Words are important, especially when it comes to modern history, because we should be clear about what we mean when we speak or write. When non-English words become part of the English-speaking lexicon, they enrich our conversation and understanding of the world. One such word is apartheid, from the Afrikaans, meaning apartness. It has come to connote a political and legal structure of entrenched racial discrimination. A word which we should all learn and understand, from the Arabic language, is Nakba – catastrophe.
What does Nakba refer to? It refers to the systematic dispossession and mass expulsion of Palestinians by Zionist armed forces and militia in 1947-48. Marked on May 14, 1948, that day is celebrated as Israeli Independence Day by Tel Aviv’s supporters. It took generations of struggle by the Palestinians, and their global activist allies, to gain recognition of the Nakba as a valid historical and political subject.
Since 1948, Tel Aviv has staunchly maintained that there was no expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the course of 1947-48. Even the grudging admission that Palestinians were forced to leave their homes and towns is rationalised as their own fault – Arab leaders ordered them to leave, is the main fictional claim to explain away the mass displacement of the Palestinians.
By raising the term Nakba, the Palestinians are countering the efforts of the Israeli government to whitewash and cover up its historic crimes in 1948. The expulsion of the Palestinian population was not just an accident, but the deliberate result of a purposeful plan by the Zionist leadership to seize Palestinian towns and land. The UN had decided to partition Palestine in 1947, by passing the resolution 181, which entrenched the creeping colonisation of Palestine during the British mandate period.
However, the Zionist forces went beyond even this partition, seizing lands and towns originally allocated to the proposed Arab state.
By May 1948, not only had Zionist forces seized more territory than they were originally allocated, but 750 000 Palestinians had been expelled from their towns and villages. Plan Dalet was the military operation, devised by the Haganah in British Mandate Palestine, to expel the Palestinians and seize their lands. Thousands of Palestinians were massacred, brutalised and dispossessed. More Jewish immigrants could be settled in the newly occupied territories.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip were the only territories left remaining to the Palestinians. Thousands of refugees were crammed into refugee camps. It is no exaggeration to say that the Nakba involved the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. As for the false claim that the Palestinians were ordered to evacuate their homes, historian Walid Khalidi puts that lie to rest. The Arab and Muslim authorities instructed their officials to remain at their posts, continue supervising the mosques, lands and institutions of the nation.
One of the oft-repeated phrases deployed by Zionism’s supporters is that the Israelis, in contrast to the pre-1948 Palestinian population, made the desert bloom. The direct consequence of that claim is to legitimise the Zionist settlement of Palestine, which began under the British Mandate. The late Shimon Peres, former Israeli general and prime minister, made the claim that the Palestinians lived in isolated villages amidst large swathes of desert. It was the Israelis who cultivated the land and made the desert bloom.
This dismissal of the pre-1948 Palestinian population as just a bunch of peasants living in an empty desert serves to downplay the demand of the Palestinians for an independent state. The Zionist claim of having made the desert bloom has parallels with the white Australian notion of terra nullius. Even if the existence of an indigenous population is admitted, the notion that the colonial settlers developed the land is used to explain away the violent dispossession and cultural dispersal of the indigenous inhabitants.
The mythology of Zionists making the desert bloom may be comforting to Tel Aviv, but is demolished by the historical evidence. As Whitney Webb writes in Mintpress News magazine:
Indeed, prior to 1948, the historical record demonstrates that Palestinian farms were very productive and that both Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers were successful farmers. For example, a UN report on agriculture in Palestine between 1945 and 1946 recorded that Palestinian-grown crops accounted for nearly 80 percent of Palestine’s total agricultural yield that season, with Palestinian farms producing over 244,000 tons of vegetables, 73,000 tons of fruit, 78,000 tons of olives, and 5 million liters of wine.
This picture hardly matches that of a barren, fallow land left unused and uncultivated. In fact, Ottoman controlled Palestine was a centre of agricultural productivity and a growing, bustling urban sector. By depicting the Palestinians as ‘primitives’ or incompetent malingerers, colonial settler projects, such as Zionism in Israel (and similarly in Canada, Australia, the United States), the violence of the original settler occupation is minimised.
It is high time that the violence and dispossession of the Palestinians in the Nakba was more widely known and discussed.