UN General Assembly will on 15 May convene its first-ever commemoration of the Nakba. The United States and the United Kingdom have, along with Israel, already announced their boycott of the event. Other governments invested in Israeli regional supremacy and/or seeking to curry favor with Washington will likely follow. But the overwhelming majority of the international community will participate. In so doing it will affirm yet again that the Palestinian people are engaged in a just struggle to achieve their inalienable right to self-determination, and put a definitive end to seventy-five years of catastrophe.
Jadaliyya Palestine Page Editors Mark Nakba 75
Palestinians and Their Discontents by Mouin Rabbani
Grieving Palestinian Life by Noura Erakat
Do Not Despair by Nour Joudah
Topography of Gaza: Contouring Indigenous Urbanism by Nour Joudah
The Nakba of Nazmiya al-Kilani by Rabea Eghbariah
Nakba in the Age of Catastrophe by Sherene Seikaly