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Today we remember the Nakba, the forced displacement of more than 750,000 Palestinians who fled or were violently expelled from their homes during the 1948 war.

In Voices of the Nakba, first-generation Palestinian refugees recall life before and after the Nakba. In this excerpt, Salman Abu Sitta, who was expelled from Palestine as a child in 1948, explores the Nakba’s historical roots.

While the idea of al-Nakba – the idea of depopulating Palestine – germinated in the minds of European fundamentalist Christians and Jews in the nineteenth century, only after the First World War was it converted into an action plan on the soil of Palestine. The myth promoted during the nineteenth century that Palestine was ‘a land without people’ was just that – a myth – and its fabricators knew it. Rather, they planned to make it so – to make Palestine a land without people by depopulating it, destroying its villages and erasing its record from history and geography.

This plan took root in Palestine upon the issuance of the British government’s infamous Balfour Declaration, the implementation of which started with the appointment of Zionist politician Herbert Samuel as first High Commissioner of Palestine in 1920. Under the British Mandate, Samuel oversaw the enactment of over 100 ordinances to facilitate the transfer of land to incoming Jewish immigrants and to build separate Jewish institutions including an embryonic army, which were the foundation for the future state of Israel. But there were not many Jewish citizens for the projected state at the time. Thus, the British opened the gates of Palestine for Jewish immigration.

By the end of 1936, the total Jewish immigrant population had risen to 384,000 or 28 per cent of the whole population (from 9 per cent at the beginning of the Mandate). Alarmed at this influx, which threatened their existence in their country, the Palestinian people revolted against British policy and Jewish immigration in what is known as the Arab Revolt, from 1936–39.

The revolt was met with utmost British brutality. For the first time, Palestinian villages were bombed by air. Villagers’ houses were demolished in the first occurrence of collective punishment. British forces attacked villages using tanks and artillery, destroyed communities’ supplies and held men in cages for two days without food or water. Collective punishment was widespread. Political parties were dissolved. Leaders were imprisoned or deported.

The Palestinians were left defenceless. ‘Anyone who had a rifle was sentenced to death,’ said Husayn Mustafa Taha, who was born in Miʿar in 1921. ‘One of our people was accused of having a rifle. He was taken to prison. We got lawyers, Ahmad Shukayri and Hana Asfur, to defend him. After months in prison, he was found innocent.’ Others were unable to hire a lawyer and were hanged.

In contrast, Jewish immigrants were trained in night combat by a British officer, Orde Wingate, who formed the Special Night Squads. British support also included training, protection and uniforms. Jewish armed forces – notably 20,000 Jewish policemen, supernumeraries and settlement guards – frequently assisted British troops (which amounted to between 25,000 and 50,000 soldiers).

A minimum estimate of Palestinian casualties: 5,000 killed, 15,000 wounded and a similar number jailed. More than 100 men were executed, including leaders such as the 80-year-old shaykh Farhan al-Saʿdi, who was hanged while fasting in Ramadan on 22 November 1937. Thus, about 50 per cent of all male adults in the mountainous region of Palestine – corresponding roughly to the West Bank today, and where the revolt was particularly active – had been wounded or jailed by the British.

By 1939, Palestinian society was dismembered, defenceless and leaderless. The year 1939 can be identified as the year of the British-inflicted Nakba. Ben Gurion found this to be a prime opportunity for pouncing on Palestine and prepared what he thought would be a long term plan. At the first big Zionist conference in the United States, held at the Biltmore hotel in May 1942 and attended by 600 Zionist leaders, Ben Gurion announced the formation of ‘a Jewish Commonwealth’ in Palestine.

This would require the depopulation of 1,200 Palestinian towns and villages. Ben Gurion instructed the Haganah to start the ‘Village Files’ project, which created spies’ groups disguised as Boy Scouts recording every minute detail about each village: its population, economy, routes, military training, political affiliation and so on.

