What was the Nakba? And why does 1948 matter so much to Palestinians and Israelis?

In 1948, 750,000 Palestinians were displaced from what's now Israel. Why did it happen, and what does it mean now?

Published May 26, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

The 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba, occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-1948 civil war in Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. (Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba, occurred when more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1947-1948 civil war in Palestine and the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. (Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

On May 18, a photo of two Israeli soldiers circulated on social media. They were standing in front of a bullet-riddled house in what appeared to be Gaza. Its wall was spray-painted with the words "Nakba 2023."

This apparent mocking acknowledgment of the term's importance put those two soldiers in a peculiar kind of agreement with millions of Palestinians who mourn the event known as the Nakba — Arabic for "catastrophe" — not only as a historical moment that shattered their nation and drove 750,000 Palestinians from their homes, but also as a state of anguished existence that continues to define their lived experience.

The events most closely associated with the Nakba occurred in 1947 and 1948, amid the formulation of a plan to divide the territory known as Palestine between the then-indigenous Arab population (which encompassed both Muslims and Christians) and Jewish settlers who had been migrating to Palestine in increasing numbers since the late 19th century. Many Jewish settlers had emigrated from Europe to escape antisemitic pogroms and persecution, and many more were arriving in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in which roughly 6 million Jews had died. The partition plan was devised by the British government, which had administered Palestine since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and a special committee of the United Nations, a brand new global entity.

Worldwide sympathy was on the side of the Jewish arrivals, understandably enough, but Palestinian Arabs questioned why they should have to surrender their land, as they saw it, to pay for Europe's sins. Nearly all of them opposed the partition plan, which gave 56% of the territory in Palestine to the significantly smaller Jewish population.

Zionist leaders, who had longed for a Jewish nation-state and were essentially promised one by the British in the 1917 Balfour Declaration, urged their followers to accept the U.N. proposal as a stepping stone toward even further expansion. David Ben-Gurion, Israel's revered founding father and first prime minister, described the plan as "the decisive stage in the beginning of full redemption and the most wonderful lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine," echoing the maximalist Zionist creed which held that Jews had a historic or divine right to the entire territory of Palestine from "the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea."

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's revered founding father and first prime minister, described the partition plan as "the most wonderful lever for the gradual conquest of all of Palestine."

As the U.N. prepared to vote on partition, fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs. In one violent tit-for-tat, members of Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary force, threw bombs at Arab workers standing in line at a Haifa oil refinery. The furious survivors went on a rampage, lynching several of their Jewish co-workers. Hours later, the Haganah, another Zionist group, assaulted the nearby Arab villages of Balad al-Shaykh and Hawassa, killing many inhabitants in revenge.

Jerusalem, which the U.N. had designated as an internationally-administered city, was rapidly torn apart by urban warfare between Jewish inhabitants and Arab supporters of the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, a ferocious anti-Zionist who had been allied with Nazi Germany during the war. For the first few months of 1948, Arab militias managed to blockade the Jewish-held sectors of the city, attacking convoys of supplies along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road until they were repelled by Zionist relief forces.

Despite the intensity of the violence, the Palestinian response was comparatively disorganized and far from being unified in purpose. While some Arabs answered calls from al-Husseini and the Arab Higher Committee to join the armed struggle, others ignored them or gravitated towards organizations like the League for National Liberation, which unlike the hardline AHC preferred a peaceful approach and was willing to grant equal rights to Jews in a democratic Arab-majority state, rather than only those Jewish settlers who had arrived before 1917. Even Jewish officials like Haganah intelligence chief Ezra Danin commented that "the majority of the Palestinian masses accept the partition as a fait accompli and do not believe it possible to overcome or reject it.”

But the AHC, which was propped up by the Arab League and riven by self-serving factionalism, proved especially useful to the Zionists, who declined to negotiate with other Palestinian representatives and used the AHC to characterize Palestinian nationalism in general as terrorist and reactionary. This was convenient for Zionist leaders, who worried that the roughly equal populations of Jews and Arabs within their earmarked territory did not provide, in the words of Ben-Gurion, "a stable basis for a Jewish state."

In March 1948, Zionist leaders finalized Plan Dalet, which laid the guidelines for a military campaign to drive much of the Arab population out of Jewish-allocated territory. The plan's intentions, along with the culpability or responsibility for the subsequent displacement of Palestinians, is still fiercely debated. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé asserts, in his book "The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine," that the general section of Plan Dalet, which called for the “destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris)," provided carte blanche for military commanders to commit atrocities.

