Palestine’s Nakba

The Nakba – from 1948 to Today

This article 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)


Massacres as a weapon in ethnic cleansing

This article by Salman Abu Sitta was published on the Mondoweiss website on 12 June 2020

In May each year, Palestinians all over the world commemorate the ongoing al Nakba of 1948, in which they were dispossessed by Israel of their land, property and identity. This year, it was different. Thanks to the coronavirus, the use of video conferencing technology enabled them to cross borders where they were previously denied access, speak freely about their silenced history without censorship, blockade or defamation, virtually visit and communicate with their kith or kin even if they were deprived of passports or citizenship.

The main beneficiary of this revolution are the young people. I had an immense pleasure in mid-May to speak, at one event, to 600 young people in the US, students, activists and concerned citizens about the still-live history of Al Nakba.

This is refreshing. For decades the Zionist narrative dominated the Western mind. The unprecedented depopulation of two thirds of the Palestinian people by the Zionist militia (The Haganah, renamed IDF) in 1948 was explained away as ‘the Arab Invasion’ of Palestine, by Arab orders or an act of Israeli self-defense.

Palestinian historians such as Aref al Aref, Mustafa al Dabbagh, or Walid Khalidi were not widely known in the west. In 1980s, the Israeli “new historians” and writers such as Simha Flapan, Benny Morris, Baruch Kimmerling, and Ilan Pappe among others broke the wall of silence and exposed the deception and distortion of the Zionist narrative. Benny Morris retained his Zionist loyalty by describing the long trail of massacres committed by Israel and claiming it was not planned. Ilan Pappe, almost alone among Israeli historians, went on to describe in detail “the ethnic cleansing of Palestine”, that was deliberate, consistent, and continuous in its aim to depopulate Palestine.

Those young people are now discovering the truth about Al Nakba, that it is still going on, that they are its victims and will continue to be until they realize their Right of Return. They also learn, as more facts are revealed, that they (and their parents) were the victims of the Zionist Invasion of Palestine in which the massacres of ordinary civilians in occupied villages were the primary weapon of ethnic cleansing.

Here we need to go back a little before 1948.

The Arab Revolt (1936-1939) against the flood of Jewish European settlers into Palestine was quelled by the British Army most brutally. Thousands were killed, tens of thousands were injured or imprisoned, villages were bombed by air, collective punishment was applied, leaders were jailed or deported. In short, the Palestinian society was decimated and rendered defenseless. It is fair to call the year 1939 the year of the British-inflicted Nakba.

Ben-Gurion seized the moment. In May 1942, at the Biltmore conference attended by 600 Zionist leaders, he declared Palestine to be “the Jewish Commonwealth”. He ordered the Haganah to draft military plans to conquer Palestine and he created the Village Files, in which complete intelligence was gathered about every Palestinian village. There was one remaining obstacle, the British, his erstwhile benefactors, who were still in Palestine.

From 1945-1948, the Zionist militia waged a relentless terror campaign against the British for which they had to bring in the 6th Airborne Division. After creating havoc in Palestine since the infamous Balfour declaration of 1917, the British decided to throw the wounded Palestine into the lap of the UN.

The Partition Plan (UNGA 181 of 29 November 1947) was born. The plan suggested dividing Palestine into two parts, the larger part was allocated for the Jewish settlers to rule and the lesser part for the Palestinian majority to rule, on the condition that the minority in either part should not be displaced. It was merely a suggestion which had no legally binding value. But it was the fig leaf for Ben-Gurion to act.

By mid-March 1948, the US and the UN realized that the plan could not be implemented without bloodshed. They dropped it, and an UN Trusteeship over Palestine, replacing Britain, was proposed by the US.

That was a major blow for Ben-Gurion’s scheme. He upgraded the plan to conquer Palestine to what became Plan Dalet, (Plan D, after the preceding three versions) to conquer Palestine, expel its population, destroy its villages, and attack Arab capitals if needed.

It was a vast plan, carefully matured over the years, encouraged by the detailed knowledge of British withdrawal plans and by the feeble defense of the Palestinian villagers.

From the 1st of April to May 14, 1948, before the settlers’ state was declared and before the British left and before any Arab soldier entered Palestine to save it, the Zionist Invasion essentially conquered Palestine. Its declaration on May 14 was the crowning conclusion of this invasion.

This critical period leading to Al Nakba has rarely been looked upon in this light. We made a detailed study of this period.

We charted the Palestinian land occupied by the Haganah from the beginning of 1948 in weekly intervals, marked the name of the military operation involved (out of a total of 39), the brigade located in a particular area (out of nine brigades, totaling 60,000 soldiers, increased to 120,000 by the end of the year), the region occupied, the massacres and atrocities committed, and the depopulated villages or cities in this region.

We divided the attacked areas are into nine regions according to the distribution of the Haganah military activities. We also divided the time scale into three phases:

Phase 1, studied here in detail, from November 29, 1947 to May 14, 1948, the date Israel was declared.

Phase 2, up to July 18, 1948, including the first encounter with various Arab forces entering Palestine on May 15, 1948, without preparation, common aim or unified command.

Phase 3, up to July 1949 the signing of the last Armistice agreement with Syria. The main event in this phase was the conquest of the southern district and the northern district of Arab Galilee, quite early in this phase, in late October and early November 1948.

In all, we listed 155 war crimes of massacres and atrocities (indiscriminate killing of civilians) which led to the depopulation of 530 cities and villages.

This essay covers only Phase 1, which led to the Declaration of Israel.

The aim of this study was to examine the temporal and spatial correlation between the massacres committed and the depopulated villages in what we call the Area of Influence, that is whether the massacres committed in a region at this time caused the depopulation of nearby villages through the actual death, threat of death, or actual fear of death, which was sometimes encouraged by delivering direct threats to the villagers.

