The Nakba as a Rite of Passage… Towards Genocide?


Arlene Clemesha

Jun, 2024
This text is being written more than seven months after the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023, which killed around 1,000 people in Israel. Since then, the Israeli response has destroyed much of Gaza, killed more than 35,000 Palestinians—mostly women and children—and left Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants in a state of absolute misery, hunger, and without access to any form of relief. This text is being written after Hamas accepted all the terms of the “sustainable ceasefire” agreement presented by the United States in May 2024. The same agreement was rejected hours later by Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, by means of escalating assaults on Rafah—the Palestinian enclave giving refugees access to Egypt. This text is also being written following 76 years during which Palestine has continued to suffer loss of territory. A period in which thousands of Palestinians have been victims of all kinds of violence and millions have become refugees. This text is being written as Spain, Ireland, and Norway join the majority of countries recognising the state of Palestine under the territorial terms of the 1949 Armistice Agreements, which acknowledged the founding of Israel on 78% of its territory. The colonisation of the West Bank, divided into Areas A, B, and C since the Oslo Treaty of 1995, continues unabated, and Palestinian—controlled areas are now less than 10% of the territory of historic Palestine.

The purpose of this piece is to highlight some of the key features in the historical course of this situation, which point to threatening future prospects. Any honest analysis of how we reached this point of extreme violence must begin by recalling that the Palestinians, who opted for a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Israel, were betrayed. Similarly, any narrative that does not start by looking at the reasons for the historic failure of the Oslo Accords and the complete inaction of the international community will remain false and biased. Disrespect for international peace agreements has always yielded the very worst consequences.

Photo_ Michael Loadenthal_ CC BY NC SA 2.0

At this point, we must face with courage a problem that has long been global: peace in the Middle East depends on an end to apartheid and the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories. The circulating discourse on the “immense complexity” of the situation is disingenuous and seeks to conceal the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. The paradox of History, as a discipline dedicated to studying the past, is that it is indispensable in analysing the present in situations such as this one, where accumulating events have given rise to violence now reaching such unexpected extremes. A retrospective examination of the creation of the Israeli state, the Palestinian diaspora, the Nakba, the war, the ethnic cleansing, and, lastly, the ongoing genocide, is indeed the only way to approach current events from an informed perspective, taking into account the chains of causalities and the inaccuracies of the different narratives. As Hanna Arendt argued, if factual truth is the goal, the researcher owes it to independence, the witness to objectivity, and the historian to impartiality [1][1] ARENDT, Hannah. (2017). Truth and lies in politics. Barcelona: Página Indómita.. In this sense, historical analyses are particularly useful these days, as we stand live witnesses to barbarism, hate speech, and fiery trials; for they entail exercising memory, essential to a truthful approach to the conflict.

The Making of an Enclave

In the early 20th century, the colonisation of Palestine was the product of two simultaneous and combined efforts: a Jewish nationalist settler-colonial project—i.e. Zionism—and a British imperialist project of fragmentation and domination of Arab lands for economic and geopolitical purposes. This combined form of colonisation was explicitly authorised by the most powerful countries at the time, summoned to the peace conferences that followed the First World War. Those world powers, meeting in Paris, designed a system of mandates to enable their dominance in the region, based on the convenient and false narrative propagated by the Zionist movement of the alleged “return of the Jewish people” to the holy land after “two thousand years of scattering”.

The horrors of the Holocaust were used to further the Zionist project, rather than to provide reparations for European Jews on their own continent.
The horrors of the Holocaust perpetrated during World War II were leveraged to propel the Zionist project forward as a means of compensation, rather than to provide reparations to European Jews on their own continent. It was clear to the countries that voted for the partition of Palestine at the UN General Assembly session of 29 November 1947, that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine would entail the forcible displacement of a very large number of Palestinians. Since the publication of the Passfield White Paper in 1930, it became clear that settler colonisation of Palestine was creating a class of landless Palestinian migrants, and that this was at the root of Palestinian resistance and revolt [2][2] United Nations (1981). The Palestinian Question, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. Available here:–36136s.pdf. Today, Palestinians not only face a settler colonial project that continues to expand its borders at the expense of the native population; but also a rarely discussed economic and global dimension, key to understanding how the Palestinian struggle for emancipation and self-determination can possibly find some degree of international support.

