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75 Years of Nakba: The Catastrophe Is Ongoing

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic. Yet the displacement and dispossession of Palestinian people from their homeland began even before the creation of the Zionist State of Israel in 1948, and continues to this day.

Luigi Morris

May 15, 2023
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Monday, May 15 is the 75th anniversary of the Nakba. At the time of writing, the Zionist state of Israel is bombarding the Gaza Strip. Even amid the continued dispossession, displacement, and attacks, Palestinians are still fighting for their liberation. Around the world, massive demonstrations are taking place in solidarity with Palestine against the Zionist occupation.

The Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, refers to the forced displacement and dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes and land in 1948, when the Zionist state of Israel was established. 

The Zionist state of Israel was backed by first British and later U.S. imperialism, created to be an enclave serving imperialist interests in the region. For decades, the U.S. has been the country’s main source of support through military and economic aid, providing billions of dollars each year. Israel is now the most powerful military force in the region.

The Nakba was characterized by widespread violence, including massacres, forced evictions, and destruction of homes and villages. Many Palestinians were killed or fled their homes in fear of violence. It resulted in the displacement of around 750,000 Palestinians, who became refugees. Many were forced to live in precarious refugee camps in Palestine and surrounding countries, and their ancestors continue to live there today.

While the Nakba marks a before and after in the history of Palestinian people, the process of their displacement began many decades before, signed by a series of wars and political developments in the early 20th century. The role of British and U.S. imperialism, the Zionist project, and often the complicity of Arab bourgeois governments, are still present in the ongoing oppression and displacement of Palestinian people.

The British Mandate for Palestine

The British occupation of Palestine started before World War I. This war was an imperialist war — a competition for markets, territories, and spheres of influence. The fight was centered on the control of international territory in the search for greater resources to boost these territories’ industries and thus gain new markets. The result of the war — a victory for the Allies, including the United Kingdom and France — reinforced the power and influence of the British in this area of the Middle East.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire, dominant in the Middle East until the end of the 19th century, created the conditions for the developed capitalist powers of Britain and France to become hegemonic in the region. These two countries divided up the region in 1915 through the Sykes-Picot Treaty.

In 1917, in order to neutralize the Arab nationalist movements that had arisen against the oppression of the Ottoman Empire and to safeguard the imperialist British interests in the area (like the control over of the Suez Canal), Britain promoted the declaration of British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, who stated that he was in favor of the “creation of a Jewish national home” in Palestine. A colonial official explained the goal was “forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.”

The declaration had a significant impact on the course of history in the region, leading to increased Jewish immigration to Palestine and laying the groundwork for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The Mandate for Palestine was officially created in 1922, following the granting of a mandate to Britain by the League of Nations — the imperialist predecessor of the United Nations — to administer the territory of Palestine. “Mandates” were simply a way to establish de facto colonies of Britain and France while claiming they were liberating colonies from other imperialist powers. 

As described in the Interactive Encyclopedia of the Palestine Question:

The text of the Mandate reiterates Britain’s commitment to the Zionist project as phrased in the Balfour Declaration. It also decides that an ‘appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating’ with the Mandatory Power in matters related to the establishment of the Jewish National Home. It specifies that the Zionist Organization will be considered as such agency and requests it to secure the cooperation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish National Home.

The delegates at the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel, Switzerland (1897).

The Origins Behind the Creation of the Zionist State of Israel

Zionism emerged in the late 19th century as a political and ideological movement in a small sector of the Jewish bourgeoisie. Their goal was to establish an exclusively Jewish homeland, choosing Palestine as the location. The movement gained some more momentum in the wake of a series of violent antisemitic incidents in the late 19th century, including the Dreyfus Affair in France and the pogroms in Tsarist Russia, but Zionists remained a minority.

As Mirta Pacheco explains

At the end of the 19th century, they were forced to flee the pogroms that murdered them by the thousands, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where bourgeois development was more backward, in contrast to Western Europe, whose bourgeois revolutions in England, France and the Netherlands allowed the progressive integration and assimilation of the Jews.

