By Maha Nassar, University of Arizona | –
On May 15, 2023, the United Nations will stage a high-level special meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Nakba – the mass displacement of around 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland in 1948.
It is the first time that the international body has commemorated the date, which organizers said serves “as a reminder of the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people.”
Not everyone is behind the U.N.‘s marking of the day, however. The United States and the United Kingdom were among the countries that voted against the commemoration. Meanwhile, the Israeli foreign ministry has called on U.N. member states “not to participate in the event that adopts the Palestinian narrative that opposes Israel’s right to exist.”
As a scholar who studies Palestinian history, I see the U.N. decision as the culmination of a long process. For decades, Palestinians struggled for international recognition of the Nakba in the face of 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 displacement of Palestinians from their homeland. From the early 1900s, increasing numbers of Zionists – Jewish nationalists – emigrated from Russia and other parts of Europe to Palestine, seeking to escape antisemitism.
Many of these settlers also sought to establish Jewish sovereignty in a land that had long been inhabited by Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.
As a result of Zionist settlement, thousands of peasants were forced off land they had lived on for generations. Many Palestinians resisted this colonial displacement throughout the 1920s and 1930s. But their resistance was violently suppressed by British colonial forces ruling over Palestine at the time.
Following World War II, as the full horrors of the Holocaust became known and international sympathy for the Jewish plight grew, Zionist militias waged 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 on Nov. 29, 1947, voted in favor of a partition plan to split Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. The plan allotted a majority of the country, including major ports and prime agricultural lands, to the Jewish state, even though Jews comprised about one-third of the population at the time. The plan would have also forced half a million Palestinian Arabs living in the proposed Jewish state to make a stark choice: live as a minority in their own country or leave.
Palestinians rejected the plan and fighting broke out. Well-trained Zionist militias attacked Palestinians in areas that had been designated as part of the proposed Jewish state. Other Palestinians fled in fear after Zionist forces 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 forced off their ancestral lands.
The day after that declaration – May 15 – came to be known as Nakba Day.
As Palestinians fled to neighboring lands, the armies of five Arab countries – which also wished to prevent a Jewish state from forming – were deployed to try to stem the tide of refugees. Fighting between Israeli and Arab armies continued throughout that summer and fall, with the heavily armed Israeli military conquering lands that the U.N. had previously designated as part of the Arab state.
In the process, even more Palestinians were expelled from their homes and villages. Many fled on foot, carrying whatever they could on their backs. By the end of the Arab-Israeli war in 1949, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians had either fled or had been expelled from their homes.
The battle over the Nakba narrative
Palestinian and official Israeli accounts framed what took place in very different ways.
Since 1948, Palestinians have insisted that they have a right to return to the homes and lands from which they were expelled. They and their supporters cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed in December 1948, that states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”