The Nakba, or “Catastrophe,” of 1948 remains the single most decisive date in contemporary Palestinian history. While the State of Israel was created that year, a nascent Palestinian nation was destroyed. As neighbouring Arab countries gained statehood and self-rule from colonial powers, Palestinian society found itself dispossessed of a historic homeland and displaced around the region. The social, political, and economic structures of yesteryear were irrevocably broken as Palestinians were recast as stateless refugees or subjects of the newly formed Israeli, Jordanian, and Egyptian states. In 1948, the Palestinian nation disappeared from the map, and the impact, and trauma, of such societal devastation remains central to Palestinian identity and collective memory. Indeed, Palestinians are still one of the world’s few stateless peoples. But while the Nakba continues to inform the lived daily experience of all Palestinians, its memory has been suppressed in Israeli society. From schoolbooks to the physical landscape itself, Israel has redacted Palestinians from the history of 1948. Prevailing Israeli historical narratives instead blame Palestinians for their own misfortune, with any atrocities absolved as unfortunate, but indispensable, acts of state-building. Commemoration of the Nakba, embodied by exile and dispossession, has become critical to Palestinian culture and nationalism, and is routinely expressed in the occupied territory and Diaspora through literature, art, demonstrations, and music. But for Palestinian citizens of Israel, such remembrance directly confronts the powerful Israeli nationalist myths which underpin state and society, and as such, is fraught with social, political, and legal obstacles.
1. Displacement and Dispossession
1.1 Rival Nationalisms in the British Mandate
1948 was a zero sum year for Israeli and Palestinian nationalism. While the Zionist movement culminated in the Israeli state - envisioned as a homeland for the Jewish people - Palestinian society was uprooted at its foundations. The conditions for such vastly contrasting outcomes had been created under the preceding two decades of British Rule, which shaped the organization, capabilities, and, ultimately, outcomes of these rival nationalisms. While Britain had committed to a Jewish state in some form since the 1917 Balfour declaration, Palestinians were never recognized as a national or political entity1 with inherent rights to self-rule. Britain thwarted the development of Palestinian institutions and responded to the 1936-39 Palestinian revolution with such brutal force that it shattered all pre-existing economic, military, and political structures, leaving Palestinian nationalism unable to compete with its Jewish rival, which had built effective pre-state institutions with external aid and British support. By 1939, for example, the year the revolution ended, over 10 percent of the adult male Palestinian population had been killed, injured, imprisoned, or exiled2 by the British.
1.2 The UN Partition Plan
In the following decade, ongoing communal violence in Mandate Palestine, coupled with a war-weary domestic public, led Britain to hand over responsibility for the “Question of Palestine” to the newly formed United Nations. In November 1947, the UN issued its partition plan, calling for a Jewish state on 56.47% of the mandate – with a population of 499,000 Jews and 438,000 Arabs – and an Arab state on 42%, with 818,000 Arab inhabitants and 10,000 Jewish inhabitants3. Palestinians owned 90% of private land and formed an absolute majority of the population4 (over 70%), and rejected the partition, while the Jewish leadership accepted. Following Israel’s declaration of independence in May 1948, war soon followed with neighbouring Arab states.
