Palestinian intellectuals determined in their pursuit to accurately chronicle the Nakba

Documents and photos chronicling the Palestinians’ displacement, uprooting, and homelessness aid contemporary understanding but are scattered and piecemeal

A group of Palestinian refugees walk along the road from Jerusalem to Lebanon on November 9, 1948.
A group of Palestinian refugees walk along the road from Jerusalem to Lebanon on November 9, 1948.

Palestinian intellectuals determined in their pursuit to accurately chronicle the Nakba

The 75-year anniversary of the Nakba presents a timely opportunity to review events leading up to the Palestinians’ historic displacement as well as the written and photographic evidence showcasing life before and during this seismic event.

In what can often be a battle of narratives, documents chronicling accurately and without bias how the Palestinians came to be uprooted and made homelessness are more important than ever, yet although they exist, they are little-known and piecemeal.

The efforts of people like Yezid Sayigh, Walid Khalidi, and Elias Sanbar are a testament to the steadfast Palestinian pursuit of presenting an accurate account of the Nakba, devoid of unfounded beliefs or anti-Zionist rhetoric.

The origins of the term

The event they help today’s generation to understand took place 75 years ago this week. Most know it as the Nakba, or the Palestinian ‘Catastrophe’ that befell the Arab population of Palestine in May 1948 as a result of the Arab-Jewish conflict.

The term ‘Nakba’ was coined by Constantine Zureik, a Syrian historian and researcher who taught at the American University of Beirut and who was an early champion and expressor of Arab nationalism.

Just three months after the catastrophe, he published a book titled ‘The Meaning of Nakba’. This term quickly gained traction and popularity in Arab political discourse and literature to refer to what happened.

The roots of the conflict

In 1887-88, Palestine was home to 600,000 people, with 60,000 Christians and 25,000 Jews. The latter, who were not under Ottoman rule and held foreign nationalities with European protection, chose to focus on prayer and worship, not work or trade.

The first Jewish settlement was established in Palestine in 1878, a decade before the formation of the Zionist movement. By 1914, the number of Jewish settlements had grown to 30, with a total population of 80,000 Jews.

The first Jewish settlers arrived in 1878. By 1914 there were 30 settlements and 80,000 Jews.

According to the King-Crane Commission report of 1919, the Zionists aimed to displace the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. From 1933-35, around 130,000 Eastern European Jews immigrated or settled in the Jewish colonies.

The Europe-based Zionist movement, which was dedicated to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland, emerged in the late nineteenth century and was influenced by nationalism and colonialism, two powerful European trends.

Pragmatism and revolution

The Ottoman Empire, known as 'the sick man of Europe', was disintegrating and the major European nations of Britain, France, Germany, and Russia wanted to divide and conquer its territories and possessions.

The formal commitment on 17 November 1917 by British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to establish a Jewish 'national home' in Palestine was made while Britain was backing the Arab Revolution against the Ottoman Empire, led by Sharif Hussein in Mecca and his son Faisal in Greater Syria.

From the revolution emerged modern Arab nationalism in the Ottoman territories of the Levant, beginning as a "romantic elitist" movement, according to author Hazem Saghieh, but later attracting mass interest during Nasser's reign in the 1950s.

One of the defining characteristics of this early Arab nationalist movement was the substitution of concrete action and organisation with rhetoric, language, music, and words, in the erroneous belief that this could replace action.

Built on blood and rubble

In 1920, during the British Mandate, the Arabs of Palestine found themselves caught between two opposing forces on their land: the authority and politics of Great Britain, and the emergence of semi-colonial, "peaceful" Jewish settlements.

The latter eventually became destructive and violent, leading to the establishment of a Jewish state and the displacement of Palestinians from their homes.

According to the scholar Yezid Sayigh, there were several significant milestones and turning points in the arduous and uneven Palestinian struggle against these two forces.


Palestinians were caught between the authority of the British and the semi-colonial Jewish settlements.

