For the first time ever, the United Nations this year is officially commemorating the Nakba, what Palestinians call the "catastrophe" of 1948 when roughly 750,000 Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes, and hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages destroyed, during the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet the Nakba event at the U.N. General Assembly, and the developments leading up to it, are a mirror of how this history continues to be denied. Thirty countries, including the United States, voted against the U.N. resolution in 2022 to adopt this year's commemoration. Israeli diplomats have been pressuring governments to boycott Monday's event at the U.N.; the United States and the United Kingdom are among the many countries that will not attend.
The mass, and ongoing, displacement of Palestinians is central to the story of Israel and its founding, yet it is still widely ignored, including by many Western governments and officials. Comments last month by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen were a reminder of how pervasive this erasure remains, when she repeated the old trope that Israel "literally made a desert bloom" in a message to commemorate Israel's 75th anniversary.
To explore the ongoing political implications of denying the history and reality of Palestinian dispossession, and to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, Democracy in Exile asked a wide range of experts, including many Palestinians and Israelis, the following question: How has the suppression of the history of the Nakba shaped Western policy toward Israel and Palestine over the past 75 years?
While Western policy can try, as Israel has done for 75 year, to deny or legitimate the Nakba, doing so only cements the belief that the West is Israel's accomplice.
- Diana Buttu
The Ghosts of 1948
Israeli policymakers are generally, and without exaggeration, either Nakba deniers or Nakba apologists. In order to appease Israeli politicians, Western policymakers have adopted a similar approach—either denying the Nakba and its impact, or justifying or ignoring Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their homeland. The outcome has been disastrous for Palestinians. Owing to this Nakba suppression, Western policymakers view the right of return as an "obstacle" to a "negotiated settlement," with policymakers often pushing for Palestinians to accept their fate in exile rather than pushing for their return. Western policymakers assume that Israel seeks to act in good faith and that Israel's colonization is some aberration that will come to an end through negotiations—and, of course, without any external pressure.
This denial effectively demands that Palestinians similarly "forget" or ignore the Nakba, focusing solely on Israel's actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the framework or lens of human rights—thereby ignoring Israel's violent colonial past and linking it to its violent colonial present. Policymakers draw a line—the Green Line—where there isn't one, with actions on one side condemnable and actions on the other side not worthy of attention. How is it legitimate for a whole community to be demolished more than 100 times (the "unrecognized" Bedouin village of al-Araqib, in the southern Negev) simply because it is inside Israel and claimed as state land?
Palestine was a country with a rich culture and history. It was home to close to 1 million people. Israel was created—literally—on the ruins of villages and by breaking into and taking over Palestinian homes. Israel destroyed whole communities and ruined lives. The ghosts still remain, 75 years later. While Western policy can try, as Israel has done for 75 years, to deny or legitimate the Nakba, doing so only cements the belief that the West is Israel's accomplice.
—Diana Buttu is a Palestinian lawyer, writer and analyst. A Palestinian citizen of Israel based in Haifa, she is a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
Adopting Israel's Zero-Sum Narrative
By removing the Nakba from the narrative of Israel and the Palestinians, and subsequently from the situation referred to as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Western world has been able to treat the Israeli-Palestinian situation with the same levels of cognitive dissonance as Israelis themselves. It has allowed the West to approach Israelis and Palestinians with a false sense of parity. This has been done so successfully that it is difficult to imagine how different the past 75 years might have been if the world treated the events of 1948 as ethnic cleansing and the decades since as a settler-colonial project to prevent the return of refugees, internally displaced persons and their descendants. Instead, that dissonance has allowed the West to adopt Israel's zero-sum narrative, which three-quarters of a century later has resulted in the absurdity wherein an individual refugee seeking to return to the home she or he was expelled from can be seen as a theoretical demographic threat somehow akin to antisemitism.
Translated into international policy, this means the West demands that Palestinians prove their benevolent intentions toward Israelis in order to even be allowed to sit at the table without ever challenging Israel's intentions. That has only been possible by adopting the Israeli narrative that buries and minimizes a well-documented history of ethnic cleansing and decades of concrete steps to deny Palestinians their most fundamental rights of return and self-determination. Yet history does not have to be a zero-sum equation. Acknowledging the Nakba does not inherently mean denying Israel's existence, or even that the 1948 war had two sides. What it would mean, or rather, what it could have meant, is extending Palestinians the same moral legitimacy as Israelis. It would mean that demanding the recognition of Palestinian rights would not automatically suggest the denial of the same rights and existence to Israelis.
—Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man is DAWN's Director of Research for Israel-Palestine.
Seeing With Only One Eye
The suppression of the history of the Nakba, and especially its relationship to the United Nations partition plan for Palestine, has meant that policy is shaped internationally as though the world was wearing an eye patch on one eye. One cannot understand the Palestinian demand for return, the importance of confiscated land, and of exile and displacement without the acknowledgement of over 750,000 people that were exiled, fled and forcibly displaced during Israel's war of independence. Without the history of the Nakba, and the Israeli military government that worked to prevent the return of refugees and later ruled over the remaining Palestinian population, one cannot understand the pivotal role of Palestinian citizens of Israel, as a remainder population, and their experience as a minority in a Jewish state, for shaping a solution for equality and justice for the inhabitants of Israel/Palestine.
Seeing with one eye leads to faulty analysis and policymaking, for without the Nakba and Israel's administrative, bureaucratic and political response to it, one also cannot understand Israel's population management policies, regime of citizenship, or governing of the West Bank and Gaza. Acknowledging, studying and understanding the Nakba is not only a moral and political imperative; it is crucial for anyone who wants to stop its effects, and create a viable and sustainable future for all of us.
—Yael Berda is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Middle East Initiative. She is the author of Living Emergency: Israel's Permit Regime in the West Bank (Stanford University Press, 2017) and Colonial Bureaucracy and Contemporary Citizenship (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
A Failure to Acknowledge, Let Alone Reckon
In 2007, Mahmoud Darwish, one of the preeminent voices of Palestine, told a journalist: "The Palestinians are the only nation in the world that feels with certainty that today is better than what the days ahead will hold." It's a cynical look at the future from a poet who wrote so much about hope, but his words only ring more true today, three-quarters of a century after the Nakba. Indeed, much of the world's unwillingness to not just accurately describe what happened during the Nakba, but fully reckon with what it represented—the beginning of an ongoing, intentional settler-colonial project—has contributed in large part to the impunity afforded to Israel, regardless of its actions, as well as the consistent dehumanization of Palestinians when they are harmed.
Acknowledging that Palestinians have lost something, that they have suffered, that they have been killed and imprisoned, that their villages have been destroyed, that they were purposely displaced and kept from returning, and that all these things keep on happening—it's just too inconvenient to the false narrative that Palestinians were never a people to begin with, and this was certainly not their land even if they were. That narrative is vital for the subsequent argument, which is usually some justification of Israel's modern-day violence and oppressive treatment of Palestinians, whether it be bombing apartment buildings in Gaza or raiding civil society offices in the West Bank. Denying the Nakba and what it has meant for Palestinians for 75 years has helped Western powers justify their lack of meaningful action on an issue that, in large part, they created and continue to enable.
—Yara M. Asi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Global Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida. She is a visiting scholar at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center DC, and a non-resident Palestinian fellow at the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
The Ideological Orthodoxy of Nakba Denial
The events of the Nakba, the mass dispossession of Palestinians that accompanied Israel's creation in 1948, have been well documented and thoroughly reported on by journalists, historians and archivists of all stripes for many decades. And yet for U.S. policymakers, it remains politically taboo even to discuss it—as we saw most pointedly in two separate incidents last week. First there was the decision by the Biden administration to skip the U.N. General Assembly's first-ever official commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba. This was followed by Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy's even more brazen attempt to cancel a Nakba commemoration event convened by Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian-American to serve in the House, and nine sponsoring organizations scheduled to take place in the Capitol Visitor Center. Although the event was ultimately relocated to another venue on Capitol Hill, the symbolism of displacing a discussion about Palestinian refugees was not lost on anyone.
Denial of the Nakba, whether by explicitly denying the events of 1948 or simply downplaying their significance, remains a central feature of U.S. policy and politics. This was not always the case, however. Unlike today, at the time of Israel's creation, U.S. policymakers, both in the administration and in Congress, had no illusions about the circumstances and conditions under which Palestinians fled. According to Harry Truman's Middle East peace envoy, Mark Ethridge, Israel bore "particular responsibility for those who have been driven out by terrorism, repression and forcible ejection." Even Truman, revered by many as the midwife of the Israeli state, in response to Israeli leaders' refusal to consider any form of refugee return, conceded that he was "rather disgusted with the manner in which the Jews are approaching the refugee problem."
