Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948 Palestinian refugees expelled in 1948. Photo: Hanini / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Sara Sammak continues our series on Nakba75: the roots of Israeli apartheid by looking at Al Nakba (Arabic for ‘the catastrophe’) that took place in Palestine in 1948

The Nakba refers to the displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and lands in 1948. During and prior to 1948, Zionist militias carried out a campaign of violence against Palestinian civilians, causing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Many were driven out through direct violent attacks, while others were ordered to leave by Israeli forces. It is estimated that over 750,000 Palestinians were displaced as a result.

Palestinians were prevented from returning to their homes and lands, and their properties were illegally seized. This led to the establishment of the state of Israel on Palestinian land, and the creation of many Palestinian refugees who were unable to return to their homes.

Today, the Nakba is remembered as a turning point in Palestine, and is commemorated annually by Palestinians and their supporters around the world. The ongoing occupation of Palestine is still a major issue, with millions of Palestinians living in exile, and others facing ongoing discrimination and oppression within the occupied Palestinian territories.

Plan Dalet

The Nakba was not the result of random acts of violence. It was the result of a planned and coordinated series of acts whose purpose was the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and land. Israeli historian Ilan Pappe has undertaken significant research into the coordinated nature of the attacks by Jewish forces on Palestinians. The preparations to ethnically cleanse Palestine were embedded within what was known as Plan Dalet.

Plan Dalet was a military plan developed by the Haganah (an armed Jewish force) and political leaders like David Ben Gurion in Palestine in early 1948. The plan was designed to secure Jewish control over as much of Palestine as possible, while pushing out or neutralising Palestinian forces and populations.

The plan involved dividing Palestine into several regions and targeting villages and urban areas in each region. The aim was to seize control of key transportation routes and population centres, and to drive out Palestinians in areas that were to become part of the proposed Jewish state.

Plan Dalet was implemented shortly after the British withdrawal from Palestine. Zionist groups, which included the Haganah and two paramilitary organisations, the Irgun, and the Lehi, began a campaign of attacks on Palestinian villages. Some 400 towns and villages were destroyed or taken over by settlers and their armed forces. Most properties were demolished to prevent the return of Palestinian residents. The plan was part of a larger strategy to create a Jewish state with a Jewish majority, at the expense of the Palestinian population. The intention was always to expand the new state of Israel, beyond the territory given it by the UN partition plan.

The Deir Yassin Massacre

The extreme violence directed at Palestinians during the Nakba is evidenced in the brutal cleansing of Haifa, or the use of biological weapons to pollute the water sources of Akka, or the slaughter of the men of the coastal town of Tantura. But perhaps the most notorious act of destruction was that which was inflicted on the village of Deir Yassin, not far from Jerusalem.

The Deir Yassin massacre occurred on 9 April, 1948. It was a massacre of Palestinians carried out by Zionist militias, specifically the Irgun and Lehi groups, with the support of the Haganah. The village of Deir Yassin was home to around 600 Palestinians. On that day, Zionist militias attacked the village, killing over 100, including women and children, and mutilating their bodies. Many of the victims were shot, while others were killed with grenades or burned alive. In the days that followed, the Red Cross reported that some of the bedraggled survivors were marched at gun point through the streets of Jerusalem.

The attack on Deir Yassin was intended to terrorise the Palestinian population and drive them from their homes in order to create a Jewish state in Palestine. The massacre was widely reported and led to a wave of panic and fear among the population. Future Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion said that the events at Deir Yassin allowed the Jewish forces to cut through Palestinian villages ‘like a hot knife through butter’.

The events at Deir Yassin were used to terrorise Palestinians. It was a symbol and a warning of the terror that Jewish forces were prepared to unleash on Palestinian communities and it led to an exodus, as people fled in fear of losing their lives.

They fled, taking with them a few possessions, and the keys to their homes. Like refugee populations the world over, they expected to return to their homes – after a few days, weeks or perhaps months – when the fighting was over. Seventy-five years on, they remain refugees barred by Israel from returning to their homes.

Refugee communities in the Middle East

As a result of the Nakba (and later the Naksa of 1967 when Israel asserted its control over the West Bank and Gaza) hundreds of thousands of Palestinians became refugees. Today, more than six-million Palestinians live in 58 recognised refugee camps throughout the Middle East, primarily in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank including East Jerusalem.

As families have grown, the refugee camps have become overcrowded pockets of poverty and despair. The permanent homes for many Palestinians who were expelled from their towns and villages during 1948. To date, Israel has prevented the return of Palestinian refugees. Palestinians currently represent the largest refugee population in the world. According to international law, refugees have a right to return to their homes and properties from which they have been displaced. Palestinians continue to demand their ‘right to return’.

The Nakba75: the Roots of Israeli Apartheid series:
  1. Downward spiral: Settlers and state violence
  2. Palestine and the carve-up of the Middle East
  3. The origins of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration
  4. Palestinian resistance to Mandate rule
  5. What is settler colonialism?
  6. Al-Nakba: The ethnic cleansing of Palestine
  7. Israel: Watchdog for US imperialism
  8. Palestine: the key to freedom in the Middle East rests with the Arab working class
  9. Palestine and international solidarity

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Sara Sammak

Sara Sammak is a British Palestinian activist who works with the Stop the War Coalition and writes for Counterfire