"The Nakba didn't end. It is continuous. It's not finished yet." These were the words of Issa Amro, coordinator of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), an organization based in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Mr. Amro and members of YAS experience daily the brutality of the Israeli military occupation and settlement enterprise. The dispossession of Palestinians of their land, the ever-present abrogation of Palestinian human rights and freedom, and the intended erasure of their identity started during the time of the Nakba, but these fundamental violations clearly did not end 68 years ago. They persist to this day in many forms such as institutionalized discrimination, land and water confiscation, house demolitions, administrative detention and imprisonment, military assaults, checkpoints, illegal settlements on Palestinian land, and rampant settler violence against a captive and predominantly unarmed population.
Nakba is the Arabic word for "catastrophe," signifying the immense dislocation that unfolded during 1947-49 after the United Nations' decision to partition Palestine into two states--Jewish and Arab--and the subsequent expulsion of between 750,000 and one million Palestinians from historic Palestine by Zionist paramilitary forces (about a third of them were expelled before the war started with neighboring Arab states). It was only through ethnic cleansing at the hands of these militias--massacres, destruction of villages and homes, expulsion of the Palestinian population--that a Jewish state could be built. Israel expropriated over four million acres of Palestinian land during and immediately following its establishment in 1948, and Zionist and Israeli forces perpetrated at least two dozen massacres of Palestinian civilians, designed to terrify villages sufficiently to leave their land and homes. They also demolished and erased more than 400 Palestinian cities and towns between 1948 and 1950. Many of the Palestinians who remained inside Israel's new borders in 1948--approximately 150,000--became internally displaced; some of them, who had fled or were expelled but managed to return, were given the paradoxical label of "present absentees" and prevented from recovering their properties or going back to their homes. Today, the Palestinian citizens of Israel number about 1.6 million and live as second-class citizens in a society that has promulgated over 50 laws that directly or indirectly discriminate against them in all areas of life.
Rashid Khalidi suggests that the seeds of the Nakba were planted by Britain's mandatory government in Palestine, which constructed an "iron cage" that constricted any of the Palestinian leadership's efforts toward independence. This policy was undergirded by the Balfour Declaration in 1917, which promised a homeland in Palestine to the Jewish people, thus facilitating Zionist plans to stake claims to Palestinian land. The British also punished or killed suspected Palestinian rebels and exiled their leaders. Khalidi notes that by the end of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, the Palestinian leadership was either expelled, assassinated, or rendered powerless. Moreover, the well-armed Zionist underground forces played a decisive role in terrorizing the population through massacres, murder, rape, and expulsions. Palestinians point to these events of the late forties as pivotal in the eventual dismemberment of the Palestinian nation, when over three-quarters of a million of them became refugees.
The day to commemorate the Nakba was inaugurated in 1998 by the late president of the Palestinian National Authority and Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat. It is a day of remembrance for the Palestinian generations whose parents and grandparents experienced the catastrophic events of 1947-49. And it is also a living memory that punctuates the continuing efforts to reclaim justice and national rights in Palestine.
For Palestinians living in Israel, marking Nakba Day brings serious legal consequences. An Israeli law (the "Nakba Law") bars public funding of organizations that refer to Israel's Independence Day (the same day as the Palestinian Nakba) as a day of mourning. A petition to overturn this discriminatory law was presented to Israel's High Court, which refused to make a judicial ruling. Criminalizing the commemoration of the Nakba is not only a blow to freedom of expression and right to equality, it also constitutes a denial of this horrific event in Palestinian history and suggests Israel's abdication of any responsibility for the Nakba.
The world's population of Palestinians is now close to 12 million, with over 5.3 million living in Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem. The remaining millions live in Arab countries (the majority in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria) as well as throughout the world. For all of them, the Nakba is alive as a profoundly significant and painful family story as well as a lived experience, one that will never be forgotten. New generations in the Palestinian diaspora hold onto these memories and live, every day, the consequences of the Nakba--in refugee camps and experiencing continuing wars, in exile with lifelong scars. Palestinians living in historic Palestine--the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem, and inside Israel--face huge challenges, such as military occupation, wars, loss of land, and institutionalized prejudice. Indeed, the Nakba did not end and continues to this day.
Zeina Azzam is Executive Director of The Jerusalem Fund and its educational program, the Palestine Center. Views expressed are her own.