The Return March of Palestinians in Israel to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba • Photo: Fadi Amun

Nakba Day: six basic facts Israelis should know

Less than a month ago, Israel celebrated its 75th Independence Day. Today, on 15 May, the Nakba’s 75th year is being marked worldwide. But what is the Palestinian catastrophe, and what does it have to do with Independence Day?

The Palestine Project
7 min readMay 16, 2023

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By Dotan Halevy, Maayan Hilel, and the Social History Workshop*

In contrast with what the superficial propaganda might have you think, Nakba Day is not when Palestinians mourn the establishment of Israel as a crisis in itself. Rather, it is the continued suffering they have endured ever since as a result of Israeli statehood, and the world’s ongoing denial of the Palestinian right to national, collective self-definition.

Nakba Day marks a developing and exhaustively documented historical crisis, out of which Israel as we know it was born. We are still learning of the full extent of this crisis and all the ways it unfolded, its inherent violence and far-reaching consequences for Palestinians, Israelis, and the Middle East. On the 75th Nakba Day we offer some basic, researched and proven facts that everyone should know:

1. Population:

Before the 1948 war, the British Mandate territory was home to around 600,000 Jews, as well as and 1.4 million Palestinians, 900,000 of which lived in the area which ended up as the State of Israel at the end of the war. Most of this population, around 700,000 to 750,000 people, were actively displaced or fled Mandate territory into Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, or Transjordan, or to areas occupied by Arab armies: the West Bank and Gaza Strip. By the end of the war, a minority of around 156,000 Palestinians remained within Israeli territory. Of those, about 46,000 were internally displaced refugees that were either evicted from or fled their homes and lands and were forced to live as refugees elsewhere in the country.

Unlike the common Israeli view, the only documented case of the Arab leadership calling its people to flee was in Haifa, which was abandoned during an attack by the Hagana militia despite being urged by some of the Jewish leadership to stay. Historical research has not yielded any evidence of Arab leadership broadly instructing the population to leave their homes. The origin of this contention appears to be Israeli propaganda from the 50s and 60s, aimed at presenting the Palestinian exodus as voluntary.

2. Land:

Except for very few, Palestinian refugees were permanently prohibited from returning to their homes and lands, because of Israel’s explicit policy, codified before the war had even begun. One of the nascent state’s main aims was stopping the return of Palestinian refugees to the country (“infiltration”). To this end, during the war and in the years that followed, Israel destroyed the about400 abandoned Palestinian villages and neighbourhoods in occupied cities or repopulated them with Jewish immigrants. Over time, village names were wiped off the map, marked as “ruins” or replaced altogether with Hebrew names.

Most of those agricultural lands were systemically expropriated and turned into state land in a process which began almost immediately after the war with the Absentee Property Law (1950) and continued with widespread appropriation. Internally displaced Palestinians were also forbidden from returned to their hometowns with the restrictions of movement imposed on them by the military control of the Palestinian population in Israel until late 1966. In total, about 85 per cent of Palestinian land before 1948 was expropriated and deemed state land. Inexorably, the main sources of farming income s of the Palestinian minority were also taken away from them.

3. Culture and politics:

Alongside the expulsion of the Palestinian population and the of their sources of income, the Nakba was also the destruction of a dynamic national and cultural group that was deeply rooted in the land that had become Mandated Palestine in 1917.

In the 30s and 40s, Haifa, Yafa [Jaffa], Jerusalem, Akka [Akko], Gaza and other cities had become bustling hubs of Palestinian commerce. Lawyers, accountants, cinemas, theatres, cafes and restaurants, hotels, libraries, beaches, sports organisations and cultural associations were part of Palestinian daily life, through which they consolidated their ancient bonds with other Middle Eastern artists, politicians, and thinkers. Much like the Zionist vision, Palestinians have seen themselves since the late Ottoman era as marching into a future of democratic sovereignty. The war of 1948 abruptly disrupted this process. By the end of the war, Nazareth remained the only Arab city in Israel, while Palestinians in other big cities became a negligible minority.

4. The reasons for the Nakba:

Did Palestinians bring their 1948 disaster upon themselves because they rejected the partition plan? This question has a principled answer and a practical answer.

