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Al Nakbah and the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians

24 May 2019

By Hanin Abou Salem 

Note to reader: This article was written on 6 May 2019. Instead of being published as an article on Al Nakbah day it was used as a brief for local journalists on Al Nakbah day. Several extracts were taken from my phd dissertation.

In 1998 the President of the Palestinian National Authority Yasser Arafat declared 15 May Al Nakbah Day which means the day of the catastrophe. 

The date for Al Nakbah Day was chosen to follow immediately after Israel declared its independence on 14 May 1948. Al Nakbah Day commemorates the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people after Zionist forces forcibly expelled of over 900,000 Palestinians from Palestine between 1947 and 1949. According to the Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta before their forcible expulsion Palestinians constituted 85% of the inhabitants and owned 92% of the land. On al Nakbah Day Palestinians also reaffirm their right to return to their homes and land from which they were forcibly expelled. Palestinians mark the event by participating in marches, speeches and rallies. Solidarity rallies are also take place around the world. This year’s Al Nakbah Day marks the 71st anniversary of Palestinian dispossession.

Most Palestinians forcibly expelled became refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip. The rest ended up in Arab states, Europe and Latin America.  Today 5, 442,947 million Palestinians refugees are registered with The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) which was establishedby United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) in 1949 to carry out direct relief and works programmes. UNRWA can only register Palestinian refugees who are living in its areas of operations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Therefore, the number of Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA does not account for all Palestinian refugees. 

The plot to ethnically cleanse Palestine from Palestinians was initially drawn out by the father of political Zionism Theodor Herzl who in 1886 called for the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. Herzl was committed to establishing a Jewish State by relocating existing communities in order to free up territorial space for Jewish settlers. Herzl’s territorial ambition in Palestine had no limits. This was evident when the Chancellor of the German Reich, Prince Chlodwig von Hohenlohe-Schillingsfurst inquired whether Herzl wanted territory up to Lebanon or beyond Herzl replied, “We will ask for what we need-the more immigrants, the more land.” Therefore, Israel Shahak described Palestinians as victims of colonialist and Zionism as a racist/theological ideology while Maxime Rodinsob described ‘Israel, fait colonial’ and Zionism as an ‘immigrant settler’ movement.

Zionist paramilitary terrorist groups played a key role in forcibly expelling most of the Palestinian population from Palestine. They ethnically cleansed Palestine from Palestinians by attacking, burning and destroying Palestinian villages. They committed massacres against innocent women, children and men.  The Deir Yassin massacre which took place on April 9, 1948 is one of the most well documented massacres. Zionist paramilitary terror groups attacked the village of Deir Yassin  near Jerusalem. They raped and killed women, children and men. Bodies were left lying in the streets decapitated (the complete separation of the head from the body) and mutilated (body parts cut off from the body).  Those who were taken prisoners were paraded in the streets and then murdered.  

The Zionist paramilitary terrorist groups who committed these crimes against humanity had one aim to ethnically cleanse Palestine from Palestinian in order to turn their Zionist slogan ‘A land without people to a people without land’ into a reality.’ Therefore, existing Palestinians were expected to empty the land. This view was endorsed by the First Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion who wrote in his private diary that “the transfer of the indigenous population would ensure the realization of the Zionist dream…”  In other words, the Zionists dream justified the forcible expulsion of Palestinians because they were not willing to leave their ancestral home in order to be replaced by Zionists.   Ben Gurion also famously declared that “We have to do everything we can so that Palestinians never come back…the old will die and the new will forget.”  According to the world-renowned Israeli historian Professor Ilan Pappe “Zionism was driven by a wish to rewrite the history of Palestine” in order to prove “the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel,” justify “the dispossession” of Palestinians and condemn them for trying to stop “Jews of a supposed birth right.” Pappe also reveals that Zionists actively sought to erase the presence of Palestinians from the history of Palestine by producing encyclopaedias and atlases that depicted the pre-1882 territory of Palestine as “The Empty Land” to prove that “Zionism was a movement of people without land coming to a land without people.”  

The ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the birth of the Palestinian refugee crises

According to the Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas after the United Nations General Assembly (UN GA) called for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish State and an Arab State in Resolution 181 (II) of 1947 “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened. War and further expulsions ensued.”  