The reasons for Washington's current culture of denialism are not difficult to discern. To acknowledge the inextricable link between Israel's creation and the mass dispossession of Palestinians would be to challenge both the official Israeli narrative, with all the domestic political and ideological disruption that this entails, and the moral underpinnings of the U.S.-Israel special relationship and by extension Israeli exceptionalism.
This overriding need by American politicians, for political and ideological reasons, to align with Israeli preferences and official narratives, regardless of the historical record, international law, or even stated U.S. policy, also helps explain American officials' strong aversion to talking about (or confronting) Israel's 56-year old military occupation, and ultimately the U.S. failure to serve as an effective mediator. The denial or suppression of any historical event—especially one as formative and foundational as the Nakba—is simply not a sound basis for policymaking or of peacemaking. Only by acknowledging and addressing past injustices can genuine peace and reconciliation come about, even if it means challenging the prevailing political and ideological orthodoxy.
—Khaled Elgindy is a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, where he also directs its Program on Palestine and Israeli-Palestinian Affairs. He is also the author of Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump, published by Brookings Institution Press.
A Catastrophe Overshadowed and Obscured
The Holocaust inevitably overshadowed the work of the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) established in May 1947 to propose a resolution to the question of Palestine and the U.N. General Assembly's adoption of its recommendation to partition Palestine into an Arab state, a Jewish state and an international corpus separatum. Although European countries bore the primary responsibility for the mass murder of European Jewry, the Allies sought a solution to the question of Palestine that displaced this responsibility from Europe and the United States, as those countries were unwilling to absorb large numbers of Jewish survivors.
That displacement of responsibility was facilitated by the collaboration of the titular leader of the Arab Higher Committee in Palestine, al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini, with the Nazis. The great majority of the Palestinian people were resolutely anti-Nazi. Nonetheless, al-Husseini's collaboration facilitated socialist Zionists' and Jewish Communists' efforts to lobby the Soviet Union to support UNSCOP's partition proposal. Most importantly, they convinced Czechoslovakia (with Soviet approval) to supply the arms to Israel that provided the margin of Zionist victory in the 1948 War. The pro-Soviet international left and many liberals understood the Nakba simply as a Zionist struggle against British imperialism.
The meaning of the Nakba was also obscured by a vast Zionist propaganda apparatus in the United States. It connected Zionist aspirations to Protestant restorationist theology as well as to the liberal left, which was suffused with guilt for American inaction in the face of the mass murder of European Jewry and smitten with tales about socialist kibbutzim. The Nation, The New Republic and iconic figures like Eleanor Roosevelt and Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr were ardent Zionists. The Democratic and Republican parties were both pro-Zionist. However, despite this effective Zionist propaganda, the U.S. did not become an unequivocal ally of the state of Israel until after the 1967 War.
This configuration of international and domestic affairs obscured what would otherwise have been the obvious understanding of the situation in Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs were a national community subjected by an alliance of British imperialism and Zionist settler colonialism. They were struggling for their independence alongside neighboring Arab countries that succeeded in overthrowing colonial rule and winning their independence in the era of decolonization. Therefore, after failed efforts by U.N. mediators Folke Bernadotte (who was assassinated by a right-wing Zionist militia) and his acting successor, Ralph Bunche, the actual events of the Nakba—the destruction of Palestinian society and its displacement by the State of Israel—soon became illegible in the international arena. At best, they were understood as a humanitarian problem of refugees, exemplified by the establishment of UNRWA, a U.N. refugee agency specifically for Palestinian refugees. By the time the international community was prepared to deal with the question of Palestine, in the Oslo years of the 1990s, the Nakba was considered an irrelevant and disruptive issue.
—Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus at Stanford University, and a non-resident fellow at DAWN.
The Responsibility, and Weakness, of the United Nations
The United Nations has formally accepted that it has a permanent responsibility for the question of Palestine until it has been satisfactorily resolved in all of its aspects. As well it should. The decision of the fledging United Nations in November 1947—through U.N. General Assembly resolution 181(II)—to partition Palestine into Jewish and Palestinian states, against the fervent wishes of its majority indigenous population, laid the groundwork for the Nakba the following year. The United Nations did not plan or instigate the Nakba, but the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the birth of Israel would not have been possible without the U.N.'s blithe endorsement of the lopsided partition plan.
