What would you do if armed men burst into your home in the middle of the night and screamed, "Leave or be killed?" For the over 800,000 Palestinians uprooted during the 1948 Palestine war, survival-and the threat of death-forced them into bitter exile.
Every year on May 15, Palestinians commemorate the "Nakba" or catastrophe. Scattered worldwide, in Israel, as well as in refugee camps in Palestine, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, Palestinians remember and mourn their forced displacement from their homes and lands in Palestine-while Israelis celebrate their 1948 conquest of Palestine as a "War of Independence."
In 1947, the Palestinians were the majority population and the major landowners. British mandate Palestine was populated by an estimated 1.3 million Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arabs and 640,000 Jews. The Palestinians owned 94% of the land and the Jews 6%. Nonetheless, the United Nations General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947 to recommend partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
The United States Government heavily pressured UN member states to vote for partition. Palestinian American scholar Dr. Walid Khalidi wrote that partition meant "the establishment of a Zionist state on Palestinian soil irrespective of the wishes of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants." The British Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech Jones said, "The Arabs just did not exist and their views were hardly considered."
The British occupation of Palestine in 1919, shortly after World War I, permitted the influx of Jewish immigrants into Palestine-in spite of continuous and often violent Palestinian Arab protests. Ben-Gurion decided that only a "military" relationship with the Palestinians was possible, since they rejected unrestricted Jewish immigration to create a Jewish majority in Palestine.
By the summer of 1937, Ben-Gurion had a military plan to conquer all of Palestine after the expected withdrawal of the British. The Zionist Jewish leadership was also preoccupied with how to "transfer" the Palestinians-that is ethnically cleanse them-from the Jewish state that the Zionists intended to establish in Palestine.
After World War II, Zionist Jews mounted a campaign to drive the British out of Palestine. They introduced a variety of terror tactics, including sabotaging trains, drive-by shootings at cafes in cities and villages, and barrel bombs. The gruesome kidnapping, lynching, and booby-trapping of British soldiers shocked the British public.
The Zionist bombing of the British headquarters at the Jerusalem King David Hotel in 1946 collapsed part of the hotel, killing 100 Palestinian Arabs, Jews, and British. One Palestinian compared the atmosphere of terror provoked among the population to the terror evoked by the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The British public had had enough of war and wanted the garrison of 100,000 troops brought home.
Turning the Palestine problem over to the United Nations, the British prepared to withdraw from Palestine on May 15, 1948-abandoning the country to chaos and creating a vacuum that the Zionists were better prepared to fill administratively and militarily than the Palestinians were.
The UN partition of vote of November 1947 sparked civil war in Palestine, followed on May 15, 1948 by a multistate conflict between the newly founded State of Israel and the neighboring Arab states.
Palestinian survivors of the Nakba witnessed harrowing events during the 1948 war. Zionist forces systematically forced Palestinian civilians from their cities, towns, and hundreds of villages, employing massacres, rapes, assassinations, and mass expulsions-such as those occurring at Deir Yassin, Tantura, Lid, and Ramle.
The elderly, handicapped, sick, and wounded Palestinians who could not manage the trail of tears from their ancestral homes and lands were often shot by Israelis, starved, or devoured by wild animals.
Eighty-four percent of the uprooted Palestinians were pregnant and nursing mothers, children under 15, the elderly, and the infirm. The Palestinians initially sought refuge in the West Bank and Gaza or in neighboring Arab countries.
Many of the refugees currently fleeing conflicts in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria are Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their extended families. Some of the Palestinians have suffered multiple displacements since 1948.
For the Palestinians, the Nakba is unceasing. The Palestinians struggle daily against the Israeli government’s ongoing policy of forcing the Palestinians off their lands through land and water confiscations, military occupation, assassinations, and the imprisonment and torture of political prisoners, including children.
Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer siege and the Palestinians in the West Bank suffer daily humiliations and abuse under Israeli military occupation.
After 68 years of suffering, it is beyond time to restore the Palestinian people’s full human and civil rights and to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict justly, and in accordance with international law.
Rosemarie M. Esber is the author ofUnder the Cover of War: The Zionist Expulsion of the Palestinians. She is a gender and development consultant to international organizations.