1.3 The Nakba and Reshaping Demographics
But before a cessation of Arab-Israeli hostilities in 1949, the Jewish leadership had expressed concerns about the demographics of the partition plan, which would leave a large non-Jewish population in the “Jewish State.” Such a large Palestinian population would eventually outnumber its Jewish counterparts, therefore undermining Zionist aspirations of ethnic majoritarianism. As Israeli historian Benny Morris has noted: “large sections of Israeli society […] were opposed to or extremely unhappy with partition and from early on viewed the war as an ideal opportunity to expand the new state’s borders beyond the UN-earmarked partition boundaries and at the expense of the Palestinians5.” A month after the partition plan was announced, Jewish militia attacks on Palestinian villages displaced up to 75,000 Palestinians.6 The early stages of reshaping the demographics of the fledgling Jewish State had begun. According to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, pre-state Jewish militias had adopted several military plans to expand Jewish areas beyond the proposed UN borders, the most notable of which was Plan Dalet, implemented in March 1948. By the end of April, 250,000 Palestinians had been displaced. By October, nearly 800,0007 Palestinians were uprooted from land which became part of the State of Israel, now expanded to 78% of the former British Mandate. Palestinian society had been eviscerated by the time fighting ended in 1949. Of over 500 rural Palestinian villages in what became the Israeli state, over 400 had been conquered and their populations displaced.8 Urban, educated, and wealthy populations, most notably in Haifa and Jaffa were also decimated, with a majority losing their property and becoming refugees. In West Jerusalem, which had been designated as part of a “corpus separatum” – a shared, internationalised capital - under the UN partition plan, around 30,000 Palestinians were displaced.9 As Palestinian academic Walid Khalidi notes of the outcome of 1948, it was one of the “most remarkable colonizing ventures of all time.”10
2. The Physical Erasure of 1948
From the ashes of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, an Israeli state emerged on the ruins of Palestinian society. The United Nations classed some 750,000 Palestinians as refugees following the war while 150,000 managed to remain in what became the new Israeli state. With the majority of Palestinians displaced as refugees in neighbouring Arab countries, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip (now controlled by Jordan and Egypt respectively), the new Israeli state set about consolidating both physical and ideological control over the land, which required erasing the remains of Palestinian society from collective memory.
2.1 Redeeming the Land
The first step required a dramatic reconfiguration of the physical landscape. Abandoned upper-class homes in urban centres like West Jerusalem, Haifa, and Lydda, were often given to Israeli officials or recent Jewish immigrants, the remnants of Palestinian rural villages still dotted the countryside; an uncomfortable reminder of the now-largely exiled Palestinian community. Of some 418 depopulated villages which remained following the Nakba, over 70% were totally destroyed and 22 percent largely destroyed11 by Israeli forces. Others, notably the village of Ein Karem in West Jerusalem, were taken over by Israeli settlers while some remain fairly intact but depopulated, such as Lifta. Once rural villages had been cleared of any trace of Palestinian inhabitance, the land was often handed over to Jewish agricultural communities and for the use of Kibbutzim.12 Unlike most industrialized countries which have widespread private and real estate land ownership, in Israel the state controls 93% of the land, which cannot be sold. The Jewish National Fund, set-up in 1901 to “redeem the land of Palestine as the inalienable possession of the Jewish people,”13 became a quasi-state body in post-independence Israel acquiring over 78% of its landholdings – 13% of total land in Israel – between 1948 and 1953. Most of this land was considered “absentee property” of Palestinian refugees who had been displaced.14 After 1948, it became a key institution in reimagining Israel’s landscape. Through a program of reforestation and tree-planting, the JNF set about concealing the presence of former Palestinian villages. According to Zochrot, an Israeli NGO that promotes acknowledgement of the Nakba, over two-thirds of JNF forests and parks – 46 out of 68 – are located on the ruins of villages destroyed by Israel.15 The JNF tree-planting campaign was so effective that in Israel today only 10% of forests date from before 1948, while forests only contain 11% of indigenous species due to the choice of planting European pine and cypress trees.16 As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe writes: “in these forests Nakba denial is so pervasive, and has been achieved so effectively, that they have become a main area of struggle for Palestinian refugees wishing to commemorate the villages that lie beneath them.”17