The four maps here tell the results of this examination.

Legend on maps::

  • Grey: Jewish land during the Mandate
  • Red and Pink: Areas occupied by the Haganah in this period. The names of brigades are shown.
  • The Black line outlines the borders of the Partition Plan.
  • The Black circles indicate the Areas of Influence in which the villages were depopulated upon the direct or indirect influence of massacres and atrocities.
  • Numbers designate the different regions of Palestine
  • Source of Data: Salman Abu Sitta, Atlas of Palestine 1917- 1966. London, Palestine Land Society, 2010. Table 3.1 List of Military Operations. Table 3.2 List of War Crimes. Table 3.9 Register of Depopulated villages and Cities.

The location of war crimes in Central Palestine highlighted in blue dots.

The depopulated villages and cities in Central Palestine highlighted in blue dots.

The location of war crimes in North Palestine highlighted in blue dots.

The depopulated villages and cities in North Palestine highlighted in blue dots.

West Jerusalem and Latrun (Region 1) witnessed the infamous Deir Yassin massacre. [1] It also was the scene of 11 other massacres and atrocities in Lifta, Sarris and seven other cases in Jerusalem. These massacres took place within the sight of the British police and army; they did not move to stop them. Twelve villages were depopulated in this region. Few are left. The Haganah-conquered area is in the ‘Arab State’ and the International Zone.

Although the northern portion of Gaza District was not occupied yet (Region 2), the Haganah committed a horrendous massacre in Burier (and Simsim) and torched the village, only hours before Ben-Gurion gave his speech of “independence”. Six affected villages were depopulated.

In Ramle district (Region 3), Abu Shusha massacre continued for two days where women and children were killed by axes. The massacre was one of eight in the region which resulted in the depopulation of 20 villages.

In Jaffa area (Region 4), there was a heavy concentration of atrocities in Jaffa city (8) and around Jaffa (6) in Beit Dajan and others. Al Manshiya suburb was destroyed and Jaffa city was hit relentlessly by mortar, forcing its 70,000 inhabitants to seek safety by jumping into boats in the port, many drowned. Jaffa city, which was designated to be in the ‘Arab State’, was depopulated in addition to twenty two villages in the district.

In the coastal area south of Haifa (Region 5), 16 atrocities, including massacres in Abu Zureik, Umm esh Shauf and Qisariya, were committed, forcing 42 villages to be depopulated. The whole region became empty except for a small triangle of 3 villages (Ayn Ghazal, Ijzim and Jaba’) which stubbornly defended themselves, for some months later.

In Haifa city (Region 6), as in the other big cities of Jaffa and Jerusalem, more than a dozen cases of killing, bombing and acts of terror spread a reign of imminent death to its Palestinian inhabitants. They poured into the port, assisted but not defended by the British army, to seek safety in Acre or Beirut. Seventy thousand people became refugees under the watchful eye of the British Army. Thirty villages in the neighborhood were also depopulated.

In a third violation of the Partition Plan, claimed to be accepted by the Zionists, the Haganah attacked western Galilee (Region 7), north of the city of Acre, up to the Lebanese border, which was part of the ‘Arab State’. They committed massacres in Al Manshiya and Al Ghabisiya causing the depopulation of five villages in the region.  Three days after the declaration of the settlers’ state, undefended Acre (population 14,000) fell to the Haganah after siege and polluting its drinking water with typhoid.

In eastern Galilee, north and south of Lake Tiberias (Regions 8 and 9), the pattern of massacres, expulsion and depopulation is the most glaring demonstration of the policy of making Palestine empty of its people through massacres. Seventeen massacres, in Ayn az Zeitoun, Biriya, Husseiniya, Nasir Ad Din, Mansurat Al Kheit, Mughr Al Kheit, Farwana, Al Shajara, Samakh, Tiberias, Baysan and others, were committed. Sometimes if a massacre failed to propel people to leave, another more brutal massacre was carried out. In this region Palestinians lost three important cities, Safad, Tiberias and Baysan (population 23,000). No less than 75 villages were depopulated. Eastern Galilee became under full Jewish occupation.

On the afternoon of May 14, Ben-Gurion stood up to address the council of European Jewish settlers in Palestine and to declare Israel’s independence. Without a hint of irony, he stated, “We appeal – in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months – to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace.”

Ben-Gurion knew that it took 90 massacres to enable him to make his statement.  The blood of victims in Bureir, Simsim and Abu Shusha, hours earlier, had not dried yet. He knew that the lands and homes of 200 coastal and inland cities and villages (216 by IDF count), conquered by the Haganah, now called Israel, are the property of Palestinians who will never cease to demand to return and possess them. He did not realize that the common Zionist mantra usually attributed to Ben-Gurion, that the old will die, which they did, and the young will forget, did not materialize.

He did not foresee that the lie, that the “Arab Invasion” and “Arab orders” were the cause and the reason for dispossessing two thirds of the Palestinian people, will be exposed. He did not imagine that the true face of the Zionist Invasion and the trail of blood from dozens of massacres will come to haunt his successors and beneficiaries.

He did not imagine in his wildest dreams that millions of young Palestinian people around the world, armed with knowledge and determination, will cross virtual borders, speak in so many languages,  find friends and support in many cities, to commemorate Al Nakba of 72 years and demand the Right to Return to the homes and lands robbed from them by the Zionist Invasion seven decades, with fresh vigor as if it were yesterday.


  1. For data on the events described in this essay see the spreadsheet Massacres and Atrocities During the Nakba which has been adapted from Table 3.2 in the Atlas of Palestine 1917- 1966.


It is reported HERE that the United Nations will formally commemorate the Nakba for the first time in May 2023