Nakba Day: What happened 75 years ago and how do Palestinians still remember it?

May 15 represents the day that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians left their homes and hundreds of villages were destroyed

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Each year, on May 15, Palestinians mark the day of the Nakba as they remember the events leading up to the creation of Israel in 1948 that would claim hundreds of lives and affect many generations in the years that followed.

The already divisive anniversary was officially recognised by the UN General Assembly which passed a landmark resolution last year to commemorate Nakba Day, despite Israel's vehement opposition.

Israel celebrates its creation a day earlier on May 14.

In 1948, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their homes, hundreds of villages were destroyed and millions of their descendants now live scattered outside their former homeland, many as refugees.

The Nakba “all but wiped out the Arab character” of the land, says Michael Fischbach, a professor specialising in Palestinian history. Many other authors and experts describe the Nakba as an “ongoing trauma” for Palestinians.

Why is it called Nakba Day?

Nakba means "catastrophe" in Arabic, as the day is named to mark the effect it had on the Palestinians and the ensuing diaspora. It is considered the biggest tragedy in Palestine’s history.

What led to the Nakba?

In 1948, Palestine was controlled by a British mandate that included Transjordan, after the Ottomans lost both territories following the First World War.

For several years before the Nakba, the international community had treated the future of Palestine as a political hot potato, with discussions held at the UN, at high-level international conferences and in the British parliament.

In 1947, the UN passed Resolution 181, known as the Partition Plan, to split Palestine into two states — a move that was largely rejected by Arabs. The UN sought to allocate 43 per cent of Palestine to the Arabs and 56 per cent to the Jews.

According the UN, Arabs made up at least 1.1 million of the population in 1945 while Jews were about 407,000.

The UN plan did not come to fruition. After the British mandate expired at midnight on May 14, 1948, Jewish forces annexed 77 per cent of Palestine, including East Jerusalem during the 1967 war.

In preparation for the end of the mandate and the expected Arab mobilisation of forces, the Jewish authorities came up with Plan Dalet (or Plan D), to drive Palestinians and Arabs from land it either already had control over or wanted to control.

Drawn up on March 10, 1948, the plan focused on the Arab League’s Liberation Army, state armies from neighbouring countries and paramilitary groups seeking to fight Israeli forces.

The plan’s objectives also included measures to protect Israeli settlements and vital infrastructure, and attack “enemy” supply lines. It spoke of “controlling and occupying” territories.

However, none of the terminology would reflect the atrocities it would later become associated with.

“The goal of the Arabs was initially to block the Partition Resolution and to prevent the establishment of the Jewish state. The Jews, on the other hand, hoped to gain control over the territory allotted to them under the Partition Plan,” the US State Department says.

Five Arab nations — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq — sent troops into the country shortly after the British mandate ended. Jewish forces soon made gains until a UN-brokered ceasefire took effect in 1949.

The Nakba in numbers

After atrocities committed by Jewish forces, dozens of massacres were carried out, with hundreds of civilians — including women and children — killed, and 70 per cent of Palestinians expelled or compelled to leave their homes.

That means, an estimated 750 to 1 million Palestinians were made refugees between 1947 and 1949. That number stands at 7.1 million refugees and displaced persons as of 2009, including descendants of the victims of the Nakba.

Only 150,000 Palestinians remained inside the 1948 borders. At least 24 known massacres were conducted by Jewish forces - with at least 100 people, including women and children, killed in the Deir Yassin massacre alone on April 9, 1948. Over 400 Palestinian cities and towns were destroyed by Jewish forces between 1948 and 1950.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz published some findings from declassified documents detailing some of the war crimes.

A soldier who witnessed events in the village of Dawayima, now called Moshav Amatzia, says at least 100 people were killed.

“There was no battle and no resistance. The first conquerors killed 80 to 100 Arab men, women and children. The children were killed by smashing their skulls with sticks. There wasn’t a house without people killed in it,” the soldier says.

Jewish author and scholar Ilan Pappe has famously called the Nakba an “ethnic cleansing” while Israeli historian Benny Morris's book, The Birthplace of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, documents many of the accusations levelled against the Israelis during that period.

Speaking to Haaretz in 2004 about a newer version of his book, Mr Morris said: “The revised book is a double-edged sword. It is based on many documents that were not available to me when I wrote the original book, most of them from the Israel Defence Forces' archives. What the new material shows is that there were far more Israeli acts of massacre than I had previously thought. To my surprise, there were also many cases of rape.”

He also spoke about the role of the Haganah, the predecessor of Israel’s Defence Forces today.

“In the months of April to May 1948, units of the Haganah were given operational orders that stated explicitly that they were to uproot the villagers, expel them and destroy the villages themselves.”

He also says the Palestinians and their supporting Arab neighbours issued orders for women and children to evacuate, presumably to protect the more vulnerable members of the Palestinian community.

“So that on the one hand, the book reinforces the accusation against the Zionist side, but on the other hand it also proves that many of those who left the villages did so with the encouragement of the Palestinian leadership itself.”

The Nakba’s impact on Palestinians

The world will never know the true extent of the catastrophe that occurred in 1948.

“Millions of documents from the state’s founding are stored in government archives and banned from publication,” a Haaretz article said in December 2021.

“On top of this, there is active censorship. In recent years, personnel of the Malmab unit [Hebrew acronym for director of security of the defence establishment] have been scouring archives around the country and removing evidence of war crimes, as an investigative report by Hagar Shezaf in Haaretz revealed in 2019.

“However, despite the efforts at concealment, the accounts of about massacres continue to accumulate.”

Updated: May 15, 2023, 6:16 AM