“The Nakba did not begin in 1948. Its origins lie over two centuries ago….”
So begins this four-part series on the ‘nakba’, meaning the ‘catastrophe’, about the history of the Palestinian exodus that led to the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and the establishment of the state of Israel.
This sweeping history starts back in 1799 with Napoleon’s attempted advance into Palestine to check British expansion and his appeal to the Jews of the world to reclaim their land in league with France.
The narrative moves through the 19th century and into the 20th century with the British Mandate in Palestine and comes right up to date in the 21st century and the ongoing ‘nakba’ on the ground.
Arab, Israeli and Western intellectuals, historians and eye-witnesses provide the central narrative which is accompanied by archive material and documents, many only recently released for the first time.
Editor’s note: Since first running on Al Jazeera Arabic in 2008, this series has won Arab and international awards and has been well received at festivals throughout the world.
For Palestinians, 1948 marks the ‘nakba’ or the ‘catastrophe’, when hundreds of thousands were forced out of their homes.
The tragedy in Palestine is not just a local one; it is a tragedy for the world, because it is an injustice that is a menace to the world's peace.
But for Israelis, the same year marks the creation of their own state.
This series attempts to present an understanding of the events of the past that are still shaping the present.
This story starts in 1799, outside the walls of Acre in Ottoman-controlled Palestine, when an army under Napoleon Bonaparte besieged the city. It was all part of a campaign to defeat the Ottomans and establish a French presence in the region.
In search of allies, Napoleon issued a letter offering Palestine as a homeland to the Jews under French protection. He called on the Jews to ‘rise up’ against what he called their oppressors.
Napoleon’s appeal was widely publicised. But he was ultimately defeated. In Acre today, the only memory of him is a statue atop a hill overlooking the city.
Yet Napoleon’s project for a Jewish homeland in the region under a colonial protectorate did not die, 40 years later, the plan was revived but by the British.
On 19 April 1936, the Palestinians launched a national strike to protest against mass Jewish immigration and what they saw as Britain’s alliance with the Zionist movement.
The British responded with force. During the six months of the strike, over 190 Palestinians were killed and more than 800 wounded.
Palestinian leaders bowed to pressure from the Arab heads of state and agreed to meet the British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel.
In its report of July 1937, the Peel Commission recommended the partition of Palestine. Its report drew the frontiers of a Jewish state in one-third of Palestine, and an Arab state in the remaining two-thirds, to be merged with Transjordan.
A corridor of land from Jerusalem to Jaffa would remain under British mandate. The Commission also recommended transferring where necessary Palestinians from the lands allocated to the new Jewish state.
The Commission’s proposals were widely published and provoked heated debate.
As the Palestinian revolt continued, Britain’s response hardened. Between 1936 and 1937, the British killed over 1,000 Palestinians; 37 British military police and 69 Jews also died.
Few Palestinians, if any, could have imagined they were to become victims of what would later be called “ethnic cleansing”.
When the British were preparing to leave Palestine, we didn't have weapons. My father gave me money and I bought a gun with only three bullets for 100 Palestinian liras.
On 29 November 1947, the UN General Assembly met to devise a plan for the partition of Palestine. UN Resolution 181 divided Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, with Jerusalem as an internationalised city.
The Jewish state was granted 56 percent of the land; the city of Jaffa was included as an enclave of the Arab state; and the land known today as the Gaza Strip was split from its surrounding agricultural regions.
But making the proposed Arab state all but proved impractical in the eyes of many Palestinians.
When the draft resolution was presented for voting, Arab newspapers ran a ‘name and shame’ list of the countries that voted for the UN partition plan, and Arab protesters took to the streets.
Following the partition resolution, Britain announced it would end its mandate in Palestine on 14 May 1948.
In early 1948, Jewish paramilitary forces began to seize more land in Palestine. By the end of July, more than 400,000 Palestinians had been forced to flee their homes, and their plight as refugees had just begun.
I swear to God, we tasted it; we tasted starvation like no one else did.
The Count surveyed devastated Palestinian villages and visited refugee camps in both Palestine and Jordan. The scale of the humanitarian disaster became apparent, as he witnessed cramp living conditions, long queues for basic food and scarce medical aid.
Count Bernadotte was no stranger to human disaster; with the Red Cross he had rescued over 30,000 prisoners of war from Nazi concentration camps. Now he advocated the Palestinian’s right to return to their homes.
In a report dated 16 September 1948, he wrote:
“It would be an offence against the principles of elementary justice if these innocent victims were denied the right to return to their homes, while Jewish immigrants flow into Palestine, and, indeed, at least offer the threat of permanent replacement of the Arab refugees who have been rooted in the land for centuries.”
The Count’s first proposal argued for fixed boundaries through negotiation, an economic union between both states, and the return of Palestinian refugees – the proposal was turned down.
On 17 September, the day following his UN report, Count Bernadotte’s motorcade was ambushed in Jerusalem. He was shot at point blank range by members of the Jewish Stern gang.
Al Nakba Debate:
The historic struggle for Palestine is characterised as the claims and counter-claims of Arabs and Jews, but one factor that is often overlooked behind the Palestinian ‘nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’ of 1948, is the part played by an old imperial power, Britain.
So, whose interests were best served by the British in Palestine? How did it honour its mandated duty of care? and what were the calculations and miscalculations it made in redrawing the map of Palestine, and reshaping its history?
The 65 years of the Israeli statehood, continue to cause conflict and controversy.
The history is written by the victors, who are the rewriters of history as new information, new documents, and new historians, come to light. It is time to examine how history itself is the battleground for the hearts and minds of new generations today.
To discuss the historic events that led to the ‘nakba’, the birth of Israel, and the making of history, we are joined by Rosemary Hollis, former head of the Middle East programme at the Royal Insitute of International Affairs; James Renton, senior lecturer in History at Edge Hill University and author of The Zionist Masquerade: The birth of the Anglo-Zionist alliance 1914-1918 ; and Avi Shalam, a professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of the Collusion across the Jordan: King Abdullah, The Zionist Movement, and the Partition Of Palestine.