The ongoing efforts to control the vast reserves of oil and gas under the West Bank and the coastal waters of Gaza illustrate how the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people is not only part of the ongoing Zionist project to build an ethnic Jewish state, but also driven by a logic of accumulation and exploitation of their natural resources. According to a 2010 estimate, the eastern basin appears to contain one of the largest prospective fields in the world, with a capacity of 1.7 billion barrels of oil and 122 billion cubic feet of extractable gas. Such oil and gas resources clearly fuel the desires of not only Israel but also neighbouring countries and avid energy consumers from other parts of the world [3][3] Ecologists in Action (2023). Gas fields off the coast of Gaza, 1/12/2023 | Magazine no. 118. Available here:–de–gas–frente–a–las–costas–de–gaza/.

A Catastrophe in the Shape of Migration

The Arabic term “al nakba”, translated as “the catastrophe”, carries a connotation of a disruptive event, leading to great misery, and refers to the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from the territory where the state of Israel was created in May 1948. In 1967, another 350,000 Palestinians were displaced. More recently, historical analysis has begun to use the term “ongoing Nakba” [4][4] One of the first to elaborate the concept of the “ongoing Nakba” was the writer Elias Khoury, as in his article “Rethinking the Nakba”, Critical Inquiry, Vol. 38, No. 2, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012, pp. 250-266. to emphasise how this process of expulsion, which reached its peak in 1948, still continues today. Outside of the most intense wartime periods, forced displacement occurs by alternative means, whether through discriminatory laws and mechanisms or the invasion and theft of Palestinian homes by radical settlers, a recurrent practice in East Jerusalem.

The concurrent and intrinsic relationship between the height of the Nakba and the creation of the state of Israel has generated enormous historiographical disputes. The version of the so-called “old Israeli historians” was portrayed by the image of an Israeli David against an Arab Goliath. The young state of Israel, born out of the ashes of the European Holocaust, would have faced a terrible Arab force whose desire was to wipe out the country and drive the Jews into the sea. The 1948 war, according to this narrative, was a war of defence. Palestinians fled at the behest of their leaders to make way for Arab armies.

Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people is not only in response to the Zionist project of building an ethnic Jewish state but also to the logic of accumulation and exploitation of their natural resources.
One of the first Palestinian historians to write about the Nakba, Aref al-Aref, was then deputy commissioner of the Ramallah district and was tasked with receiving the United Nations (UN) negotiator, the Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, in July 1948—shortly after the fall and massacre of Lydd and Ramle. 60,000 inhabitants of these two cities had been forced on a death march in which hundreds of them would perish from dehydration and exhaustion before reaching Ramallah. Count Bernadotte was informed by Israeli officials that the Palestinians had fled at the behest of their leaders. Aref al-Aref recounts that he immediately took Count Bernadotte to meet some of these leaders, to hear their stories, in the caves where they had taken refuge. It was meetings such as these that undoubtedly prompted Bernadotte to inform the UN that “no settlement will be just and complete without recognising the right of Arab refugees to return to the homes from which they were displaced” [5][5] International Institute of Arab and Muslim World Studies (2007). Palestine 181. 60 years later: a compilation of United Nations documents on the Palestinian question, Casa Árabe, Documents num. 3/2007. Available here:

Count Bernadotte was assassinated a few months later by a member of the extremist Zionist organisation Lehi (also known as the Stern Gang), then led by Yitzhak Shamir, whose status as a wanted terrorist by the British authorities did not impede him from becoming the Prime Minister of Israel in 1983.

