AL-NAKBA … THE CATASTROPHE


Over the last years I was asked numerous times how and when the “Israeli-Palestinian issue” started. This question required a trip back to history, exactly to the year 1948 .. to “al-Nakba”, the catastrophe! I do not like to talk about this to be an “issue” as, to my ears at least, that sounds very dry and impersonal. In fact we are talking about roughly FIVE MILLION REFUGEES (which make 18% of ALL refugees on this planet!!) and together with them FIVE MILLION different stories of extreme hardship, death, horror, suffering, disappointment, tragedy … but as well of determination, perseverance and undaunted hope! HOPE to be able to return to the land of their forefathers and to give their children and future generations a feeling of belonging, a citizenship – and roots!


To provide a better understanding, I want to add two statements … one of Moshe Dayan, former Minister of Defense, who addressed the Technion in Haifa in April 1969 with thew words:
“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist! Not only do the books not exist – the Arab villages are not there either. NAHLAL arose in the place of MAHLUL, Kibbutz GVAT in the place of JIBTA, Kibbutz SARID in the place of HUNEIFIS and KFAR YEHOSHUA in the place of TAL AL-SHUMAN. There is not a single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population!”


And Rafael Eitan, who arrogantly exclaimed on 13.4.1983

“We declare openly that the Arabs have no right to settle of even one “cm” of “Eretz Israel”! Force is all they do or will ever understand. We shall use the ultimate force till the Palestinians come crawling to us on all four!”

SO … WHAT EXACTLY HAPPENED IN 1948 – HOW DID IT ALL GET STARTED?

The year 1948 marks the national catastrophe (Arabic: al-Nakba) for the Palestinian people while on an international level the establishment of the state of Israel receives more attention. Al-Nakba is the term to describe the destruction of Palestinian life and society in historic Palestine. The majority of the Arab inhabitants of Palestine was expelled or had to flee from the advancing Israeli troops and became refugees – to this day. 418 Palestinian villages and towns were destroyed and most of their traces removed from the ground and the maps. The Palestinian national tragedy is physically and culturally absent from the national, Zionist history of Israel. While there are numerous memorials for soldiers who died in wars, there is no official display to remind of the destructed Palestinian life. The locations of former Palestinian villages are today overgrown by cactuses and fig trees, covered by planted forests or built over with Israeli residential areas carrying Hebrew names.The number of refugees and the reasons making them leave their homes are disputed in historical accounts and public debate.


A UN commission estimated the number of refugees in 1949 at 726.000. The UN aid agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) – operating since May 1, 1950 – estimated their number initially at 914.000. Official Israeli sources speak yet of about 520.000 refugees who allegedly followed calls of Arab leaders and left Palestine largely voluntarily. Arab sources speak of more than 940.000 refugees who fled above all from attacks of Jewish paramilitary troops or (after the establishment of the state) from attacks of the Israeli army and in many instances were deliberately expelled. The advance of the Israeli army coincided with deliberate acts of intimidation and destruction of Palestinian villages, terror and expulsion, and made many Palestinians flee. The Israeli government took action to prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees by all means: Deserted villages were either destroyed or assigned to new immigrants, which now came in large numbers to the country. The complex background of al-Nakba has been confirmed by the research of Israeli historians.


On December 11, 1948 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 194 stipulating the right of the Palestinian refugees to return to their home and their right to compensation respectively.

However, since July 1950 the Israeli Law of Return has automatically awarded Israeli citizenship to every Jewish immigrant while Palestinian refugees are denied return or any compensation to date.The refugees of the War of 1948 and the June War of 1967, which again caused a wave of refugees, had to settle in refugee camps in the West Bank and the Gaza-strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. (About 150.000 Palestinians remained within the ceasefire line of 1949, that is the state of Israel, but 25 per cent of them had also become refugees.) Today, more than 4 million Palestinian refugees are registered with UNRWA; 1.3 million of them live in 59 refugee camps. In Arab host countries the political and social rights of the Palestinian refugees are – to varying degrees – restricted. The other refugees live in other parts of the world, such as the USA and Europe. Today, there are more than 5 million Palestinian refugees – the largest single group – and the refugee question remains one of the most disputed issues in the attempt to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


The traumatic loss of home and their place of origin continue to play a vital role also for the identity of the third and forth generation of refugees. The tents in the refugee camps have by now been replaced by concrete houses and the life in the refugee camps is dominated by cramped living conditions in heavily built-up areas, inadequate infrastructure, high unemployment and poverty. A climate of temporality prevails: The hope to “return home” remains central to the Palestinian national identity.

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