The Nakba
60 Years of Dignity and Justice Denied
Ingrid Jaradat Gassner & Hazem Jamjoum
At the beginning of the 20th century, most Palestinians lived inside the borders of Palestine, which is now divided into Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. At that time, Palestine was one of several Arab territories that were part of the Ottoman Empire, and the indigenous Arab population aspired for independence and sovereignty.

  There was good reason for optimism because the British High Commissioner in Egypt had promised that Britain would support Arab independence in exchange for support of the Allied war effort to bring down the Ottoman regime (MacMahon-Hussein correspondence),i and US President Woodrow Wilson had announced his doctrine of self-determination for the post-World War I order.ii Moreover, the victorious states of the First World War appeared to abide by these promises. The Anglo-French Declaration (1918), for example, stated that the goal was “...the complete and final liberation of the peoples who have for so long been oppressed by the Turks, and the setting up of national governments and administrations deriving their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous populations.”

This and the doctrine of self-determination were subsequently enshrined in the Covenant of the League of Nations (1919).iii In 1919, the Allied Powers members of the League of Nations decided to establish a temporary “Mandate System” in accordance with the Covenant of the League of Nations to facilitate the independence of these territories. The August 1920 Treaty of Sèvres between the Allied Powers and Turkey affirmed that Palestine “be provisionally recognised as an independent State subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone.(iv)

Some 25 years later, however, the Palestinian people had lost Palestine. By the time the first Arab-Israeli war ended in 1949 with cease-fire agreements between Israel and Arab states, more than 500 Palestinian villages, with a land base of more than 17,000 km2, were depopulated.v In total, 750,000 - 900,000 Palestinians, representing half of the pre-war Arab population of Palestine or 85 percent of those in the territory that became the state of Israel, were Most of them became refugees; of the roughly 150,000 Palestinians who remained in those parts of Palestine that became the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, approximately 30,000 were internally displaced persons. An estimated two-thirds of Palestinian refugee homes inside the new state of Israel were destroyed; the remaining third were expropriated and occupied by Jewish settlers.vii Israel had effective control over 78 percent of British Mandate Palestine, including areas that had been allocated to the Arab state under the 1947 UN partition plan.

On 11 May 1949, the UN General Assembly approved Israel’s membership in the United Nations without conditions. For the purpose of the United Nations and its dominant member states, Palestine and the Palestinian people had disappeared. “They had become an indistinct mass of refugees - not a nation, not a political entity, only a problem, and not a major one at that.”(viii) This is what Palestinians refer to as Al-Nakba, meaning The Catastrophe.

The idea of transferring the indigenous population out of the country had played a key role in political Zionism from its early days, simply because most Palestinian Arabs were unwilling to part with their land and resisted Zionist colonisation.(ix) The Zionist movement and its colony in Palestine, however, did not have the power to acquire territory by force and implement a massive forced population transfer until late 1947, when both were made possible for the first time with the support of the international community.

1949-2008: the “ongoing Nakba”

Palestinians reasserted themselves as a people after another quarter-century of resilience and struggle. Since the 1970s, the United Nations has reaffirmed that Palestinians are a nation entitled to self-determination, independence, and refugee return,xix but the lack of accountability has remained. Failure to hold Israel to account for its violations of international law and the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people explains why, 60 years later, the Palestinian refugee question has remained unresolved, while Israel continues to occupy and colonise Palestinian land and displace Palestinians with impunity. Two of the hundreds of examples of ongoing displacement are Kafr Bir’im and Al-Wallajeh.

Case Studies
The Story of Kafr Bir’im (Upper Galilee) - Empty Promises
On 29 October 1948, Israel began a new military campaign that was code-named “Hiram” and whose goal was to occupy Arab villages in the Upper Galilee. According to Israeli estimates, there were 50,000 to 60,000 Palestinians in this area before the operation, and only 12,000 to 15,000 remaining afterwards.

