Failure to Acknowledge: Israel and the Nakba 

Media Briefs
May 08, 2016

“No Settlement can be just and complete if recognition is not accorded to the right of the Arab refugee to return to the home from which he has been dislodged… It would be an offence against the principles of elemental justice if these innocent victims of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and indeed, offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.” - Count Folke Bernadotte, U.N. Mediator for Palestine, September 16th, 1948


The ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the arbitrary deportation of the Palestinian indigenous population from their cities and villages by military force, and the systematic expulsion and displacement of Palestinian civilians from their homes constitute one of the most tragic and seminal events in Palestinian history. The tragedy, known as the Nakba, or the catastrophe, by the hands of Zionist forces lasted between 1947 and 1949, and is responsible for the forcible displacement of more than 800,000 Palestinian Muslims and Christians. The consequences of the Nakba can still be seen today in the millions of Palestinian refugees who live in refugee camps in neighboring Arab countries and in the Diaspora, but also in the absence of a de facto Palestinian state actualizing the Palestinian right to self-determination and return. 

Next year, Israel will celebrate its “Golden Jubilee” half a century after its military occupation of Palestine and one century after the Balfour Declaration. Instead of seeing this historical moment as a golden opportunity for self-reflection and a way to remedy its historical injustice, Israel has chosen to continue with the same policies that perpetuate colonization, ethnic cleansing and discrimination against the non-Jewish Palestinian population living within the historical boundaries of Palestine and the Diaspora at large.  

Accordingly, Israel has taken an official and calculated decision to deny the Nakba, the occupation, and the crimes it commits daily against the Palestinian people. Addressing the refugee issue as a humanitarian dilemma, Israel succeeded in evading political, legal, and ethical responsibility for the creation of the refugee population. To date, Israel continues to camouflage the enormity of the political and humanitarian tragedy it committed while insisting to continue the same policies that ultimately led to the enshrinement of Israel’s maxim “maximum Jews on maximum land and minimum Palestinians on minimum land”.

Israel’s ongoing policies of denial and justification of the military occupation in violation of international humanitarian and human rights law must be confronted politically and ethically by the international community. 

In 1917, Leo Motzkin, a leader in the World Zionist Movement, stated, “Our idea is that the colonization of Palestine must go in two directions: Jewish colonization in the land of Israel, and the resettlement of Arabs in the land of Israel on lands outside Israel.” Approximately one century later, Israeli leaders continue to live in a world of denial, rejection and insistence on pursuing policies that destroy the prospect of any solution to a long and intractable conflict. Only recently, Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett declared “the next school year will be a year for ‘unified Jerusalem’.” Likewise, Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hatubeli said that “2017 will be a ceremonial year in which the unity of the land of Israel narrative and the fact that there is no occupation will be confirmed.”


The Nakba of 1948 

Sixty-eight years have passed since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, where Zionist gangs decimated over 400 Palestinian villages and built in their place new housing units and recreational facilities for Jewish colonizers to erase any Palestinian identity from the land.  The deep-rooted ethnic cleansing project of the Zionist movement still lives on today without any remorse or regret for the savage aggressions perpetrated against the Palestinians.

“There were 200 villages at the front and all have been wiped out,” Yitzhak Pundak of the Haganah stated in 2004 in regard to the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.  “We had to destroy them because otherwise Arabs would have remained here as is the case now in the Galilee.  We would have had 1 million more Palestinians to deal with.”

Racing against time, Israel carried on with its systematic dispossession and forced displacement of the Palestinian people. It inaugurated a new era of Israeli military occupation of the land of Palestine in 1967, the least costly occupation in history which is founded on free exploitation of land, people, resources and water, and resulted in the forcible displacement of another 430,000.1 In addition, Israel imposed collective punishment including the demolition of more than 4361 Palestinian homes since 2009, the confiscation of Palestinian land for the construction of the Apartheid Wall and built-up and expanded illegal settlements. Today, more than 650,000 settlers illegally reside on Palestinian land.