After the establishment of Israel, the UN GA adopted Resolution 194 (III) of 1948 which resolved that:

“refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours 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 equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”

 Despite UN GA Resolution 194 (III) calling for the return of Palestinian refugees Israel continues to deny Palestinian refugees the right to return to their homes and land. Israel also denies responsibility for creating the Palestinian refugee crises. According to Israel Arab states ordered Palestinians to leave temporarily until the Arab armies liberated the areas that have been occupied by Zionist forces and therefore, they are responsible for resettling them. Israel also argues that the return of Palestinian refugees is a threat to the survival of the Jewish state. 

The Palestinian account of events which hold Zionist forces responsible for the creation of the Palestinian refugee crises was validated by Palestinian historians who documented the expulsion of Palestinian refugees such as Nur Masalha, Walid Khalidi, Sharif Kana’aneh and Nafez Nazzal. Masalha concluded that the forced expulsion of Palestinian refugees was “an outcome of Zionist ‘transfer thinking’, transfer mentality, transfer predisposition and premeditation.” Masalha also revealed that a ‘Transfer Committee’ created by the Israeli cabinet in 1948 was responsible for setting plans to resettle Palestinian refugees in Arab countries. Therefore the Palestinian historian Salman Abu Sitta defines the forced expulsion of Palestinians as “geographic genocide” and “[b]y any standards…the largest, most carefully planned and continuous ethnic-cleansing operation in modern history.” Professor Edward Said has also described the displacement of Palestinians as “naked Israeli ethnic cleansing. Any other description of those acts by the Israeli army is travesty of the truth no matter how many protestations are heard from the unyielding Zionist right-wing.” Said also notes that “the perpetrators of this tragedy are celebrated for social and political achievements that make no mention of where those achievements began.

The findings of Palestinian historians were supported by the Israeli historians Arieh Yitzhaki and Uri Milstein who concluded that massacres committed by Zionist forces played a key role in the expulsion of Palestinian refugees. The Israeli army also acknowledged that “orchestrated terror campaign” led to the dispossession of around 70% of Palestinian refugees. Professor IIan Pappe, who accessed declassified Israeli documents for the period of 1947-1949, also concluded that Zionist leaders had a well prepared “plan for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine” in order to create an “exclusively Jewish presence in Palestine.” Pappe’s archival research revealed that on 10 March 1948:

 “orders came with a detailed description of the methods to be employed to forcibly evict the people: large-scale intimidation; laying siege to and bombarding villages and population centres; setting fire to homes, properties and goods; expulsion; demolition; and, finally, planting mines among the rubble to prevent any of the expelled inhabitants from returning. Each unit was issued with its own list of villages and neighbourhoods as the targets of this master plan. Codenamed Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew), this was the fourth and final version of less substantial plans that outlined the fate the Zionists had in store for Palestine and consequently for its native population.”

According to Pappe Plan Dalet “took six months to complete” and upon its completion “more than half of Palestine’s native population…had been uprooted. In my opinion those responsible for Plan Dalet committed acts of Genocide because The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) defines Genocide “as acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Pappe’s findings indicate that those responsible for Plan Dalet massacred and expelled Palestinians with the intent to ethnically cleanse Palestine from Palestinians for the sake of securing an exclusive state for the Jewish people. The fact that Palestinians were targeted as a group based on their national, ethnical, racial and religious background therefore amounts to Genocide. My argument is supported by Article 2 of the Convention which considers the following acts as genocide: a) Killing members of the group, b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction in whole or in part, d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Pappe’s findings indicate that those who participated in Plan Dalet committed acts that correspond with acts amounting to genocide as defined by Article 2 in part (a), (b), and (c). This could explain why Israel closed public access to declassified documents on expulsion for the period between 1948-1949 and also why the leading liberal jurist and Former Education Minister Amnon Rubeinstein defined the work of new historians like Pappe as “an onslaught on the very essence and right of the existence of the Jewish people and homeland… it is not an academic work but a frontal ideological attack.”

In contrast to Pappe, the Israeli historian Benny Morris claims that “there was no pre-war Zionist plan to expel ‘the Arabs’ from Palestine or the areas of the emergent Jewish State… Nor was the pre-war ‘transfer’ thinking ever translated, in the course of the war, into an agreed, systematic policy of expulsion.” Instead, Morris claims that most Palestinians fled out of fear because they heard that Zionists groups like the Haganah and Israeli Defence Forces Units had massacred Palestinians in towns like Deir Yassin. Morris maintains that such attacks were inconsistent and “…were in large measure a response to Arab attacks. Then Morris contradicts himself by revealing that Palestinians were compulsorily displaced or expelled and that the Palestinian refugee problem materialized because “[Israel’s] policy was to prevent a refugee return at all costs. And if, somehow, refugees succeeded in infiltrating back, they were routinely rounded up and expelled…In this sense, it may fairly be said that all 700,000 or so who ended up as refugees were compulsorily displaced or expelled.” Morris argues that Israel had a right to stop Palestinian refugees from returning because if they had been allowed to return, they would “have constituted an Arab majority at the time…” According to Morris this logic “applies also to the five million so-called refugees of the present day, as their return would essentially wipe out the Jewish state.”

