This May 15 marks the 70th anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that preceded and accompanied the founding of the Israeli state. In 1947/48, Zionist forces expelled more than 750,000 Palestinians from their indigenous land in historical Palestine. Though the event is often considered the beginning of contemporary Palestinian suffering, it was neither the starting point of Israeli injustices against the Palestinians nor an isolated phenomenon. The Nakba also did not end with Israel’s founding and has, instead, continued through Israel’s aggressive erasure of everything Palestinian – including the history and memory of the Nakba itself.
The term Nakba was initially used by influential Syrian intellectual and Arab nationalist Constantine Zurayk in his 1948 work “معنى النكبة” (“The Meaning of the Catastrophe”) to refer to the Zionist defeat of the Arab armies during the 1947/1948 war in historical Palestine. Since then, it has become synonymous with the Zionist ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population, during that time.
But the expulsion of the Palestinians was simply the high-water mark of several decades of Zionist settler-colonial and political efforts to displace Palestinians from their lands. Zionism itself necessitated and called for the removal of this indigenous population. Theodor Herzl’s pamphlet “The Jewish State” (1896) outlined these racist policies, which continue to be followed to the present day. As reflected in Herzl’s writings, Zionist philosophy is based on a disregard for a rhetorically dehumanized indigenous population combined with clever Western-oriented diplomacy that exploits Orientalist ignorance. “Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home,” Herzl wrote. “We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral State remain in contact will all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence.”
Israel’s founding institutionalized this mindset and the Nakba practices that it depends upon, with the full backing, implicit and explicit, of the international community. Since then, Israel’s Nakba policies have been extended beyond its internationally recognized borders, which the Israeli government has refused to recognize in order to continue colonizing the entirety of historic Palestine. Within Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel has engaged in multidimensional forms of violence against the Palestinian people, ranging from apartheid and mass incarceration to house demolitions and genocidal killings. Israel has even applied these policies beyond this frontier and massacred Palestinians living outside of historical Palestine, such as in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982. Israel’s complicity in that massacre was condemned as an act of genocide by the UN General Assembly.
As part of Israel’s infliction of memoricide upon Palestinians, knowledge about the Nakba has largely been suppressed within mainstream historiographies. Even when the events of 1948 are acknowledged, they are often framed as a story from long ago. Denials of the Nakba’s ongoing, historical realities have been accompanied by Zionist claims that Palestinians voluntarily fled their homes as a result of the 1947/1948 war, or that they were asked by Arab governments to leave. Historians have, however, long refuted such claims as propaganda and myth.
The ongoing Great Return March in Gaza is only the latest example of banal violence conducted with impunity by Israeli forces, in line with the Israeli regime’s illegal policies that treat all Palestinians as legitimate military targets. As Palestinians commemorate seventy years of forced expulsion and dispossession, the Nakba continues to serve as a tool for depriving Palestinians of their rights, and to fuel violence against them.