The 1,050 villagers of Kafr Bir’im were among those forced out of their homes two weeks after the Israeli occupation of the village. Officer Emmanuel Friedman told the villagers on 13 November that they were “in danger” and must leave. He told them that their evacuation was temporary, to last only two weeks, and asked for the keys to their homes, promising that the villagers would be allowed back once the danger subsided. Most of the villagers took refuge in nearby caves and fields rather than move across the border to Lebanon as they had been instructed. When the two-week period was over, Israeli officials continued to promise the villagers that they would be allowed to return.

Three months after the villagers were moved out, Israeli patrols arrested 65 people working in the area, despite their valid permits, and deported them to the West Bank, which was under Jordanian control. Then, in June 1949, a group of Jewish settlers occupied homes in Kafr Bir’im, heralding the establishment of Kibbutz Bar’am. Village leaders wrote to Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion but were told, “It is not currently possible to permit the return of the people of Kafr Bir’im to their village.”

When the villagers realised that the Israeli military authorities were not going to fulfil their promise, they launched a protracted legal and political battle to return to their land, taking their case to the Israeli Supreme Court and the Knesset. In January 1952, the court issued a decision in which it recognised the villagers’ right to return to their village with the permission of the military governor. This permission has never been granted. In an attempt to ensure that Bir’im’s villagers would not return, the Israeli air force bombed the village in 1953, destroying all its buildings except the church and school.

In 1965, the site of the village was converted into an Israeli national park, nature reserve, and tourist centre marking an ancient Jewish village, with no mention of the later Palestinian Christian village whose ruins remain visible. Today, more than 2,000 displaced inhabitants of Kafr Bir’im and their descendents are citizens of Israel, while hundreds of others live in North America, Europe, and refugee camps in Beirut and southern Lebanon. Those who have remained continue the struggle for return, organising regular activities that bring the villagers to the site of Kafr Bir’im to teach the younger generations about their destroyed village and their right to return there.
For more on Kafr Bir’im, see Badil’s 2006 publication: Returning to Kafr Bir’im at

Al-Wallajeh (Jerusalem) - A Story of Multiple Displacement
On 21 October 1948, nearly all the homes of Wallajeh, located in the district of Jerusalem, were demolished by the Israeli army. Most of the residents were forced to flee to refugee camps in the West Bank and Jordan, where they number 12,500 today. More than two-thirds of the village lands were annexed to Israel, inaccessible to the villagers themselves.

Between the wars of 1948 and 1967, many of the villagers had set up temporary housing, living in caves or makeshift structures until, realising that it may take a long time before they would be allowed to return, they rebuilt homes on the village lands that had remained in the West Bank under Jordanian rule. In 1967, after Israel occupied the West Bank, including the new Wallajeh and nearby Bethlehem and East Jerusalem, it became very difficult to obtain building permits in Wallajeh. Homes built after 1967 without permits were now subject to Israeli demolition proceedings.

Further, in a bizarre twist, Israeli government surveyors who mapped the occupied West Bank lands that were slated for annexation to Israel unwittingly included the Ein Juweiza neighbourhood of Lower Wallajeh. The move was not made public until 1981, when Israel’s Jerusalem municipality was “correctly” placed in charge of demolishing “illegally-built” Wallajeh homes. For more than 14 years, these residents with West Bank identity cards had no idea that they were living within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, since the Israeli municipality had provided no new schools, utilities, or services to the growing population.

Meanwhile, Wallajeh’s land was coveted. Its springs, fields, and olive trees had been eaten up by the Biblical Zoo, Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, and the Teddy Kolleck Stadium. Israeli municipal authorities have asked Ein Juweiza residents, who comprise about half of Wallajeh, to sign a document recognising that their homes are in eastern Jerusalem, and that they, holders of West Bank IDs, are residing there illegally. Moreover, Israeli soldiers commonly arrest and fine Wallajeh residents while in their homes for entering Jerusalem without the proper papers.