2.2 Hebraizing the Landscape
Once the villages had been physically removed, the Israeli state began assigning new Hebrew names to geographical sights, reinventing the land as inherently, and naturally, Israeli. In 1948, British maps of Mandate Palestine ascribed thousands of Arabic names to geographical landmarks, while only around 5% were in Hebrew.18 Hebraizing the landscape was thus a crucial vehicle for reinventing a nation, and denying its Palestinian Arab heritage. The campaign was backed by the authority of a naming committee comprised of archaeologists and biblical experts.19 In the Negev (Naqab), for example - which formed nearly half of the new Israeli state - 533 new Hebrew names replaced former Arabic ones by 1951.20 As Israel’s first Prime Minister Ben Gurion said: “We must remove the Arabic names due to political considerations: just as we do not recognize the political ownership of Arabs over the land, we do not recognize their spiritual ownership and their names.”21
3. The Nakba in Israeli Society
3.1 Israel’s Palestinian Minority
While the dramatic reinvention of the new Israeli state sought to erase Palestinian history – and therefore their claims to the land – the presence of 150,000 Palestinians presented a challenge to Jewish-Israeli nationalism. Despite waves of Jewish immigration, Palestinians comprised a fifth of the population. Israel worked quickly to depoliticize this new minority and stifle the birth of any nationalist sentiments which could challenge the legitimacy of the new state. From 1948 -1966 Palestinians lived under military rule, had up to 70% of their land seized22 - ostensibly for infrastructure projects – and required permits to leave their villages and towns. They were labelled as Israeli-Arabs rather than Palestinians, or divided into sectarian identities such as Christians, Muslims, Druze, or Bedouins. The new Palestinian minority received citizenship, but was kept in a state of perpetual underdevelopment, with entrenched discrimination, as represented by over 50 different laws23, affecting housing, urban planning, the labour market, and general socioeconomic development. Furthermore, given the period of interstate conflict with neighbouring Arab states, and Palestinian resistance in the Diaspora, Israeli society viewed Palestinian citizens as a fifth column in their midst, a dangerous, ever-present threat. As such, any expression of their Palestinian identity, history, or culture, especially political events such as the Nakba, were seen as a subversive threat to the Israeli state.
3.1 Memory of the Nakba in Israel
Despite the dramatic shattering of Palestinian society, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Jerusalem, and the Diaspora commemorated the Nakba with demonstrations, strikes and visits to the graves of those killed during fighting as early as 1949.24. Inside Israel, however, policies directed against the Palestinian minority made similar actions near impossible for decades, and large-scale commemorations mainly developed in the 1990s, with a central focus on the March of Return, which sees mass processions to the depopulated villages of 1948. The suppression of such commemorations until relatively recently was largely a product of powerful state institutions which worked to reinforce an Israeli nationalist narrative and purge Palestinians from the memory of 1948. Independence Day in Israel, for example, is a crucial non-religious expression of powerful nationalist sentiments, which allows no space for narratives which could weaken its unifying authority. A critical institution in this process was also the state education system. In a country like Israel, where history, memory, and national identity all intersect, the national curriculum became a powerful tool to shape the national narrative. The Ministry of Education in Israel, for example, only authorizes school books if they reproduce the state-sponsored version of 1948. As Israeli academic Nurit Peled-Elhanan notes, such dominant narratives “still promulgate the story that Palestinians fled out of unfounded panic, and present expulsion and massacres as esoteric transgressions or rare cases of necessary evil.”26 The Nakba is thus absent from the historical narrative taught to Jewish-Israelis, though in 2007 the term briefly appeared in Palestinian schools within the public education sector for the first time, before being removed two years later.
