This week, Palestinians commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Nakba. The event that gave birth to the Palestinian cause. The “catastrophe”, became the center of the most debated and conflicting political issue in the last century, influencing political debate in the five continents. Yet, this event remains among the most misunderstood of modern history and many of the misconceptions surrounding it are still present in the media, in popular culture, and even in academia. Here are five top misunderstandings about the Nakba.
#1: It was a war
The Nakba is often confused with the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948. In fact, while the war started on May 15th, the process that led to the dispossession of the Palestinian people and their displacement, known as the Nakba, was actually set in motion after the November 1947 UN vote of the resolution 181 of the partition of Palestine, which gave the international legal cover for everything that happened later. The resolution meant to split Palestine in two, implicitly laying the grounds for population displacement.
The Zionist operations began in December 1947. The village of Beit Safafa, near Jerusalem, was the first target on December 25th. The villagers resisted the attack and the Zionist forces left, only to return two months later. The neighboring village of Lifta was next, attacked on the 27th. It fell and inhabitants fled, under a barrage of mortar shells. Attacks intensified in the following weeks concentrating on the Jerusalem area and city, where the Zionist paramilitary used bomb-attacks in streets and markets to terrorize and demoralize the population. A tactic used for the first time in the Middle East, like the bomb-attacks on the Damascus gate on December 27th, on the Semiramis Hotel on January 5th and on Hebron gate on January 7th. Zionist attacks became increasingly brutal, evolving into massacres
Although several massacres had happened since January, the first major massacre to have a nation-wide impact happened on April 9th in the village of Deir Yassin, next to Jerusalem’s old city, where elements of the Zionist Etsel and Lehi militias killed more than 100 Palestinian civilians. Major cities started to fall in April. Tiberias fell on April 19th, almost a full month before the war started. Haifa fell on April 22nd and Yafa on April 27th after three days of straight mortar shelling. By May 14th, the night before the war started, already 300.000 Palestinians had become refugees.
#2: They just left
The Palestinian exodus was not out of choice, nor it was a natural result of the war. Palestinian historians like Walid Khaldi, Rashid Khaldi, Anis Sayegh and Aref Al Aref began to document available sources in the sixties and seventies, confirming that the exodus was a forced one. Later, Israeli historians began to have access to the Israeli archives in the late 1980s and started challenging the official Israeli version of events, confirming that the Palestinian people were forcibly expelled.
Benny Moris, for example, dismissed the Israeli theory of Palestinians leaving their country following instructions coming from outside, affirming that were driven out. However, he denied the existence of a systematic policy of expulsion by the state of Israel, arguing that the decision in each place was made separately based on local circumstances. Ilan Pappe, on the other hand, not only confirmed the systematic nature of the expulsion but also provided evidence of the discussion and the planning, including meeting minutes and orders scripts.
Some Israeli leaders who participated in the events confirmed that the Palestinian exodus was forcible and that the expulsion was, at least, deliberate and decided. One of them was Yitzhak Rabin, who in 1948 was an officer leading the Zionist forces in the cities of Lod and Ramleh. Rabin said in an interview with the Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar in 1977 that he received direct orders from David Ben Gurion to drive the Palestinian population out of the twin cities, after they had surrendered. Rabin confirmed this event in his memoirs in 1979.
According to Rabin’s account to Bar-Zohar, Ben Gurion was asked by Yigal Allon, another officer, what to do with the inhabitants and Ben Gurion waved his hand and said “goresh otam”, Hebrew for “drive them out”. In his memoirs, Rabin wrote that Ben Gurion did not pronounce the words, but only waved his hand and that he understood what it meant. In both versions, Rabin admitted that he signed the order of mass eviction of over 50.000 Palestinians on July 13th at 13:00, which resulted in pushing them into a 15-miles march in the desert, where many died of thirst and fatigue.
Rabin wrote in his memoirs: “…This was one of the most difficult actions we undertook. The population of Lod did not leave willingly. There was no way of avoiding the use of force and warning shots in order to make the inhabitants march the 10 to 15 miles to the point where they met up with the [Arab] legion”.
#3: Israel was fighting for its survival
One logical conclusion of the fact that the expulsion of Palestinians began before the war, is that it was not an Israeli act of self-defense. However, for decades, it has been a commonplace worldwide, that when the war broke out on May 15th, the just-born Jewish state was fighting an existential war against a much stronger Arab enemy. It is commonly said that there were seven Arab armies against one Israeli army.
Facts show that the Israeli army, formed out of the merging Zionist militias two weeks after the war started, was superior to the seven Arab armies combined, in numbers, equipment, training, resources, and political support.
According to Arab sources, Arab armies counted between 14.000 and 15.000 soldiers at the beginning of the war, never exceeding 25.000. The Zionist forces, on the other hand, started the war with 29.000 and had over 88.000 at the end of it, according to Israeli military historian Yoav Gelber.
These Zionist forces, for the most part, were trained and armed by the British army who controlled Palestine since 1917. In places like Haifa, the British army evacuated their positions weeks before the expected date and handed them over to the Zionist forces. Zionist leadership also enjoyed resources that allowed them to buy modern weaponry, including airplanes, from the US, Czechoslovakia and South Africa, during the war.
