On May 15, 2023, the United Nations will host a special high-level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba – the mass displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948.
It is the first time that the international organization commemorates the date, which, according to the organizers, serves “as a reminder of the historic injustices inflicted on the Palestinian people.”
However, not everyone is behind the UN Mark of the Day. The United States and the United Kingdom were among those countries voted against the commemoration. Meanwhile, the The Israeli Foreign Ministry called about UN member states “not to participate in the event that adopts the Palestinian narrative that opposes Israel’s right to exist.”
Like a scholar who studies Palestinian history, I see the UN decision as the culmination of a long process. For decades, Palestinians have fought for international recognition of the Nakba, despite a narrative that minimized their plight.
That is starting to change.
What is the Nakba?
The Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — was part of a longer project of expelling Palestinians from their homeland. From the early 20th century, more and more Zionists – Jewish nationalists – emigrated to Palestine from Russia and other parts of Europe in search of anti-Semitism.
Many of these settlers tried to do just that establish Jewish sovereignty in a land long inhabited by Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.
Due to Zionist establishment, thousands of peasants were forced to leave land on which they had lived for generations. A lot of Palestinians resist this colonial displacement throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But their resistance was violently suppressed by British colonial troops who ruled Palestine at the time.
After World War II, as the full horrors of the Holocaust became known and international sympathy for the Jewish plight grew, Zionist militias began carried out deadly attacks That killed hundreds of Palestinians and British personnel.
The British then handed over the “question of Palestine” to the newly formed United Nations, which voted on November 29, 1947 for a partition plan to divide Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The plan allocated a majority of the land, including major ports and prime agricultural lands, to the Jewish state, even though the Jews consisted of about one third of the then population. The plan would also have forced half a million Palestinian Arabs living in the proposed Jewish state make a sharp choice: live as a minority in your own country or leave.
Palestinians rejected the plan and fighting broke out. Well-trained Zionist militias Palestinians attacked in areas designated as part of the proposed Jewish state. Other Palestinians then fled in fear Zionist troops massacred villagers in Deir Yassin.
By the time Israel declared its independence on May 14, 1948, between 250,000 and 350,000 Palestinians had been expelled their ancestral land.
The day after that declaration – May 15 – became known as Nakba Day.
As Palestinians fled to neighboring countries, the armies of five Arab countries – which also wanted to prevent the formation of a Jewish state – were deployed to try to stem the flow of refugees. Fighting between Israeli and Arab armies continued that summer and autumn heavily armed Israeli army conquer countries that the UN previously had designated as part of the Arab state.
There were even more Palestinians driven from their homes and villages. A lot of fled on foot, whatever they could carry on their backs. By the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, it is estimated 750,000 Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes.
The Battle of the Nakba Story
Palestinian and official Israeli accounts framed what happened in very different ways.
Since 1948, Palestinians have insisted that they have the right to return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled. They and their supporters cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December 1948, it says: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
But Israeli officials have persisted that the Palestinians left at the behest of their leaders and had to be resettled in the surrounding Arab lands.
They also claim that Israel has already absorbed it about 900,000 Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands after the establishment of Israel should not also take back Palestinian refugees.
Americans in general for decades had more sympathy for the Israeli position. One reason for this was the 1958 bestseller “Exodus” and the 1960 blockbuster of the same name. according to my researchthe novel drew on longstanding anti-Arab racist tropes to absolve the Zionist and Israeli forces of their role in creating the Palestinian refugee crisis.
This “Nakba denial”, as scholars like me describe it, was ubiquitous. It rested on the idea that Palestinians were generic “Arabs” who could settle in any other Arab country, rather than a people whose food, dress, and dialects are connected to specific places in Palestine, and differ from those in surrounding Arab countries.
Efforts to commemorate the Nakba have long been rooted in a counter-narrative that links Palestinian culture and society to their pre-1948 hometowns and villages.
At first, the Palestinians silently mourned the loss of their homeland. Then, in the 1960s, younger Palestinians formed political organizations seeking to draw international attention to their cause. That included hold public events on May 15 to educate the wider public – in Arab states and around the world – about their ties to their country and to push for their right of return.
After the June 1967 war, Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since then, Palestinians around the world have tried to use May 15 to draw attention not only to the plight of Palestinian refugees living in exile, but also those living under Israeli occupation.
Palestinians received support from many in the Global South – a term to describe lower-income countries, mainly in Asia, Africa and South America – in part because of many countries’ common colonial experiences. While some African American groups also live in the US supported the Palestinian causein much of the West, the Nakba remained largely unknown.
In 1998, as Palestinians celebrated 50 years of exile, activists moved in the United States and around the world commemorative events. For the first time, the organizers focused the events around one theme: the remembrance of the Nakba.
That same year, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat also made official what had long been unofficial: May 15 was declared Nakba Day.
Meanwhile, a group of Israeli scholars known as the “New Historians” has published carefully documented studies that confirmed the Palestinians’ account of what happened in 1948. Those studies undermined long-standing official Israeli denials about his role in creating the Nakba. They also further open the door to global recognition of the experiences of the Palestinians.
Despite the findings, Israeli governments and some Western allies still resist recognition of the Nakba.
In 2009, the Israeli Minister of Education banned the use of the Arabic term in Israeli textbooks. Then in 2011 the Israeli parliament adopted a “Nakba lawwhich authorizes the government to withdraw funding from civil society groups commemorating the Nakba. That law remains in effect.
The restrictions are not limited to Israel. Last year, German courts upheld the decision of the Berlin police to cancel several planned Nakba Day protests in that city.
Despite this opposition, Palestinians continue to celebrate Nakba Day. That’s because as long as they remain under Israeli occupation and exile from their land, Palestinian rights groups say:the Nakba is underway.” Many also see May 15 as a holiday confirm the resilience of the Palestiniansdespite the constant oppression they face.
As Palestinians and their supporters hold Nakba Day events at the UN, by the United States and around the world in 2023, it serves as an acknowledgment of their long and ongoing struggle.