Understanding the Palestinian catastrophe

15 May marks 70 years since the beginning of the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), when more than 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their land by Zionist militias clearing the ground for the formation of the Israeli state. 

Before 1948, Palestine was contested territory. After the First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Western imperialist powers negotiated to carve up the Middle East. In Palestine, the British demonstrated ruthless duplicity, promising independence to the local Arab population while secretly dealing away the land with the French and Russians. 

By 1922, the British had established a League of Nations mandate in Palestine. Local Palestinians had few democratic rights, and any opposition to British rule was put down violently. In the language of the mandate, Palestinians were “the other sections of the population”. 

The British encouraged waves of Jewish migration and land purchasing to build up a new European-oriented population whose sympathies would lie with their benefactors. Underground Jewish paramilitary organisations were founded. One of these, the Haganah (Defence), was secretly armed, trained and deployed at strategic sites across the territory. 

This Jewish population developed an economy based on Jewish-only labour, the beginning of a Zionist apartheid policy. Conflicts between the local Arab and Palestinian populations and the new coloniser communities intensified. 

By the end of the Second World War, British power was declining. Direct rule over the massive colonial empire was difficult to maintain. Faced with insurgent anti-colonial movements in country after country, they withdrew. In Palestine, the growing settler population increasingly turned to terrorism. They wanted to push out the British and establish a Jewish-only state in as much territory as they could gain from the imperial powers. 

These pressures mounted on the British state, which turned to the United Nations to enact a succession plan. This involved dividing Palestine into two states: one Arab, the other Jewish, with Jerusalem as an international city. 

In late November 1947, this plan was largely agreed upon by the UN General Assembly. For the Palestinians, it meant the dismembering of their communities. 

The Jewish state was given 56 percent of the land; the city of Jaffa was included as an enclave of the Arab state; and the land known today as the Gaza Strip was split from its surrounding agricultural regions. 

The Zionist population, now aggressively armed, wanted to enact the partition on the best terms for themselves. This involved a fierce campaign to disperse Palestinians from their towns and villages, and the creation of what was, until the last few years, the largest refugee population in the world. 

On 15 May 1948, the new state of Israel was declared and recognised by the United Nations. This is why, while 15 May is Israel’s national day, Palestinians mourn their loss and fight for restitution. 

For Palestinians, memories of 1948 are fresh, and the injustice is deeply felt. The stories of the terror of ethnic cleansing and dispossession are passed on from parents to children, meaning that this often ignored history of colonisation is not forgotten. 

At least 70 massacres occurred, and around 13,000 Palestinians were killed. Sometimes, parents were killed while their children were forced to watch. Others were spared, but told that, if they wanted to live, they should leave immediately. 

Five hundred and thirty Palestinian villages were razed. In one incident, more than 100 were killed in the village of Deir Yassin by members of the Irgun and the Stern Gang, terrorist militias.

“They ordered all our family to line up against the wall and they started shooting us”, related Fahimi Zeidan, who was a child at the time. “I was hit in the side, but most of us children were saved because we hid behind our parents. 

“The bullets hit my sister Kadri [four] in the head, my sister Sameh [eight] in the cheek, my brother Mohammed [seven] in the chest. But all the others with us against the wall were killed: my father, my mother, my grandfather and grandmother, my uncles and aunts and some of their children." 

There are small stories of casual violence. Audeh Rantisi, in the book Palestine Is Our Home: Voices of Loss, Courage and Steadfastness, tells of his family’s expulsion from the town of al-Lydd in July 1948:

“Outside the gate, the soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to throw all valuables onto a blanket. One young man and his wife of six weeks, friends of our family, stood near me. He refused to give up his money. Almost casually, the soldier pulled up his rifle and shot the man. He fell, bleeding and dying while his bride screamed and cried. I felt nauseated and sick, my whole body numbed by shock waves.”

Others tell of the offensive from the skies. “They bombed us from the air just as we were breaking the fast for Ramadan – they knew we would all be in our homes”, said the late poet Taha Muhammad Ali. He and his family fled the town after the bombing and the later Zionist occupation of his village. They were forced north toward the refugee camps in Lebanon. Shortly after their arrival, his sister died from heat exhaustion. “My mother would sit by her grave every day, lost in grief.”

The stories go on and on. 

The Israeli state was born in blood. 

Life for Palestinian refugees was bare, difficult and grief stricken. The camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria were bleak places, full of poverty. Those states discriminated against Palestinians, denying them services and rights. 

In Palestine, the nominally Palestinian-controlled areas increasingly came under the control of the ever expansionist Israeli state. As it took more land, conditions for Palestinians became unbearable. This situation fuels the resistance. 

Many Palestinians long for return. Thousands of refugees from 1948, and their descendants, have kept the keys from their homes as a symbol of their desires. The right to return has been a central and animating demand of the Palestinian movement for seven decades. 

Although the original refugees of the 1948 ethnic cleansing are declining in number, their descendants number more than 5 million. The assertion of this right would provoke a major disruption to the apartheid Israeli ethno-state. 

So making this demand central to the recent marches on the Gaza border was bold and heroic.