Plan Dalet was a blueprint that "spelled it out clearly and unambiguously: the Palestinians had to go," Pappé writes. "The aim of the plan was in fact the destruction of both rural and urban areas of Palestine."

Other historians, however, characterize Plan Dalet as a primarily defensive strategy aimed at fending off attacks by the Arab Liberation Army, a volunteer organization of Palestinians and other Arabs, and invasion by the military forces of the Arab League nations surrounding Palestine. "The essence of the plan was the clearing of hostile and potentially hostile forces out of the interior of the territory of the prospective Jewish State, establishing territorial continuity between the major concentrations of Jewish population and securing the future State's borders before, and in anticipation of" the invasion by Arab states, writes Benny Morris, another prominent Israeli historian, in "1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War."

For many Palestinians, Israel's war in Gaza and the Hamas attack last October that provoked it are not standalone events, but the culmination of 75 years of abuse and erasure by the Israeli government.

Just as Palestinians were not monolithic in their goals and methods, many members of the Jewish left and labor organizations, as well as some of the official decision-making bodies they influenced, did not initially countenance a plan for expulsion. Chaim Weizmann, who was Israel's first president and certainly a Zionist, suggested that the hundreds of thousands of Arabs living in Jewish territory could enjoy the same rights and protections as anyone else. But when the exodus of Palestinians began in earnest, liberal and left-wing Zionists largely viewed that as good news, or in Weizmann's words, as a "miraculous cleansing of the land."

The brutal results of the campaign are not in serious dispute. Beginning in April, Zionist forces spearheaded the expulsion of Palestinians from hundreds of cities, towns and villages. Some were forced to leave at gunpoint, and others through the denial and destruction of food sources or whisper campaigns designed to sow panic. On April 9, Zionist militants killed more than 100 Palestinians in Deir Yassin, with some captives later paraded through Jerusalem and executed. Such massacres terrified thousands of other Palestinians into fleeing for their lives.

On May 14, Ben-Gurion formally declared the establishment of the state of Israel. A day later, the Arab League, whose nations hoped to use the plight of the Palestinians as a pretext to seize land for themselves, declared war and invaded. Through the month of July, the newly-constituted Israeli Defense Forces captured the towns of Lydda and Ramle, then herded 50,000 to 70,000 of their inhabitants along a road to Arab-controlled territory during a summer heat wave. Over the next three years, the abandoned homes were resettled with Israeli Jews.

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Even as some Israeli officials, like Haifa mayor Shabtai Levy, pleaded with local Arabs to stay, promising safety under a Jewish administration, many Arabs decided not to place their fates in the hands of those they deemed either untrustworthy or subject to manipulation by their more extremist compatriots. Pro-Israel voices have asserted that many Palestinians voluntarily left their homes, some at the urging of the AHC, in hopes of returning after invading Arab forces had won. That may have been true in some cases, but does not negate the impact of induced starvation, economic devastation and threats of violence.

By the end of 1948, around 750,000 Palestinians were living in squalid refugee camps across the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and various Arab countries. About one-third of them had already fled or been expelled before Israel's declaration of independence. Their towns and villages were renamed and resettled or simply destroyed, some to be excavated decades later like the ruins of a lost civilization. Palestinian society, as it had existed for generations, had collapsed. The Nakba came to define modern Palestinian identity, and yet for many Palestinians, it is not part of the past, but still unfolding. To them, Israel's immensely destructive war in Gaza and the Hamas attack last October that provoked it are not standalone events, but the culmination of 75 years of abuse and erasure by the Israeli government in Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel itself.

In the decades since 1948, the state of Israel has continued to push a different narrative of the nakba, focused on Arab aggression, necessary Jewish self-defense and examples of Israeli officials encouraging Palestinians to remain in Israel. Jewish Israelis often cite the nation's historical mission, and the undeniable present-tense logic that an independent modern state with 75 years of history and a population of 9.5 million cannot be completely hand-waved away to make up for past injustice. Many pro-Palestine activists, who point to injustice that is still happening, call for the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees, and for replacing the Jewish state with a secular, democratic one-state solution in which Jews and Arabs share equal rights. For many Israelis, that's an entirely unrealistic vision that would lead to anti-Jewish genocide and "suicide for Israel as a Jewish state."

Such a solution certainly looks remote at this point, but the Israeli government has taken pains to suppress what it considers the Nakba "myth," with its implication that the Palestinian struggle for land and rights is justified. Ironically, as noted above that denial seems to have morphed in unexpected ways recently, as allies or surrogates of Benjamin Netanyahu's government openly flaunt "Nakba 2023" as a matter of policy.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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1948 Analysis Arabs Gaza History Israel Jews Middle East Nakba Palestinians War