Palestinians refer to it as “Al Nakba”, which literally translates as “The Catastrophe”. It refers to the mass exodus of at least 750,000 Arabs from Palestine. Though most believe this event began in 1948, in fact, Al Nakba began decades earlier.
In 1799, during the French invasion of the Arab world, Napoleon issued a proclamation offering Palestine as a homeland to Jews under France’s protection. This was also a way to establish a French presence in the region. Napoleon’s vision of a Jewish state in the Middle East did not materialise at the time – but nor did it die. In the late 19th century, the plan was revived by the British.
Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the establishment of the Palestine Mandate, the British colonial power began implementing its plan of creating a Jewish state on Palestinian land. At the same time, the Zionist movement was lobbying Western powers to support the mass migration of Jews to Palestine and recognise a Jewish claim to the land.
In 1917, the Balfour Declaration declared British support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The declaration was made in a letter written by Britain's then-Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Zionist movement. The letter was endorsed by Britain's then-Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who became a Zionist in 1915.
The letter stated the British would “use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”. For Zionists, this was a clear victory.
The influx of Zionists to Palestine, supported by the British, was met by fierce Palestinian resistance. The purchases of land by Jews for Zionist settlement displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. The entire process was facilitated by the British.
While the Palestinian leadership in Jerusalem insisted on continuing negotiations with the British to resolve the simmering tensions, Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, a Syrian leader living in Haifa since 1922, began calling for an armed revolt against the British and the Zionists.
In 1935, Al-Qassam was surrounded by British forces and killed along with some of his men. His resistance inspired many Palestinians. By 1936, an Arab rebellion erupted against British imperialism and Zionist settler-colonialism.
By 1939, the British had smashed the rebellion. The Palestinians found themselves fighting two enemies: British colonial forces and Zionist militia groups.
Although the British had backed mass Jewish immigration to Palestine, the colonial power began to limit the number of Jews arriving to the country in an attempt to quell Arab unrest.
The new limit on immigration upset the Zionists. They launched a series of terrorist attacks on British authorities to drive them out.
The Zionists continued to further advance their dream of creating a Jewish state on Palestinian land. Meanwhile, it became obvious that Palestinian resistance forces were outnumbered and outgunned.
The Zionist strategy of expelling Palestinians from their land was a slow and deliberate process. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, Zionist leaders and military commanders met regularly from March 1947 to March 1948, when they finalised plans to ethnically cleanse Palestine.
As Zionist attacks on the British and Arabs escalated, the British decided to hand over their responsibility for Palestine to the newly founded United Nations.
In November 1947, the UN General Assembly proposed a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab one. Jews in Palestine only constituted one-third of the population – most of whom had arrived from Europe a few years earlier – and only retained control of less than 5.5 percent of historic Palestine. Yet under the UN proposal, they were allocated 55 percent of the land. The Palestinians and their Arab allies rejected the proposal.
The Zionist movement accepted it however, on the grounds that it legitimised the idea of a Jewish state on Arab land. But they did not agree to the proposed borders, and campaigned to conquer even more of historic Palestine. By early 1948, Zionist forces had captured dozens of villages and cities, displacing thousands of Palestinians, even while the British Mandate was still in effect. In many cases, they carried out organised massacres. The Zionist movement’s message was simple: Palestinians must leave their land or be killed.
As the date (May 14, 1948) selected by the British for their Palestine Mandate to expire approached, Zionist forces hastened their efforts to seize Palestinian land. In April 1948, the Zionists captured Haifa, one of the biggest Palestinian cities, and subsequently set their eyes on Jaffa. On the same day British forces formally withdrew, David Ben-Gurion, then-head of the Zionist Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel.
Overnight, the Palestinians became stateless. The world’s two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, immediately recognised Israel.
As the Zionists continued their ethnic cleansing campaign against the Palestinians, war broke out between neighbouring Arab countries and the new Zionist state. The UN appointed Swedish diplomat, Folke Bernadotte, as its mediator to Palestine. He recognised the plight of the Palestinians and attempted to address their suffering. His efforts to bring about a peaceful solution and halt to the ongoing ethnic cleansing campaign ended when he was assassinated by the Zionists in September 1948.
By 1949, over 700,000 Palestinians had been made refugees and more than 13,000 had been killed by the Israeli military. The UN continued to push for an armistice deal between Israel and those Arab countries with whom it was at war.
Bernadotte was replaced by his American deputy, Ralph Bunche. Negotiations led by Bunche between Israel and the Arab states resulted in the latter conceding even more Palestinian land to the newly founded Zionist state. In May 1949, Israel was admitted to the UN and its grip over 78 percent of historic Palestine was consolidated. The remaining 22 percent became known as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees remained in refugee camps, waiting to return home.
While the Zionist movement sought first and foremost to remove Palestinians from their land, it also tried to erase Palestinian heritage and culture. The overall objective was nothing short of an attempt to wipe Palestine off the world map.
The Palestinian Nakba did not end in 1948. The ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine is still happening, and so too is Palestinian resistance.
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