The Zionist conquest of Palestine, which began haphazardly in the early 1880s and was intensified after the turn of the century, reaching its apogee with the British invasion and occupation of the country before the conclusion of World War I, was the inaugural moment of what would become known as the Nakba – the Catastrophe.
Whereas the term “Nakba” was used by Syrian intellectual Constantine Zureik to describe what was befalling the Palestinians in August 1948 (when he wrote and published his classic book Ma’na al-Nakba), others used words like karitha (disaster), as Jordanian military officer and governor of East Jerusalem Abdullah al-Tall did in his 1959 book Karithat Filastin, or ma’saa (tragedy), as Palestinian anti-colonial nationalist intellectual Muhammad Izzat Darwaza did in his 1959 book Ma’sat Filastin.
“Nakba” however became the most apt and used referent describing the travails the Palestinians endured. In his massive multi-volume historiography of the 1947-1952 events, first published in 1956, Palestinian anti-colonial journalist and later mayor of East Jerusalem Arif al-Arif insisted on using the term as his title.
Al-Arif begins by wondering: “How can I but call it a Nakba? For we have been catastrophe-d, we, the Arabs in general, and the Palestinians in particular … our homeland was stolen from us and we were expelled from our homes, and we lost a huge number of our children and our loved ones and in addition to all this our dignity was hit at the core.”
If the Nakba’s most salient features are the theft of Palestinian land and the expulsion of the Palestinians from their land, and subjecting the lands that could not be stolen and the people who could not be expelled to systematic control and oppression, then, and as I argued a decade ago, it would be most inaccurate to consider the Nakba as a discrete event that refers to the war of 1948 and its immediate aftermath. Rather, it should be historicized as a process which spanned the last 140 years, beginning with the arrival of the first Zionist conquerors to colonize the land in the early 1880s.
In addition, Israeli leaders continue to regale their own people and the world with assurances that the Nakba is not just a past and present process of dispossessing the Palestinian people of their lands and expelling them, but rather one that must continue to preserve the future survival of Israel. The Nakba then turns out to be not just a past event and an ongoing process in the present, but a calamity that has a decidedly planned future ahead of it. If so, what might that future be?
Zionist settler-colonialism, which finally rid itself of its British colonial sponsor in 1948 and established the settler-colonial state, has never ceased to worry about the possible future reversal of the Nakba. If liberal and neoliberal Arab and Palestinian “pragmatist” politicians and intellectuals in the last three decades have heeded Zionist and imperial propaganda that Israel is here to stay and that the Palestinian Nakba is a historical event that can never be reversed, the same cannot be said about the leaders of the Jewish settler colony.
Indeed, plans to prevent the undoing of the Nakba are hatched every day by Israeli leaders and politicians. The ongoing celebrations of the 70th anniversary of visiting this calamity on the Palestinian people are marred by such worry and concerns.
Fear of reversal
In anticipation of the anniversary, none other than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly expressed his fears and hopes. During a regular Bible study session at the prime minister’s residence in West Jerusalem last October, Netanyahu warned, as Haaretz reported: “Israel must prepare now to cope with future existential threats if it wants to celebrate its 100th birthday in another three decades.” Netanyahu, according to the newspaper, added that “the Hasmonean kingdom survived for only about 80 years,” and that he is “working to ensure that modern Israel will surpass that mark and reach its 100th birthday.”
The context of the Bible study is most telling, since this is not only a characteristic of the increasingly religious leadership of the settler colony but is rather a ritual started by its founding secular and atheist prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who had inaugurated the tradition of Bible study classes at the prime minister’s residence. Netanyahu simply resumed it more than four years ago. If Ben-Gurion and early secular Zionist Jewish leaders, contra Zionist Protestant Christians but very much like secular Christian Zionists, saw the Bible as a book of history and geography that inspires colonization, Netanyahu and the religious Jewish leaders of the settler colony see it today as a religious mandate for colonization.
