"The Nakba did not begin in 1948. Its origins lie over two centuries ago...."
So begins this four-part series on the 'nakba', meaning the 'catastrophe', about the history of the Palestinian exodus that led to the first Arab-Israeli War in 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel.
This sweeping history starts back in 1799 with Napoleon's attempted advance into Palestine to check British expansion and his appeal to the Jews of the world to reclaim their land in league with France.
The narrative moves through the 19th century and into the 20th century with the British Mandate in Palestine and comes right up to date in the 21st century and the ongoing 'nakba' on the ground.
Arab, Israeli and Western intellectuals, historians and eye-witnesses provide the central narrative which is accompanied by archive material and documents, many only recently released for the first time.
The 1948 Palestinian exodus, known in Arabic as the Nakba ( النكبة, an-Nakbah, "disaster", "catastrophe", or "cataclysm"), occurred when approximately 711,000 to 725,000 Palestinian Arabs left, fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the1948 Arab-Israeli War. The term nakba also refers to the period of war itself and events affecting Palestinians December 1947 to January 1949, and is synonymous in that sense with what is known to Israelis as the War of Independence (Hebrew: מלחמת העצמאות or מלחמת הקוממיות, Milkhemet Ha'atzma'ut, a term which covers those two events).
The exact number of refugees is a matter of dispute. The causes remain the subject of fundamental disagreement between Arabs and Israelis.
Nur-eldeen Masalha writes that over 80 percent of the Arab inhabitants left their towns and villages in 1948, while Rashid Khalidi puts the percentage at 50. Factors involved in the flight include Jewish military advances, attacks against Arab villages and fears of massacre after Deir Yassin, which caused many to leave out of panic; expulsion orders by Zionist authorities; the voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes, the collapse in Palestinian leadership, and an unwillingness to live under Jewish control. Later, a series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented them from returning to their homes, or claiming their property. They and many of their descendants remain refugees. Later in the war, Palestinians were expelled as part of Plan Dalet. The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing, while others dispute this charge.
During the 1949 Lausanne conference, Israel proposed allowing the return of 100,000 of the refugees, in what it referred to as a goodwill gesture prior to negotiation for the whole refugee population, though not necessarily to their homes, and including 25,000 who had returned surreptitiously and 10,000 family-reunion cases.: "Israel formally informed the PCC of its readiness to take back '100,000' refugees on 3 August, making it conditional on 'retaining all present territory' and on the freedom to resettle the returnees where it saw fit.": The proposal was conditional on a peace treaty that would allow Israel to retain the territory it had taken, and on the Arab states absorbing the remaining 550,000–650,000 refugees. "The Arab states rejected the proposal on both moral and political grounds."
The status of the refugees, and in particular whether Israel will grant them their claimed right to return to their homes or be compensated, are key issues in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The events of 1948 are commemorated by Palestinians on 15 May, now known as Nakba Day.