This backwardness of the Eastern European bourgeoisie as a social force, pushed the Jews to proletarianization, misery and confined them to live in ghettos. They had become practically the last rung of their societies and that served the bourgeoisie to set them up as scapegoats for the sufferings of the masses.

This situation of persecution, oppression and precarious living conditions, pushed large sectors of the Jewish community to lean towards socialist ideas and many joined socialist organizations with the aim of changing their living conditions and fighting against oppression.

Jewish Marxist Abraham Leon denounced Zionism “as a brake upon the revolutionary activity of the Jewish workers throughout the world, as a brake upon the liberation of Palestine from the yoke of English imperialism, as an obstacle to the complete unity of Jewish and Arab workers in Palestine.”

While Jewish people wanted to live free from persecution and discrimination, the founders and subsequent leaders of Zionism had their own political goals and didn’t hesitate to make alliances with anti-Jewish political leaders. 

Theodor Herzl, considered as one of the main founders of Zionism, saw the deeply anti-Jewish Tsarist regime as a potential ally to create Israel. As writer Lenni Brenner explains:

Herzl looked elsewhere, even turning to the tsarist regime for support. In Russia Zionism had first been tolerated; emigration was what was wanted. For a time Sergei Zubatov, chief of the Moscow detective bureau, had developed a strategy of secretly dividing the Tsar’s opponents Because of their double oppression, the Jewish workers had produced Russia’s first mass socialist organisation, the General Jewish Workers League, the Bund.

This brought Herzl to St Petersburg for meetings with Count Sergei Witte, the Finance Minister, and Vyacheslav von Plevhe, the Minister of the Interior. It was von Plevhe who had organised the first pogrom in twenty years, at Kishenev in Bessarabia on Easter 1903. Forty-five people died and over a thousand were injured; Kishenev produced dread and rage among Jews.

Theodor Herzl also argued in his book The Jewish State that the Jewish colonization of Palestine represented the European advance embodied as “an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” of the Arab peoples. 

One of the most well-known examples of this type of alliance was the Haavara Agreement, which was signed in 1933 between the Zionist Federation of Germany and the Nazi government. It allowed Jewish people to transfer some of their assets out of Germany in the form of German goods, which were then sold in Palestine. The proceeds from the sales were used to finance Jewish settlement in the territory. With this agreement, the Zionists carried out the disgraceful policy of breaking the international boycott against Nazi Germany.

The creation of Israel was never about providing a safe homeland for Jewish people, but rather serving the interest of the bourgeois sector of the European Jewish community. In 1938, David Ben-Gurion, who was to become the first prime minister of Israel, wrote: “If I knew that it would be possible to save all the children in Germany by bringing them over to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Yisrael, then I would opt for the second alternative.” 

The Jewish Community in Europe and in Palestine

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jewish people in Europe faced increasing antisemitism. This included discriminatory laws and violent pogroms across Tsarist Russia, Poland, and Germany, among other countries.

This was exacerbated by the rise of antisemitic political movements like fascism towards the second world war. Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis carried out one of the most abhorrent events of human history: the Holocaust, which meant discrimination, dispossession, persecution, and the extermination of 6 million Jewish people in concentration camps.

Britain, the United States, and Zionists used this persecution and suffering of the Jewish people for their own purposes and to encourage migration towards Palestine. 

Contrary to popular belief, the conflict between Jews and Muslim Arabs is not inherently a religious conflict. In fact, at the beginning of the 20th century, Palestinian workers welcomed Jewish people, and before the founding of the State of Israel, they coexisted peacefully in Palestine. There were even examples of class solidarity, in which Jews and Palestinians created strong alliances against their oppressors and exploiters.