The Demise of the Voluntary Exodus Narrative

The myth of the voluntary Palestinian exodus persisted for three decades, despite the accounts of Folke Bernadotte, Aref al-Aref, and the historian Walid Khalidi, who in the 1950s was the first to prove its falsehood via archival research. As senior Arab leaders were alleged to have given radio orders for the Palestinians to flee, Walid Khalidi reviewed the collection of 1948 Arab radio recordings held at the British Museum in London, where he found no such records [6][6] KHALIDI, Walid (1959). Why Did the Palestinians Leave. Palestine: Arab Information Centre..

Around 15,000 Palestinians died in the 1948 Nakba, and more than 30 massacres were recorded, including the Deir Yassin massacre on 9 April 1948 and the Tantura massacre. The latter was investigated by Teddy Katz, a student of Israeli historian Ilan Pappé at the University of Haifa, who, after defending his Master’s dissertation in 1998, was pressured by faculty management to modify his conclusions [7][7] PAPPÉ, Illan (2012). Israeli academic boycott: the ‘Tantura case’, El País, 6/02/2012. Available here:

Photo_ Ewa Jasiewicz_ CC BY NC SA 2.0

In the 1980s, there had been a wave of academic publications by the so-called “new Israeli historians” who, more than two decades after the Palestinian historians nobody listened to, also refuted the old Zionist narrative of the voluntary exodus. They did so mainly on the basis of Israeli national and military archives, declassified 30 years after 1948.

Israeli historian Benny Morris’s research, published in 1988, [8][8] MORRIS, Benny 1988. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. provided a new understanding of the phenomenon, demonstrating that the 750,000 or so Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 had in fact been expelled. The version of a voluntary exodus was definitively debunked. The debate, however, would continue to revolve around the reasons for the expulsion. Morris concluded that the expulsion was the inescapable consequence of the 1948 war, for which he was severely criticised by the American Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein, who called Benny Morris’s thesis a “middle ground”, as it acknowledged the expulsion but denied the motive [9][9] Institute for Middle East Understanding (2013). The Palestinian Nakba & The Establishment of Israeli Apartheid, 8/05/2013. Available here:–nakba–65–years–of–dispossession–and–apartheid.

From Nakba to Ethnic Cleansing

Several authors, both Palestinian and Israeli, including Nur Masalha and Avi Shlaim, subsequently made important contributions to the historiographical debate and to the process of deconstructing Zionist mythology. The next major controversy over the nature of the Nakba, followed the publication in 2006 of Ilan Pappé’s important book, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. In it, the author documented how, in the 1940s, the Jewish National Fund financed a secret project to map the territory of Palestine, still under British mandate. The survey included the names and locations of villages, the quality of agricultural production, the number of orchards, the number of trees in each orchard and even the fruit on each tree, water sources, cars and carts, the adult male population, the names of all alleged fighters in the rural resistance movement, the names of leaders, and a description of the interior of the “mukhtars” (leaders/mayors) homes, indicating that the Zionist spies had been received with typical Arab hospitality inside their homes [10][10] PAPPÉ, Ilan 2006. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Barcelona: Crítica..

Israel’s aim was both to put down Palestinian resistance and to create a fait accompli that neither the UN, nor the US, nor the Arab countries could reverse.
The so-called “village archives”, constructed in total secrecy throughout the 1940s, recorded extremely detailed, and increasingly sensitive data on the military and resistance capabilities of Arab residents. According to Ilan Pappé, this information was used, firstly, to find out which lands would be most coveted for the eventual establishment of the Jewish state; and secondly, what kind of resistance force could be expected in each region and village.

The “village archives” provided the necessary database for the elaboration of Plan D (Dalet). That is the Israeli army’s war plan drawn up in 1948 which set out, in Pappé’s view, the strategy for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

The attacks to expel the Palestinians were initially carried out by the Zionist militias Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi (“Stern Gang”), and began as soon as the partition of Palestine was approved in 1947. The Haganah terrorised the 75,000 Arab inhabitants of Wadi Rushmiyya, an Arab neighbourhood of Haifa, by inciting them to flee and blowing up their houses so that they would have nowhere to return to. This action in December 1947 by the Haganah was considered the starting point of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

According to Ilan Pappé, the first phase of ethnic cleansing took place from December 1947 to March 1948, a period marked by still occasional attacks by Zionist militias and episodes of Palestinian resistance, ambushes, and counter-offensives. But in March of that year, Plan Dalet was finalised, which reshaped the nature of the conflict.