As a matter of principle, one must ask in earnest. If a group of immigrants were to arrive in Israel today and claim historical ownership of the land, offering us Jewish Israelis a division plan, would we consider this justified and be prepared to “compromise”? For Arabs, the partition plan was in effect saying, “you’ve invaded my home and now you’re willing to compromise on which rooms to take”. A clear majority among Palestinians, including Palestinian leadership, were prepared to see Jewish immigrants as a minority with equal rights in a country with an Arab majority. Nonetheless, even for those willing to compromise, the UN’s 1947 proposal reflected an unfair division of land and resources.

Now for the practical answer. At the time the partition plan was adopted by the UN, most of the lands in the Jewish state’s territory weren’t owned by Jews and were home for around 350,000 Palestinians. The Jewish state was due to get Haifa and its seaport, the main commercial asset of the country, as well as the coastal plains where most of the Palestinian citrus industry was situated, as well as the main traffic arteries and the fertile lands of the valleys. The entire Naqab/Negev was to be in Jewish hands, despite minimal Jewish ownership of its lands, based on the assumption that Jews have greater potential to develop it in the future. without any consideration for ownership or land rights.

5. Why shouldn’t Palestinians put the past behind them?

For Palestinians, the Nakba isn’t in the past. It’s happening now. The process that started in 1948 has not ended. After the war, Israel expropriated Palestinian lands and placed Palestinian citizens of Israel under military occupation until 1966. From 1967 onwards, the West Bank and Gaza Strip have also been under military control, which along with the settlements, continue to take away more Palestinian lands, individual rights, human rights, basic human dignity, and the possibility that they could ever establish an independent state of their own. The reality of life as a refugee in Gaza, the West Bank, and Lebanon, has generations of Palestinians destined to live a life of suffering and poverty decades after the war had ended. Their conditions worsened in 1967, in 1982, and during the periodic wars with the Gaza Strip.

Indeed, it is not only Israel which is responsible for the plight of Palestinian refugees and for these military conflicts. But certainly, they’re all linked to 1948 as a watershed event, and reimbue it each time with new meaning. And so, Palestinians don’t conceive of the Nakba as merely a historical event but as an ongoing existential state manifesting with each encounter with a soldier at a checkpoint, each land grab, each restriction of movement and each war in Gaza. In this way the 1948 trauma continues to be a central part of Palestinian identity and Palestinian collective memory.

Does this mean that there is no way out of the current crisis? Not at all. Throughout the joined histories of Israelis and Palestinians, countless opportunities existed to mend the injustice of 1948 by an honest recognition by Israel of the Palestinian tragedy; an honest affirmation of their national rights, compensation for their losses, the return of some refugees to their lands, demarcation of sustainable borders, or making joint decisions to establish one state for two nations through appropriate political agreements. Israel chose not to do so for its own reasons. But it can choose to act differently.

6. The Nakba is a Palestinian issue.

Why should Israelis be bothered by it? Because the 1948 war wasn’t fought between two distinct countries one of which simply lost. The elimination of the Palestinian population is what enabled Israel to become a democratic state with a clear Jewish majority. Erasing Palestinian culture is what enabled the infusion of the territory with a collective memory in which Palestinians have seemingly never existed while linking modern Israel with the Biblical epoch and ignoring a long and rich Arab history on the land.

In other words, without the Nakba, Israel as we know it could not exist. This puts the onus on us as Jewish Israelis to recognise the loss upon which our country is founded. But most important are the present and future of all of us on this land. If we don’t want to leave to our kids a world founded on oppression, violence, and systemic erasure, then we must deal with the wounds of that war. Recognising and identifying with Palestinian pain and suffering don’t negate recognition and identification with our own Israeliness or Jewishness, nor of our right to live here safely and peacefully. Such recognition gives a peaceful life in the state of Israel a chance.

Dotan Halevy is a postdoctoral fellow at the Polonsky Academy for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem

Maayan Hillel is a lecturer in Israel and Jewish studies and deputy head of the Crown Family Centre for Jewish and Israel Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago

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