Explainer: What is the Nakba?

Nakba_76th_Anniversary
7 min read
15 May, 2024

From May 13 to 14, Israel celebrated the 76th anniversary of its independence. Today, on May 15, Palestinians remember the Nakba.

The Nakba, which means "catastrophe" in Arabic, refers to the mass displacement of Palestinians that occurred during the creation of the state of Israel from 1947 to 1949.

Around three-quarters of the Palestinian population were forced from their homes by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army. 

This event had a lasting impact on Palestinians, who lost their homes, land, and way of life. To this day, the Nakba is a deeply traumatic but important commemoration in Palestinian history.

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"The Nakba is not a single event but an ongoing process of erasure that has continued for 76 years. This year, we are witnessing this erasure evolve into genocidal means," British-Palestinian surgeon Ghassan Abu Sitta told The New Arab

Commenting on the importance of remembering the Nakba, Munir Nuseibah, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and academic at Al-Quds University, told The New Arab: "Commemorating the Nakba is highly important as it constantly reminds us of the need to understand the Palestinian issue holistically." 

"The Nakba teaches us that we cannot resolve the ongoing atrocities without addressing their root cause: a racist ideology that manipulates the demographic composition of Palestine through apartheid, persecution, and genocide. The Oslo peace process failed because it did not address the root causes of the current apartheid and genocide. If we continue on the same path, we should expect the continuation and expansion of ethnic cleansing," Nuseibah added.

This year, thousands of Palestinian citizens of Israel participated in a symbolic march of return to Hawsha and Al-Kassasir, villages near Shefa-Amr (Shfar'am) that were ethnically cleansed in 1948.

They carried slogans reading, "Their Independence Day is Our Catastrophe Day," "No Backtracking on the Right of Return," and "Stop the Assault on Gaza." 

The march is an annual event with a straightforward demand: the return of refugees to the land they were driven out of during the Nakba.

In 2022, the UN General Assembly called for the Nakba's anniversary to be officially commemorated on May 15, 2023, for the first time. This recognition highlights the ongoing importance of the Nakba in the Palestinian memory.  

The roots of Nakba

The Nakba was a deliberate effort to establish a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. Zionist leaders referred to this process as "transfer" — a euphemism for what is now recognised as ethnic cleansing.

The roots of the Nakba lie in the rise of political Zionism in the late 1800s. Influenced by the nationalist movements in Europe, some European Jews believed that creating a Jewish state in Palestine was the solution to antisemitism.

They began emigrating to Palestine and started displacing the indigenous Muslim and Christian Palestinians.

"In recent months, we’ve been re-educated about genocide: a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part... What we are seeing in Gaza today has its roots in the crimes of the Nakba"

In November 1947, the newly formed United Nations proposed a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

This plan was opposed by the majority of the indigenous Palestinian Arab population. Despite this, the plan allocated 56% of the land to the Jewish state, even though Jews owned only about 7% of the land and comprised about 33% of the population, many of whom were recent immigrants.

The proposed Arab state was to be established on just 42% of the land, despite the majority Muslim and Christian Palestinian population who had lived there for centuries.

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Reflecting on the Nakba amid the ongoing conflict, Lara Nelson, Policy Director at ETANA Syria, said: “In recent months, we’ve been re-educated about genocide: a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, in whole or in part.

"This is what happened in 1948 when 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land by Zionist paramilitaries.

"What we are seeing in Gaza today has its roots in the crimes of the Nakba. Those crimes that were committed with impunity 76 years ago are now being broadcast live to our phones in Gaza. Over double the number of people who were forcibly displaced with the Nakba have been displaced in Gaza. And it is still the ‘free world’ who is enabling these crimes,” Nelson added. 

The Gaza Nakba

Critics argue that Israel's goal since October 7 has been to initiate a second Nakba.

Recently, more than half a million Palestinians have been forcibly displaced amid Israel's escalating war on Gaza. 

According to the United Nations, roughly 450,000 Palestinians were forced out of Rafah in southern Gaza over the past week.

Before these operations, approximately 1.3 million people were sheltering in Rafah, which Israel claims is the last Hamas stronghold.

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In an interview in November 2023, Israeli security cabinet member and Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter was asked whether the images of Gaza residents evacuating south resembled those of the Nakba. He confirmed, “We are now rolling out the Gaza Nakba."

When pressed further, Dichter referred to the situation as “Gaza Nakba 2023” and suggested that Gaza City residents might not be allowed to return.

Regional and global responses

Many Middle Eastern and North African countries, especially Egypt, have avoided opening their borders to prevent another mass displacement of Palestinians. 

In the West, the war has pushed the United States, Israel’s key ally, to reconsider its stance. President Biden, facing both international pressure and upcoming elections, has already called for a ceasefire, but Israel has ignored this and continued its operations in Rafah.

"The next generation is offering us such hope. The student protests are saying no... These are the voices that can stop the cycle of violence. It is these voices that must be supported and amplified"

Experts Emilie Tant and Yacine Ait Larbi say that strong support for Palestine from countries in the Majority World has challenged the Global North's control over international rules.

This change has weakened the Global North's ability to decide how international law is applied.

"What is happening on campuses is unprecedented. For the first time in the history of colonialism, we see this kind of reverberation from the colony to the metropole," said Abu Sitta. 

“The next generation is offering us such hope. The student protests are saying no and many Jewish students are saying no ‘Not in my Name’. These are the voices that can stop the cycle of violence. It is these voices that must be supported and amplified,” added Nelson.

Commenting on the power of this global solidarity, Dr Michael Mason, Director of the LSE Middle East Centre and author of The Untold Story of the Golan Heights: Occupation, Colonization and Jawlani Resistancetold The New Arab: "It is impossible to understand the current global wave of student protests and other Palestinian solidarity gatherings without understanding at least the basics of the 1948 Nakba."

Mason added, "First, it reminds us that the war on Gaza did not start on October 7, but is part of a longer wave of historical dispossession, population removal and occupation. Three-quarters of the population of Gaza are refugees from families who were forcibly displaced from other areas of Palestine during the Arab-Israeli War.

"Second, it reminds us that, for the Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba is a collective trauma — it is a formative part of their political identity and informs their national liberation project," Dr Mason explains.

"Lastly, the tragedy of the Nakba represents a collective suffering and ongoing injustice that speaks to anyone with a sense of empathy and compassion. It is not surprising that young people are particularly attuned to what is going on."

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Since the start of the war, protests, boycotts, and public demonstrations have taken place worldwide and have contributed to crucial changes such as divestment from Israel, endorsing academic boycotts, and pushing EU states to recognise the state of Palestine

To encourage further change, Abu Sitta told The New Arab: "There should be legal action against institutions and individuals who are aiding the genocide."

In the US, activists are focusing on the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago (from August 19-22), expecting significant protests like those against the Vietnam War in 1968.

These protests will be important, even if they don’t bring immediate change.

The ongoing conflict may continue, but it will legitimise the resistance against the second Nakba.

Zainab Mehdi is The New Arab's Associate Editor and researcher specialising in governance, development, and conflict in the Middle East and North Africa region

Follow her on Twitter: @zaiamehdi