Socialist Simone Ishibashi describes that:

During the centuries of Moorish domination of Andalusia, in the Spanish Empire, Arabs and Jews lived together in peace. After the Inquisition, Sephardic Jews were received by the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, North Africa, and for 500 years they lived peacefully alongside Turkmen and Christian Arabs. At the beginning of the 20th century, in Palestine, Jews constituted a minority of 5% of the population integrated into a predominantly Arab society, with full freedom of worship.

As Miguel Raider explains

Concentrated in ports, communications, railroads, metallurgies, oil refineries and large bakeries, hundreds of thousands of Arab and Jewish workers performed common tasks. This working class resided in the two great urban centers: Jaffa (the founding neighborhood of the future Tel Aviv) and Haifa, the main port and industrial center. The relations of solidarity between Arabs and Jews were expressed in the bakers’ union, declared to be of ‘international character’ and ‘open to all workers’.

David Ben Gurion, leader of the Histadrut (the Zionist labor center) and future head of the State of Israel, maintained that Jewish workers should be organized in unions ‘linked’ although ‘separated’ from the Arabs, according to ‘national sections’. Jaim Arlozoroff developed this orientation by assimilating the experience of South Africa, where the most qualified tasks were reserved for whites, organized in unions separated from blacks. Thus, the Histadrut ended up expelling the communist militants of Jewish origin who fought for common unions. 

The Zionist workers’ center put all its efforts into breaking strikes carried out jointly by Arabs and Jews, such as the conflict of April and May 1933 in the Nesher quarry. Under the slogan of kibush haavoda (conquest of work), the Histadrut concluded agreements with the employers to substitute the Arab labor force, in exchange for labor discipline. As a result of this racist and pro-employer policy, PAWS emerged, the first Palestinian workers’ union based in Haifa, Jaffa and Jerusalem, which stood for unity, against Zionism and Palestinian independence.

In the 1929-1939 period marked the fifth wave of Jewish migration to Palestine. The territory received over 230,000 immigrants, making it the largest wave before the Nakba. In this period, the persecution and massacres against Jewish people rose in the Nazi Germany and Europe. Meanwhile, the U.S. and European countries denied asylum for hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees. One example from the U.S. is the case of the St. Louis, a ship that carried 937 passengers, almost all of them Jewish refugees from Germany. They were turned away at U.S. shores and 250 were killed once they came back to Europe.

Another example is the Wagner-Rogers Bill, a 1939 proposal in the U.S. Congress that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish refugee children from Germany over two years. But the bill was opposed by anti-immigration and anti-semitic groups, and never passed.

By contrast, Trotskyists of that era were campaigning to let them all in. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) advocated for the admission of Jewish refugees and actively campaigned against the U.S. government’s restrictive immigration policies. In their publication Socialist Appeal, the main headline in November 1938 was “Let the Refugees into U.S.! – Open the Doors to Victims of Hitler’s Nazi Terror!”.

At the same time, the so-called “left-wing” Zionists set up “socialist” colonies (the so-called kibbutzim) in Palestine, which in fact were military camps that interfered with communications between the Palestinian villages.

British policemen disperse Arabs protest protesting in Jaffa in April 1936 

The Great Palestinian Revolt of 1936-39

In October of 1933, a general strike in Palestine took place in protest of the growing Jewish immigration and British pro-Zionist policy. The British Mandate authorities declared the strike illegal, and deployed troops to end the rebellion. Over the course of the strike, more than 30 Palestinians were killed by live ammunition and 200 were injured.

While the Palestinian political leaders  ended the strike, the main issues remained unresolved and tensions were escalating. In 1935, a shipment of arms destined for the Haganah was discovered. The Haganah was a Zionist paramilitary organization that had existed in Palestine since 1920, working closely with British colonial authorities and carrying out clandestine operations, including smuggling in weapons. This deepened the Palestinians’ concerns that the Zionists were getting ready to advance in their project of building their own state and expelling the Palestinian population. 

The Arab revolt began in April 1936 with a general strike and acts of civil disobedience, and quickly escalated into violent repression of the British security forces and Zionists. 