In 2004, Israeli city officials announced a new plan to construct Giv’at Yael, a settlement planned to house more than 55,000 Jewish residents, on the lands of Wallajeh and nearby Palestinian communities. In addition to the 49,000 dunums taken from the villagers in 1948, an additional 7,000 dunums have been confiscated for the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, 1,000 dunums have been confiscated for Israeli by-pass roads, and approximately 4,000 dunums have been confiscated for the Wall and settlement expansion. The houses on the remaining 3,000 or so dunums of Wallajeh are under constant threat of demolition; 50 homes have already been destroyed by Israeli authorities, and 86 cases of demolition orders are currently being examined by the Israeli courts. The small Palestinian community is now completely encircled by Jewish settlements and the Wall, enabling the Israeli army to imprison its residents simply by closing down the one remaining access road.

The Right-of-Return Movement Today

Today, 60 years into the Palestinian Nakba, almost 75 percent of the Palestinian people are displaced, and Palestinian refugees present the world’s largest and longest-standing unresolved refugee case. Approximately half of the Palestinian people live in forced exile outside their homeland, while another 23 percent are displaced within the borders of former Palestine.xxi Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons still lack access to durable solutions and reparations, including return, restitution, and compensation, in accordance with international law and UN resolutions (see Box 2). Although more Palestinians are being displaced today in Israel, the OPT, Iraq, and elsewhere, effective protection is still not available for them. Rather than holding Israel to account, the international community has imposed sanctions against the occupied Palestinians since 2006. The results are more political and geographic fragmentation of the Palestinian people and unprecedented humanitarian crises, in particular in the occupied Gaza Strip - where 70 percent of the population are Palestinian refugees of the Nakba of 1948.

The return of the refugees and the reclamation of Palestine were the central goals of the Palestinian liberation movement from its inception following the Nakba. As with most other national liberation movements, armed struggle defined the strategy and tactics used by the movement to attain these goals. It is particularly important to recognise that the main arenas of the movement’s activity were countries like Jordan, Kuwait, and Lebanon, and as such the overwhelming majority of rank-and-file activists as well as the movement’s leadership were made up of first-generation refugees who had themselves been forcibly displaced by the Nakba.

As the movement grew in size and strength - particularly after the 1967 war - with the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), added emphasis was placed on the diplomatic aspect of the struggle. The PLO looked to international legal norms as an avenue for garnering support and achieving victories in the struggle for the return of the refugees. By the early 1990s, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the US-led victory in the Kuwait War, and the continually deteriorating situation of Palestinians in Palestine and Lebanon, the diplomatic avenue appeared to the PLO leadership as the only viable path to achieving the implementation of Palestinian rights; a path that led to the Madrid-Oslo agreements.

Palestinian right-of-return activists immediately recognised the Oslo Agreement, and its subsequent peace process, as one which sidelined refugee rights. The agreement itself made no mention of Palestinian refugees, except insofar as it postponed discussion of the issue to future “final status negotiations.” As a result, the peace process effectively legitimised Israel’s division of the Palestinian people into Palestinians with Israeli citizenship (including those internally displaced); Palestinian refugees living in exile facing varying forms of discrimination depending on their host country; and Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza (including more than 1.3 million refugees). The PLO itself was effectively hollowed out into the newly established Palestinian National Authority, which has no mechanism for representing the Palestinian refugees outside of the West Bank and Gaza and, as such, is not accountable to them.

It is in this context that grassroots initiatives calling for the centrality of refugee rights began to emerge in the post-Oslo period. In 1995, activists organised the first Right of Return Popular Conference, which was convened opposite the Al-Fara’a Refugee Camp at an abandoned Israeli military detention centre, and brought together 1,500 people to discuss ways to build the right-of-return movement. Between 1996 and 2000, similar popular conferences were organised in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Gaza, Beirut, Copenhagen, Berlin, Washington, DC, Vancouver, and London. During this period, many people in Palestine and around the world had mistakenly believed that the peace process would bring a just and durable solution for the people of Palestine and, as a result, initially opposed highlighting the plight of Palestinian refugees for fear of disrupting this process.

A major change occurred with the failure of the peace talks and the outbreak of Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000. By then, the failure of the peace process had become obvious to all who cared to examine the issue. As Israel began the construction of its Separation Wall, it became much clearer that any future peace could only be brought about by dealing with the core issues of the conflict, foremost among them the rights of the Palestinian refugees. As the Intifada progressed, the budding refugee-rights movements made up of Palestinian refugees and their allies began to bear fruit in the form of right-of-return coalitions, notably in Europe and North America.