As mentioned above, this plan was drawn up on the basis of data collected in the “village archives” and outlined the regions that the Zionist movement must seek to conquer beyond the UN-designated borders. It also determined the methods to be employed: surrounding and bombing villages and population centres, setting fire to houses, property and goods, expelling residents, demolishing their homes and, finally, planting mines in the rubble to prevent their return. Each paramilitary unit was given a specific list of villages and neighbourhoods to attack.

Plan Dalet was the fourth and final version of earlier plans that had only vaguely described how the Zionist leadership intended to deal with the presence of so many Palestinians on lands claimed by the Jewish national movement. However, in Pappé’s words, “the fourth and final outline said clearly and unequivocally: the Palestinians must leave” [11][11] PAPPÉ, ILLAN (2006). The 1948 Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, Journal of Palestine Studies, num. 141. Available here:–141/vol36–141_b.pdf.

For Walid Khalidi, the aim of the plan was both to end Palestinian resistance and to create a fait accompli that neither the UN, nor the US, nor the Arab countries could reverse. This explains, according to Khalidi, the speed and virulence of the attacks on Arab population centres. As the military plan was carried out, tens of thousands of Palestinians were forced to flee, taking only their clothes with them, forming streams of refugees that flooded the bordering Arab countries in hopes of returning soon.

War as a Means

Thus began the war in which one of the main and most charismatic leaders of the Palestinian resistance, Abd al-Qadir-Husseini, was killed in the battle of Al-Qastal in April 1948. The second leader, Hassan Salameh, who led the peasant resistance Al-jihad Al-muqaddas, also fell in the Ras Al-Ayn battle in June 1948. The Palestinian defeat was sealed, regardless of the subsequent involvement of the Arab countries in the war, who voted against the UN Resolution 181, which determined the partition of Palestine.

As soon as the founding of the State of Israel was declared on 14 May 1948, the Arab countries entered the war. These countries never agreed to the establishment of the British Mandate—the foreign civilian administration that functioned from 1920 to 1948—and, like the Palestinians themselves, did not accept that a part of the Arab territories should be handed over to the Zionist movement. In practice, however, much of the forces they deployed were non-regular, poorly armed, and ill-trained volunteers who answered the call of their Palestinian brethren, but could hardly fulfil the objective of preventing the creation of the Zionist state. Except for Jordan, which had the largest Arab army of the time and ambitions to annex the fertile lands on the west bank of the Jordan River.

Israel then occupied 78% of the territory of historic Palestine, instead of the 56% designated by the UN. In this majority portion of Palestinian territory, only about 150,000 Palestinians remained. The Gaza Strip sheltered 200,000 refugees, whose descendants constitute 70 % of the current population. Another 550,000 Palestinians fled mainly to the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

Salman Abu Sitta, expelled from Beer Sheva at age ten, sought refuge with his family in Gaza and later fled to London, where he earned a doctorate in civil engineering. He charted the 530 Palestinian villages cleared, demolished, and erased by Zionist militias and IDF invasions from late 1947 until the 1949 armistices, thereby proving false the claim that there is no room for the return of Palestinian refugees to their lands and hometowns [12][12] ABU SITTA, Salman (2004). The right to return: the problem of Palestinian refugees. Ediciones del Oriente y del Mediterráneo. Madrid: Encuentro..

However, as mentioned above, Palestinian historians have been largely ignored, so it was not until the publishing of Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine that a new understanding of the Nakba began to take shape. Following Pappé’s research, it would no longer be argued that the expulsion of the Palestinians did not happen except as a result of the war, nor that it was a systematically pursued objective only during the war; rather, the war began the day after the UN approved the partition of Palestine, in order to implement a plan that envisaged the creation of an ethnic and largely Jewish state.

