By David Kattenburg
May 15 is Nakba Day in Palestine/Israel and around the world, the day Palestinians and their friends commemorate one of the twentieth century’s greatest bouts of mass expulsion: the “cleansing” by Zionist militias (a word the Zionists used themselves) of almost three-quarters of a million of historic Palestine’s native inhabitants.
As Ilan Pappe describes in his classic work The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, the Nakba began in late November 1947, six months prior to Israel’s declaration of independence and the ensuing Arab “invasion.” By the time it was through in early 1949, some 750,000 Palestinians had fled or been forcibly removed from their homes. An estimated four hundred villages were demolished and scores of massacres committed, of which Deir Yassin was the most notorious.
The most critical element of the Nakba in the minds of its architects was the steadfast refusal to allow any of the refugees to return to their homes, in spite of repeated calls from the international community, beginning at the 1949 Lausanne conference. Refugee repatriation would have defeated the Nakba’s well planned aim: to establish Jewish demographic dominance in territory the 1947 UN partition agreement had granted to the new state of Israel, and additional Arab land conquered during the “War of Independence.”
Having driven three quarters of a million Palestinians from the country and bulldozed their villages into the ground, the long, steady process of erasing the entire episode from Jewish national consciousness began. The Jewish National Fund took the first steps, planting forests on top of demolished Palestinian villages; setting up lovely theme parks, where the few vestiges of homes or mosques were marked as quaint reminders of unnamed ancient peoples.
Israeli schools played a crucial role in consolidating the young nation’s history. Three generations of Israeli schoolchildren have been taught that Palestine’s original inhabitants fled on their own accord, urged on by neighboring Arab nations who were all in cahoots with the Nazis; the Arabs had started the war, and they lost. Tough luck.
Starting with Israel’s “New Historians,” in the 1970s, these myths began to be challenged (although Benny Morris ultimately concluded that Israel had probably erred by not expelling Israel’s entire Palestinian population). Over the past decade, Jewish Israelis have joined with Israeli Palestinians (twenty percent of the population) in actually commemorating the Nakba, typically on or around Israeli Independence Day.
In 2011 the Israeli Knesset passed a law forbidding government-funded NGOs or other groups from commemorating the Nakba. Still, the annual event continues to be marked, especially on university campuses.
The Israeli NGO Zochrot (Remembrance) has taken the lead in promoting Nakba awareness among Israelis. It organizes tours of demolished Palestinian villages, and has just released an app called iNakba. Smart phones in hand, historical tourists can wander up and down Israel, learning about Palestine’s pre-1948 people and their communities.
Click on the audio link above to hear more about Zochrot, the Nakba, and the lovely, demolished Palestinian village of Lifta.