In 1925, Syrian-born Muslim preacher, sheikh 'Izz-al-Din al-Qassam, began organising clandestine military cells among peasants and rural migrants in the Haifa area, which led to a series of attacks on Jewish settlers and British police.

He was eventually killed after a manhunt following the murder of a British policeman, which he is believed to have planned, but although his cells ultimately failed, they provided both a model and a catalyst for the widespread rebellion that unfolded in 1936.

The Great Revolt, as the Palestinians dubbed it, saw Palestinian mujahidin hold control over much of the countryside and exert considerable influence in the towns.

The first mass movements

In response, in 1939, the British conducted a counter-insurgency campaign, in which 5,032 Palestinians died, 14,760 were wounded, and 50,000 were detained. Of these, 2,000 got life sentences, 164 were hanged, and 5,000 homes were demolished.

This prompted the first flight of Palestinians to neighbouring Arab countries, mainly from families with the means to do so. An estimated 40,000 left.

Large bundles of personal possessions are carried on the head of Palestinian women and children flee the Israeli offensive that established the state of Israeli in 1948.

They fled extensive internecine killings and factionalism, from the landowners who formed the old elite, to all levels of society, which contributed heavily to the Palestinians' defeat.

The collapse of the revolt in 1939 was overshadowed by the outbreak of World War II. Nazi Germany's racist policies led to a surge in "secret" Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine. Among the Allies, there was growing support for the Zionist cause.

After the war, the Holocaust quickly became prominent in the consciousness, thought, and history of Western Europe and the United States, where many Jewish immigrants from Europe had settled.

Growing sympathy for Zionism

Meanwhile, the Jewish Zionist movement was actively displacing, expelling, and dispersing Palestinians in their land, with little international opposition.

Jewish Holocaust survivors were given unprecedented sympathy in Europe and America, fuelling a sense of guilt in Europe for their past actions.

The situation in Palestine remained unsettled after 1945. The British government could no longer control the Jewish community, nor prevent civil unrest with the Palestinians, according to Sayigh.

Holocaust survivors were getting sympathy in Europe and America while Zionists were actively displacing Palestinians from their land.

Responding to the impasse, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution ending the British Mandate. This supported the partition of Palestine into two independent states: one Jewish and one Arab.

The Zionist movement welcomed the partition plan, confident in the inability of the international community to implement it, and with its desire to prevent the emergence of an Arab state. Palestinian leaders rejected the UN partition plan.

An unavoidable confrontation

The Arab-Jewish confrontation was now inevitable and both parties waged a bitter contest for control over the main communication routes, which led to the tightening of the Palestinian blockade against Jewish settlements.

But the Zionists were at an advantage in terms of trained manpower, weapons, and organisation, while a shortage of combat material, factional rivalries, and disorganisation took the mujahidin to the point of collapse in April 1948.

In this file photo taken on March 6, 1948, soldiers of allied Arab Legion forces fire from East sector of Jerusalem on Jewish fighters of the Haganah, the Jewish Agency militia in 1948.

The Salvation Army emerged chaotically, formed by Arab volunteers from neighbouring countries who wanted to help Palestinians, as 200,000-300,000 inhabitants were displaced. Across the land, Palestinians were in disarray and panic.

From 1947-48, much of Palestinian society was destroyed by the upheaval. On 14 May 14, 1948, the British High Commissioner left Palestine. The establishment of the State of Israel was declared after midnight of that day.

Arab forces from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon set off towards Palestine on 15 May 1948, but were hamstrung by the conflicting agendas of their respective governments and were pushed back.

For some fortune, for others flight

By October, Israel had expanded its territory to include 78 percent of mandate Palestine. The resolution to partition Palestine, issued in November 1948, came as a shock to the Palestinians, while Jews rejoiced in their victory.

The demographic changes were significant. Of the original 950,000 Palestinians, around 500,000 fled in a new wave of displacement, with 800,000 expelled and forced to flee to the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring Arab countries.