During and immediately after the Nakba, the U.N. was reduced to cleaning up the consequences of the mass expulsion of the Palestinians. It set up refugee camps in the surrounding Arab countries, and created an agency to manage the refugee crisis, which is still, inexplicably, in operation over seven decades later. Its principal mediator in Jerusalem, Count Folke Bernadotte, called for the return of the Palestinian refugees to their homes, which led to his assassination by the Israeli Stern Gang in September 1948. And his successor, Ralph Bunche, negotiated the armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria in 1949, leaving in place the fruits of the massive Israeli military victory.
The struggle over Palestine in the late 1940s was the first major crisis faced by the U.N., its first major decision and, almost certainly, its first major blunder. In his 2012 memoirs, Kofi Annan wryly acknowledged that the "failure [to achieve peace in Israel/Palestine] also remains for the U.N. a deep internal wound as old as the organization itself, given that the Arab-Israeli conflict began at the very inception of the U.N…" The Nakba is one of those events that continues to ripple through history, what Yeats called a "blood-dimmed tide," unintentionally displaying all of the institutional weaknesses of the United Nations.
—Michael Lynk served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory between 2016 and 2022. He is, most recently, the co-author of Protecting Human Rights in Occupied Palestine: Working Through the United Nations, with Richard Falk and John Dugard.
The denial or suppression of any historical event—especially one as formative and foundational as the Nakba—is simply not a sound basis for policymaking or of peacemaking.
- Khaled Elgindy
Complicity in a Settler-Colonial Regime
The West's suppression of the history of the Nakba has meant denying Israel's nature as a settler-colonial regime that has been seeking to displace the Palestinian people, expropriate their land and completely erase them. The disregard of this reality has heavily shaped Western policy in the occupied Palestinian territories, as it entailed viewing Palestinians and Israelis as equal "sides" in a conflict, while overlooking the systematic oppression of Palestinians and neglecting the power imbalance between the oppressor/colonizer and the oppressed/colonized.
The West's depoliticization of the Palestinian struggle has been most clearly reflected in its development and aid policy. Western governments have primarily sought to mitigate the negative effects of Israel's regime and have thus focused on the symptoms of the problem, such as economic deprivation and lack of development, while overlooking its root causes, namely Israel's settler-colonial regime. By providing economic band-aids for a deeply rooted political problem, while accepting Israeli measures as facts on the ground, Western governments have been largely complicit in Israel's enterprise and its occupation. Their development and aid policy has paradoxically sustained Israel's regime of oppression, made the occupation cheaper to Israel, and helped Israel manage the so-called conflict, or the "Palestinian problem," by seeking to ensure stability and the acquiescence of Palestinians.
—Nur Arafeh is a fellow at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her work focuses on the political economy of the MENA region, business-state relations, peacebuilding strategies, the development-security nexus and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The Myths That Made the Nakba Possible
The mythology around Israel's establishment is an exercise in colonial imagination—and out of ideological fervor or strategic calculus, Western policymakers have vicariously lived through and actively abetted that fantasy. To this day, Palestinians are told that any sense of belonging to their land is nothing compared to 2,000 years of Jewish yearning; that any suffering they endured is incomparable to the horrors of the Holocaust; and that any future they envision comes second to Zionism's aspirations. As such, the logic goes, Palestinians have no grounds to challenge Israel's existence, and if they do, their opposition is baseless, violent, even antisemitic.
The denial of the Nakba is thus about stripping not just the agency of Palestinians, but the right of Palestinians to have any agency at all. At the heart of this lies the belief, consciously and unconsciously, that Palestinians must accept inferiority in their own homeland, and Western policy propagates this demand in both blunt and subtle ways. "Security," "defense," and "military aid" are sacrosanct for Israelis, but not for Palestinians. The ideal of a "Jewish state" supersedes accountability to democratic values or international law, whether to Palestinian citizens or occupied subjects. The right of Jews to "return" after two millennia is deemed unquestionable, yet the idea of Palestinians repatriating after seven decades is dismissed as absurd.
