The Nakba and Palestine Refugees | IMEU Policy Backgrounder

May 04, 2022
  • Palestinians enjoyed a thriving and multi-religious society in Palestine long before Zionism began in the 1880s. Before World War I, Palestinian Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in Palestine with equal citizenship rights and religious autonomy under the Ottoman Empire. Palestinians ran for elections to the Ottoman Parliament and represented their Palestinian constituencies there. The indigenous Palestinian economy was self-sustaining and also integrated into regional and global economic trade networks. Before and after World War I, Palestinian identity formed the basis for a modern-day Palestinian nationalism, expressed through newspapers, magazines, civil society organizations, and political parties. 

    In the aftermath of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson sent a commission to the region to ascertain the wishes of its inhabitants. Recalling Wilson’s commitment to self-determination, the King-Crane Commission concluded that “If that principle [of self-determination] is to rule, and so the wishes of Palestine's population are to be decisive as to what is to be done with Palestine, then it is to be remembered that the non-Jewish population of Palestine-nearly nine-tenths of the whole-are emphatically against the entire Zionist program,” which strove to create an exclusivist Jewish State in Palestine.     
  • Zionism–like all other settler-colonial movements–is predicated upon the dispossession and erasure of the indigenous population whose land it seeks to colonize. In the case of Zionism, this settler-colonial movement has targeted for dispossession and erasure of the indigenous Palestinian people.

Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, acknowledged the eliminatory nature of the movement and its intention to transfer Palestinians out of their homeland. “We must expropriate gently the private property on the estates assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it any employment in our country. The property owners will come over to our side. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly,” he wrote in an 1895 journal entry.

  • Between 1922 and 1948, Great Britain ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. In 1937, a British commission first proposed partitioning Palestine into two states, a plan which included the forced displacement of indigenous Palestinians from their homes within the proposed Jewish state.

In the context of this partition plan, David Ben-Gurion, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Jewish Agency and the first prime minister of Israel, wrote ecstatically about the prospect of forcibly transferring Palestinians from their homes. “We must first of all to free ourselves from the inertia of thought, will, and preconceived opinion–that this transfer is not possible. I see as before all of the terrible difficulty in a foreign power uprooting about 100,000 Arabs from their villages in which they lived for hundreds of years–would England dare to do it? Certainly it won’t do this–if we don’t want this, and if we don’t push for it with all the strength of our pressure and the strength of our faith.”

  • Ben-Gurion did not succeed in getting Great Britain to forcibly remove Palestinians from their homes. However, the opportunity for the Zionist movement to do so presented itself as Britain ended its mandate over Palestine. In November 1947, the UN General Assembly recommended–against the will of the indigenous Palestinian majority population–to partition Palestine into two states. However, the proposed borders of the Jewish state (55 percent of Palestine) would have had only a very slim majority of Jewish residents–498,000 people compared to 497,000 indigenous Palestinians–thereby setting the stage for Israel’s large-scale ethnic cleansing. Even before Israel’s establishment in May 1948, Zionist leaders adopted a plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Plan D, adopted in March 1948, called for:

-Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.

Mounting combing and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be wiped out and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.”

Before May 1948, there were already between 250,000-300,000 Palestinian refugees who were expelled or fled from their homes often after attacks by Zionist militias on major Palestinian cities and villages, bombing campaigns targeting civilians, and massacres at villages such as Deir Yassin.

By the time the war ended with the signing of armistice agreements between Israel and neighboring Arab countries in 1949–establishing Israel’s sovereignty over 78 percent of Palestine, and, in the process, conquering an additional 23 percent of Palestine beyond those areas allocated to the Jewish state under the partition plan–there were at least 750,000 Palestinian refugees (roughly 75 percent of the indigenous population that had lived in areas that became Israel). Israel depopulated more than 400 Palestinian villages and cities (click here for an interactive map), often demolishing all structures, planting forests over them, or repopulating them with Jewish people. Palestinians refer to this experience of massacre, uprooting, dispossession, and refugeedom as the Nakba (meaning “catastrophe”, in English).     

