What is the Palestinian Nakba and why does it matter?


Wednesday, 15 May 2024 (12:49 IST)
On May 15, Palestinians around the world will commemorate 76 years of having lost their homeland. What is the Nakba, and how does it tie into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
What does Nakba mean?
The Arabic word Nakba means catastrophe, or disaster. In reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the term Nakba or al-Nakba refers to the Palestinians having lost their homeland during and after the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
It's thought that around 700,000 people in what is now Israel either fled or were forced from their homes. Many Palestinian refugees abroad remain stateless to this day.
What is Nakba Day?
May 15, 1948 was the beginning of the Arab-Israeli war and has long been a day that Palestinians take to the streets to protest against their displacement. Many carry Palestinian flags, bring the keys of their former homes or carry banners with the symbols of keys, illustrating the hope of returning home and what the community sees as their right to return.
In the past, some protests have turned into violent clashes. Israel has accused Hamas and other organizations that are listed by the EU and other countries as terror organizations of using the day to further their causes.
The term Nakba Day was coined in 1998 by then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He set the date as the official day for the commemoration of the loss of the Palestinian homeland.
Why did Palestinians have to leave?
Until the end of World War I, Palestine was under Turkish rule as part of the Ottoman Empire. It then fell under British control, the so-called Mandate for Palestine. During that period — which was marked by growing antisemitism in Europe — an increasing number of Jews from around the world moved there, to what they see as their ancestral homeland: Eretz Israel, the Promised Land where Jews had always been living, albeit in much smaller numbers.
After the experience of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, a United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine was adopted by the UN General Assembly. The Arab League rejected the plan, but the Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted it. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed.
As a reaction, a coalition of five Arab states declared war but was eventually defeated by Israel in 1949. Before the war, between 200,000 and 300,000 Palestinians had already left or been forced out and during the fighting, and a further 300,000 to 400,000 Palestinians were displaced. The overall figure is estimated to be around 700,000 people.
During the war, more than 400 Arab villages were destroyed. While human rights violations were committed on both sides, the massacre of Deir Yassin — a village on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — is particularly engraved in Palestinian memory to this day. At least 100 people were killed, including women and children. The event triggered widespread fear among Palestinians and prompted many to flee their homes.
By the end of the war, Israel held around 40% of the area initially earmarked for the Palestinians by the UN partition plan of 1947.
Where did Palestinians go?
Most of the Palestinians ended up as stateless refugees in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank and neighboring Arab countries. Only a minority moved further abroad.
Until today, only a fraction of the next-generation Palestinians have applied for or received other citizenships. As a result, the vast majority of the currently 6.2 million Palestinians in the Middle East has remained stateless into the third or fourth generation.
Where do they live today?
According to the UN's dedicated Palestinian refugee agency, UNRWA, most Palestinians in the region still live in refugee camps which over time have turned into refugee towns. They are mainly based in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and east Jerusalem.
The international Palestinian diaspora is estimated to have increased to some 6 to 7 million people. If accurate, this would put the total number of Palestinians close to 13 million people. There is, however, no global body keeping track of Palestinians in the diaspora and accurate data is not available.
What is the Palestinian right to return?
According to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 in 1948, as well as the UN Resolution 3236 in 1974, and the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Palestinians who are considered Palestinian refugees have the "right of return."
Israel, however, has rejected the "right of return" for Palestinians, stating this would mean an end to Israel's identity as a Jewish state. Israel has denied responsibility for the displacement of Palestinians, pointing out that between 1948 and 1972 around 800,000 Jews were expelled or had to flee from Arab countries like Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.
Are there suggestions for solutions?
Over the past 76 years, there have been different approaches to resolving the conflict. The most significant one remains the two-state solution, with Israel and a future Palestine dividing Jerusalem into two capitals. However, there are doubts on both sides over how realistic this would be.
Critics have pointed to the increasing number of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which could rule out a united Palestinian territory.
Other suggestions are the recognition of Palestinians' refugee status by Israel and a compensation but without a return, or limited resettlement, or a two-passport system in one state.
However, in light of the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, which was prompted by the Hamas terror attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, a tangible solution seems to be further away than it has in decades. 

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