Palestinian refugees in Palestine, the Diaspora and refugee camps

To date, there are approximately 7 million Palestinian refugees living within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the borders of historic Palestine. Of these, over 1.4 million refugees registered with UNRWA live in 59 camps run by the UN in the occupied Palestinian territory, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (“host countries”) as well as in 17 “unofficial” refugee camps. However, there are thousands of Palestinian refugees not registered with UNRWA who live in the same camps. Thousands more live in refugee camps not recognized by the UN or in host countries.

The greatest number of Palestinian refugee camps is in the Gaza Strip and the largest number of Palestinian refugees is living in Lebanon. Around 770,000 UNRWA registered refugees are living in occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, of whom 190,000 are living in 19 camps in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than 1 million UNRWA registered refugees are living in the Gaza Strip of whom approximately 500,000 are living in one of eight refugee camps in the strip.

Following the 1948 war, at least 432 Palestinian villages were destroyed and depopulated. Some destroyed Palestinian villages were rebuilt as Jewish towns and given Hebrew names. Although no exact accounting of refugee property exists in Israeli records, site surveys reveal that much of the Palestinian refugee rural property remains vacant. Nearly all of Palestinian refugee property continues to be held by the State of Israel or the Jewish National Fund. To date, Israel has refused to discuss restitution for these confiscated properties.

Today, the original Palestinian refugees and their descendants are estimated to number more than 7 million and constitute the world’s oldest and largest refugee population.

They include:

  1. 5 million 1948 refugees and their descendants who are registered with UNRWA
  2. 1.7 million 1948 refugees and their descendants who are not registered with UNRWA either because they did not register or because they did not need assistance at the time they became refugees;
  3. 950,000 1967 displaced persons and their descendants; and
  4. 350,000 internally displaced Palestinians in Israel and their descendants.


Recognition of Resolution 194, a condition for Israel’s admission to UN membership

UN General Assembly Resolution 194 enumerates Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their land and homes. 

Passed on 11 December 1948 the Resolution in part declares: “[Palestinian] refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”.

Under international law, Palestinian refugees are entitled to the following rights: 

  1. Israel’s recognition of its responsibility in the creating and perpetuating the refugee situation; 
  2. The recognition and implementation of the principle of the right of return; and
  3. Reparations for refugees, including restitution, compensation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition from their losses, both material and non-material, from their longstanding displacement and suffering. 

“In order for UNGA to emphasize the mandatory partition resolution and Israel’s obligation to respect its borders decided in the partition resolution as well as Israel’s responsibility to carry out its obligation in respect of the return of refugees, UNGA has explicitly stated in its resolution related to the admission of Israel to the UN membership Israel’s unreserved declaration of acceptance of Resolutions 181 and 194.”


The ongoing Nakba 

The Nakba was not just a day in history, but is an ongoing struggle Palestinians suffer from on a daily basis, whether living under Israeli military occupation, scattered throughout the Diaspora, or longing for their homeland in the refugee camps.  The Nakba, borne of a promise from Lord Balfour to Walter Rothschild, known as the Balfour Declaration, propagated by the Israeli occupying forces, and sustained by the international community, embodies one of the greatest injustices of modern history at the expense of the Palestinian people.

It has built the necessary settler-colonial project and Apartheid regime Palestinians live in today, and the first step to remedy this grave ill is acknowledgement: acknowledgement by the British for colonization and subsequent illegitimate delivery of Palestine to Jewish immigrants as the new colonizers of Palestine through the creation of the State of Israel; and acknowledgement by the State of Israel for the ethnic cleansing and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands Palestinians which has caused one of the largest and longest running refugee situations in modern history.

Recognizing their historical responsibility for the Nakba is a necessary step for reconciliation – as well as an obligation under international law.  To continue to deny that Israel was born as a result of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine is unconscionable, an egregious disregard for humanity, and denies the very existence of Palestinian identity, which Israel has made it its mission to erase since 1948. 


Palestine – Case Study: Walaja Village

Palestinian civilians were forcibly displaced from Walaja village in 1948. The village is part of Jerusalem overlooking the lower part of the town of Beit Jala. Driven by firm endurance and a strong will to defend their existence, the inhabitants of Walaja established a village called “New Walaja” near their old village from which they had been expelled. Walaja village is located 8.5 kilometers southwest of Jerusalem and 4 kilometers north of Bethlehem.