While for Israel’s leaders, the threat they fear is a future reversal of the Nakba, the settler colony’s strategists are actively planning its future persistence. US President Donald Trump’s aptly named “Deal of the Century” is just the latest public relations stunt in that direction. For the actual deal of the century remains nothing other than the Oslo accords of the early 1990s (even if the new version is worse than the previous one), which for Israel guaranteed the futurity of the settler colony and the eternity of the Palestinian Nakba.
Israel’s schemes are multi-faceted. They include the complete erasure of the Nakba from public memory, the elimination of its witnesses who survived through expelling them and rendering them refugees outside their homeland, while simultaneously extracting from those Nakba survivors whom it could not and cannot eliminate the recognition that Israel and Zionism had every right to perpetrate the Nakba and that the Palestinians are responsible for whatever befell them.
Netanyahu is most concerned about this latter issue. He declared at the same Bible study that the conditions that would guarantee the futurity of Israel and of the Nakba must be met: “Anyone who talks about a peace process must first of all talk about the fact that [the Palestinians] must recognize Israel, the state of the Jewish people.”
The will to expel
A look at the Zionist strategy of inflicting the Nakba of the past and present provides us with some clues about Israel’s current strategy for its futurity, at least until the settler colony reaches 100 years of age.
It was Ottoman modernization, which included in 1858 a new law to transform state and communal lands into private property across the sultanate, which constituted the opening scene of the loss of the Palestinians’ land and their expulsion from it by the force of law. When Palestinian peasants, following land privatization, were unable to register their own village lands in their own names for fear of imperial taxation, their lands were auctioned off within the decade to urban merchants from Beirut, Jerusalem and other cities.
This transformation made it possible for European Zionist colonists to descend on Palestine. The first wave arrived in 1868. The colonists were Protestant German millenarians called Templers, who decided to set up several colonies in the country to expedite the second coming of Christ.
In the meantime, the absentee Arab landlords sold some land to such Jewish philanthropists as Baron Edmond de Rothschild who provided it to a new crop of colonizing Russian Jews, calling themselves the Lovers of Zion, in order to set up their colonies.
The German Christian colonists provided their own expertise to the new Jewish colonists, since they had already acquired one and a half decades of colonial experience already. Whereas the fate of the German colonists would be sealed by World War II, wherein their lands were taken over by the Jewish Zionists and their population expelled by the British and later the Israelis, the future of the Zionist Jewish colonists was much more promising.
The Germans seemed to have relatively cordial relations with the indigenous Palestinians, but not so the Jewish colonists, who insisted on expelling all the Palestinian villagers off the lands they purchased. Some of the leaders of the Jewish colonists entrusted with the expulsion had pangs of conscience about their actions.
Polish agronomist and colonist Chaim Kalvarisky, a manager of the Jewish Colonization Association, one of the arms of the Zionist movement, reported in 1920, that as someone who had been dispossessing the Palestinians for 25 years, that is since the 1890s, “the question of the Arabs first appeared to me in all its seriousness immediately after the first purchase of land I made here. I had to dispossess the Arab residents of their land for the purpose of settling our brothers.”
Kalvarisky complained that the “doleful dirge” of those he was forcing off their land “did not stop ringing in my ears for a long time thereafter.” Yet he told the Zionist Provisional Assembly that he had no choice but to expel them because “the Jewish public demanded it.”
Although these expulsions that followed the Zionist acquisition of the land were legal under Ottoman law, the British occupation set up a new legal regime of expulsion soon after its conquest.
One of the first and most important British instruments to denationalize and effectively expel tens of thousands of Palestinians was the 1925 Palestine Citizenship Order that the British imposed on the country. In light of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which set forth the conditions of the post-World War I period in the former Ottoman territories, Article 2 of the Palestine Citizenship Order gave thousands of Palestinian expatriates a two-year ultimatum to apply for Palestinian citizenship, which was cut down by the British high commissioner in Palestine to a mere nine months.
