Frequently Asked Questions
The meaning of the word Nakba in Arabic (نكبة) is a great disaster or catastrophe. In the Palestinian context, the term refers to an ongoing process of expropriation of the Palestinian people by the Zionist forces and later Israeli government. This process began before 1948: the Zionist movement aspired to assume as much land as possible for exclusively Jewish use, expelling peasants from their residences and depriving them of their livelihood. Thus, from the beginning of the Zionist settlement until 1948, 57 Palestinian villages were uprooted and destroyed. The 1948 war represents the culmination of this process: along with the horrors of war and massacres, rape and looting, the Nakba entails the destruction of over 500 settlements and the displacement of over 750,000 refugees – about 85% of the Palestinian residents in the area on which the State of Israel was established.
With the 1948 war, Israel cemented Palestinians’ refugee status with the decision to prevent the return of hundreds of thousands of those who fled or were uprooted. Prevention of return contradicts international law and human morality because civilians seek temporary refuge during disasters and wars with the intention of returning to their homes once the fighting ceases.
The Nakba, therefore, continues today, first through the prevention of return, and secondly through the further dispossession and oppression of the Palestinian people in various ways. Israel splits Palestinians into units of distinct legal status: refugees, the inhabitants of the occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip, the inhabitants of East Jerusalem, and those who remained within the State of Israel (including the internally displaced). Israel also exercises military force, employs administrative detention, restricts Palestinians’ movement, institutionalizes land discrimination, expropriates Palestinian property (millions of acres of land, houses, factories, vehicles, bank accounts, books, etc.), use of military force, administrative detention and more.
While many Jews in Israel are not at all familiar with the concept of the Nakba, its historical context, or its implications, for Palestinians it is a central element in their personal and collective identity. Nevertheless, the Nakba also constructs the identity of Israeli society and the reality in which we live. We do not seek to present a "Palestinian narrative" against a "Zionist narrative"; rather, we want to expose historical information which is usually silenced and denied by the State of Israel and make it available to the Jewish public in Israel.
We, Palestinians and Jews, feel that we are part of this land: of its people, present and absent, of the dialects and culture, of the houses, of the valleys and the olive trees, of its recent and distant history, and also of the Nakba. The Nakba, the disaster of the Palestinian people, is an integral part of our story and that of our families and our people. Knowledge of the Nakba also promotes familiarity with Jewish society in Israel. There is nothing brave about denying history. Hiding the Palestinian past hides the past and present of the State of Israel as well. In practice, the Nakba is present in the landscape, the law, the politics, the memories, and everyday life in this land.
An exclusive state for Jews may be the realization of a dream for some, but it is immoral and, in fact, infeasible. Nobody benefits from structural inequality. After almost a century of Jewish supremacy, racism, and militarism in Israel, it is not hard to realize that the Palestinian catastrophe is also a catastrophe for the Jews.
The history of the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel and of the coexistence between Jews and Arabs is longer than the history of European Zionist ideology. From the outset, there was also Jewish opposition to Zionist ideology. This history, too, is part of our history: a history of Sephardic, Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews, secular and religious, women and men, all of whom resist the notion of Jewish supremacy, oppose segregation and dispossession, and choose justice and equality.
From its very beginnings, Zionist settlement strove to gain as much territory as possible for exclusive Jewish benefit. Even if not all Zionist thinkers and decision makers agreed with that interpretation of Zionism, this was the ideology in practice. Even before 1948, 57 Palestinian villages were uprooted, and thousands lost their livelihoods due to the ideology of "Hebrew labor.” Organized Palestinian resistance did not begin until after the Balfour Declaration, which announced the British government’s support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" despite the Palestinians constituting 90% of the land’s residents.
All people have the right to live in security in their home and in their homeland. Their consent to or rejection of the division of their country is a political opinion, which has nothing to do with their basic rights. Nonetheless, it is meaningful to understand the main reasons for the Palestinians' rejection of the UN partition proposal. According to the proposal, the Jewish state would assume 55% of the territory despite Jews comprising only one third of the population, most of them immigrants, and owning less than 10% of the land. In addition, Palestinians were supposed to make up almost half of the population of the proposed Jewish state. Not only was the distribution of land unfair, but also the plan raised concerns that its acceptance would lead to the transfer of Arab citizens from the Jewish state. As the majority of the population, the Palestinians saw the proposal as an attempt by the Jewish minority to impose upon the majority. Moreover, it is notable that many in the Jewish public as well opposed the partition proposal (the Revisionists), while others saw it as only an intermediate stage (Mapai) towards the conquest of the entire country and the expulsion of all its Palestinian residents.