Palestinian refugee camps after the Nakba.

Towns, villages, and cities were destroyed, and Palestinians forced from their homes and land left for refugee camps in neighbouring Arab countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, where they endured extreme hardship that still persists today.

Towns and villages were destroyed as Palestinians were forced into refugee camps in neighbouring countries where they endured extreme hardship. 

In 1948, 110,000 refugees fled northern Palestine and the coastal cities of Acre, Haifa, and Jaffa, and were accommodated in dozens of camps set up in Lebanon, including Borj El Brajneh, Mar Elias, and Shatila near Beirut; Ain al-Hilweh and Miyeh w Miyeh near Sidon; and El-Buss, Burj el-Shemali, Nahr el-Bared and Beddawi near Tripoli.

In May 1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) assumed responsibility for assisting the 746,000 registered Palestinian refugees.

Today, 15 May is Israel's annual Independence Day. For Palestinians and Arabs it is a reminder of the Nakba, with all the associated emotions, including humiliation, despair, and anger.

Yezid Sayigh's history of facts

Son of a Palestinian father and British mother, Yezid Sayigh is an historian and researcher who authored the comprehensive book 'Armed Struggle and the Search for State: The Palestinian National Movement, 1949-1993.'

At 1,313 pages long, it is an important record of Palestinian and Arab trajectories following the Nakba.

He employs a subdued historical approach to an emotional and tumultuous history, drawing on a wide range of sources including documents, data, interviews, testimonials, biographies, diplomatic meeting minutes, international resolutions, political statements, embassy archives, speeches, notes, newspapers, and books.

By avoiding any incidents or details fraught with biased interpretations, he constructs a coherent historical narrative based on a "bare" documentary format, free from the influence of propaganda, ideology, and emotional outbursts that often distort the reality of events and reduce them to mere rhetoric.

It is uncommon to come across such an historiographical approach. Most modern Arab historical literature is emotionally charged, chaotic, and controversial, distorting facts beyond the point of credibility.

At the expense of the other

The Zionist movement adopted the misleading statement of "a land without a people for a people without a land" to justify its settlement.

However, Elias Sanbar, a Palestinian researcher born, authored a book in the 1980s called 'Al-Taghyib' in which he exposed the tragedy of the Palestinians' removal or exclusion from history and geography.


The Zionist movement adopted the misleading statement of "a land without a people for a people without a land" to justify its settlement.

In his book's introduction, Sabar describes the Nakba as "the end of a lengthy chapter in the conflict between Arabs and Jews for possession of Palestine."

He says: "Uprooting and dispersal on such a scale constituted a collective trauma of immense, devastating proportions. […] The salvation of the Jews had come at the expense of another people, and in that tragic encounter were laid the seeds for another 45 years of bitter and unremitting conflict."

Walid Khalidi's visual history

Another Palestinian researcher, Walid Khalidi, took a different approach to refute the Zionists' claim by collecting thousands of photos of Palestinian society and of Palestinian daily life on their land, in their homes, fields, villages, and cities.

Published by the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut in 1987, Khalidi's trove is an exceptional and unique documentary resource featuring 474 meticulously selected photos from a vast collection of 10,000.

Showcasing diverse facets of Palestinian life – from urban, social, political, and religious scenes on their land, it includes images that date back to the emergence of the Zionist movement in Eastern Europe in 1886.

It also shows how Palestinians lived in their ancestors' homeland prior to the Nakba, with their customs, traditions, lifestyles, urbanisation, social and cultural life, agriculture, institutions, fashion, crafts, occupations, industries, and local markets.

The captivating photos speak volumes, with each picture accompanied by a detailed description of what is being shown, including date and social context.

Khalidi also includes information and documented events relating to Palestinian demography and its changes over time.

Yet while these are some examples of the books and resources chronicling the harsh realities of Palestinians' displacement and homelessness, writings remain scattered and disorganised.

To weave a comprehensive historical narrative, an encyclopedia that gathers and categorises these events is required.

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