The war was fought as the means to carry out ethnic cleansing in an already extremely tense and volatile context. Not the other way around.
When Ilan Pappé demonstrated, based on historical documents held in Israeli military and civilian collections, that the expulsion of some 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 was the result of systematic planning, the Nakba began to be understood as an illegitimate and ill-devised “rite of passage”, one may say, towards Jewish rule in Palestine, rather than as a collateral consequence of the armed conflict. In other words, the narrative of the Nakba changed from one of unintended flight or displacement to one of purposeful expulsion aimed at the establishment of an ethnic Jewish state. The so-called “war paradigm”—expulsion as the regrettable and inevitable outcome of the 1948 war—which had been hegemonic until then among most authors when explaining the Nakba, gave way to the “ethnic cleansing paradigm” advocated by Pappé. That is, the war was fought because it was the means found, in an already extremely tense and volatile context, to carry out ethnic cleansing. Not the other way around.

From Ethnic Cleansing to Apartheid and Genocide

But how important is it to differentiate between a planned expulsion and an unintentional one resulting from a war? Wouldn’t the result be the same, with the same 15,000 Palestinians killed in 1948 and, today, the same nine million Palestinian refugees scattered around the world—their property confiscated and distributed among Jewish immigrants, their land stolen and integrated into that of the new state? Did Ilan Pappé write his thesis in order to demonise the Zionist movement? Not at all. The importance of accurately analysing the most critical moments in Palestinian history is that it also allows us to understand the nature of the process and directions it may take.

While agreements such as Oslo offered the prospect of transition towards Palestinian territorial autonomy, Israel was in fact buying time to expand settlements over land it never intended to return. Partition, colonisation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid were targeted forms of demographic engineering to ensure Jewish racial supremacism between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.

A full-fledged apartheid regime, as evidenced by the numerous reports of reputable international civil rights organisations—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or even Israel’s B’Tsele—was organised around a single principle: to advance and consolidate the supremacy of Jews over Palestinians, both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories [13][13] Human Rights Watch (2021). A Threshold Crossed. Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, April, 2021. Available here: To this end, the Israeli regime and its institutions—including the occupation forces, the civil administration, and the Palestinian Authority, a de facto subordinate entity—enforce targeted laws, practices, and state violence.

One of the most brutal aspects of this system is the way geographical and social spaces are designed differently for each group, in order to entrench occupation and institute a mobility regime [14][14] See WEIZMAN, Eyal 2007. Hollow Land. Israel’s architecture of occupation. London: Verso.. Jewish citizens live as if this entire land were a single space—except perhaps for the Gaza Strip before October 7, and the Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank. Israeli Jews are entitled to largely ignore the so-called Green Line and roam freely. This includes travelling abroad and to the more than 280 military-guarded illegal settlements that are connected by Jewish-only bypass roads [15][15] See the concept of the “matrix of control” as developed by HALPER, Jeff. The Key to Peace: dismantling the Matrix of Control. Available here: In contrast, the rights granted to Palestinians are tied to the space they inhabit. The Israeli regime has divided the land into a patchwork of scattered and overcrowded units that it defines and governs differently. A division that affects only Palestinians.

The 1.6 million Palestinians living in Israel—17% of its population, often referred to as “Israeli Arabs”—are considered citizens but do not enjoy the same rights as their Jewish counterparts. The approximately 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem, referred to as “permanent residents”, can live and work without a permit and vote for local representatives; however, their rights can be revoked at any time at the government’s discretion. 2.6 million Palestinians live under military rule in dozens of disjointed enclaves in the West Bank without the ability to exercise political rights. Another 2.2 million were living as prisoners under the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, even before its ongoing destruction, without rights and in inhumane living conditions, especially concerning access to clean water.

