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The Palestinian Nakba: From Napoleon to Ben-Gurion
The Palestinian Nakba: From Napoleon to Ben-Gurion
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Ramallah, AA-  The term "Nakba" ("catastrophe" in Arabic) conjures up memories of two pivotal events in Palestinian history: the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the expulsion of some 800,000 Palestinians from their ancestral homeland.

The word has not only come to symbolize the tragedy that befell Palestinians in 1948, but also of the trials and tribulations the people of Palestine continue to endure under Israel's decades-long occupation.

The Nakba is the story of a humanitarian tragedy: the forced displacement of some 800,000 Palestinians and the destruction of most of Palestine's political, economic and cultural heritage to make way for the self-proclaimed Jewish state.


The term "Nakba" was first used to describe the calamity by prominent Syrian intellectual Constantin Zureiq (1919-2000) in his book, "The Meaning of Nakba," which was published in 1948 to describe the developments of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

For Zureiq, the war on the Palestinians was a "Nakba" from the outset; a double blow, to both Arab nationalism and the anti-colonialist struggle. Palestine, after all, was part of the "Arab nation" dreamed of by contemporary Arab leaders.

Anaheed al-Hardanm, a sociologist for Germany's Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, contends that, while Zureiq's perception of the Nakba undoubtedly emphasized the displacement of Palestinians, this issue was not his main concern.

Rather, it was only one element of many that made the foundation of Israel – on Palestinian land – a genuine "catastrophe."

From a geopolitical standpoint, the occupation of Palestine was a devastating blow to the notion of a borderless, supranational Arab union.

In a 2013 essay entitled "Palestinian Memories: The 1948 Nakba," al-Hardanm argued that the notion of "Nakba" evolved in the collective Palestinian/Arab consciousness through several stages from 1948 to the present.

In the 1980s, for example, the idea of Nakba became associated specifically with the Palestinian cause and less of an Arab concern, which had not been the case some four decades earlier.

However, given the neglect of the Palestinian refugees that followed the 1993 Oslo I Accord – signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel – the term has become more associated with the plight of the Palestinian diaspora.


The Arab/Palestinian Nakba encompasses an array of events – from the occupation of most Palestinian land by armed Zionist groups and the displacement of some 800,000 Palestinians, to land confiscations that go on to this day.

It also includes the destruction over 675 Palestinian cities and villages; the transformation of Palestinian cities into Jewish ones; the expulsion of Bedouin tribes that had once inhabited the Negev region (in what is now southern Israel); the attempted elimination of the Palestinian national identity; and the replacement of Arab place names with Hebrew ones.

The Nakba also applies to dozens of massacres and atrocities perpetrated by Zionist groups against Palestinians, in which hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children have been killed.


While Palestinian politicians have chosen May 15, 1948 to mark "Nakba Day," the humanitarian tragedy dates back even further, when armed Zionist gangs attacked Palestinian towns and villages and terrorized their inhabitants into fleeing their homes.

The Nakba began when the British Foreign Office on Nov. 2, 1917 called for "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." This became known as the "Balfour Declaration," named after then- Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour.

Britain put the Balfour Declaration into effect when British forces, led by Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, invaded and occupied Jerusalem in December 1917.

The conquest of Jerusalem effectively ended the dominion of the Ottoman Empire – which was defeated in the First World War – over Palestine, paving the way for the dominance of Zionist organizations and parties, chief among which was the "Jewish Agency."

Other researchers, however, have argued that the Palestinian Nakba dates back even further.

Rawan Damen, the director of an award-winning four-part documentary entitled "Al Nakba," contends that the Nakba dates back to 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte's ambitious colonialist plans included notions of establishing a Jewish entity in Palestine.

The idea was echoed by Britain in 1840 and was later facilitated by the British Mandate of Palestine (1922-1948), which gave the Jewish Agency a free hand to seize Palestinian land and begin massive Jewish immigration into the region.

Mandate to occupation

In 1945, Zionist leaders began establishing armed Jewish groups in anticipation of the coming confrontation with the area's Palestinian inhabitants.

The "May 1946" plan, for example, was drawn up by the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the nucleus of the nascent Israeli army.

On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for the division of Palestine into a Jewish state and a Palestinian one.

The resolution was welcomed by the Zionists, but was met with staunch rejection by the Arabs in general and the Palestinians in particular.

The following day, the Haganah overran all sites designated by the UN's partition plan for the Jewish state.

With the termination of the British Mandate on May 14, 1948, armed Zionist organizations – led by David Ben-Gurion (who would later become Israel's first prime minister) – declared the establishment of the state of Israel and the return of the Jewish people to what he described as their "historical homeland."

The declaration was followed by the entrance of Arab armies – from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Transjordania – into Palestine, which were eventually defeated. The war ended on March 3, 1949, after the UN Security Council declared Israel a full-fledged member of the United Nations.

Zionist myths

There are three primary Zionist myths that seek to justify the invasion and occupation of historical Palestine.

The first is the notion of "a land without a people for a people without a land" – a concept revived by British Zionist author Israel Zangwill.

Zionist propaganda used to justify the occupation was based on the claim that Palestine was largely uninhabited, essentially denying the existence of the Palestinians.

Another prominent Zionist myth is that Israel had existed in Palestine 2,070 years ago.

In 1897, the World Zionist Organization held its first conference in Basel, Switzerland, at which Theodor Herzl – billed as the "founder of modern Zionism" – laid out the principles on which a Jewish state would be built.

Herzl strove to garner international approval for his Zionist project and succeeded in winning British support.

A third Zionist myth is that Palestinians sold their land voluntarily – claims used to justify the foundation of Israel. This is despite the fact that Jewish ownership of land in historical Palestine did not exceed 5 percent at the time.

Paradise lost

The Nakba will remain a symbol of the mass displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in 1948. But it is also emblematic of a people who continue to persevere in hopes of eventually returning to their long-lost homeland.

UN Resolution 194 stipulates that "refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date."

It goes on to state that "compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the governments or authorities responsible."

But 67 years after the Nakba, the number of Palestinian refugees – including their children and grandchildren – now exceeds four million. Most of these live in squalid refugee camps in the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip and in neighboring Arab countries, such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.


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