✊ SPECIAL NAKBA _ A ‘Catastrophe’ That Defines Palestinian Identity

Ibish, The Atlantic, May 14, 2018

For the
people of Palestine, the trauma of 70 years ago never ended.
Arabs wave Palestinian flags during a rally to mark the Nakba
(Day of
catastrophe), when Palestinians lost their homes and land,
in the northern
Israeli town of Megiddo, April 24, 2007. Israel celebrates
their 59th
Independence Day on Tuesday. Ammar Awad / Reuters

is intensifying in Gaza as the United States opens its new embassy in
Jerusalem, a convergence of current politics and long-simmering tensions in the
region. Israeli forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing dozens and
wounding hundreds more, Palestinian officials said.

May 14
marks the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding; May 15 is a day Palestinians
know as their nakba, or “catastrophe,” the traumatic expulsion of hundreds of
thousands of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 by Israelis. This event both
defined their future of statelessness and occupation, and now forms the basis
for their distinct national identity. Many of the chief consequences of the nakba,
including the displacement of most Palestinians from their ancestral lands and
ongoing statelessness, remain unresolved to this day.
helps explain the enduring violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which
flared up most recently on the border with Gaza. Beginning on March 30, a
series of Friday protests billed the “Great March of Return” have seen
thousands of mainly unarmed young men confront Israeli forces and border
guards. They are blocking these men from the nearby villages, located in what
is now Israel, from which many of their families were displaced in the 1940s.
At least 37 protesters have died, and over 4,000 injured, in the unrest. These
demonstrations, which will culminate on the 15th, combined with the opening of
a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, may well become yet another historic flashpoint.
And even if the worst does not come to pass this time, sooner or later, it
will. Until we come to grips with the political and cultural legacy of the nakba,
calm, stability, and normality will elude Israel and the rest of the Middle
understand the nakba is to first confront its sheer scale and totality. Before
the nakba, there was a large, deeply rooted, and essentially ancient Arab
society in most of what, within a few months, became the Jewish state of
Israel. In effect, one day it was there, as it had been for living memory, and
the next day it was gone. An entire society, with the exception of relatively
small groups in a few places, simply vanished.
World War I, the League of Nations broke the Ottoman Empire up into territories
assigned to different colonial powers. The lands that today constitute Israel
and the occupied Palestinian territories were placed under British rule, but
with two explicit and incompatible purposes: Britain was already
to supporting the recently established Zionist movement
that sought to create “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The
reaffirmed that goal, but did not define what a “national home,” such as a
Jewish state, meant in practice.
Yet the
terms of the Covenant of
the League of Nations
held that the purpose of mandates was to
secure the “well-being and development” of the people living in those
territories. The problem was that just under 90 percent of the population of
Palestine in 1922
, when the British mandate was formally initiated,
were Arab Muslims and Christians, with Jews, in many cases recent arrivals,
constituting 11 percent. In other words, the project of providing “tutelage” to
the people of the territory and preparing them for independence was at stark
odds with the project of transforming Palestine into a “national home for the Jewish
people,” however that was defined. In both Britain’s 1917 Balfour
and the Palestine mandate, the overwhelming Palestinian
majority was simply referred to as “existing non-Jewish communities,” with
“civil and religious rights,” but not political ones.
meant the British colonial overlords were almost always at odds with both the
local Arab population, and also frequently with Jewish leaders. But by the time
the British Mandate began to fall apart after World War II, the population of the
territory had been transformed: 68 percent were Arabs and 32 percent were Jews
(about two-thirds of whom were born abroad).
The fledgling United Nations proposed to partition the
between Arabs and Jews, but even in the proposed Jewish
state, gerrymandered
to include the maximum number of Jews, there was a virtual Arab
. Even after decades of immigration, it still wasn’t
to carve out a significant portion of Palestine with a
solid Jewish majority. The Arabs, and especially Palestinians, angrily rejected
partition on the grounds that the overwhelming majority of the people of the
country did not wish to see their land divided and more than half of it given
to the sovereignty of the Jewish minority who, at the time, made up one-third
of the population. Many others were expected to arrive at some future date, all
against the wishes of the large majority.
between the two communities, and between both and the British authorities, grew
common throughout the 1930s and ’40s, including a fully fledged Arab revolt
from 1936 to 1939. But as it became clear that Britain was simply going to
leave Palestine in 1948, both sides began jockeying for position. Communal
violence broke out into open warfare in the fall of 1947. This set the stage
for the nakba.
intensified in January 1948, and the Palestinian exodus began. Up to 100,000
Palestinians, mainly from the upper and middle classes, fled the cities and
towns which were the epicenter of the fighting. Until then, expulsions were