Photo_ Matt Hrkac_ CC BY 2.0

The Gaza Strip represents the pinnacle of Israel’s aggression in pursuit of its political objectives, but it also signals the direction it has set for its policy in the West Bank [16][16] Tareq Baconi (2021). Gaza and the one–state reality. Journal of Palestine Studies, V. 50, n.1. Available here: https://www.palestine– The current Israeli government, formed in January 2023, is composed of extremists, fascists, and religious fundamentalists who have already incited their population, especially settlers, to take up arms against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The violent invasions of villages by groups of armed settlers are reminiscent of the infamous anti-Semitic pogroms—a term meaning “massacre” in Russian—of the 19th century. There is no shortage of official statements attesting to the goal of annexing the West Bank and getting rid of any Palestinians who try to oppose it. Nor is there any shortage of evidence of genocidal intent in the build-up to the invasion and the attacks being waged in the Gaza Strip. As Haider Eid, professor of English literature in Gaza, said, “what we are experiencing is a combination of ethnic cleansing and genocide” [17][17] EID, Haidar (2023). On the Gaza ‘shoah’ and the ‘banality of evil’, Al Jazeera, 30/122023. Available here:–the–gaza–shoah–and–the–banality–of.

A Resistance of Global Significance

The Palestinian people have resisted their dehumanisation, uprooting, and dispossession for over a century. Unlike Europe, whose long history of Jewish persecution culminated in the Holocaust, Palestinians have lived in peace with the Jewish people over the centuries. However, they have been forced to remember this for a hundred years now, and to constantly reiterate the fundamental difference between this coexistence and the repudiation of colonialism in their lands.

The case of Europe is quite different, for one cannot easily ignore that the Allied air forces in the Second World War did not target the railways leading to Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz. Nor can it be forgotten that the world became a closed territory for Jewish refugees of the Nazi regime in the late 1930s, who wouldn’t be granted visas. The founding of the State of Israel was indisputably a way to exonerate Europe’s guilt for the crimes against humanity that resulted in the mass murder of six million Jews in concentration and extermination camps.

Once the Jewish genocide had been consummated, Palestine was partitioned by UN decree—without consulting the Palestinians or even giving them a voice—and in 1947 became the stage for further ethnic cleansing and uninterrupted massacre. Today, no other cause stirs as much outrage and polarisation on the international scene, transfixed by the emerging global far-right networks, as does the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In geopolitical terms, Israel enjoys the support of a significant part of the Western status quo, and is not being reprimanded by Russia. This is due to the good trade relations between these two countries, amid European and US sanctions, and the fact that Russia is the country of origin of approximately one million recent immigrants in Israel. Ultimately, it is in Russia’s interest that this crisis is perpetuated in order to better conduct its invasion of Ukraine.

The fact that the Allied aviation forces in World War II did not target the railways leading to Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz cannot easily be ignored.

Broadly speaking, the international community has tolerated Israel’s annexation and expansion into Palestinian territories for far too long. This regime of abuse and absolute domination, the systematic denial of the Palestinian people’s right to existence and sovereignty in their own land, as well as all the laws and policies that have institutionalised a discriminatory and segregationist system of governance against the Palestinians, have all contributed towards the genocide we are witnessing today. Accustomed to daily atrocities, the international community has been shamefully slow in reacting to the unparalleled violence to which the Palestinian civilian population has been subjected since 7 October.

However, there remain glimmers of hope. Most of the Global South acknowledges that what is happening in Gaza is a clear case of genocide, and several governments in Latin America—among other regions—are taking steps to isolate Israel. While pressure for a ceasefire is still lacking, and while most governments still believe advocating for a two-state solution is the best way to support a peaceful negotiated settlement, recognition that apartheid in historic Palestine is a reality in violation of international law has now reached a global scale. Significant governmental support has also been channelled through multilateral for a—primarily the UN—where most countries in the Global South have voted and argued for the enforcement of international humanitarian law.

While not many have completely severed diplomatic ties with Israel or renounced investment and trade relations with the country, seldom have we seen as much pressure on Israel as we are seeing today. The arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court in The Hague against three Hamas leaders for the attack of 7 October 2023 and against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—together with his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant—for deliberate extermination and crimes against humanity demonstrate that the international community is, at last, ready to demand accountability. Hopefully, these reactions, albeit belated and insufficient, also mark the beginning of a global awareness that will put an end to the suffering of a people who have resisted for more than a century.