3.4 Freedom of Expression and 1948
There is no institutionalized system to commemorate the Nakba within Israeli state structures, with most stories and memories of 1948 preserved and disseminated through the oral story-telling of those who survived. There are no placards to mark the location of massacres, no officially recorded database of victims’ names, and no monuments to commemorate pre-1948 Palestinian society. The Nakba is denied in the memory of the state. Civil society organizations working to raise awareness of the Nakba have likewise had their voices silenced. In 2011, the Israeli parliament passed the Nakba Law, authorizing the Israeli Minister of Finance to reduce funding or support provided by the state for any public institution that holds activities which contradict the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or which commemorate “Israel’s Independence Day or the day on which the state was established as a day of mourning.”27 In effect, the bill criminalizes the commemoration of the Nakba in state funded institutions such as schools, research centres, civil society organizations, and political groups. As such, it suppresses Palestinian historical memory in Israeli society and infringes on the basic freedoms to express cultural identity. In 2011, Human Rights Watch described the law as a government tool to silence Palestinian-Israeli municipalities about the Nakba or face funding cuts which could jeopardize programs and services.28 For civil society, the law has also suppressed public commemoration activities. In 2015, for example, Haifa’s mayor withdrew funding for a film festival in the city about the Nakba29 which had been organized by Israeli NGO Zochrot. In 2012, the University of Haifa cancelled a scheduled Nakba event just three hours before it was due to begin, ostensibly to prevent “agitation” on campus,30 while another rally that year at Tel Aviv University was forced to pay for its own security at the event after the board said the Nakba Law prohibited them from funding such activities. In early 2016, another law was proposed by right-wing culture minister Miri Regev to cut funding for cultural activities that express disloyalty to the state. Named the ‘Loyalty in Culture’ bill, if passed it would further suppress Nakba commemoration events and any action deemed to undermine Israel’s “Jewish democratic” identity.31
As a nationalist movement, Palestinians have faced unprecedented obstacles to achieving statehood, dreams which, as yet, remain unfulfilled. Physically and ideologically removed from the map in 1948, memory takes on critical importance for Palestinian identity and nationalism. The Nakba is a unifying symbol for all Palestinians, but especially so for the Diaspora population, most of whom to this day live out the consequences of that year in refugee camps. For this reason, Palestinian collective memory is a threat which must be suppressed. But the Nakba was not a finite event, and, in that way, 1948 is an ongoing battle. Censoring the Palestinian memory of 1948, therefore, aims to suppress the past while also controlling the future. In the ongoing battle of nationalist narratives, by denying the Palestinian national experience of the Nakba, and indeed all pre-1948 society, Israel can subvert political demands such as the right of return, and manipulate the historic basis for discussing final status issues such as Jerusalem and borders, which are as yet all undetermined.
* Charlie Hoyle is a British journalist and writer with a focus on the Middle East.
He was formerly senior editor at Ma’an News Agency in Palestine and is currently co-editor of Muftah’s Israel/Palestine & Levant region page.
He has written for a number of online publications and has worked in NGOs in both the Middle East and London.
This article is published in the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies Volume 6 • Issue 2 • Autumn 2016
1 Khalidi, Rashid (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood P.33
2 Khalidi, R (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood P.108
3 Pappe, Ilan (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine P.35
4 Khalidi, R (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood P.1
5 Morris, Benny (1998) A personal assessment of the Zionist experience,’ Tikkun.
6 Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine P.40
7 Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine xiii
8 Khalidi, R (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood P.1
9 Khalidi, R (2006) The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood P.2
10 Khalidi, Walid (1992) All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 p xxxi
11 Masalha, Nur (2008) ‘Remembering the Palestinian Nakba: Commemoration, Oral History and Narratives of Memory’, Holy Land Studies: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 7/2 : 123-156
12 Cook, Jonathan (2008) Disappearing Palestine P. 30
13 Quigley, John (1990) Palestine and Israel: A Challenge to Justice P.4
14 Human Rights Watch (2008) Off the Map. Land and Housing Rights Violations in Israel’s Unrecognized Bedouin Villages.
15 Bronstein, E (2014) Most JNF - KKL forests and sites are located on the ruins of Palestinian village, Zochrot http://www.zochrot.org/en/article/55963
16 Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine P. 227
17 Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine P. 227
18 Kadman, N (2015) Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 P.94
19 Pappe, I (2006) The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine 226
20 Kadman, N (2015) Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 P.93
21 Kadman, N (2015) Erased from Space and Consciousness: Israel and the Depopulated Palestinian Villages of 1948 P.93
22 Cook, J (2008) Disappearing Palestine P. 37
23 Adalah website https://www.adalah.org/en/law/index
24 Sorek, T (2015) Palestinian Commemoration in Israel: Calendars, Monuments, and Martyrs P.71
25 Peled-Elhanan, N (2012) Palestine in Israeli School Books: Ideology and Propaganda in Education
27 Human Rights Watch (2011) https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/03/30/israel-new-laws-marginalize-palestinian-arab-citizens
30 Carnegie Center http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/63006