Arabic term for the devastating consequences of the 1948 Arab–Israel War on the Palestinians.
Al-Nakba (in Arabic, disaster or catastrophe) refers to the flight and expulsion of the Palestinians during the 1947 to 1948 War, the confiscation of their property, massacres committed by Zionist (after 14 May 1948, Israeli) forces, the collapse of their society and, ultimately, the loss of their homeland. The term al-Nakba was widely used after a prominent Arab intellectual, Constantine Zurayk, wrote Ma'na al-Nakba (The meaning of the disaster) in 1948.
Of about 1,358,000 Palestinians living in Palestine in 1948, the United Nations (UN) estimated that some 726,000 became refugees during the two phases of the war: civil war after 29 November 1947, and the Arab–Israeli War after 14 May 1948. The exact number of Palestinians forced out is uncertain, but some scholars have estimated that about half of the refugees were expelled. Some of those who left did so after hearing of Zionist (later Israeli) attacks on Palestinians; according to one Israeli scholar, Benny Morris, there were about two dozen massacres in which 800 Palestinians were killed. More than 350 villages were abandoned or emptied, and most of these villages were destroyed—their homes were bulldozed or dynamited, their land was used to build Jewish settlements and house new Jewish immigrants, and the villages' names were removed from Israeli maps. A study by an American scholar, Michael R. Fischbach, of the archives of the United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine reveals that, in all, Palestinians lost some 6 to 8 million dunums (1.5 to 2 million acres), not including communal land farmed by villagers or state land. A Palestinian writer, Fayez Sayigh, estimated that 150,000 urban and rural homes were lost, as well as 23,000 shops, offices, and other buildings. To these losses must be added the human-capital losses of farmers, shopkeepers, laborers, and professionals and others who, within days, found themselves unemployed and destitute mostly in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
Of the estimated 860,000 Palestinians who resided within the area that became Israel (which encompassed 78% of historic Palestine, about 23% more than the 1947 UN partition resolution allotted to the Jewish state), some 84 percent of the Palestinians were uprooted and displaced. In addition, about 20 percent of the 150,000 Palestinians who remained and became citizens of the Jewish state, were internally displaced persons, that is, refugees. There are many examples in modern times of mass transfer and human migration, but very few instances when most of the population has been substantially dispossessed and replaced by another, with its lands, homes and possession confiscated.
There are a number of long-term or fundamental causes of al-Nakba. Many Jews, seeking to escape antisemitic persecution and murderous pogroms in late-nineteenth-century Eastern Europe and Russia, became Zionists, dedicating themselves to establishing a state in their biblical homeland, Palestine, which they called Eretz-Yisrael. In 1917 the Balfour Declaration committed Great Britain to supporting the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, where, at the time, less than 10 percent of the population was Jewish. After conquering Palestine in late 1917, Britain—with the backing of the European powers and later the United States—gave the Jewish community time to grow, through Jewish immigration and land purchases, and to establish a quasi-government and military forces. The genocide of six million Jews during World War II generated considerable sympathy in the West for the Jews and their need for a state. In short, European antisemitism, Zionism, the Holocaust, and Western support for a Jewish state made the conflict, leading to al-Nakba, more likely.
An immediate cause of the disaster was Palestinian and Arab rejection of the 29 November 1947 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181 (the partition resolution), which awarded the Zionists (who were one-third of the population and owned about 7% of the land) roughly 55 percent of Palestine. Inter-communal violence had preceded the UN resolution, and the Palestinians followed their rejection of it with more violent attacks, including massacres, on the Jewish community. Following the defeat of Palestinian and Arab irregular forces, and Israel's declaration of independence on 15 May 1948, five Arab armies entered Palestine. Three of these militaries invaded the nascent state of Israel, triggering the first Arab–Israeli War which produced more Palestinian refugees and cost the lives of 6,000 Jews, or 1 percent of the population, and approximately 13,000 to 16,000 Palestinians and 2,000 and 2,500 other Arabs.
Another immediate contributory cause of alNakba was a Zionist (later Israeli) policy of cleansing, a term used at the time, along with transfer. Many Zionist leaders believed, even before 1948, that in order to establish an ethnically Jewish state, and for the Palestinians to avoid becoming a fifth column within that state, it would be necessary to remove them. David Ben-Gurion, founding father of Israel and its first prime minister and defense minister, created a "consensus of transfer," according to Morris, and gave "transfer" instructions to his commanders who related them to their officers, sometimes in writing.
The legacy of al-Nakba—especially the nonresolution of the Palestinian refugee problem—has figured among the major causes of every Arab–Israeli war since 1948. Israel denies responsibility for the expulsion, claims that Arab leaders urged the Palestinians to leave, and looks to the Arab and the Western world to resolve the problem; Palestinians and other Arabs insist that Israel recognize its culpability and bear the burden of repatriating the refugees to their homes inside Israel or compensating them for their losses, consistent with international law.
The Israeli–Palestinian negotiators at Taba in January 2001 came close to resolving their conflict. The talks addressed Palestinian rights—including return and compensation—and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. They also addressed Israel's security requirements and demographic fears. But time ran out on the negotiations and no serious effort has been made to resume them. Until Israel, the West (especially the United States), and the Arabs all take responsibility for failing to deal with the consequences of alNakba—particularly the continued dispossession and statelessness of the Palestinians—and until they are determined to solve the problem, the Arab-Israeli conflict is unlikely to end.
see also arab–israel war (1948); balfour declaration (1917); oslo accord (1993); palestine; palestinians; refugees: palestinian; taba negotiations (1995, 2001).
Farsoun, Samih K., and Zacharia, Christina. Palestine and the Palestinians. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996.
Fischbach, Michael R. Records of Dispossession: Palestinian Refugee Property and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. The Institute for Palestine Studies Series. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.
Khalidi, Rashid. The Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern Nation as Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.
Khalidi, Walid. All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992.
Mattar, Philip, ed. Encyclopedia of the Palestinians. New York: Facts On File, 2000.
Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Pappe, Ilan. The Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 1947–1951. London: I. B. Tauris, 1994.
Rogan, Eugene L., and Shlaim, Avi, eds. The War for Palestine: Rewriting the History of 1848. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Shavit, Ari. "Survival of the Fittest" (interview with Benny Morris). Ha'aretz, 9 January 2004.