The Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic) refers to the violent expulsion of approximately three quarters of all Palestinians from their homes and homeland by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army during the state of Israel’s establishment (1947-49).
The Nakba was a deliberate and systematic act intended to establish a Jewish majority state in Palestine. Amongst themselves, Zionist leaders used the euphemism “transfer” when discussing plans for what today would be called ethnic cleansing.
The roots of the Nakba and the ongoing problems in Palestine/Israel today lie in the emergence of political Zionism in the late 1800s when some European Jews, influenced by the nationalism then sweeping the continent, decided that the solution to antisemitism in Europe and Russia was the establishment of a state for Jews in Palestine. They began emigrating to Palestine as colonists, where they started dispossessing indigenous Muslim and Christian Palestinians.
The roots of the Nakba stem from the emergence of Zionism as a political ideology in late 19th-century Eastern Europe. The ideology is based on the belief that Jews are a nation or a race that deserve their own state.
From 1882 onwards, thousands of Eastern European and Russian Jews began settling in Palestine; pushed by the anti-Semitic persecution and pogroms they were facing in the Russian Empire, and the appeal of Zionism.
In 1896, Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl published a pamphlet that came to be seen as the ideological basis for political Zionism – Der Judenstaat, or “The Jewish State”. Herzl concluded that the remedy to centuries-old anti-Semitic sentiments and attacks in Europe was the creation of a Jewish state.
Though some of the movement’s pioneers initially supported a Jewish state in places such as Uganda and Argentina, they eventually called for for building a state in Palestine based on the biblical concept that the Holy Land was promised to the Jews by God.
In the 1880s, the community of Palestinian Jews, known as the Yishuv, amounted to three percent of the total population. In contrast to the Zionist Jews who would arrive in Palestine later, the original Yishuv did not aspire to build a modern Jewish state in Palestine.
After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire (1517-1914), the British occupied Palestine as part of the secret Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916 between Britain and France to divvy up the Middle East for imperial interests.
In 1917, before the start of the British Mandate (1920-1947), the British issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to help the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, essentially vowing to give away a country that was not theirs to give.
Central to the pledge was Chaim Weizmann, a Britain-based Russian Zionist leader and chemist whose contributions to the British war effort during World War I (1914-1918) made him well-connected to the upper echelons of the British government.
Weizmann lobbied hard for more than two years with British former Prime Minister David Lloyd-George and former Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour to publicly commit Britain to building a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.
By giving their support to Zionist goals in Palestine, the British hoped they could shore up support among the significant Jewish populations in the US and Russia for the Allied effort during WWI. They also believed the Balfour Declaration would secure their control over Palestine after the war.
From 1919 onwards, Zionist immigration to Palestine, facilitated by the British, increased dramatically. Weizmann, who later became Israel’s first president, was realising his dream of making Palestine “as Jewish as England is English”.
Between 1922 and 1935, the Jewish population rose from nine percent to nearly 27 percent of the total population, displacing tens of thousands of Palestinian tenants from their lands as Zionists bought land from absentee landlords.
Leading Arab and Palestinian intellectuals openly warned against the motifs of the Zionist movement in the press as early as 1908. With the Nazi seizure of power in Germany between 1933 and 1936, 30,000 to 60,000 European Jews arrived on the shores of Palestine.
In 1936, Palestinian Arabs launched a large-scale uprising against the British and their support for Zionist settler-colonialism, known as the Arab Revolt. The British authorities crushed the revolt, which lasted until 1939, violently; they destroyed at least 2,000 Palestinian homes, put 9,000 Palestinians in concentration camps and subjected them to violent interrogation, including torture, and deported 200 Palestinian nationalist leaders.
At least ten percent of the Palestinian male population had been killed, wounded, exiled or imprisoned by the end of the revolt.
The British government, worried about the eruption of violence between the Palestinians and Zionists, tried to curtail at several points immigration of European Jews. Zionist lobbyists in London overturned their efforts.
In 1944, several Zionist armed groups declared war on Britain for trying to put limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine at a time when Jews were fleeing the Holocaust. The Zionist paramilitary organisations launched a number of attacks against the British – the most notable of which was the King David Hotel bombing in 1946 where the British administrative headquarters were housed; 91 people were killed in the attack.
Zionist paramilitary groups launched a vicious process of ethnic cleansing in the form of large-scale attacks aimed at the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages to build the Jewish state, which culminated in the Nakba.
While some Zionist thinkers claim there is no proof of a systematic master plan for the expulsion of Palestinians for the creation of the Jewish state, and that their dispossession was an unintended result of war, the presence of a Palestinian Arab majority in what Zionist leaders envisioned as a future state meant the Nakba was inevitable.
In early 1947, the British government announced it would be handing over the disaster it had created in Palestine to the United Nations and ending its colonial project there. On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted Resolution 181, recommending the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
At the time, the Jews in Palestine constituted one third of the population and owned less than six percent of the total land area. Under the UN partition plan, they were allocated 55 percent of the land, encompassing many of the main cities with Palestinian Arab majorities and the important coastline from Haifa to Jaffa. The Arab state would be deprived of key agricultural lands and seaports, which led the Palestinians to reject the proposal.