After the Second World War, with the Palestinians utterly decimated, the only obstacle hampering Zionist objectives was the continuing British military presence in Palestine. At the conclusion of the Second World War, Zionists settlers rewarded Britain for its support by launching a terror campaign against their erstwhile benefactors. They bombed British headquarters, hanged British soldiers and kidnapped British judges. In 1945, Britain had to fly the 6th Airborne Division to Palestine to fight Zionist terrorism. Its aim was not to defend Palestine against Zionist attacks but to save British soldiers from them.

Zionists also assassinated Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN mediator appointed to bring peace to Palestine. Jewish actions were described as ‘terrorism’ by the UN Security Council in Resolution 57 of 1948. In the final six weeks of the Mandate, Zionists attacked and depopulated 220 Palestinians villages and committed 25 massacres. The League of Nations mandate compelled British authorities to protect Palestinian life and property, but they did not intervene. They did not intervene when massacres were committed against Palestinian villages. Dayr Yasin was the most notorious; the British Chief of Police in Jerusalem was a few kilometres away, but he did nothing. The British assisted in the expulsion of Palestinians from Tiberias by providing transport. Rather than defend civilians during the massive evacuation of Haifa’s Palestinian population, British forces facilitated their departure.

Britain’s position was one of extreme opportunism. Zionist terrorists committed atrocities against them, yet they did nothing to retaliate. That was a contrast to their brutality towards the Palestinians. Moreover, after the Israeli conquest, their Legation continued to function in Tel Aviv, and the British Consul continued to operate in Haifa. His presence there provides us with crucial information about the situation faced by Palestinians who remained at home. Tucked away in British archives, we get a damning picture of Israeli brutality, which met with no British action, not even a slap on the wrist.

Mr Ezard, the British Consul in Haifa, wrote a detailed report on the circumstances of Palestinians who remained under the new government of Israel. The 60-page report, dated 12 July 1950, details the brutality of Israelis and the theft, looting and plunder of Palestinian property under the guise of the newly crafted Absentee Property Law. Of the Israeli brutality, the Consul stated in his report:

Only this week Archbishop Hakim told me that three weeks ago he had watched from his Nazareth orphanage window the treatment meted out to a party of 20 Arab infiltrees who were being kept in a tent a few yards away. From 7.00 to 9.30 in the morning these Arabs were made to run round [sic], carrying against their chests heavy stones weighing, the Bishop estimated, 20 to 25 kilograms each. The men were kept on the move until they collapsed.

Israel turned British Mandate laws to its advantage. The Absentee Property Law of 1950, used to rob Palestinians of their property, is based on the British Enemy Property Act, devised to confiscate German property in the Second World War.

The Defence (Emergency) Regulations enacted by British authorities in Mandatory Palestine in 1945, which were designed to combat Jewish terrorism, were subsequently turned against Palestinians remaining in their country. These regulations were applied against Palestinians until 1966, when military rule was replaced by permanent apartheid laws.

The idea of depopulating Palestine and replacing its population with European Jews in the nineteenth century became a reality in the twentieth century. This was made possible by British policy during the Mandate period, when the institutional structure for the state of Israel was created. British colonial power enabled Jewish settlers to try out ways of strengthening their project, to test their methods and to create physical centres from which to conquer Palestine in 1948.

Although they used British tools, Jewish settlers far exceeded their mentors in brutality, efficiency and extent. Geographically, they expanded over Palestine into Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (through conquest of the West Bank, Baqura and al-Ghamr). Time wise, they have exceeded 70 years of occupation – twice as long as the Mandate period. Legally, while the British were bound by the League of Nations’ terms, the Israelis have violated dozens of UN resolutions and articles of international law. One has only to consider the collective punishment, home demolitions and expulsion under any guise that Palestinians face today to see that racist and apartheid practices are still ongoing.

All this means that al-Nakba is still ongoing.

Salman Abu Sitta is the founder and president of the Palestine Land Society, London, dedicated to the documentation of Palestine’s land and People. He is the author of six books on Palestine including the compendium Atlas of Palestine 1917–1966 (London: Palestine Land Society, 2010) and Mapping My Return: A Palestinian Memoir (New York: American University of Cairo Press, 2016).

This is an edited excerpt from Voices of the Nakba.

Photo credit: Benno Rothenberg – Meitar Collection – National Library of Israel – The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection – CC BY 4.0