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Al-Nakba of 1948, Dr Khalil Nakhleh

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 04.05.2008:

Al-Nakba of 1948: Older than sixty, for sure; but how long will it persist?

By Dr. Khalil Nakhleh

The need to re-focus our understanding of al-Nakba

I am not really certain when we started to label what happened to our people and our country, following the establishment of the state of Israel, as al-Nakba. But this is not really the important point. What is important, from my perspective as a Palestinian, is that there is a need to understand what happened to us in the late 1940s, why it happened the way it did, and what we should do to circumvent al-Nakba from persisting into our future.

As it has been characterised officially, al-Nakba, or “the catastrophe,” is a shorthand euphemism for the disaster that befell the Palestinian people and society in historical Palestine in and around 1948, when Israel declared itself to be an independent country. Thus we started equating and associating the “independence” of Israel, or the 15th of May of every year since 1948, with our “catastrophe.” By doing so, we reduced the evil that was wilfully perpetrated against us, as a people and a society, to a commemorative date on our annual calendar; where our enemies celebrate and we mourn.

Al-Nakba should not be viewed as a “catastrophe” in the same sense as the sudden upheaval, destruction, etc., caused by inexplicable natural disasters, massive earthquakes, flooding, tornadoes, or an unexpected attack by meteorites from outer space. I want to argue here for the need to widen our conception of al-Nakba and to think of it as a disastrous process, whose seeds were consciously planted at least since the beginning of the last century, and whose clear goals were our displacement and alienation from our indigenous land, and our supplanting by Jewish-Zionist colonists who were hurled at us from other parts of the world.

Al-Nakba stands as a critical marker in the life of at least three generations of Palestinians since 1947-1948; and it will be indelible in the minds of future Palestinian generations. It is, no doubt, a violent severance and interruption of the Palestinians from their past: from their familiarity with their daily surroundings, their immediate environment, and their natural connection with their milieu. It is a process that led to the cleansing (i.e., killing and expulsion) of at least 86 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population who lived in the area that became Israel; and the erasure of at least 531 of their villages and towns, with the explicit goal of creating an exclusive Jewish state in the same area. Al-Nakba is an ongoing process of “memoricide” (to use Ilan Pappe’s term) – the wiping out of individual and collective memory in the hope that it cannot be rekindled. Al-Nakba process intended to erase our collective memory.

Al-Nakba process: agencies and targets

Al-Nakba was not a sudden happening that came from nowhere. What happened in 1947-1948 was the culmination of a colonial settler process, whose aim was (and continues to be) to dislodge the indigenous Arab population of Palestine and replace it with Zionist-Jewish settlers from other countries. These settlers and their descendents spearheaded a systematic process, which started in the early 1920s, of cleansing the land from its Palestinian population and transforming it into an extension of the globalised capitalist centre. The process is continuing today, with the direct and indirect sanctioning of the United States, Europe, and a multitude of their client states and non-state agencies.

In order to arrive at a clear and comprehensive understanding of this broad process, I propose to look at “al-Nakba Process” on two levels: the phases of its development and its targets. In terms of the phases, we can delineate three, somewhat overlapping, phases: the planning/designing phase, the implementation phase, and the completion phase. Embedded in these phases, I would highlight three clear targets: people, land, and institutions.

The planning/designing phase

This is recognised to have begun with the holding of the first Zionist Congress in 1897. The idea of establishing a Jewish National Fund (JNF), with the goal of acquiring Arab-owned lands in Palestine (and the region), for exclusive Jewish use, was proposed during that first Zionist Congress more than one hundred years ago. The idea of the JNF was formally approved in 1901, and was registered in Britain in 1907, with the explicit objective of acquiring lands and immovable properties “in Palestine, Syria, and in any other parts of Turkey and the Sinai Peninsula.” It was later stipulated that the land that is acquired (irrespective of the means) and held by the JNF is “the inalienable property of the Jewish people, and only Jewish labour can be employed in the settlements.” Subsequently, a British commission concluded that “the land has been extra-territorialised. It ceases to be land from which the [Palestinian] Arab can gain any advantage now or in the future. Not only can he never hope to lease or cultivate it, but he is deprived forever of employment on that land …” In May 1954, and through an official memorandum from the Israeli government, the JNF was subsumed formally as a company within Israel. The signed memorandum kept the objectives as found in the original registration, but stated that the JNF’s activities “in the State of Israel and in any area under its jurisdiction [are] for the purpose of settling Jews on these lands and properties.” Furthermore, the JNF was recognised as one of the arms of the World Zionist Movement. It is estimated today that 13 percent (or approximately 2.5 million dunums) of the land area in Israel is held by the JNF; the majority of which are lands belonging to Palestinian refugees – lands which were taken over as a result of the ethnic cleansing process.

As the Zionist arm of the colonisation of Palestine, the Jewish National Fund has been the paramount Zionist agency of al-Nakba.

Preparing for al-Nakba of Palestine followed a dual track: political-diplomatic and economic. The colonial settler process was codified (or formalised) in 1917 by the British Balfour Declaration, when the British government committed itself to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” With the conclusion of WWI and the establishment of the League of Nations, Great Britain was designated by the League of Nations as the Mandatory Power for Palestine in 1923. The preamble to the British Mandate incorporated the Balfour Declaration, with minor adjustments.

This means that the Western powers – which emerged victorious from WWI and established the League of Nations (and similarly, later on, the United Nations, following WWII) – were committed to the establishment and enforcement of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. In other words, the League of Nations, the British Mandate, and the United Nations were paramount political-diplomatic-economic agencies of al-Nakba.