The Arab side, on the contrary, was left in the field, in many cases without orders. Palestinian historian Aref Al Aref documents, for example, the case of Abdel Wahab Al-Sheik Ali, an experienced Iraqi officer who volunteered to the call of the ِArab league’s Palestine defense commission, to go and lead the defenders of Yafa in February 1948.
According to Al Aref, Ali saw the miserable conditions of the civil population, who were trying to put up a resistance to the well-armed and organized Zionist forces, so he wrote to the Palestine defense commission in Damascus requesting reinforcements and equipment, without which Yafa could not be defended. When his letter was not answered, he personally traveled to Damascus to follow-up, but with no success. Disillusioned, he eventually dropped the mission and returned to Iraq, only weeks after arriving.
#4: It happened without resistance
By 1948, the Palestinian people were weakened by decade-long British repression, which left the Palestinians practically unarmed and with no leadership. However, they were not an easy bite. Together with Arab soldiers, officers, and volunteers, often abandoned by their own leaders, they offered stiff resistance before losing their homeland. In hundreds of villages, Palestinians organized local defense forces, sometimes taking turns to use the few available guns
On Christmas day of 1947, in the mountains of Hebron, a partisan force was formed of 25 men who called themselves “The Holy Struggle Army”. They were formed and led by Abdel Qader Husseini, who had fled to Iraq after participating in the 1936 Palestinian revolt, escaping British retribution. He had returned in secret after the UN vote of the partition plan to try to organize the resistance.
Abdel Qader’s small army grew in the following months to reach several hundred, poorly armed, but with great resolve to fight. They performed successful attacks on Zionist strategic targets, including the Zionist “Jewish agency’s” headquarters in Jerusalem on March 11th. The “Holy Struggle Army” fought the Zionist forces in the surroundings of Jerusalem, defending the holy city completely alone until May. Abdel Qader himself was killed in combat on April 8th.
Arab legionaries entered the battle for Jerusalem from the Jordanian side when the war began on May 15th. Along with Palestinian partisans of the “Holy Struggle”, they fought a fierce battle in the Latroun valley, where hundreds of Zionist soldiers were killed and made prisoners. A week later, both sides fought again in the Bab Al Wad valley, with Zionists suffering heavy losses too.
In Yafa, the civilian population organized resistance out of donations they collected. Associations and professional unions formed a joint defense committee to support the 500 volunteers led by Hassan Salameh. Even the local women’s association turned into a female combat unit under the leadership of Muhiba Khorshid, the first Palestinian woman to lead in battle. The defenders built barricades on all the entrances of the city and fought for months. The Zionist forces launched a massive charge on April 25th under a rain of mortar shells, literally taking Yafa over the corpses of its defenders, who fought to the last bullet.
#5: It is over
The expulsion of Palestinians continued until 1952. Half of the Palestinian people became refugees and half of Palestine’s cities and towns were depopulated, and for the most part destroyed. But that was not the end of the Nakba. The newly born state of Israel institutionalized the results of the Nakba, giving it continuity, by law.
Instead of a constitution, Israel issued “fundamental laws”. Two of the first Israeli fundamental laws, adopted in 1951 by the Israeli Knesset, are the legal, continuing legacy of the Nakba. The first is the “Absentees’ Property law”, which allowed the state to confiscate the properties of every person who has been out of the country for three years, effectively dispossessing Palestinian refugees, in addition to preventing them from returning. The second, the “Return law”, allows any Jewish person anywhere in the world to move into Israel, become a citizen, and acquire a property.
These two fundamental laws resume the Nakba and Zionism as a regime. Over the years, Israel has passed countless laws deriving from the same logic. Laws and regulations that over the last seven decades have prioritized urban development for Jewish communities, depriving Palestinian ones of services, revoked residency rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem, demolished thousands of homes, and confiscated more and more land. At the same time, Palestinian refugees have grown to become near 6 million, with four generations being born and raised in the diaspora.
In 2017, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Jewish Nation-State” fundamental law, explicitly stating that Israel is the state of Jews and of Jews only. However, this state has never defined its borders, allowing itself to annex occupied territory against international law, like the annexation of East Jerusalem in 1980 and of the Syrian Golan in 1981. The same type of annexation that Israel is planning to do in the West Bank today. The Nakba is far from over. It is not a single event that happened 72 years ago, It is rather a process. A colonial process that started in 1948 and is still ongoing, just as the resistance to it.
1. Al Aref, Aref (2012). The Nakba of Bayt Al Maqdis, 2nd Edition, Institute of Palestine Studies, Beirut
2. Khalidi, Walid (1961). “Plan Dalet: Master Plan for the Conquest of Palestine“, Middle East Forum, Vol. 37
3. Pappe, Ilan (2006). The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, OneWorld Editions Limited, 2006
4. Morris, Benny (2004). The Palestine Refugee Problem Revisited, Cambridge University Press
5. Gelber, Yoav (2006). Palestine, 1948: War, Escape and the Emergence of the Palestinian Refugee Problem. Sussex University Press.
6. Morris, Benny (1986). Operation Dani and the Palestinian Exodus from Lydda and Ramle in 1948. Middle East Journal. Vol. 40, No. 1 (Winter, 1986), pp. 82-109
7. Shipler, The New York Times, 23 October 1979