As Palestinian legal historian Mutaz Qafisheh states, this nine-month period “was insufficient for natives who were working or studying abroad to return home. Consequently, most of these natives became stateless. On one hand, they had lost their Turkish [Ottoman] nationality by virtue of the Treaty of Lausanne, on the other hand, they could not acquire Palestinian nationality according to the Citizenship Order.” A conservative estimate of their number puts it at 40,000.
The debates that the Zionists had since the 1890s about what they termed the “transfer” of the Palestinians are rich in detail and reflected a consensus between the majority Labor Zionists and the minority Revisionists, who split from them to form their own group later, but their conclusion was inescapable.
The Palestinians must be expelled and their lands taken by force, but to do so, the Zionists must first acquire sovereignty. This was already the plan in Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet The State of the Jews: “An infiltration [of Jews] is bound to end badly. It continues till the inevitable moment when the native population feels itself threatened, and forces the government to stop further influx of Jews. Immigration is consequently futile unless we have the sovereign right to continue such immigration.”
Zionist leaders concurred. The Revisionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky was explicit on the matter early on, whereas the more cautious David Ben-Gurion, who was keen on the importance of propaganda, was more vigilant about how to articulate the plan until expulsion became the official policy of the sovereign power.
Here the British conquerors of Palestine obliged when they issued the Peel Commission Report in 1937 during their re-invasion of Palestine to put down the Palestinians’ great revolt of 1936-39. This government report was the first official British proposal to steal Palestinian land and expel hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Blueprint for “transfer”
The report called for partitioning the country between the European Jewish colonists and the indigenous Palestinians and proposed that to effect partition it was necessary to rob the Palestinians of their land and to expel them. The report cited as precedent the 1923 Greek and Turkish population “exchange.”
The proposed “exchange” in Palestine would have involved the expulsion of 225,000 Palestinians from the proposed Jewish State and 1,250 Jewish colonists from the proposed Palestinian State.
Moreover, at a time when Jews controlled just 5.6 percent of the land in Palestine (whether through purchase or being granted state lands by the conquering British), mostly concentrated in the coastal plain, the Peel Commission proposed to create a Jewish state on one-third of the country, including the wholly Arab-owned and populated Galilee. This would have necessitated the confiscation of all the Palestinian-owned property in those areas.
It is after this British official endorsement of mass expulsion and confiscation that Ben-Gurion confided to his diary: “The compulsory transfer of the Arabs from the valleys of the proposed Jewish state could give us something which we have never had, even when we stood on our own during the days of the First and Second Temples: [a Galilee almost free of non-Jews]. … We are being given an opportunity which we never dared to dream of in our wildest imagination. This is more than a state, government and sovereignty – this is a national consolidation in a free homeland.”
Following the issuance of the report, the British government declared its agreement with its conclusions and sought to get the endorsement of the League of Nations to partition the country. However, the British ultimately had to reject the Peel plan as it would have involved massive forced expulsion of the Palestinians, in violation, among other things, of League of Nations regulations.
The Zionists, however, correctly saw the Peel Commission Report as authorizing them to be more open with their land theft and expulsion plans. Concurring with Jabotinsky’s earlier call for massive expulsion, Ben-Gurion declared in June 1938: “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.” His statement would follow the policy adopted by the Jewish Agency – the main Zionist organ in charge of advancing Jewish colonization of Palestine – which set up its first “Population Transfer Committee” in November 1937 to strategize the forcible expulsion of the Palestinians.
A key member of the committee was Joseph Weitz, the director of the Jewish Agency’s Land Department. This was hardly coincidental. As colonization and expulsion are part of the same policy, Weitz’s views and role were central to both. Weitz articulated the matter famously: “Amongst ourselves it must be clear that there is no room for both peoples in this country. No ‘development’ will bring us closer to our aim to be an independent people in this small country. After the Arabs are transferred, the country will be wide open for us; with the Arabs staying the country will remain narrow and restricted. … The only way is to transfer the Arabs from here to neighboring countries, all of them except perhaps Bethlehem, Nazareth and Old Jerusalem. Not a single village or a single tribe must be left.”
