Palestine’s Nakba

This article, ‘The Nakba – from 1948 to today’ was written by the journalist  Ben White for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign  in April 2016. Footnotes are to be found at the end.


The ‘Nakba’ (Arabic for ‘catastrophe’) refers to the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and destruction of Palestinian communities that took place with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Around 85 to 90 per cent of Palestinians who lived in what became Israel were expelled (some 700 – 800,000)(1). Four out of five Palestinian towns and villages were destroyed or repopulated by Jewish Israelis (2). In cities like Haifa and Acre, Palestinian neighbourhoods were emptied and resettled. The displacement of Palestinians was well under way by the time of Israel’s unilateral declaration of independence.

Between March 30 and May 15 1948, some 200 Palestinian villages were, in the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, ‘occupied and their inhabitants expelled’ (3). Thus before the ‘Arab-Israeli war’ even began, around half of the final total of Palestinian refugees had already lost their homes (4). The ethnic cleansing not only began before May 1948, it also continued for some time after; the expulsion of Palestinians from Al-Majdal to the Gaza Strip, for example, was not completed until late 1950 (5). Emptied of its Palestinian residents, Al-Majdal became the Israeli port city Ashkelon.


The overriding reason for the evacuation of hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1947-48 was a combination of force and fear, something long maintained by Palestinian historians (6). The work of Israeli historians like Benny Morris has provided further evidence: according to Morris, of the roughly 400 destroyed Palestinian villages he examined, ‘abandonment on Arab orders’ was the decisive factor in the evacuation of the population on just six occasions (7).

Massacres by Zionist forces – of which there were at least two dozen – played a key role in fomenting terror amongst Palestinians (8). Deir Yassin, where 100-120 villagers were killed on 9 April 1948, is the most famous atrocity, but there were many others: in Al-Dawarmiya in October 1948, more than 100 villagers – men, women and children – were killed (9).

In many towns and villages, Palestinians were expelled at gunpoint, such as in Lydda and Ramla. After hundreds had been killed in the conquest of the towns, an estimated 50,000 inhabitants were forced to march to the West Bank (10). In many other villages, columns of refugees were targeted with mortar fire ‘to speed them on their way’ (11).


Palestinian refugees were prevented from returning home by violence and by legislation. As early as June 1948, David Ben-Gurion – Israel’s first prime minister – told his cabinet that ‘no Arab refugee should bve admitted back’ (12). He was true to his word.

Palestinians attempting to return were dubbed ‘infiltrators’ by the Israeli authorities and viewed as a security threat. By 1956, as many as 5,000 Palestinian refugees attempting to return home had been killed by Israeli forces; most died as they attempted to return home, access their crops or lost possessions or to search for loved ones (13).

Meanwhile, the Israeli government quickly passed legislation that both appropriated the properties and lands of the expelled Palestinians and stripped them of the citizenship that they had been entitlted to as residents of the new state (14).


There is no formal definition of ethnic cleansing in international humanitarian law and it originates as a term from the violence of the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia (15). In 1994 an article in the European Journal of International Law defined the long-term goal of a ‘policy of ethnic cleansing’ as ‘the creation  of living conditions that make the return of the displaced community impossible’.

The Nakba fits our understanding of ethnic cleansing. Fear and violence were used to empty hundreds of towns and villages and their inhabitants wre prevented from returning. Furthermore, the intent of the pre-state Zionist leadership, who became Israel’s first government, was clear. As historical scholarship has shown, the idea of ‘transferring’ ‘all or part of Palestine’s Arabs out of the prospective Jewish state was pervasive among Zionist leadership circles’ long before the Nakba (17). In 1930, for example, the then chair of the Jewish National Fund stated: ‘If there are other inhabitants there, they must be transferred to some other place. We must take over the land’ (18). During the Nakba, meanwhile, a common  operational order instructed Israeli forces ‘to conquer the villages, to cleanse them of inhabitants (women and children should [also] be expelled)’ and ‘to burn the greatest possible number of houses’ (19). When Ben-Gurion was asked what to do with the inhabitants of Lydda and Ramla, his answer was short: ‘Expel them’ (20).