To solidify Zionist control over the land and other critical economic resources, prominent Jewish businessmen were given monopolistic concessions by the British government during the 1920s and 1930s, immediately following the imposition of the Mandate, in spite of the fact that “in each case the concession was contested by other serious claimants.” Thus the Zionist enterprise was allowed to control critical natural resources (e.g., the Palestine Electric Company, the development of minerals in the Dead Sea, the Palestine Land Development Company, etc.), in preparation for al-Nakba.

In the meantime, the system of Jewish-Zionist education was separated from that of the prevalent system of the indigenous population and became fully centralised under the exclusive control of the Zionist movement, to which it allocated about 40 percent of its budget. The objective was clearly to inculcate the mythical claim of Zionism in the new generations of settlers; to strengthen the Zionist colonial control of the land; and to prepare for a separate hegemonic Jewish presence in Palestine.

Had Zionism not been a settler-colonial movement, with the objective to establish an exclusivist “Jewish national home” in Palestine, and had it not received the political, economic, and military support of the major Western powers who emerged victorious from the two world wars, this whole process, most likely, would not have culminated in al-Nakba. The recurrent insistence on dividing the land in order to allow for a hegemonic and exclusivist Jewish state in Palestine, against the explicit will of its indigenous population, which, sadly, persists until this day under the pretext of “negotiating” for peace, is the direct prelude for al-Nakba.

Any serious review of the machinations and deliberations – in the context of the United Nations and hegemonic Western powers that sought to operationalise the Balfour Declaration – leading to the creation of Israel would have to conclude that adopting the principle of dividing Palestine was a sure recipe for cleansing the indigenous population living in that area, i.e., a sure recipe for al-Nakba. Since 1937, with the Peel Commission, the push by Western capitalist powers was to partition Palestine, under the rubric of accommodating Zionist aspirations for a “Jewish homeland.” Since that time, no apparent serious effort was invested in the UN context, or by UN agencies, to avert al-Nakba. Palestinian society, then as now, was completely exposed and vulnerable to external forces, as well as to the control of internal agents of those forces. Its internal social, economic, and cultural structures lacked the required immunity to withstand those forces. Thus, a new Zionist-Jewish state was established in 1948 on a decimated indigenous, rural society, called Palestine.

The persistent push of the imperialist and capitalist centres then, and their client states, taking the cue from the Zionist movement, was for physically partitioning Palestine, to create a separate state for the Jews. Their objective was never to establish a just and democratic society in all of Palestine and to accommodate all its people. Such a position could have been possible to adopt then, had it been the goal. But this was never the plan of the Zionist movement; nor was it the intention of the Balfour Declaration, thirty years earlier; nor did it harmonise with the objective of creating a paramount Jewish colonisation agency (the JNF) nearly 46 years earlier.

Implementation and completion phase

I shall not dwell in much detail on this section because it is well documented and has been discussed by a number of historians, Palestinian and non-Palestinian, since the 1950s; it has furthermore been documented and analysed lately in a most comprehensive way by historian Ilan Pappe, in his fine book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (2006).

In a snapshot form, early cleansing operations started in December 1947. At the time, the Palestinians constituted two-thirds of the population (whereas they made up nearly 90 percent of the population of Palestine at the beginning of the British Mandate in 1923). At the beginning of the cleansing operations, Palestinians owned about 97 percent of the land. As a result of the ethnic cleansing operations, 531 Palestinian villages were erased; more than 86 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population was destroyed, expelled, or displaced. Thus only 14 to 15 percent of the indigenous Palestinian population (about 130,000 – 150,000) remained in their homeland, while the rest became displaced and homeless refugees.

Whereas the Palestinians who remained on their own indigenous land (in Israel) number today about 1.3 million, the robbery of their land continues through government legislations. In 1967, the Israeli Knesset passed the “Law of Agricultural Settlement” that “prohibited the sub-letting of the Jewish-owned land of the JNF to non-Jews …” The law furthermore ensured that “water quotas set aside for the JNF lands could not be transferred to non-JNF lands.” The Palestinian minority in Israel, which constitutes now about 18 percent “has been forced to make do with just three percent of the land.” It is estimated that 70 percent of the land belonging to the Palestinians in Israel “has been either confiscated or made inaccessible to them.”

How do we prevent al-Nakba from persisting into our future?

al-Nakba from persisting into our future?

I am convinced that al-Nakba process, as discussed above, will persist in the Palestinian future unless and until we, and all the forces in the world that do not want to see a recurring Nakba, embark unequivocally on the following steps:

1. Stop thinking, acting, and aiming to divide historical Palestine as a pretext to finding a solution for the current unjust situation, which has been imposed on us as a result of the process of the last hundred years.

2. Work towards the dismemberment of the exclusivist, racist Zionist-Jewish-Israeli state and structures, in favour of one democratic, non-hegemonic state, for all the inhabitants of historical Palestine.

3. Highlight the historical evil perpetrated against the Palestinian people and work globally towards forcing the World Zionist Movement and the State of Israel to acknowledge their direct responsibility for perpetrating this historical evil and to take real restitution measures to rectify it.

Main sources consulted for this article:

Abu-Lughod, I., ed., The Transformation of Palestine, 1971.

Abu-Ras, T., “Al-Sandouq al-Qawmi al-Yahudi,” in Qadaya Israiliya, No.28, 2007, pp. 23-35.

Aruri, N., ed., Occupation: Israel over Palestine, 1989.

Pappe, I., The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, 2006.

An earlier version of this article appeared in CounterPunch.

Dr. Khalil Nakhleh is a Palestinian anthropologist, independent development and educational consultant, and writer. His latest two books are: The Myth of Palestinian Development (2004), and (co-authored with Tafeeda Jirbawi) Empowering Future Generations (2008). He is the editor of a forthcoming book, The Future of the Palestinian Minority in Israel. Dr. Nakhleh resides in Ramallah and may be reached at

This Week in Palestine

May 2008

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