The nature of the nakba

Page last updated 30 Dec 2015


The conventional story about the Palestinian refugees of 1948 is that they left in the chaos of war and/or in response to Arab radio calls from Cairo and elsewhere, believing they would return with the victorious Arab armies as the new-born Israeli state was crushed. Efforts by the government of Israel to stem the flow had been unavailing. There was nothing the government wanted more than to find a solution but that depended on there being peace in the region. i.e. blame for the war and its consequences is the responsibility of the Arab states. Expulsion by us? No.

Palestinians of course challenged this version of history from the start but their voices were not taken seriously in the West, despite the historical work of Nur Masalha and Walid Khalidi. There was enormous sympathy for Israel. Its kibbutzim and socialist project of building a new society was particularly attractive to those on the left.

But there was always something not quite right about this narrative. If Palestine was “a land without people for a people without land” where on earth did all these Palestinians come from in the first place? Second, the Arab states only intervened after the state of Israel was declared on 15 May 1948. By that stage many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians had already fled, beginning after the partition resolution in November 1947 and continuing through the massacre at Deir Yassin in April and after; the feeling among Palestinians was already one of intense fear and panic.

The Palestinians have always claimed that they were expelled. That there was a “transfer” strand in Zionism is not in dispute i.e. the idea that the Palestinians within what was to be the new Jewish state would have to be spirited away, by some means or other. The official Israeli narrative is in denial about this. If it wasn’t the Arabs’ leaders telling them to go, it was simply the chaos of war, not conscious policy, that led to the Palestinian exodus.

Claims that in the event of war the Haganah (the Jewish army)’s policy would be to encourage Palestinians to surrender, sit badly with a document known as Plan Dalet (Plan D), drawn up in 1948, which said:

Operations against enemy population centres located inside or near our defensive system [i.e. in the area the UN partition plan had designated for the Arab state, adjacent to the Jewish state] in order to prevent them from being used as bases by an active armed force. These operations can be carried out in the following manner: either by destroying villages (by setting fire to them, by blowing them up, and by planting mines in the debris), or in the case especially of those population centres which are difficult to control operations should be carried out according to the following guidelines: siege of the villages, conducting a search inside it. In case of resistance, the armed force must be wiped out and the population expelled outside the borders of the state.

There is a debate as to the status of Plan D, and how much it guided the actions of army soldiers on the ground before the state of Israel was declared. Was it a master plan for expulsion, or merely a contingency plan for wartime emergency? In any event, it didn’t emerge from nowhere; but in a context in which talk of persuading Arabs to move out of the “Jewish state” by some means or other was common. After all, the state which we are told the Jewish agency willingly accepted in November 1947, while the Arabs turned down partition, was a Jewish state in name only: it was, after all 55 percent Jewish and 45 percent Palestinian. And the Zionist leadership clearly had no intention of settling for that.

The “new Israeli historians” Benny Morris and Ilan Pappe pre-eminently, turned over the official version of Israeli history, confirming much of the Palestinian narrative. Morris was to swing completely politically, to argue that the problem of 1948 was that the expulsion of the Palestinians didn’t go far enough. Ari Shavit, on the other hand, acknowledges what happened as a crime: “The miracle is based on denial… Bulldozers razed Palestinian villages, warrants confiscated Palestinian land, laws revoked Palestinians’ citizenship and annulled their homeland.”  But he justifies it nonetheless as the price that had to be paid to have an Israeli state at all.

Officially there is no recognition at all of Israel’s responsibility for the nakba. Indeed ‘celebrating’ the nakba is now a criminal offence! Zochrot (“Remembrance”) is an organisation that works to remedy the denial of Palestinian suffering and the destruction of Palestinian life in the Zionist collective memory, as an essential step towards achieving real reconciliation with the Palestinians (see items 15 & 16 below).


1. Healing Israel’s Birth Scar
Tony Karom, Rootless Cosmopolitan, 9 Apr 2008

A personal account of a journey from a left-wing Zionist in the socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim and the pain of recognising what Israel’s birth had meant to the Palestinians. “The idea that Jewish people would load civilians onto trucks at gunpoint and force them out of their homes and into the oblivion of refugee life was unthinkable for Jewish supporters of Israel, because they could not recognize themselves in such actions.”