In 1900, the population of Palestine was around 4 per cent Jewish and 96 per cent Arab and by 1947, Palestinian Arabs were still more than two-thirds of the population (21). Thus, as Israeli journalist and historian Tom Segev has put it, ‘”disappearing” the Arabs lay at the heart of the Zionist dream and was also a necessary condition of its realisation’ (22).


Palestinians mark Nakba Day on 15 May, including Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Palestinan citizens of Israel, meanhwhile, mark the Nakba on the state’s official ‘Independence Day’, which changes each year in accordance with the Jewish calendar.

On Nakba Day, Palestinian citizens, joined by a number of Jewish israelis, march to the site of a destroyed village. This is not just an ‘act of commemoration’; as many as one in four of the Palestinians who live inside Israel’s pre-1967 borders are so-called ‘present absentees’, internally displaced in the Nakba and to this day prevented by law from returning to their land and properties (23).

In recent years the Israeli government has sought to undermine the Palestinian community’s Nakba remembrance, passing a law which fines bodies who ‘openly reject Israel as a Jewish state or mark the Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning’ (24). In January 2012 the Israeli High Court of Justice rejected a petition against the law, despite it harming ‘freedom of expression’ (25).


Palestinian refugees continue to demand that their internationally-recognised right to both return and restitution be respected. Today there are around 5.2 million UN-registered refugees (the total number of Palestininans in the diaspora is 7.5 million) with 2 million of them living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli military rule – and a few miles away from their lands (26).

Palestinians also refer to an ‘ongoing Nakba’, in the sense that Israeli policies of forced displacement and colonisation have continued and even expanded over the decades. During the 1967 Israeli conquest of the Gaza Strip and West Bank, for example, some 300,000 Palestininans fled or were expelled. Of those who left the West Bank, less thn 8 per cent were allowed by Israel to return (27). Contemporary ongoing examples include the eviction of Palestinian families by Israeli settlers in Occupied East Jerusalem, as well as the demolition of homes and displacement of Palestinians in various areas of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley and Southern Hebron hills.


(1) Charles D Smith, Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict (Bedford/St Martin’s 2004); Rosemary Sayigh, The Palestinians: From Peasants to Revolutionaries (Zed Books 2007)

(2) Hussein Abu Hussein and Fiona McKay, Access Denied (Zed Books 2003)

(3) Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oneworld Publications 2007)

(4) Rashid Khalidi, The Palestinians and 1948: the underlying causes of failure, in The War for Palestine: Rewriting the history of 1948 (Cambridge University Press 2004)

(5) Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited (Cambridge University Press 2004)

(6) Walid Khalidi, Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine, in Journal of Palestine Studies vol. 18 no.1, Autumn 1988, pages 4 to 33

(7) Benny Morris, as cited above

(8) Survival of the Fittest, Ha’aretz 8 January 2004 –

(9) The poem that exposed Israeli war crimes in 1948, Ha’aretz 18 March 2016 –

(10) Pappe and Morris, as cited above

(11) Morris, as cited above

(12) Mark A Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Indiana University Press, 1994)

(13) Benny Morris, Israel’s Border Wars 1949-1956 (Oxford University Press 1993); Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall (W W Norton 2000)

(14) Victor Kattan, The Nationality of Denationalised Palestinians (Nordic Journal of International Law, vol 74, 2005)

(15) International Committee of the Red Cross –

(16) Drazan Petrovic, Ethnic Cleansing – an attempt at methodology (European Journal of International Law, issue vol. 5 no.1 (1994)

(17) Benny Morris, Revisiting the Palestinian exodus of 1948, in The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1948 (Cambridge University Press 2008)

(18) Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: the Concept of Transfer in Zionist Political Thought 1882 – 1948 (Institute for Palestine Studies 1992)

(19) Morris, as cited above (note 5)

(20) Alexander B Downes, Targeting civilians in war (Cornell University Press 2008)

(21) Ben White, Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, 2nd edition (Pluto Press 2014)

(22) Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs under the British Mandate (Abacus 2001)

(23) Ha’aretz, 27 June 2003 –

(24) Ha’aretz, 5 January 2012 –

(25) Adalah press release 5 January 2012 –

(26) UNRWA, Where We Work – ; Bureau: Majority of Palestinians live in diaspora, Maan News Agency, 13 May 2015)-

(27 Ben White, as cited above (note 21)