Middle East conflict between Israel and Palestine: What does Nabka mean?

On May 15, Palestinians commemorate the loss of their homeland 75 years ago, which they refer to as the Nakba. What does Nakba mean and what does this term have to do with the founding of Israel and the ongoing Middle East conflict?

What does Nakba mean?

The Arabic word Nakba means catastrophe or calamity. In reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the term Nakba (also: al-Nakba) is used to recall that many Palestinians lost their ancestral homes during and after the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
It is believed that around 700,000 people either fled or were expelled from what is now Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The term Nakba is also a reminder that many Palestinian refugees are still stateless today.

What is Nakba Day?

On May 15, 1948 – the day after Israel’s declaration of independence – five Arab armies attacked the Jewish state. The day thus marks the beginning of the first Arab-Israeli war. May 15 has long been a day when Palestinians take to the streets to protest the loss of their homes. Many carry Palestinian flags, bring keys to their former homes, or carry banners with a key painted on them – a symbol of hope for a return home and what many Palestinians consider their right to return. Violent clashes between militant Palestinians and the Israeli army have repeatedly occurred during protests in the past. Israel accuses Hamas and other organizations classified as terrorist organizations by the EU, among others, of exploiting the day for their own ends. The term Nakba Day was coined in 1998 by then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He set the date as the official day to commemorate the loss of the Palestinian homeland.

Why did the Palestinians have to leave their homeland?

Until the end of World War I, Palestine was under Turkish rule as part of the Ottoman Empire. After that, the area fell under British control as a British Mandate. Especially during this time – which was characterized by growing anti-Semitism in Europe – a growing number of Jews from all over the world moved to the land that for them was Eretz Israel, the promised land of the Bible and the home of their ancestors, where Jews have always been had lived, albeit in smaller numbers.

Also under the impression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, the UN General Assembly adopted a partition plan for the British Mandate of Palestine in 1947. The Arab League rejected the plan. The Jewish Agency for Palestine accepted him. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed.

In response, a coalition of five Arab states declared war on Israel, but was defeated militarily by the fledgling state in 1949. Before the war, 200,000 to 300,000 Palestinians had already left the country or been expelled. Another 300,000 to 400,000 were added during the fighting. The total number of displaced people and refugees is estimated at around 700,000 people.

During the war, more than 400 Arab villages were destroyed and human rights abuses were committed on both sides. The massacre of Deir Yassin – a village on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – is still an important part of Palestinian memory today. At least 100 people were killed in Deir Yassin, including women and children. The massacre increased fear among many Palestinians and drove many more to flee.

At the end of the war, Israel owned about 40 percent of the territory earmarked for the Palestinians in the 1947 UN partition plan.

Where did you go?

At the time, most Palestinians ended up as stateless refugees in neighboring Arab countries, with only a minority moving further afield. To date, only a fraction of the next generation of Palestinians in the region have acquired another citizenship. As a result, the majority of the now roughly 6.2 million Palestinians in the Middle East are stateless into the third or fourth generation.

Where do you live today?

According to the UN refugee agency UNRWA, most Palestinians in the region still live in refugee camps. Over time, these have developed into refugee cities. Descendants of Palestinian refugees now live mainly in the Gaza Strip, the occupied West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and East Jerusalem.

The international Palestinian diaspora outside the Middle East region is now estimated to have grown to around 6 to 7 million people. If so, the total number of Palestinians today would be around 13 million people. However, there is no official body that reliably counts the number of Palestinians in the diaspora. Exact dates are not available.

Is there a right of return?

According to UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948, as well as UN Resolution 3236 of 1974 and the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, Palestinians who qualify as Palestinian refugees have a “right of return”.
Israel, on the other hand, rejects a right of return for Palestinians and their descendants – on the grounds that this means the end of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Israel also denies responsibility for the flight or expulsion of the Palestinians, pointing out that between 1948 and 1972 around 800,000 Jews from Arab countries such as Morocco, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen were expelled or had to flee.

Are there any suggested solutions?

Over the past 75 years there have been various approaches to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The most important remains the two-state solution, which envisages a future state of Palestine alongside the state of Israel and would divide Jerusalem into two capitals. However, there are doubts on both sides as to how realistic this would be.
In this context, critics refer, among other things, to the growing number of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which could make a contiguous Palestinian area as the basis for a future state impossible.
Other proposals include recognition of refugee status by Israel and compensation with no right of return. A limited resettlement of Palestinian refugees or a two-passport system in just one state are also being discussed. However, a tangible solution does not appear to be in sight for the time being.

Jean Harris

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