Palestinians mark 76 years of expulsion amid another catastrophe in Gaza

Palestinians mark 76 years since Nakba, fear repeat in Gaza; Israel rejects right of return, sparking conflict

Published - May 15, 2024 12:53 pm IST

People taking part in a march in support of the Palestinian people ahead of the Nakba day at the Al Kasayir village, in Haifa on May 14, 2024.

People taking part in a march in support of the Palestinian people ahead of the Nakba day at the Al Kasayir village, in Haifa on May 14, 2024. | Photo Credit: AP

Palestinians on Wednesday will mark the 76th year of their mass expulsion from what is now Israel, an event that is at the core of their national struggle. But in many ways, that experience pales in comparison to the calamity now unfolding in Gaza.

Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe. Some 7,00,000 Palestinians — a majority of the pre-war population — fled or were driven from their homes before and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed Israel’s establishment.

After the war, Israel refused to allow them to return because it would have resulted in a Palestinian majority within its borders. Instead, they became a seemingly permanent refugee community that now numbers some 6 million, with most living in slum-like urban refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Thorny issue

Israel’s rejection of what Palestinians say is their right of return has been a core grievance in the conflict and was one of the thorniest issues in peace talks that last collapsed 15 years ago.

Now, many Palestinians fear a repeat of their painful history on an even more cataclysmic scale.

Also read: ‘The Nakba was the core of our feelings and thinking’

All across Gaza, Palestinians in recent days have been loading up cars and donkey carts or setting out on foot to already overcrowded tent camps as Israel expands its offensive. The images from several rounds of mass evacuations throughout the seven-month war are strikingly similar to black-and-white photographs from 1948.

Mustafa al-Gazzar, now 81, still recalls his family’s monthslong flight from their village in what is now central Israel to the southern city of Rafah, when he was 5. Mr. al-Gazzar, now a great-grandfather, was forced to flee again over the weekend. He says the conditions are worse than in 1948, when the UN agency for Palestinian refugees was able to regularly provide food and other essentials.

“My hope in 1948 was to return, but my hope today is to survive,” he said. “I live in such fear,” he added, breaking into tears.

The war has forced some 1.7 million Palestinians — around three quarters of the territory’s population — to flee their homes, often multiple times. That is well over twice the number that fled before and during the 1948 war.

Fearing exodus

Israel has sealed its border. Egypt has only allowed a small number of Palestinians to leave, in part because it fears a mass influx of Palestinians could generate another long-term refugee crisis.

The international community is strongly opposed to any mass expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza — an idea embraced by far-right members of the Israeli government, who refer to it as “voluntary emigration.”

Israel has long called for the refugees of 1948 to be absorbed into host countries, saying that calls for their return are unrealistic and would endanger its existence as a Jewish-majority state. It points to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to Israel from Arab countries during the turmoil following its establishment, though few of them want to return.

Even if Palestinians are not expelled from Gaza en masse, many fear that they will never be able to return to their homes or that the destruction wreaked on the territory will make it impossible to live there. A recent UN estimate said it would take until 2040 to rebuild destroyed homes.

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