In 1948, Zionist militias expelled 700,000 Palestinians from their native land through a campaign that included murder, rape, and intimidation.
Millions of Palestinians and their supporters worldwide will mark 72 years since the ‘Nakba’ or ‘catastrophe’ on May 15, a day that coincides with Israeli declaration of independence.
While for Zionist Jews the day marks the fulfillment of their quest for their own state after thousands of years of exile from their land, for Palestinians it is a day that symbolises their expulsion from their land.
The establishment of the Israeli state came amid a war that started in 1947 between local Arabs backed by some Arab states and Jewish settlers who had been arriving in large numbers in historic Palestine over the course of decades due to persecution in Europe and the development of a form of Jewish nationalism known as Zionism.
For hundreds of years, Jews and Arabs, lived in Palestine as citizens of the Ottoman Empire but that status quo ended in the aftermath of World War I and the establishment of the British Mandate of Palestine.
The 1917 Balfour declaration by the UK promised Palestine to the Zionist movement despite the large Arab majority in the region.
In the ensuing three decades, spurred by persecution in Europe, the migration of Jews to the territory accelerated, leading to tensions with indigenous Palestinians who were afraid of being muscled out of their homeland.
Their fears would eventually materialise as Zionist settlers formed militias with the aim of securing as much territory as possible for the new Jewish state and to reduce the Arab population in the newly acquired territories. Scores of Arab villages disappeared off the map, as a result of this campaign.
While Israel has sought to propagate the idea that Arab populations left of their own volition, historic records, including statements by the most senior Zionist leaders, make clear that there was a deliberate campaign to expel the Palestinians from their land.
As early as 1937, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, made clear that Arab populations needed to be cleansed from the territory the Zionists acquire through force.
“We must expel Arabs and take their place,” Ben-Gurion declared in a letter to his son.
By the end of World War II, the horrors inflicted upon Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust became widely known, and further hardened the resolve of Zionist settlers to establish a state in which they had as large a majority as possible in as large a territory as was possible within the British Mandate.
In his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe details the tactics used by Zionist militias to force Palestinians out of their villages and land.
These included outright massacres, such as the one that occurred in the villages of Deir Yassin and Abu Shusha, as well as threats to villagers that they might be next in line if they did not leave their homes.
Some Zionist fighters were also responsible for rapes, including of girls, during the 1948 war. Such incidents further forced Palestinians into leaving for fear of getting caught up in the violence.
In total, around 700,000 Palestinians were forced to leave never to return. Today their descendants number in the millions and are also forbidden by the Israelis from ever returning to their homes.
The Palestinians were to suffer further when the West Bank and Gaza fell to the Israelis during the 1967 war.
Millions of Palestinians, including those displaced with the establishment of Israel, now found themselves having to live under military occupation, as well as further Israeli expansionism in their lands.
As of 2010, 42 percent of territory in the West Bank was under the jurisdiction of Israeli settlements or directly controlled by the Israeli military.
In April of 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the West Bank with the support of the US.
For many Palestinians, this is the latest chapter in a process that began with the initial loss of their land in 1948.