Before the Nakba in 1948, Walaja village had the area of approximately 17,708 dunums and in the aftermath of the Nakba Palestinians had only 6,000 dunums. In 1967 Israel confiscated and stole more land leaving only 2,200 dunums for its Palestinian inhabitants of which approximately 60 dunums are located in Area B while the remaining 2,140 dunums are located in Area C. In 1980 the so-called Israeli Civil Administration declared the annexation of Walaja to the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem.  

Like other Palestinian villages, Walaja had its share of the tragedies that befell Palestine in 1948 and 1967. In 2002 the Israeli occupying forces demolished civilian homes and confiscated land in the village in order to construct the Apartheid Wall that surrounds the village from all sides. In addition, the Israeli occupying forces set up military checkpoints at the entrance of the village. 

At the beginning, Israeli occupying forces prohibited Palestinian villagers from visiting the cemetery located on Palestinian land confiscated by Israel, but later allowed them to dig a tunnel to be able to reach the cemetery. In addition, as a result of the construction of the Apartheid Wall Israel managed to confiscate and annex the water springs that form the single most important source of water in the village. Some water springs dried up and sewage networks were damaged as a result of the excavation work for the benefit of Israeli settlements and Israeli built Apartheid Wall. Furthermore, the Israeli occupying forces refused to grant Palestinians construction licenses, forcing Palestinian to construct homes without proper licensing. In fact, since 1970 Israel has demolished approximately 50 homes, delivered dozens of orders to halt urban construction, and rejected the master construction plans presented by the Walaja Village Council under the pretext that the area is closed for development. According to the Walaja Village Council, Israel has demolished three houses since the beginning of 2016 and delivered demolition orders as well as orders to freeze construction against 16 homes in the village. 

Abdul Rahman Abul Teen, Head of Walaja Village Council, says “The annexation wall has suffocated the village, converting it into a large prison.  It has severely affected the lives of residents in all economic, health, social, educational and even psychological aspects”. 

Walaja village has one UNRWA preparatory school and pupils receive secondary education in neighboring villages or in the cities of Beit Jala or Bethlehem, crossing military checkpoints on their way to school. The village lacks medical services, and only this year the villagers were able to build a new permanent health clinic.  Unfortunately, it is not yet operational due to the lack of necessary funds.


Explicit recognition of the Nakba narrative

Palestinian refugees have paid a dear price for Israel’s belligerent military occupation and its systematic violations of human rights and illegal exploitation of Palestinian land and resources. They have also paid the price of ongoing exile; however, the right of return remains a legal, political and humanitarian right guaranteed by international law and does not lapse by prescription.

This year 2016 and before 2017, the international community and in particular Britain, have an important opportunity to rectify the grave injustice it has done to the Palestinian people and deter Israel from further oppressing the Palestinian people. 

The international community has the legal and ethical responsibility to put an end to the Palestinian tragedy and find a just, permanent solution to the Palestinian cause based on UN Resolution 194. Furthermore, the international community is obligated to hold Israel accountable for the crimes committed and continues to commit in the occupied Palestinian territory. 

Israel should admit its legal and ethical responsibility for the historic injustice done to the Palestinian people and acknowledge the Nakba.  Similarly Britain is called upon to acknowledge its responsibility for allowing the Zionist movement to establish a national home on the land of Palestine and for supporting one of the largest ethnic cleansing operations in history, and to seriously work toward providing protection to the Palestinian people. 

Israel must also be held accountable and legally responsible for its crimes and human rights violations towards ending half a century of sufferings and the creation of the Palestinians state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital. 

Indeed an end must be put to the suffering of the Palestinian people, otherwise 2017 will mark the defeat of the international legal, political and humanitarian systems. The Israeli military occupation of Palestine must come to an end and Israel should not be allowed to act as a country above the law. The international community should ensure that it adheres to its legal obligations under international law as Third States and not render any assistance or recognition to the unlawful acts of the Israeli occupation and its policies in occupied territories. Only then would Israel initiate a historical process of reconciliation as part of an end of conflict agreement based on the two-state formula. 


  • 1. BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights
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