A major landmark in today’s right-of-return movement was the July 2005 Palestinian civil society call for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign directed at the Israeli state, with one of the three central demands of the campaign being the implementation of the Palestinian refugees’ right to return.

This campaign has rapidly grown across the globe, with a growing list of unions, churches, and civil society institutions passing and implementing BDS resolutions, highlighting the centrality of the return of the refugees.

In this context, the Nakba continues for Palestinians, and so does their struggle for dignity and justice. Both continue to shape Palestinian identity from generation to generation, in the homeland and in exile.


i. Correspondence between the Sharif of Mecca and the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Henry MacMahon (MacMahon-Hussein correspondence), see Walid Khalidi, Before Their Diaspora. Beirut: Institute for Palestine Studies, 3rd edition, 2004.
ii. Kathleen Christison, Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy. University of California Press, 1999, p. 17.
iii. Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, 28 June 1919, reprinted in Survey of Palestine, Vol. I. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1991, pp. 2-3.
iv. The Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Turkey, signed at Sèvres, 10 August 1920, Part II, Section VII, Art. 94.
v. Salman Abu Sitta, The Palestinian Nakba 1948: The Register of Depopulated Localities in Palestine. London: Palestinian Return Centre, 2001.
vi. Final Report of the United Nations Survey Mission for the Middle East (Part I); UN Doc. A/AC.25/6 cites a figure of 750,000 refugees. The total number of refugees rises to approximately 900,000 if the number of persons who lost their livelihood but not their homes is added.
vii. Terry Rempel, “Housing and Property Restitution: The Palestinian Refugee Case,” in Returning Home: Housing and Property Restitution Rights of Refugees and Displaced Persons, Scott Leckie, ed. New York: Transnational Publishers, 2003, p. 296.
viii. Christison, Perceptions of Palestine, p. 94.
ix. See, for example, Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of “Transfer” in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992. Also: Chaim Simons, International Proposals to Transfer Arabs from Palestine 1895-1947: A Historical Survey. Hoboken, New Jersey: Ktav Publishing, 1988; Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oneworld Publications, 2006.
x. Raphael Patai, ed., The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl, Vol. I. New York: Herzl Press and T. Yoseloff, 1960, pp. 8-9.
xi. Nahum Goldmann, The Jewish Paradox. Grosset & Dunlap, 1978, p.99.
xii. Statement by Arthur Balfour, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Office No. 371/4183 (1919), quoted in The Origins and Evolution of the Palestine Problem 1917-1988, Part I. New York: United Nations, 1990.
xiii. The Mandate for Palestine, 24 July 1922, is reprinted in Survey of Palestine, Vol. I. Washington, DC: 1991, pp. 4-11.
xiv. Basheer K. Nijim, ed., Toward the De-Arabization of Palestine/Israel 1945-1977. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1984, p. 10.
xv. See, for example, Yezid Sayigh, Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement 1949-1993. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies and Oxford University Press, 1999; Rony Gabbay, A Political Study of the Arab-Jewish Conflict: The Arab Refugee Problem (A Case Study). Geneva: Librairie E. Droz, and Paris, Librairie Minard, 1959, p. 66.
xvi. For the proposed texts of the questions to be submitted to the ICJ, see Iraq (UN Doc. A/AC.14.21); Syria (UN Doc. A/AC.14/25); and Egypt (UN Doc. A/AC.14/14).
xvii. Report of the UN Special Committee on Palestine, The Question of Palestine, UN Doc. A/364, 3 September 1947, paragraph 176.
xviii. ibid, Chapter VII Recommendations (III), paragraphs 10 and 11.
xix. See, for example, UNGAR 2787 (1971) and UNGAR 3236 (1974).
xx. There is no single authoritative source for the exact number of Palestinians forcibly displaced since 1948, or for the exact amount of land expropriated from Palestinians by Israel since 1948. The figures above are based on available data and estimates. For a more detailed analysis , see: Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2006-2007. BADIL Resource Center,
xxi. See: Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons 2006-2007.