As Palestinian historian Nur Masalha has chronicled, the Jewish Agency established a second population transfer committee in 1941, and a third yet during the Zionist conquest of Palestine in May 1948.
While the ongoing Palestinian revolution halted the British plan, and the advent of World War II meant that the British could not deal with more uprisings in Palestine, the expulsion of the Palestinians had to wait until the war was over.
Partition but not expulsion
It was the 1947 UN Partition Plan that would make a new proposal. If the Peel Commission wanted private and public lands stolen and the people expelled, the UN Partition plan was proposed to only divide state lands between the Jewish colonists and the Palestinian natives, giving the colonists who by then constituted less than a third of the population more than half of the land.
But unlike the Peel Commission, the UN plan explicitly forbade confiscation of private land and the expulsion of populations. The Zionists accepted the UN partition, except that they violated all its precepts, and treated it as if it were the Peel Commission Plan, but now ratified by the UN.
The UN Partition Plan was in fact a non-binding proposal that was never ratified or adopted by the Security Council, and therefore never acquired legal standing.
Nonetheless, it is important to consider what the plan meant by “Jewish state” and “Arab state” due to the fact that Israel uses this document as authorizing its very establishment and its demands that the Palestinians and the world recognize its right to be “the Jewish State” rather than an Israeli state for all its citizens.
The plan states clearly that “No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants on the ground of race, religion, language or sex,” and that “No expropriation of land owned by an Arab in the Jewish State (by a Jew in the Arab State) … shall be allowed except for public purposes. In all cases of expropriation full compensation as fixed by the Supreme Court shall be paid previous to dispossession.”
When the “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” was issued on 14 May 1948, the Zionist forces had already expelled about 440,000 Palestinians from their lands and they would expel another 360,000 in the following months.
From this it follows clearly that Israel’s claim to establish a state with a Jewish demographic majority created through ethnic cleansing was not advocated by the UN Partition Plan, but was rather authorized by the recommendations of the Peel Commission Report.
Neither was Israel’s self-definition as a Jewish state in line with the UN Partition Plan, in the sense of a state that racially and religiously privileges Jewish citizens over non-Jewish citizens legally and institutionally, as Israel does.
The UN Partition Plan on which Israel bases its establishment initially envisioned a Jewish state with an Arab majority (which it later modified slightly to include an Arab population of 45 percent). The plan therefore never envisioned a Jewish state free of Arabs, or Araberrein, as the Israeli state had hoped it would be and as many Israeli Jews contemplate today.
Indeed as Palestine was divided into 16 districts, nine of which were located in the proposed Jewish state, Palestinian Arabs were a majority in eight of the nine districts.
Nowhere does the UN Partition Plan’s use of the term “Jewish state” authorize ethnic cleansing or the colonization of one ethnic group of the confiscated private lands of another, especially as the plan envisioned Arabs in the Jewish state to be a perpetual large “minority” and thus stipulated the rights that should be accorded to minorities in each state.
This demographic situation would not have been a problem for the Arab state, as the UN plan envisioned that the Arab state would have a mere 1.36 percent Jewish population.
The Zionist movement understood the contradictions of the Partition Plan and based on that understanding set out to expel the majority of the Arab population of the projected Jewish state in accordance with the Peel Commission’s recommendations. But the Zionists were unable to render the state Araberrein, which complicated matters for them as time passed.
Today about one-fifth of Israel’s population are Palestinian Arabs who are barred from inclusion in Jewish nationalism and suffer from institutionalized legal discrimination against them as non-Jews.