Donald Trump’s Deal of the Century and the upcoming Nakbah

America under the leadership of President Donald J. Trump and Israel under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are also against the right to return for Palestinian refugees. Therefore, both men are actively trying to dismantle UNRWA. Netanyahu accuses the agency of “perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem” by allowing Palestine refugees to transmit their refugee status from one generation to another and wants UNRWA to be “merged with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.” Netanyahu wants Palestinian refugees to fall under the scope of UNHCR because the agency has a specific mandate to aid refugees by eliminating their refugee status through the medium of local integration in the host country or resettlement in a third country when return is not possible.  

On 3 August 2018 leaked emails obtained by ‘Foreign Policy’ revealed that the “Trump was actively seeking to end the “refugee status of millions of Palestinians” by making UNRWA cease to exist.  Shortly after the emails were leaked the Trump administration announced on 31 August 2018 that it will end all assistance to UNRWA. In the same month the Republican Congressman Doug Lamborn introduced a bill  calling on America to “support UNRWA solely to the extent necessary…to resettle refugees from the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1948.” Shortly afterwards Senator James Lankford introduced a bill on 6 September 2018 requiring the U.S. secretary of state to certify by 2020 that the United Nations no longer recognizes most Palestinians registered with UNRWA as refugees. Put simply America is actively trying to legally define Palestinian refugees out of existence.

All the above leads me to conclude that Trump and Netanyahu are orchestrating another catastrophe for the Palestinian people. The upcoming catastrophe will be crowned by Trumps deal of the century which will strip Palestinians from their refugee status, their right to return and their right to self determination. The upcoming Nakbah can only be stopped if all countries and people who believe in justice unite their efforts and voices against the plotters of injustice! We all have a moral responsibility to encounter the upcoming threat posed to Palestinians by the financial collapse of UNRWA by encouraging our countries to make financial contributions to UNRWA. Individuals can also contribute by donating to the #dignityispriceless campaign launched by UNRWA. We also need to encourage our countries to continue to vote in favour of renewing UNRWA’s mandate until Palestinian refugees can exercise their right to return to their homes and land.

I also believe the ongoing Palestinian Nakbah will only end and upcoming threats can only be encountered through immediate action on the Palestinian, Arab and European Union front.  The Palestinians also have a responsibility to put their divisions aside and present a unified political programme and mobilize at all levels- domestically, regionally and internationally. I call for immediate action because when the deal of the century is revealed at the end of Ramadan it will seek to strip Palestinians from their refugee status, erase their right to return and their right to self determination. This is evident by the fact that Israel has already declared Jerusalem including East Jerusalem it’s eternal capital and the Trump administration endorsed its decision by moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. In July 2018 Israel’s Knesset also voted in favour of a bill that describes Israel as “the nation state of the Jewish people,” Jerusalem as the “complete and united… capital of Israel” and the right to national self-determination as “unique to the Jewish People.” The fact that the bill does not define Israel’s borders paves the way for the establishment of Greater Israel which according to founder of political Zionism TheodorHerzl stretches “From the Brook of Egypt to the Euphrates.” The quest to create Greater Israel is evident by the fact that after the bill was passed Netanyahu stated “122 years after Herzl made his vision known, with this law we determined the founding principle of our existence. Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people.” Therefore, we all have a responsibility to stop any new Nakbah from emerging under our watch!

Finally I would like to end with the wise words of the United Nations Security Council Mediator, Folke Bernadotte, who in 1948 noted that “No settlement can be just and complete … if these innocent victims [referring to Palestinians] of the conflict were denied the right to return to their homes.” Bernadotte was assassinated by a Zionist terror group in 1948 for defending the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The innocent victims he died defending continue to suffer a grave injustice by not being able to return to their homes. In the middle of this injustice, everyone has a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Palestinians on Al Nakbah Day.

Hanin Abou Salem is a political analyst and researcher. She holds an MA (Hons) in International Relations, a BA (Hons) in International Relations: Social Sciences and Combined Studies and a second BA (Hons) in International Relations. Hanin is currently completing a PhD in International Law focusing on the right of return for Palestinian refugees.