As historian Alex Winder explains

The strike was widely observed and brought commercial and economic activity in the Palestinian sector to a standstill. Meanwhile, Palestinians throughout the countryside came together in armed groups to attack—at first sporadically, but with increasing organization— British and Zionist targets. Some Arab volunteers joined the rebels from outside Palestine, though their numbers remained small in this period. The British employed various tactics in an attempt to break the strike and to quell the rural insurrection. The ranks of British and Jewish policemen swelled and Palestinians were subjected to house searches, night raids, beatings, imprisonment, torture, and deportation. Large areas of Jaffa’s Old City were demolished and the British called in military reinforcements.

The British responded with a massive military crackdown, deploying tens of thousands of troops, tanks, warplanes, and heavy artillery. During the three years of the revolt, around 5,000 Palestinians were killed and nearly 15,000 wounded. To bring some stability in the region, the British wrote the White Paper of 1939, which stated that the British government intended to establish an independent Palestinian state within 10 years, conditional on safeguarding “the special position in Palestine of the Jewish National Home,” with a limit on Jewish immigration and land purchases in the meantime.

However, this was far from a real solution for Palestinians. The British Mandate had been collaborating with the Zionists since day one, and was responsible for their advance against the Palestinian population. Now, Palestinian resistance forced the British to change their strategy, which resulted in Zionist backlash against the British Mandate as well as Palestinian civilians. The deteriorating British hegemony in the region paved the way for the creation and strengthening of Zionist paramilitary organizations that enacted more terror on Palestinians.

Among these was Irgun,  which launched a wave of attacks against Palestinians mainly in Haifa and Jerusalem, including bombs, killing dozens of Palestinians and wounding hundreds. The Irgun was formed in 1931 and it was led by Menachem Begin, who later became Prime Minister of Israel. Since then, the tensions between the British Mandate, the Zionist and Palestinians only deepened.

The Nakba

In December 1947, Palestinians constituted two thirds of the total population of Palestine. The other third were Jewish settlers, most of whom had arrived after 1920. Of the total cultivated land, most belonged to the native population and only 5.8 percent was in the hands of Jewish settlers. Most Jewish people had settled in the cities, and there were isolated Jewish colonies in the countryside.

As the end of the British Mandate approached, the United Nations put forward a Partition Plan for Palestine, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1947 as Resolution 181. In doing so, the United Nations was ready to  hand over more than half of the Palestinian territory to the Zionists to create their new colonial state — without considering in the least the interests of the Palestinian population, who opposed the partition. 

Palestinians refused to accept the plan. On May 15 in 1948, a day after the Zionist State was declared, a general strike took place across the country in opposition to this attack on Palestinian self-determination. But the strike was met with strong violence from Zionists, who imposed curfews and carried out political persecution and assassinations against resistance leaders. Palestinians also organized military defense at local levels, but they were defeated by Zionist forces which were armed with more advanced weaponry and trained mainly by British imperialism. The support from other Arab and Muslim countries was not coordinated enough to provide a stronger resistance. The occupation army was able to advance in Palestinian territory through blood and fire.

According to research by Salman Abu Sitta published in The Atlas of Palestine, an estimated 700,000 to 800,000 Palestinians out of a population of 1.9 million were displaced during the Nakba. Many were forced to flee their homes due to violence and intimidation, while others were expelled by Israeli forces. An estimated 15,000 Palestinians were killed.

The Nakba created one of the largest refugee populations in the world. Today, there are an estimated 5.7 million Palestinian refugees, including those who were displaced during the Nakba, as well as their descendants.

Over 500 Palestinian villages were depopulated or destroyed during the Zionist offensive. Many of them were openly massacred, like in Baldat al-Sheikh (1947), al Khisas (1947), al-Abbasiya (1948), Lyyda (1948), Deir Yassin (1948), among others. The latter involved the killing of over 100 Palestinian villagers, including men, women, and children by Zionist paramilitary forces from the Irgun and Stern gangs (also known as Lehi). 

