The Nakba never ended

And Britain remains complicit.

The Nakba never ended
Palestinian refugees make their way from Galilee in October-November 1948. Credit: Fred Csasznik via Wikimedia Commons

On 15 May, Palestinians will mark the 75th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”) – the forced expulsion of three quarters of a million of our ancestors and the destruction of hundreds of our towns and villages by Zionist militias during the period surrounding the establishment of the state of Israel. Three quarters of a century later, that trauma and pain is an omnipresent feeling firmly ingrained in the hearts and minds of Palestinians.

Every Palestinian family has a story about 1948 and how it altered the trajectory of their lives, continuing to shape them generations later. My paternal grandmother was forced to flee her home in the Wadi al-Joz neighbourhood of eastern Jerusalem, seeking refuge in Gaza for several years before eventually relocating permanently to Britain in order to shake off the unwelcome feeling of having to always look over her shoulder. The impact that the anguish of that period had on her – exacerbated by the killing of her brother and his son as they came under attack – was always detectable when she would recollect it.

My grandmother went on to live a full and rewarding life, raising nine children in a foreign country alone after the death of her husband, and living to see her grandchildren and great grandchildren grow up. But she passed away in Britain aged 96 with one cherished dream left unaccomplished: to return home.

This is a universal story for Palestinians everywhere, with varying experiences ultimately defined by the same collective misery and exile. But the Nakba is not just a story of displacement; it is also one of mass killings, which in some instances were the trigger for entire communities to flee their homes.

The massacre in Deir Yassin, then a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, serves as a poignant case study. In April 1948, one month before Israel declared its independence, Zionist forces entered the village and killed more than 100 Palestinians – including women, children and the elderly. Cases of rape and the mutilation of bodies were also documented. The horror and fear that enveloped the surrounding districts has been widely recounted, terrorising Palestinians with the prospect of facing the same brutal fate.

Similar stories abound. In the village of Tantura, Israeli forces massacred an estimated 200 Palestinians in May 1948. A recent documentary film features soldiers from the battalion that committed the atrocities openly describing the extent of the violence they perpetrated. One recalls shooting indiscriminately even after those attempting to defend the village surrendered. How many did he kill after the battle had ended? “I didn’t count. I had a machine gun with 250 bullets. I can’t say how many.”

While 1948 is remembered as a rupture, the savagery and destruction of Palestinian society has been continuous ever since. When Israeli forces captured and occupied the remainder of historic Palestine in 1967 – in what’s known as the Naksa (“setback”) – my maternal great grandmother vowed to remain resilient and refused to lose her home in Jerusalem. Knowing this could put her loved ones at risk, she did what many Palestinian families had done in 1948 – sent her children to hide temporarily in a nearby cave with other neighbouring families, thinking it would not be long before she would be reunited with them.

The opposite ensued. Some of her elder, married daughters ended up fleeing to Jordan; for many, that period in the cave remains their last lived memory of Palestine. Others, like my grandmother, absconded to the West Bank, where she currently resides under Israel’s cruel military occupation. It was there that she settled and married my grandfather, who was another of the 300,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes that year after being forced to leave Jerusalem with his mother.

This encapsulates the lamentable set of options for Palestinians in their new lives after 1948: at worst, they are forced into permanent exile; at best, they relocate but their lives remain at the mercy of the occupiers of their homeland.

“It won’t be long, we’ll be back.” Those were the words with which my great grandmother reassured my grandfather as they escaped Jerusalem in 1967. Even as he grew much older, the idea that he wouldn’t return to the home from which he was expelled was simply unfathomable. Yet both he and his mother succumbed to the same tragic fate as so many other Palestinians of their generations: passing away having never returned.

When 200 Palestinians are massacred in Gaza for demanding the right of refugees to return while Israeli snipers boast about how many kneecaps they blasted, and when more than 1,000 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta are facing the demolition of their homes and imminent eviction as Israel expropriates their land, it is an agonising reminder that the Nakba never ended. Palestinians’ land and lives were considered expendable in 1948, and that continues to this day.

The systematic violence of 1948 merely formalised the beginning of a colonial project whose modus operandi is the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people and denial of the right of refugees to return to their ancestral towns and villages. That policy prescription has been mercilessly embraced by every Israeli government for the past 75 years, ruthlessly confiscating more land while holding millions under varying forms of military rule and occupation. But this has only hardened the Palestinian resolve, transforming the concept of sumud (steadfastness) into a fundamental cultural value.

Crucially, Israel’s perpetuation of the Nakba has been enabled by its wilful collaborators. And in the UK today, both the Conservative party and the Labour party are committed friends of Israel in a relationship characterised by unconditional guardianship.

When the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into Israeli war crimes in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2021, then-prime minister Boris Johnson rejected the decision as “political interference”. Meanwhile, Keir Starmer has claimed to support Zionism “without qualification”, and has rejected the conclusions of Amnesty International and the global human rights community that Israel is practicing the crime of apartheid.

The current Conservative government under Rishi Sunak is working to bring in legislation that would effectively criminalise aspects of BDS and nullify the steady success the movement has had in campaigning to end support for Israeli apartheid. The Labour leadership, in turn, has spinelessly reiterated its own firm opposition to BDS.

Israel is shielded in these quarters from accountability in a manner that is as consistent as it is shameful. But treating it as unsayable does not change the fact that it is undeniable: Israel systematically displaces and murders Palestinians, while forcing them to live under a regime of segregation, incarceration and domination.

For too long, Britain has greenlit this limitless oppression in a heinous dereliction of duty. Having stubbornly helped sustain the Nakba, it is about time it commits to ending it and delivering Palestinian justice through the right to return.▼

Hamza Yusuf is a British-Palestinian political researcher and writer based in London.