International policymakers from Washington to Brussels are guilty of this double standard. By buying into Israel's narratives, they are granting it a permanent exception to the human rights principles we should be striving toward, and to the political consequences that ought to be applied against all regimes of apartheid. Palestinians are uninterested in paying the price for Israel's exception today, just as they were in 1948. Rectifying that injustice requires confronting the myths that made the Nakba possible, and finally enabling Palestinians to accumulate the power to build something better.
—Amjad Iraqi is a senior editor at +972 Magazine and a policy member of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network.
Denying History and the Right of Return
It is not clear if the denial of the history of the Nakba has even been registered in Western policy. Israel and its defenders falsely call the commemoration of the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians the commemoration of the "catastrophe" of Israel. And unlike any refugee case around the world, it is usually the refugees who are refusing to return for safety and economic reasons—while in the Palestinian case, refugees are dying to return but the occupiers are denying them this basic right, which has been enshrined in U.N. resolutions. Israel's own induction into the U.N. as a member state was done only after it committed to adhere to U.N. General Assembly Resolution 194, which calls for the right of Palestinians to return and be compensated.
Slowly, Israeli lies and deceptions are being unmasked, and the world is belatedly seeing the results of this denial of return—whether in Gaza, where half the population are refugees, or throughout the occupied territories and nearby Arab countries. Peace will come when Israel ends its occupation and respects the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
—Daoud Kuttab is a Palestinian journalist and media activist. Born in Jerusalem, he is the former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University.
Denial by Guilt
The events of the Nakba in 1948 laid the ground for Israel's settler-colonial and apartheid regime, through the expulsion of most of the indigenous Palestinian population and preventing their return.
The complete denial of the Nakba in Western policy is based on two guilt issues. The first is the genocide of the Jews in the Holocaust committed in Europe. The Palestinians became the ultimate victims for the catastrophe of the Jews in Europe. Until today, the "sensitive relations" between Israel and Europe, mainly Germany, prevent any substantial critique of violent Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. The slogan that "Israel has the right to defend itself" functions as a pretext for any Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, but also within Israel by an apartheid regime for 75 years.
The second issue the West denies is the colonial nature of the Israeli regime. After the decolonization of European powers, Israel continues a kind of European colonial extension in the Middle East. In order to challenge it, the West would have to confront its own colonial past and the colonialist patterns that continue to endure and shape the power relations within Western states to this day.
—Eitan Bronstein is an Israeli educator and the co-founder and co-director of De-Colonizer, a research and art laboratory for social change in Israel/Palestine. He is also the founder and former director of the Israeli NGO Zochrot, which disseminates historical information in Hebrew about the Nakba, with a view to promote accountability among the Jewish public of Israel.
A New Nakba Reality
The 75th anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba marks a historic turning point in the century-long battle in which weak, often leaderless and disjointed Palestinians could not stop the successes of powerful, triumphant Zionists. From 1917 until a few years ago, Zionists settlers, followed by the State of Israel, had convinced most global powers of the purity of their cause, which included making the 1947-48 narrative solely about a vibrant Jewish state that made the desert bloom in forlorn Arab lands. The 1947-48 expulsion and exile of half the indigenous Palestinians, some 750,000, was buried below triumphant tales of Jewish state-building and military miracles. This year's Nakba commemoration brings that era to an end in many ways.
Palestinians have prompted credible global assessments of Israel as an apartheid state, by leading human rights groups and international organizations. Even more meaningfully, Palestinians are pushing back against attempts to silence their voices across the world, whether through the media, courts, civil society or street marches.
The new reality—that Israel can no longer stop the world from analyzing the truths of the Nakba, or bury the widespread global affirmation of Israel's apartheid policies—was evident in many ways this past week. The U.N. General Assembly held an unprecedented special commemoration of the Nakba on Monday, May 15. There was significant international media attention to the one-year anniversary of Israel's assassination of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on May 11. And on May 10, there was the event in the United States Congress by Rep. Rashida Tlaib to educate the public about the Nakba that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy tried to ban, but that Sen. Bernie Sanders hosted instead.
An exiled people may mourn and lay low at first, but by the third generation, they start to organize and work for their rights. This Nakba moment captures the Palestinians' immense activism to expose to the world the history that Israel has tried to bury for so long.
—Rami G. Khouri is the co-director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, and an internationally syndicated columnist.