Shortly following the UN Resolution 181, war broke out between the Palestinian Arabs and Zionist armed groups, who, unlike the Palestinians, had gained extensive training and arms from fighting alongside Britain in World War II.
In November 1947, following World War II and the Holocaust, the newly-created United Nations approved a plan to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, against the will of the majority indigenous Palestinian Arab population. It gave 56% of the land to the proposed Jewish state, despite the fact that Jews owned only about 7% of the private land in Palestine and made up only about 33% of the population, a very large percentage of whom were recent immigrants from Europe. The Palestinian Arab state was to be created on just 42% of Palestine, even though Muslim and Christian Palestinians made up a large majority of the population and were indigenous to all of the land. Jerusalem was to be governed by a special international administration.
The British occupation authorities had announced that they would be ending their mandate in Palestine on the eve of May 15, 1948. Eight hours earlier, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister, announced what the Zionist leaders called a declaration of independence in Tel Aviv.
The British Mandate ended at midnight, and on May 15, the Israeli state came into being.
Almost immediately after the partition plan was passed, the expulsion of Palestinians by Zionist militias began, months before the armies of neighboring Arab states became involved. By the time these militias and the new Israeli army finished, the new state of Israel covered 78% of Palestine. The remaining 22%, comprising the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, fell under the control of Jordan and Egypt, respectively. In the 1967 War, the Israeli military occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, which Israel began colonizing shortly afterwards.
Israeli officials have repeatedly stigmatised the term as embodying an ‘Arab lie’ or as a ‘justification for terrorism’. In 2009, the Israeli Education Ministry banned using ‘nakba’ in Palestinian textbooks for children. In 2011, the Knesset forbade institutions from commemorating the event. According to Neve Gordon, a school ceremony memoralizing the nakba would, under the 2011 law, have to respond to charges that it incited racism, violence and terrorism, and denied Israel’s democratic character, in doing so. In 2023, after the United Nations instituted a commemoration day for the Nakba on 15 May, the Israeli ambassador Gilad Erdan remonstrated that the event itself was antisemitic.
Many Jewish Israelis refer to the period of the Nakba as the birth of the state of Israel and their “War of Independence”.Jewish Israelis commonly perceive the 1948 war and its outcome as an equally formative and fundamental event – as an act of justice and redemption for the Jewish people after centuries of historical suffering, and the key step in the “negation of the Diaspora”As a result, the narrative is extremely sensitive to the Israeli identity. As one paper on the subject puts it: “Silence on the Nakba is also part of everyday life in Israel.”
The most important long-term implications of the Nakba for the Palestinian people were the loss of their homeland, the fragmentation and marginalization of their national community, and their transformation into a stateless people.
The Nakba by the numbers
Between 750,000 and one million: The number of Palestinians expelled from their homeland and made refugees by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army during Israel’s establishment (1947-49), amounting to approximately 75% of all Palestinians.
Between 250,000 and 350,000: The number of Palestinians driven from their homes by Zionist militias between the passage of the UN partition plan on November 29, 1947 and the establishment of Israel on May 15, 1948, prior to the outbreak of war with neighboring Arab states.
Several dozen: The number of massacres of Palestinians carried out by Zionist militias and the Israeli army, which played a critical role in prompting the flight of many Palestinians for their homes.
More than 100: The number of Palestinians, including dozens of children, women, and elderly people, massacred in the Palestinian town of Deir Yassin near Jerusalem on April 9, 1948, by Zionist militias led by future Israeli prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. The massacre at Deir Yassin was one of the worst atrocities committed during the Nakba and a pivotal moment in Israel’s establishment as a Jewish majority state, triggering the flight of Palestinians from their homes in and around Jerusalem and beyond. The Deir Yassin massacre is commemorated annually by Palestinians around the world.
Approximately 150,000: The number of Palestinians who remained inside what became Israel’s borders in 1948, a quarter of them internally displaced. These Palestinians (sometimes called “Israeli Arabs”) were granted Israeli citizenship but stripped of most of their land and governed by violent, undemocratic military rule until 1966. As of 2023, there are more than two million Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, comprising more than 20% of Israel’s population, who are forced to live as second-class citizens in their own homeland, subject to dozens of laws that discriminate against them in almost every aspect of life because they’re not Jewish.
More than 400: The number of Palestinian cities and towns systematically destroyed by Zionist militias and the new Israeli army or repopulated with Jews between 1948 and 1950. Most Palestinian communities, including homes, businesses, houses of worship, and vibrant urban centers, were destroyed to prevent the return of their Palestinian owners, now refugees outside of Israel’s borders or internally displaced inside of them
More than 7.2 million: The number of Palestinian refugees today, including Nakba survivors and their descendants. They’re located mostly in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, and neighboring Arab countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, denied their internationally-recognized legal right to return to their homeland.
Approximately 4,244,776 : The number of acres of Palestinian land stolen by Israel during and immediately after the establishment of the state in 1948.
Between 100 and 200 billion: The total estimated monetary loss of Palestinians dispossessed during Israel’s establishment, in current US dollars.