The Nakba, meaning catastrophe or disaster in Arabic, refers to the population transfer of Palestinians from their homes in 1948 and symbolizes the loss of the homeland: Palestine as delineated under the British mandate.

As the British Mandate over Palestine was about to end, the United Nations proposed the ‘ethnic’ partition of Palestine. It was supposed to ensure that the two peoples, Jews and Palestinians, could obtain national self-determination. The UN General Assembly Resolution 181 called for a two-state solution; the Jewish state would span over 56 percent of the territory with the Arab state on the rest, the two tied by an economic union. The city of Jerusalem was supposed to be placed under an international regime. 1

Jerusalem was to be demilitarized and all communities were guaranteed free access to the city, among others.

Palestine was a multinational entity, and to divide it into two states required untangling mixed populations. Partitioning the territory of Mandate Palestine implied population transfer to resolve ‘minority issues’ and ensure national majorities had territorial control over the new states. 2

Resolution 181 was rejected by Arab states and representatives of the Palestinian people, who despite being in majority were offered a smaller territory. They also rejected partition because they were entitled to self-determination over the entire territory of Mandate Palestine. The resolution was accepted by Zionist leaders, to whom the same land was promised by the Mandatory Power. As the British withdrew, the state of Israel was proclaimed on the 14th of May 1948 as a “Jewish state over Eretz-Israel”. 3

By then, population transfer was already well underway. Zionist forces had already conducted attacks on Palestinian villages in order to expel them from the future Jewish state prior to the start of the war. Palestinians had to leave their villages as a result of hostilities, massacres, looting, rape, and destruction of property, among others. 4 Over 600 Palestinian villages were destroyed 5 and between 55 to 66 percent of Arab Palestinians (750 000 to 900 000 persons) who lived in what was to become the state of Israel were displaced before and during the war. 6 Most refugees fled to what was to become the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and to neighbouring Arab countries, especially Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

By the time the Armistice agreement was signed in 1949, Israel had conquered more territory than had been allocated to it in Resolution 181 and Palestinians were left without a state. The UN Partition plan had failed to provide the framework to a two-state solution and the ‘Question of Palestine’ has remained on the agenda of the UN Security Council since.

In response to the mass displacement of Palestinians, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 194 demanding that:

refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible. 7

The state of Israel refused to comply and effectively institutionalised a legal regime preventing such return and took ownership of most of the land as State Lands, intending it for Jewish people arriving through aliyah (the gathering of Jewish people through their “return” to Israel) 8 . Unable to return and acquire Israeli nationality, displaced Palestinians from the territory of the new state of Israel were effectively denationalized and became stateless. Today, over 5 million Palestinian refugees from 1948 and their descendants are still waiting for a durable solution to their plight.

Every year, as Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, Israeli society celebrates their Independence Day. Israel has never accepted responsibility for the population transfer of Palestinians from their homeland.

  1. 1

    “Persons over the age of eighteen years may opt, within one year from the date of recognition of independence of the State in which they reside, for citizenship of the other State, providing that no Arab residing in the area of the proposed Arab State shall have the right to opt for citizenship in the proposed Jewish State and no Jew residing in the proposed Jewish State shall have the right to opt for citizenship in the proposed Arab State.” Future Government of Palestine, GA Res 181(II), UNGAOR, 2nd Sess, UN Doc A/RES/181(II) (1947) at Chapt 3, para 1.  

  2. 2

    See for instance Secretary of State for the Colonies, Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd 5479 (London: Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1937) at 376, para 20, at 378, para 5, at 380, paras 1-2, at 390, paras 39-40, at 392, para 44.  

  3. 3

    Note: Eretz-Israel covers the territory of Mandate Palestine and depending on interpretation, goes far beyond. The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 14 May 1948, Online: link  

  4. 4

    Badil, Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Nidal al-Azza, ed, Vol VII (Bethlehem: Al-Ayyam Printing Press, 2012) at xxiii.  

  5. 5

    Amira Hass, “Village is not a Matter of Perspective” Haaretz Online, 31 July 2015. See :; See Zochrot Nakba Map:  

  6. 6

    See First Interim Report of the United Nations Survey Mission for the Middle East (1949), Online:; Badil, Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Nidal al-Azza, ed, Vol VII (Bethlehem: Al-Ayyam Printing Press, 2012) at xxiii.  

  7. 7

    Progress Report of the United Nations Mediator, GA Res 194, UNGAOR, 3rd Sess, UN Doc A/RES/194 (III) (1948) at para 11.  

  8. 8

    See George E Bisharat, “Land, Law, and Legitimacy in Israel and the Occupied Territories” (1994) 43 American University Law Review 467 at 503, 512-521; Donna E Artz & Karen Zughaib, “Return to the Negotiated Lands: The Likelihood and Legality of a Population Transfer between Israel and a Future Palestinian State” (1991-1992) 24 NYU Journal of International Law and Politics 1399 at 1423-1424.