Nakba Day (Arabic: يوم النكبة Yawm an-Nakba, meaning “Day of the Catastrophe”) is generally commemorated on 15 May, the day after the Gregorian calendar date for Israeli Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut). For the Palestinians it is an annual day of commemoration of the displacement that preceded and followed the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948.
During the 1948 Palestine War, an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or fled, and hundreds of Palestinian villages were depopulated and destroyed.
These refugees and their descendants number several million people today, divided between Jordan (2 million), Lebanon (427,057), Syria (477,700), the West Bank (788,108) and the Gaza Strip (1.1 million), with at least another quarter of a million internally displaced Palestinians in Israel. The displacement, dispossession and dispersal of the Palestinian people is known to them as an-Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” or “disaster”.
Prior to its adoption by the Palestinian nationalist movement, the “Year of the Catastrophe” among Arabs referred to 1920, when European colonial powers partitioned the Ottoman Empire into a series of separate states along lines of their own choosing. The term was first used to reference the events of 1948 in the summer of that same year by the Syrian writer Constantine Zureiq in his work Macnā an-Nakba (“The Meaning of the Nakba“; published in English in 1956).
Initially, the use of the term Nakba among Palestinians was not universal. For example, many years after 1948, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon avoided and even actively resisted using the term, because it lent permanency to a situation they viewed as temporary, and they often insisted on being called “returnees.” In the 1950s and 1960s, terms they used to describe the events of 1948 included al-‘ightiṣāb (“the rape”), or were more eupheumistic, such as al-‘aḥdāth (“the events”), al-hijra (“the exodus”), and lammā sharnā wa-tla’nā (“when we blackened our faces and left”). Nakba narratives were avoided by the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon in the 1970s, in favor of a narrative of revolution and renewal. Interest in the Nakba by organizations representing refugees in Lebanon surged in the 1990s due to the perception that the refugees’ right of return might be negotiated away in exchange for Palestinian statehood, and the desire was to send a clear message to the international community that this right was non-negotiable. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has prompted Palestinians like Mahmoud Darwish to describe the Nakba as “an extended present that promises to continue in the future.”
Nakba Day is generally commemorated on May 15, the day after the Gregorian calendar date for Israel’s Independence. In Israel, Nakba Day events have been held by some Arab citizens on Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), which is celebrated in Israel on the Hebrew calendar date (5 Iyar or shortly before or after). Because of the differences between the Hebrew and the Gregorian calendars, Independence Day and the official 15 May date for Nakba Day usually only coincide every 19 years.
Commemoration of the Nakba by Arab citizens of Israel who are internally displaced persons as a result of the 1948 war has been practiced for decades, but until the early 1990s was relatively weak. Initially, the memory of the catastrophe of 1948 was personal and communal in character and families or members of a given village would use the day to gather at the site of their former villages. Small scale commemorations of the tenth anniversary in the form of silent vigils were held by Arab students at a few schools in Israel in 1958, despite attempts by the Israeli authorities to thwart them. Visits to the sites of former villages became increasingly visible after the events of Land Day in 1976. In the wake up of the failure of the 1991 Madrid Conference to broach the subject of refugees, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel was founded to organize a March of Return to the site of a different village every year on 15 May so as to place the issue on the Israeli public agenda.
By the early 1990s, annual commemorations of the day by Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel held a prominent place in the community’s public discourse.
Meron Benvenisti writes that it was “…Israeli Arabs who taught the residents of the territories to commemorate Nakba Day.” Palestinians in the occupied territories were called upon to commemorate May 15 as a day of national mourning by the Palestine Liberation Organization‘s United National Command of the Uprising during the First Intifada in 1988. The day was inaugurated by Yasser Arafat in 1998.
The event is often marked by speeches and rallies by Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, in Palestinian refugee camps in Arab states, and in other places around the world. Protests at times develop into clashes between Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2003 and 2004, there were demonstrations in London and New York City. In 2002, Zochrot was established to organize events raising the awareness of the Nakba in Hebrew so as to bring Palestinians and Israelis closer to a true reconciliation. The name is the Hebrew feminine plural form of “remember”.
On Nakba Day 2011, Palestinians and other Arabs from the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon and Syria marched towards their respective borders, or ceasefire lines and checkpoints in Israeli-occupied territories, to mark the event. At least twelve Palestinians and supporters were killed and hundreds wounded as a result of shootings by the Israeli Army. The Israeli army opened fire after thousands of Syrian protesters tried to forcibly enter the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights resulting in what AFP described as one of the worst incidents of violence there since the 1974 truce accord. The IDF said troops “fired selectively” towards “hundreds of Syrian rioters” injuring an unspecified number in response to them crossing onto the Israeli side. According to the BBC, the 2011 Nakba Day demonstrations were given impetus by the Arab Spring. During the 2012 commemoration, thousands of Palestinian demonstrators protested in cities and towns across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Protesters threw stones at Israeli soldiers guarding checkpoints in East Jerusalem who then fired rubber bullets and tear gas in response.
Objections to commemoration of Nakba Day
Criticism of the observance of Nakba Day in the Israeli media involves claims that it is marked by Palestinians to celebrate their wishes for the dismantling of the Israeli state and the Jewish majority population, and that the more important issue is the failure to solidify a stronger national movement for Palestinian citizens as a foundation for nation-building. Arab citizens of Israel have also been admonished for observing Nakba Day in light of their higher standard of living when compared to that of Palestinians who reside outside of Israel.
On 23 March 2011, the Knesset approved, by a vote of 37 to 25, a change to the budget, giving the Israeli Finance Minister the discretion to reduce government funding to any non-governmental organization (NGO) that organizes Nakba commemoration events.