On May 15, 2023, the United Nations will stage a high-level special meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba – the mass displacement of around 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948.
It is the first time that the international body has commemorated the date, which organizers said serves “as a reminder of the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people.”
Not everyone is behind the U.N.‘s marking of the day, however. The United States and the United Kingdom were among the countries that voted against the commemoration. Meanwhile, the Israeli foreign ministry has called on U.N. member states “not to participate in the event that adopts the Palestinian narrative that opposes Israel’s right to exist.”
As a scholar who studies Palestinian history, I see the U.N. decision as the culmination of a long process. For decades, Palestinians struggled for international recognition of the Nakba in the face of a narrative that minimized their plight.
That is starting to change.
What is the Nakba?
The Nakba – Arabic for “catastrophe” – was part of a longer project of displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. From the early 1900s, increasing numbers of Zionists – Jewish nationalists – emigrated from Russia and other parts of Europe to Palestine, seeking to escape antisemitism.
Many of these settlers also sought to establish Jewish sovereignty in a land that had long been inhabited by Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.
As a result of Zionist settlement, thousands of peasants were forced off land they had lived on for generations. Many Palestinians resisted this colonial displacement throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But their resistance was violently suppressed by British colonial forces ruling over Palestine at the time.
Following World War II, as the full horrors of the Holocaust became known and international sympathy for the Jewish plight grew, Zionist militias waged deadly attacks that killed hundreds of Palestinians and British personnel.
The British then handed over the “question of Palestine” to the newly formed United Nations, which on Nov. 29, 1947, voted in favor of a partition plan to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The plan allotted a majority of the country, including major ports and prime agricultural lands, to the Jewish state, even though Jews comprised about one-third of the population at the time. The plan would have also forced half a million Palestinian Arabs living in the proposed Jewish state to make a stark choice: live as a minority in their own country or leave.
Palestinians rejected the plan and fighting broke out. Well-trained Zionist militias attacked Palestinians in areas that had been designated as part of the proposed Jewish state. Other Palestinians fled in fear after Zionist forces massacred villagers in Deir Yassin.
By the time Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, between 250,000 and 350,000 Palestinians had been forced off their ancestral lands.
The day after that declaration – May 15 – came to be known as Nakba Day.
As Palestinians fled to neighboring lands, the armies of five Arab countries – which also wished to prevent a Jewish state from forming – were deployed to try to stem the tide of refugees. Fighting between Israeli and Arab armies continued throughout that summer and fall, with the heavily armed Israeli military conquering lands that the U.N. had previously designated as part of the Arab state.
In the process, even more Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages. Many fled on foot, carrying whatever they could on their backs. By the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians had either fled or had been expelled from their homes.
The battle over the Nakba narrative
Palestinian and official Israeli accounts framed what took place in very different ways.
Since 1948, Palestinians have insisted that they have a right to return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled. They and their supporters cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in December 1948, that states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
But Israeli officials have maintained that Palestinians left at the behest of their leaders and should be resettled in the surrounding Arab countries.
They also argue that since Israel has already absorbed some 900,000 Jewish refugees who were expelled from Arab countries after Israel’s founding, they should not have to take back Palestinian refugees, too.
For decades, Americans overall have held greater sympathy for the Israeli position. One reason for this was the 1958 bestselling novel “Exodus” and the 1960 blockbuster film of the same name. As my research shows, the novel drew on long-standing anti-Arab racist tropes to absolve Zionist and Israeli forces of their role in creating the Palestinian refugee crisis.
This “Nakba denialism,” as scholars like myself describe it, was pervasive. It rested on the idea that Palestinians were generic “Arabs” who could be settled in any other Arab country, rather than a people whose food, dress and dialects are connected to specific locales in Palestine, and are distinct from those in surrounding Arab countries.
Attempts to commemorate the Nakba have long been rooted in a counternarrative that connects Palestinian culture and society to their pre-1948 hometowns and villages.
At first, Palestinians mourned the loss of their homeland quietly. Then in the 1960s, younger Palestinians formed political organizations aimed at drawing international attention to their cause. That included holding public events on May 15 to educate the broader public – in Arab states and around the world – about their ties to their land and to push for their right to return.
Following the June 1967 War, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since then, Palestinians around the world have sought to use May 15 to draw attention not only to the plight of Palestinian refugees living in exile, but also of those living under Israeli occupation.
Palestinians gained support from many in the Global South – a term to describe lower-income countries mainly in Asia, Africa and South America – due in part to many nations’ common colonial experiences. While some African American groups in the U.S. also backed the Palestinian cause, in much of the West the Nakba remained largely unknown.
In 1998, as Palestinians marked 50 years of exile, activists in the United States and around the world organized commemorative events. For the first time, organizers centered the events around a single theme: remembering the Nakba.
That same year, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat also made official what had long been unofficial: May 15 was declared Nakba Day.
Meanwhile, a group of Israeli scholars known as the “New Historians” published carefully documented studies that confirmed the Palestinians’ narrative of what happened in 1948. Those studies undermined long-standing official Israeli denials about its role in creating the Nakba. They also opened the door further for global acknowledgment of the Palestinians’ experiences.
Despite the findings, Israeli governments and some Western allies still oppose recognizing the Nakba.
In 2009, the Israeli education minister banned the use of the Arabic term in Israeli textbooks. Then in 2011, the Israeli parliament passed a “Nakba Law,” authorizing the government to withdraw funding from civil society groups that commemorate the Nakba. That law remains in effect.
The restrictions aren’t limited to Israel. Last year, German courts upheld the Berlin police’s decision to cancel several planned Nakba Day protests in that city.
Despite this opposition, Palestinians continue to mark Nakba Day. That’s because, as long as they remain under Israeli occupation and exiled from their land, Palestinian rights groups say, “the Nakba is ongoing.” Many also see May 15 as a day to affirm Palestinians’ resilience, despite the ongoing oppression they face.
As Palestinians and their supporters hold Nakba Day events at the U.N., across the United States and around the world in 2023, it serves as acknowledgment of their long, and continuing, struggle.
Maha Nassar was a 2022 nonresident fellow with the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
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