From Balfour to the Nakba: Week of Action
Every year Palestinians mark the Nakba – “catastrophe” in English – when in 1948 around 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes during the creation of the state of Israel. 500 villages were destroyed in a premeditated campaign, and their inhabitants never allowed to return. Zionist militias, who later became the “Israel Defence Forces” (IDF), committed massacres in the villages of Deir Yassin, Lydda, Tantura and dozens of other Palestinian communities.
The Nakba came just thirty years after the Balfour Declaration, when British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour wrote to the Zionist movement pledging UK government support for a Jewish state in Palestine. The declaration famously stated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. The existing ‘non-Jewish communities’ were the Palestinians. They constituted 94% of the population, and were not consulted when their land was given away. This was a typically colonial British act of the time.
The Declaration began the process where one group of people (the British) pledged the land belonging to a second group (the Palestinians) to a third group of people (the Jewish people). The British Mandate followed (1922–1947) with the bloody suppression of the Palestinian campaign for self-determination. The Nakba of 1948 was a direct consequence of British policies.
A critical understanding of the Nakba is essential as it continues to shape Palestinians’ experiences. Palestinian society was all but destroyed, with refugees scattered around neighbouring states and across the world. The ethnic cleansing never ended, and continues today, with hundreds of Palestinians losing their homes due to Israel’s demolition policies in Occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the Palestinian Bedouin suffering repeated dispossession and displacement in the Naqab/Negev desert in Israel.
Israel continues to deny Palestinians their fundamental rights, including, crucially, the right of return. While Israel’s Law of Return entitles automatic citizenship to Jewish people born anywhere in the world, Palestinian refugees are denied the right to return to their homes and land, from which they were expelled.
Millions of Palestinians live in refugee camps in Israel’s neighbouring countries, and the occupied Palestinian territory, with many having been made refugees two or more times. Many Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip are refugees from the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Palestinian citizens of Israel (the minority who remained following the ethnic cleansing of 1948) are today subjected to dozens of discriminatory laws and other forms of systematic racism.
The weak point of our position is of course that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination.
— Arthur Balfour, 1919
Well over half a million Jewish Israeli settlers continue to colonise Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, with settlement expansion rising dramatically under the Netanyahu government. These illegal settlements displace Palestinians, cutting them off from their land, monopolising scarce water resources and subjecting them to frequent attacks from armed settlers, who are protected by the Israeli forces.
The ongoing centrality of the Nakba to the Palestinian struggle was underlined by a 2016 Pew poll, which found that almost half of Jewish Israelis believe Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled. Israel continues to deny the historical facts of the Nakba through every legal, cultural, and political means possible.