“The suppression of the history of the ethnic cleansing of 1948 within the Zionist movement — and its substitution by the frankly preposterous myth that had us believe that 700,000 people had turned themselves into refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs in response to radio broadcasts telling them to do so — is premised on the idea that to admit and acknowledge what Israel had done to the Palestinians in 1948 would undermine the moral legitimacy of the State of Israel. But you have to wonder what moral legitimacy is established on the basis of falsehoods”…


2. A historical controversy: the causes of the Palestinian Refugee Problem
By Philip Mendes, Australian Jewish Democratic Society website, 20 Oct 2000

A comprehensive and informative overview of changing interpretations of the refugee problem since 1948. A good place to start; though it has nothing on the more recent work of Ilan Pappe.


3. Critical Analysis Of  The Birth Of The Palestinian Refugee Problem
By Benny Morris, Palestine Remembered Website, 09 Sep 2001

An extract from Benny Morris’s pioneering research, published as Righteous Victims, summarising his evidence about the expulsion of the Palestinians.


4. A Review of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe
Stephen Lendman, Global Research, 7 Feb 2007

After Benny Morris’s initial contribution (see above), Ilan Pappe has been preeminent among Israeli historians exploring the nakba. This is a review of his The Ethnic Cleanising of Palestine which he called his “J’Accuse against the politicians who devised the plan and the generals who carried out the ethnic cleansing”. The book includes a long discussion of Plan D.


5. Survival of the Fittest
Ari Shavit, Ha’aretz, 08 Jan 2004

An interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris about his two new books Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-2001 and Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited with an account of Israeli atrocities in 1947/8. As the standfirst to the interview says: “He [Morris] justifies the expulsion of the Arabs in 1948, bemoans the fact that the job was left unfinished and doesn’t rule out future population transfers.”


6. Love and anger about Israel: a conflict in books
Composite posting, JfJfP 18 May 2014

Ari Shavit, who interviewed Benny Morris (above), has his own way of justifying the terror of that period. In his book he is ruthlessly honest about the expulsion of 50,000-70,000 of the Arab residents of Lydda and the massacre of 70 civilians in a small mosque in July 1948. He calls this episode “our black box… [containing]… the dark secret of Zionism”. But at the same time he sees them as “an inevitable phase of the Zionist revolution that laid the foundation for the Zionist state”. “Lydda is an integral and essential part of our story.”

In this compilation, Avi Shlaim reviews Shavit and Pappe’s The Idea of Israel. And Deborah Maccoby revews both Shavit and Norman Finkelstein’s Old Wine, Broken Bottle: Ari Shavit’s Promised Land.


7. The Palestinian Nakba: Zionism, ‘Transfer’ and the 1948 Exodus
Nur Masalha, Global Dialogue, summer 2002

A long account by Palestinian historian Masalha, tackling core issues of Zionism: the ’empty land’, the devaluation of the actual inhabitants of Palestine, and the centrality of the idea of ‘transfer’ as a solution to their presence. And, of course, the ethnic cleansing of 1947-49.


8. Ethnic Cleansing: Past, Present and Future
Ran HaCohen, 30 Dec 2002

The author argues that the ethnic cleaning that occurred with the formation of the state of Israel is denied by Israelis; and that ethnic cleansing continues in small ways to this day. “The fact is that Israelis and Israel-supporters do not refuse to learn from History: they deny History. The denied historical pattern keeps duplicating itself, and won’t stop until its denial is stopped.” “Just like we demand the Arabs to recognise the Holocaust, recognising the ethnic cleansing of 1948 is a precondition to reconciliation.”


9. The Other Exodus
Erskine Childers, The Spectator, 11 May 1961

An important early recognition in the West of the terrible injustice done to the Palestinians in 1948. A careful demolition of the Israeli justifications for doing nothing, as exemplified by Abba Eban to the UN in 1957: “The responsibility of the Arab Government[s] is threefold. Theirs is the initiative for its creation. Theirs is the onus for its endurance. Above all—theirs is the capacity for its solution .”