rare. But in April 1948, the Jewish forces launched a more concerted campaign of
massacre and forced displacement, including the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of
about 100 Palestinians on April 9. This spread panic among Palestinians,
encouraging them to flee.
terror didn’t do the trick, Palestinians were forced out by Jewish militias.
Early April saw the launch of the “Plan Dalet
military campaign, which sought,
in part, the ethnic cleansing of most or all of the Arab inhabitants from areas
claimed for a Jewish state. As the British withdrew
from Palestine in early May 1948, Israel declared its establishment,
and the war intensified with the intervention of several Arab armies. The
process of Palestinian
also intensified. Yitzhak Rabin, then a young Jewish
commander, would later write
in his memoir of how he was ordered
by David Ben-Gurion—literally with the wave of a hand—to “drive out” the 50,000
civilians in the towns of Lydda and Ramla on June 10 and 11.
When the
dust settled, the overwhelming majority of Palestinian Arabs, perhaps 700,000
to 800,000 people, had either fled or been
. The Palestinians who remained in what was now a Jewish
state made up around 18 percent of the population of Israel, and for the next
20 years lived under martial law. The society the Palestinians had composed
over the centuries was, for the most part, now gone. Towns and villages were renamed or
. Property was expropriated
en masse through various legal mechanisms. And, most importantly, whether
Palestinians fled or were expelled, virtually none were allowed to return. Most
Palestinians who left their homes in 1947 and 1948 believed they would one day
come back when the fighting stopped, no matter what the outcome. This was a
complete delusion. They were gone, and the new Israeli state regarded their absence
as the godsend that allowed a Jewish-majority country to suddenly emerge.
This, in
brief, is the Palestinian nakba, the collapse and disappearance of an entire
society that was politically, militarily, and culturally unprepared for the
collision with Zionism, colonialism, and war. But the nakba defined, and
continues to define, Palestinian national identity.
At the
time of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalism was running strong.
The Muslims and Christians in the territories that were about to become
Mandatory Palestine overwhelmingly identified as Arabs, but not yet as an
ethno-national Palestinian community. They had warmly welcomed the creation of
the first, short-lived, pan-Arab state
in 1920, before it was crushed by
the French
. At that time, many if not most Palestinians saw
themselves as Arabs and essentially “southern Syrians.” But once that early
Arab state ended, they were, in effect, on their own. They had little choice
but to begin defining themselves chiefly as Palestinians.
Palestinians do have cultural features that distinguish them from other Arabs,
it is their history and, above all, the nakba and its never-ending aftermath,
that firmly separates them from all other Arabs. All Palestinians, including
those left behind in Israel, shared this experience. And given that most
Palestinians today are either exiles, refugees, or living under Israeli
occupation—or, at best, live as second-class citizens of Israel itself—their
collective social, political, and historical identity centers almost entirely
around the shattering experience of the nakba. No other group of Arabs endured
can and do debate who is at fault for this debacle. But it’s irrefutable that
Palestinians didn’t merely lose their putative state and political power. At an
individual and familial level, they lost their homes and property, in almost
all cases for good. Collectively, they lost their society, and were condemned
to live as exiles or stateless subjects under the rule of a foreign military.
They had a society, and then they didn’t.
The rupture
of the nakba cannot be mended. The state of Israel is a reality that will not
disappear. Most Palestinians fetishize the right of return, and from a moral
and legal perspective, their case is irrefutable. But politically, there is no
chance of any such return, except in tiny, symbolic numbers. After decades of
fruitless struggle and brutality on all sides, Palestinians have somewhat
bitterly come to accept that the nakba cannot be reversed or even really
redressed. They accepted that a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state
based in the territories Israel occupied in 1967 living alongside the Jewish
state, was the only available outcome. But even that has proven unattainable.
trauma of the nakba cannot be addressed until the rest of the world, and
particularly Israel, recognizes its validity and importance. The event does not
compare to the Holocaust—very little else does. But Jews and Palestinians are
two peoples both marked by definitive historical traumas that define their
worldviews. The difference is that the Jewish and Israeli narratives continue
to an epiphany of redemption in the founding and flourishing of the state of
Israel, while for Palestinians, permanently dispossessed and living in exile or
under occupation, the trauma is enduring and still unfolding.
This is
especially true in Gaza,
which has become a wretched open-air prison for almost 2 million densely packed
residents. The humanitarian
and pervasive despair
there are so dire that even Israeli
security officials
regard Gaza as a ticking bomb
of human misery. If it does not explode on May 15, it will soon.
Hence the
nakba is not so much a historical memory for most Palestinians, as a daily, lived
experience. Recognizing that and acting on it will be indispensable for
understanding the Palestinian perspective, at long last ending the conflict and
the nakba, and allowing Jews and Arabs, and the whole world, to finally move