Zionists, including prominent Israeli historian Benny Morris, have argued that it is the very presence of Arabs in the Jewish state that propels it to enshrine its racism in all these laws. Otherwise, had Israel succeeded in expelling all Palestinians, the only law it would have needed to preserve its Jewish status would be an immigration law stipulating it. (See my debate with Morris in History Workshop Journal and in my book The Persistence of the Palestinian Question.)
In contrast to the UN Partition Plan, for Israel, the meaning of a “Jewish state” is the expulsion of a majority of the Arab population, a refusal to repatriate them, the confiscation of their lands for the exclusive colonization of Jews and the enactment of dozens of discriminatory laws against those who remained in the country.
When Israel insists today that the Palestinian Authority and other Arab states recognize its right to be a Jewish state, they do not mean that they should recognize its Jewishness in the way the UN Partition Plan envisioned, but rather in the way Israel understands and exercises this definition on the ground.
The Zionist plan to bring about the Nakba has remained steadfast since Herzl’s recommendation. If the Peel Commission Report was the first Western governmental endorsement of that plan, the UN Partition Plan fell short of it. In light of this, the Nakba inflicted on the Palestinians would be executed in three principal phases, one preceding the UN plan and two that came after the failure of the UN to implement it.
Phase I (1880-1947)
The Zionists fostered an alliance with the sovereign government (the Ottomans and the British), purchased lands or obtained state lands through grants from the sovereign government; expelled the Palestinians from the acquired land legally and began to build a discriminatory state structure and a racialist economy that barred the entry of the natives in preparation for the forceful takeover of the rest of the land and the compulsory expulsion of the population.
On the public relations front, the expelled Palestinians were represented as disgruntled losers whose eviction was legal and moral and not even regrettable (Kalvarisky’s reservations notwithstanding).
Phase II (1947-1993)
This involved conquest of the land and forceful expulsion of the population, this time illegally – in 1947-1950 in the areas on which the Israeli state was declared in 1948, and in 1967-1968 in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Israel devised laws to legitimize the confiscation of the land and prevent the return of the expelled refugees and instituted a racialized democratic system of government that deprives the remaining natives of equality and limits their access to the land and to residency in the country.
It co-opted and/or created a class of collaborators and appointed them as leaders of the Palestinians (the mukhtars in the 1948 areas, and the Village Leagues in the 1967 areas) while delegitimizing the surviving refugees as victims of their own miscalculation with the claim that they had left of their own accord and were not in effect expelled by the Zionists.
This multi-faceted strategy was applied effectively if differentially inside Israel and in the 1967 occupied territories, except for the creation of a collaborating leadership which, despite serious attempts, was only partially and temporarily successful.
Phase III (1993-2018)
A crucial change is also observable, namely with regards to the co-optation of the Palestinian leadership. Rather than create an alternative leadership to replace the anti-colonial Palestinian leadership, an effort which had ultimately failed, the Israeli focus was on co-opting the historic legitimate national leadership (the Palestine Liberation Organization) itself and transforming it into a team of collaborators and enforcers of Zionist colonialism in the form of the Palestinian Authority.
Israel also sought to extract formal recognition from the collaborating leadership that Zionist settler-colonialism was and is legitimate and that the expulsion of the Palestinians and the theft of their lands until now has been legitimate. This was achieved with the Oslo accords and in the many agreements the PA and Israel signed since then.
Based on the strategies employed during these three phases, we can extrapolate the plan for the next 30 years in order for Israel to reach 100 years of age and to eternalize the Nakba and render it fully irreversible.
The future phase
The future phase is already in progress and involves a more serious effort to fully eliminate two-thirds of the Palestinian people and their right to the land.
This was partially achieved during Phase III, namely through eliminating the PLO as a viable organization that represented all Palestinians, by creating the PA, which nominally only represents those in the West Bank (minus Jerusalem) and Gaza.
Israel already relegated the issue of the Palestinian refugees to so-called final status talks that never come and now hopes to formally eliminate their UN-guaranteed right of return in particular and the refugees as a category more generally.