The attack in Deir Yassin began in the early hours of the morning, when Irgun and Stern members entered the village and began shooting indiscriminately at the villagers. Many were killed in their homes, while others were shot while trying to flee. The attackers also reportedly used grenades and machine guns to kill as many people as possible. This attack had a menacing impact on the surrounding Palestinian villages, prompting many people to flee their homes in fear of similar attacks.

Menachem Begin expressed in this memoirs that without what was done in at Deir Yassin, there wouldn’t have been an Israel. After that massacre, according to him the zionists were able to “advance like a hot knife through butter”.

Communists and the Creation of Israel

The first country to recognize the creation of Israel in 1948 was the United States on May 14,  just hours after Israel declared “independence.” A few days later, on May 17, the bureaucratized Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin recognized the Zionist State after initially expressing support for the creation of a Jewish state. The following day, May 18, Czechoslovakia, which was already part of the Soviet Bloc, added its recognition and later sent weapons to the Zionists.

As a result of the Stalinist support to creation of Israel, writer Nathaniel Flakin points out:

the ideas of socialism and communism, which once had great appeal to the Arab masses, were discredited across the region. In the United States, the official communists were already used to accepting sudden zig zags in their political line. Within a few months, the CPUSA was offering unqualified support to the Zionists’ ethnic cleansing and spreading false reports about supposed Arab atrocities in order to justify it.

Genuine communists — those opposed to Stalinism — always rejected Zionism. While Stalin’s bureaucracy was busy making deals with imperialist powers — first with the Nazis, then with the “democratic” imperialists — it was the Left Opposition led by Leon Trotsky that fought for the political independence of the working class. This meant opposing any form of imperialism and colonialism, including Zionism.

Leon Trotsky said shortly before he was assassinated by a Stalinist agent: “The attempt to solve the Jewish question through the migration of Jews to Palestine can now be seen for what it is, a tragic mockery of the Jewish people. … the salvation of the Jewish people is bound up inseparably with the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Arab Governments and the Zionist State.

While the governments of the Arab League were against the creation of the Zionist State, there were occasions where their leaders tried to negotiate with them or didn’t rally united behind the Palestinians’ interest. That tension is even stronger today, as more Arab countries are establishing diplomatic relationships with Israel. 

As Mirta Pacheco explains

this policy of beginning to occupy lands that did not originally belong to them, constituted the great agreement between Zionism and the imperialist powers, specifically in this case Britain, but had the complicity of members of ‘royal’ Arab families, as is the case of Faisal Husain, a member of the Hashemite family. (…) 

Husain was a nationalist leader of the Arab rebellion (1916/1920) against the Ottoman Empire and whose project was an Arab state, founded on the basis of a constitutional monarchy in the territories known at that time as Syria, which included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the State of Israel and the occupied territories. As this project clashed with the aspirations of the imperialist powers for the distribution of markets, Faisal was confronted with France, which for that imperialist distribution possessed Northern Syria (Lebanon and Syria), he was expelled from Syria by the French who unleashed a bloodbath in that area, that made him turn to agreements with Britain and Zionism, since he was the visible face of the Arab monarchy that also claimed for itself the lands of Palestine.

In 1919 Faisal signed an agreement with Zionism represented by its leader Jaim Weizmann, where he recognized their right to mass immigration to Palestinian lands, simply in exchange for religious equality and Muslim control over the holy places of Islam and to promote the constitution of an Arab state that excluded Palestine.

However, the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement was never implemented due to political opposition from other Arab leaders and resistance from the British. A few months later, Zionism took advantage of the Paris Conference (the meeting where the Allies discussed the conditions to be imposed on the defeated countries of World War I) and Husain abandoned this strategy.

Later on, closer to the Nakba, the Arab League was divided in two sectors: a Hashemite bloc consisting of Transjordan and Iraq, and an anti-Hashemite bloc led by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neither sector had a solid and strong stance toward defending Palestine. Rather, they had their own political goals. For example, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Hussein had his own ambition of becoming the leader of a Greater Syria which included Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, threatening these countries’ independence.