  • The United States knew of the scale and magnitude of the Palestine refugee crisis as it unfolded. In an October 1948 telegram to the president and secretary of state, the newly established US Embassy to Israel warned that the “Arab Refugee tragedy is rapidly reaching catastrophic proportions and should be treated as a disaster.” Unless immediate action was taken, the “approaching winter with cold heavy rains, will, it is estimated, kill more than 100,000 old men, women, and children who are shelterless and have little or no food.” The crisis required “some comprehensive program and immediate action that dramatic and overwhelming calamities such as [a] vast flood or earthquake would invoke. Nothing less will avert horrifying losses.”

    To help alleviate the plight of Palestine refugees, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted Resolution 212(III) in November 1948, establishing an emergency agency, the UN Relief for Palestine Refugees, which was superseded by the establishment in 1949 of a more permanent agency, the UN Works and Relief Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Today, UNRWA provides social services and humanitarian relief to 5.6 million Palestinian refugees in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Except for some years during the Trump administration, the United States has contributed to these UN agencies.     
  • Beyond providing humanitarian support to Palestine refugees, historically the United States also supported the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel. In December 1948, the United States voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 194, which resolved that Palestinian “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”. John Foster Dulles, Acting Chair of the US Delegation to the General Assembly, explained: “Because we are dedicated to the ends that are sought” in the resolution, “because we believe the means contemplated are basically sound, we support the resolution.”

    UN General Assembly Resolution 194 also established the Palestine Conciliation Commission (PCC), which was tasked with the “final settlement of all questions outstanding” between the parties, including the implementation of Palestinian refugee rights. The PCC was a trilateral commission chaired by the United States with France and Turkey as the other members. The PCC was most active between 1949 and 1951 and pressed Israel to repatriate Palestine refugees.   
  • Palestinian refugees’ right of return is not only stipulated in a General Assembly resolution; it is also anchored in international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the General Assembly just one day before the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 194, states: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

    International law also recognizes that descendants of refugees retain their rights as refugees. According to the UN, “Palestine refugees are not distinct from other protracted refugee situations such as those from Afghanistan or Somalia, where there are multiple generations of refugees, considered by UNHCR as refugees and supported as such. Protracted refugee situations are the result of the failure to find political solutions to their underlying political crises.”
  • Just as settler-colonialism is a “system, not a historical event, and that as such it perpetuates the erasure of native peoples as a precondition for settler expropriation of lands and resources,” the Nakba is not just a historical event, but also accurately describes Israel’s ongoing process of colonizing Palestinian land, dispossessing indigenous Palestinians, destroying their homes and uprooting their ancient olive trees, and segregating and ghettoizing Palestinians on ever-shrinking islands of land surrounded by oceans of Israeli control.    
  • Despite historical US support for Palestinian refugees’ right of return, the universal right of refugees to return to their homes, and international law’s recognition of multi-generational refugee status for protracted refugee situations, Congress has acted in contravention of international law to try to prevent Palestinian refugees from exercising their rights.
  • Senate Report 112-172 to the 2013 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations bill directed the Department of State to issue a report to Congress detailing “the approximate number of people who, in the past year, have received UNRWA services: (1) whose place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948 and who were displaced as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict; and (2) who are descendants of persons described in subparagraph (1).” This reporting requirement attempts to differentiate between the refugee status of original refugees and their descendants, which is contrary to international law.
  • The intent of Members of Congress to utilize this report to try to extinguish the rights of Palestinian refugees is evident from a 2020 Dear Colleague letter, led by Rep. Doug Lamborn, pressing for the declassification of this report. The letter attempts to erase Palestinian refugees by claiming that their rights are “fiction”.
  • Instead of passing legislation to try to negate Palestinian refugee rights, Congress and the Biden administration must center the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes as part of any principled effort to establish a just peace. Any attempt by the United States to broker Palestinian-Israeli peace that is not based on principles of international law and justice is not only bound to fail, but is also immoral.            


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