The ongoing efforts by the US government and Israel to destroy UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, aims to expedite this process once and for all.
In the future phase – already underway – Israel will also insist on eliminating the nationalist pretenses of the PA completely, and ensuring a PA team of collaborators who will not make even nominal demands to mitigate the ongoing infliction of the Nakba.
Finally, in this phase Israel aims to isolate the Palestinian survivors of the ongoing Nakba, which has continued for the past 140 years, and surround them by Arab enemies, who are now Israel’s best friends or at least are avowedly the enemies of any Palestinian who continues to resist the Nakba – this includes the Jordanian, Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese regimes as well as all Gulf regimes (with the possible exception of Kuwait).
While liberal and neoliberal Arab and Palestinian politicians and intellectuals and the unelected Arab rulers have agreed to be part of this plan to ensure their own futurity, which is now linked to the futurity of Israel and the eternality of the Nakba, it is the rest of the Palestinian people who continue to resist and to subvert this strategy.
The ongoing Palestinian resistance to the present and future Nakba, whether in Israel, the West Bank (including Jerusalem), Gaza, or in exile, persists despite all Israel’s efforts to crush it.
As the contradictions within the settler colony and the international atmosphere have made it much more difficult for Israel to re-embark on illegal mass expulsion of the population, it has floated proposals for a legal and voluntary expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel through a final (Peel Plan-like) deal with the PA team of collaborators. This, however, has proven to be more easily proposed on paper than in practice.
As the Nakba must involve the conquest of the land and the expulsion of the population, then an array of obstacles now stands in Israel’s way for the future of the Nakba. This is a period of transition.
Domestically, Palestinian citizens of Israel are now mobilized against the Jewishness and colonialist nature of the state and are demanding the dismantlement of its many racist laws. The PA team of collaborators, while still in power in the West Bank, is about to lose its last vestige of legitimacy with the coming demise of Mahmoud Abbas.
The resistance in Gaza, by the population and the military wing of Hamas, has not been weakened despite Israel’s monstrous ongoing invasions and murder of thousands since 2005, when Israel withdrew its settlers and moved its occupation forces from the interior to the perimeter of Gaza, where they enforce a brutal siege.
If the Great March of Return of the last several weeks is any indication, the will of the Palestinian people remains steadfast and unwavering.
Internationally, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement continues to grow and to isolate Israel, except in Western and Arab government circles.
While the official West and the Arab regimes offer the settler colony their unconditional support, they categorically refuse to authorize Israel to forcefully expel the 6.5 million Palestinians living under its settler-colonial rule, whether in the 1948 or 1967 areas. They do allow it, however, to continue to confiscate the lands of the Palestinians and to oppress, kill and imprison them. In doing so, they support one half of Israel’s Nakba plans but not the other.
This has been Israel’s dilemma all along. When after the 1967 conquest Golda Meir asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol what Israel would do with a million Palestinians since it would not return the occupied territories and it could no longer expel them en masse, he told her: “The dowry pleases you but the bride does not.”
In this context, it would seem that the Nakba will not have a future at all unless Israeli leaders think they can get away with a new forceful mass expulsion of millions of Palestinians. On this 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish settler colony, Netanyahu is right to worry that Israel may not reach 100 and that the Nakba’s future, just like Israel’s, may very well be behind it.
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of Islam in Liberalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015).
- Nakba day
- Constantine Zureik
- Muhammad Izzat Darwaza
- Arif al-Arif
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Donald Trump
- Ottoman Empire
- Baron Edmond Rothschild
- David Ben-Gurion
- Mutaz Qafisheh
- 1925 Palestine Citizenship Order
- Treaty of Lausanne
- Vladimir Jabotinsky
- Peel Commission
- Partition Plan
- Joseph Weitz
- Jewish Agency
- right of return
- Great March of Return