Childers looked particularly at why the Palestinians left their homes and actually did some hard research (as Walid Khalidi had done before him). He found, for instance, “not a single order, or appeal, or suggestion about evacuation from Palestine from any Arab radio station, inside or outside Palestine, in 1948”.


10. The Real Naqba
Uri Avnery, Gush Shalom, 06 Jun 2015

“Three weeks ago was Naqba Day – the day on which Palestinians inside and outside Israel commemorate their ‘catastrophe’ – the exodus of more than half of the Palestinian people from the territories occupied by Israel in the 1948 war. Each side has its own version of this momentous event. According to the Arab version, the Jews came from nowhere, attacked a peace-loving people and drove them out of their country. According to the Zionist version, the Jews had accepted the United Nations compromise plan, but the Arabs had rejected it and started a bloody war, during which they were convinced by the Arab states to leave their homes in order to return with the victorious Arab armies. Both these versions are utter nonsense – a mixture of propaganda, legend and hidden guilt feelings”.


11. Brief History of the Palestinian Refugee & IDP Case
BADIL – Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

“Palestinian refugees and internally displaced Palestinians (IDPs) represent the largest and longest-standing case of forced displacement in the world today. On the 60th anniversary of the Nakba (or ‘Catastrophe’), the destruction of Palestine and the massive displacement of Palestinians by Israel in 1948, two out of every five refugees in the world are Palestinian. At the beginning of 2007, there were approximately seven million Palestinian refugees and 450,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), representing 70% of the entire Palestinian population worldwide (9.8 million). Palestinian refugees include those who became refugees following the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 and the second Arab-Israeli war in 1967, as well as those who are neither 1948 nor 1967 refugees, but outside the area of former Palestine and unable or unwilling to return owing to a well-founded fear of persecution”.

PDF version available here


12. PalestineRemembered

This website provides a comprehensive database of the ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages and cities from which the over 700,000 refugees originated.


13. Palestinian Displacement: A Case Apart?
Forced Migration Review, Aug 2006

“The August 2006 issue includes a major feature on Palestinian displacement. Twenty-eight articles by UN, Palestinian and international human rights organisations, Palestinian scholars in the diaspora and Jewish and Israeli activist groups examine the root causes of the displacement of Palestinians, the consequences of the failure to apply international humanitarian law in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Palestinian entitlement to protection and compensation”.


14. Israel’s “new history” and the Palestinians
Avi Shlaim, openDemocracy, 4 Nov 2009

Sixty years after the events, historian Avi Shlaim looks back at the work of the “new historians” (of which he was one) who rewrote the prevailing Zionist narrative of the events of 1948 with new evidence from the archives and new interpretations.


15. The work of Zochrot – Remembering
Eitan Bronstein, Zochrot, JfJfP 12 Sep 2010

Bronstein writes:”Zionist collective memory [also] prevents Jews from acknowledging their part in the destruction, from accepting responsibility and, consequently, from achieving real reconciliation with the Palestinians. The Jewish people have not taken and do not take any action aimed at acknowledging their part in the Palestinians’ suffering… Posting signs at destroyed Palestinian villages is part of a larger effort to bring civil and national equality to the country.”


16. Remembering the Nakba: Israeli group puts 1948 Palestine back on the map
Ian Black, Guardian, 2 May 2014

Zochrot – “Remembering” – is an Israeli organisation, whose activists include Jews and Palestinians. It is dedicated to educating Israeli Jews about their history i.e. the Palestinian dispossession on which the state is founded. Black describes the upcoming launch of “an I-Nakba phone app which will allow users to locate any Arab village that was abandoned during the 1948 war on an interactive map, learn about its history (including, in many cases, the Jewish presence that replaced it), and add photos, comments and data”.



Contents of this section


a) Setting the scene: the hasbara (propaganda) war
b) Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?

Singling out Israel
Is Israel an apartheid society?
BDS and antisemitism

c) Can you have a Jewish and democratic state?
d) What is Zionism today?

e) The nature of the nakba
f) One state or two?
g) Is Hamas to blame? Is Gaza still occupied?
h) Right of return and law of return
i) The role of the JNF


© Copyright JFJFP 2023