In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, known as the Camp David Accords. In 1994, Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, normalizing relations between the two countries. Six years later, in 2020, the UAE and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords and Morocco normalized relations with Israel in exchange for long-sought U.S. recognition of its claims on Western Sahara. These diplomatic and commercial relationships between Arab nations and Israel have created strong discontent among the population of these countries.

75 Years After Nakba

The Nakba is not merely a historical event — the catastrophe is ongoing. 

Since the week prior to this year’s Nakba anniversary, the Zionist State of Israel has been attacking Gaza in an operation dubbed “Shield and Arrow” with the supposed goal of assassinating senior commanders of the second largest armed group in the coastal region, Islamic Jihad. But the attacks were far from hitting military targets: they destroyed over 15 homes, damaged over 900 houses, damaged other civilian structures, and killed at least 5 children and 31 other Palestinians.

Today, more than two million Palestinians are crowded into the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. It has been under blockade by Israel since 2006, and often described as “the world’s largest open-air prison.”

According to an Amnesty International report, there are over 600,000 Jewish Israeli settlers living on occupied Palestinian land. Those settlements are surrounded by walls, control towers, and a perpetual military presence. In the West Bank, this is a constant threat to Palestinians’ lives and livelihood. Not only because of the violence, harassment, and isolation from other Palestinian cities, but also because these zones are used as trenches to expand the dispossession, displacement, and killing of Palestinians.  

Jerusalem, a city of religious significance to Jewish, Muslim, and Christian people alike, continues to be a zone of intense repression for Palestinians. Though Jerusalem has long been the capital of Palestine, the Zionist regime, with the support of U.S. imperialism, has claimed the city as its own capital. In Jerusalem and its surroundings, Palestinians suffer constant evictions and house demolitions, military harassment, and constant and increasing violence in the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Even Palestinian schools and education are under attack. The U.S. continues to contribute billions of dollars annually to arm the occupation forces to the teeth against Palestinian, as well as against other U.S. rivals in the Middle East.

In 2021, the occupation forces launched an eleven-day war against Gaza. It resulted in the deaths of over 250 Palestinians, including more than 60 children, and 12 Israelis. Many buildings and infrastructure in Gaza were destroyed or severely damaged during the conflict. This offensive sparked a massive international movement in solidarity with Palestine. 

Recently, Israel has been immersed in massive protests against the new far-right government and their attacks against the judiciary system and democratic rights of Israelis. But, as Illan Pappé puts it,

their liberal Zionism is founded on a series of oxymorons: Israel as an enlightened occupier, a benevolent ethnic cleanser, a progressive apartheid state. Thanks to Netanyahu’s government, this image is now under threat; its contradictions are no longer containable. The state’s reputation is being damaged not only domestically, but also among the ‘international community’ that typically hails Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East and Tel Aviv as the LGBT capital of the world, while ignoring the besieged Gaza ghetto a few miles south.

This crisis also opens the question: democracy for whom? Any serious questioning has to include the end of the Palestinian occupation and the Zionist state.

For a Free and Socialist Palestine

A true peace, and a state where Arabs and Jewish people can coexist in full equality, will not be possible as long as a Zionist State exists. This state, an ally of imperialism, is based on colonization and national oppression, whose constitutive principle is the exclusionary Jewish character of the state. For this very reason, this state is completely incompatible with the Palestinian people’s right to national self-determination. 

A State that shelters working people, regardless of whether they profess the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or no religion  — as they did for centuries before the imperialist offensive — will only be possible through a workers’ and socialist Palestine that embraces all its historical territory, defending the need for a Federation of Workers’ Republics of the Middle East. This is a task to be undertaken by the working class, poor, and oppressed of the whole region and the world.

¡Viva Palestina Libre!

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Luigi Morris

Luigi is a UPS Warehouse Worker - Teamster Local 804. He is also a member of Left Voice, freelance photographer and socialist journalist.

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