Even the forces on the ground fail to reflect the myth of Jewish defense against an Arab offensive. By late 1947, the Jewish community in Palestine had an organized military force of about 40,000 fighters; they faced a mere 10,000 poorly organized and mostly untrained Palestinian fighters alongside volunteers from Arab countries. Even in May 1948, when several established Arab armies joined the war, Israel had the twofold advantage of greater resources and better quality arms.
Ultimately, the ongoing Nakba is a result of military decisions that ignored the partition proposal and led attacks and conquests beyond established borders, and of the Israeli political decision to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees and destroy their towns. The prevention of return is inexcusable and completely unrelated to the question of responsibility for the war.
Historical sources, including Israeli army documents, confirm that the displacement of most Palestinian residents took place during the first months of the war because of "military operations by Jewish fighting forces." The intimidation and expulsion of civilians was a deliberate Zionist tactic, along with forced deportations by foot or military trucks. The role of the Palestinian leadership was negligible.
Expelling people from their homes and lands and preventing their return is an extremely cruel practice that violates the most fundamental human rights, and it is therefore strictly forbidden by international law. The uprooting and dispossession of the Palestinian people, on the scale in which they were carried out, cannot be justified as a product of war. About 750,000 women and men became refugees in this war, and their property was expropriated. About half of them were driven out or expelled before Arab armies joined the war. The prevention of return is inexcusable and completely unrelated to the question of responsibility for the war.
The assumption that the outcomes of the 1948 war may be separated from everything that happened before and after it and that Israel can simply “move on” is based on the assumption of Jewish-Zionist supremacy that has no political, legal or moral justification. First, the deportation policy was not limited to wartime. Second, this notion completely erases the Palestinians: the catastrophe is far from over for Palestinians who are denied the right to visit the ruins of their village, for split families unable to rejoice or mourn together, for a Jaffaite whose sister is besieged in Gaza, or for a Hebronite prevented from wedding his Haifa sweetheart.
Palestinian refugeehood is often compared to other historical cases of ethnic cleansing throughout history in an attempt to excuse or justify it. No deportation is justified. Jews were also uprooted and deported with great cruelty, and this is one of the reasons the world recognized their right for a sovereign state. In several cases (including the present-day heirs of medieval Spain and Nazi Germany), the criminals have apologized after the fact, paid reparations, erected monuments, developed curricula, and enabled second- and third-generation victims to obtain citizenship and reclaim property. The same applies to Jews of Arab and Islamic countries who desire to return to their countries of origin. None of these steps have been implemented in the Palestinian context, and, moreover, the oppression continues apace.
The right of return is one of the human rights enshrined in international law (inter alia, in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). In addition, UN Resolution 194, adopted on December 11, 1948 as part of the efforts to promote reconciliation following the 1948 war, stated 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 […] 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.” Although the State of Israel accepted the resolution, it never implemented it.
As of 2019, about 8.7 million Palestinians are forcibly displaced, out of which about 8 million are refugees (in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Arab countries, and elsewhere) and about 700,000 are internally displaced (displaced Palestinians who were forced to acquire Israeli citizenship, but remained without their land and property and are not allowed to return to the villages where they resided before 1948). The "expiry date" for the right of return, and the end of the refugee status, is something that is stipulated in peace agreements and based on the choice of the refugees. As long as there is no agreement, in accordance with international law and the principle of family reunification, descendants of refugees are also considered refugees and entitled to the same rights, which is not unique to the Palestinian case.
The meaning of the UN's recognition of the State of Israel was the acceptance of the right of the Jewish people to resettle in the land of Israel after two thousand years of exile. Resolution 194 recognizes that this right is unfair to the Palestinians living in the country and conditioned Jewish right of return on respecting the right of return for Palestinian refugees as well.
The right of return is a basic human right, the implementation of which should not be conditioned on one political solution or another. Undoubtedly, with the implementation of the return, in any agreed upon arrangement, Israel will change its colonial character. The nature and extent of the change depend, among other things, on the agreements between the residents of the country and Palestinian refugees.
At Zochrot, we believe that such a change is a necessary condition for the establishment of a joint egalitarian society in the country. This would offer a real chance for healing the deep wound between Israeli Jews and Palestinians and for the sustainable integration of Israeli Jews in the Middle East as equals rather than occupiers. Moreover, we believe that a gradual and ongoing process of relinquishing privileges and decolonizing both the land and the Israeli political culture will benefit the Jewish public: under an occupying, militaristic, chauvinistic, and racist Jewish state, the budget is not directed to welfare and education, but rather to funding combat forces, weapons, intelligence systems, and propaganda efforts.
We do not believe in resolving injustice by creating a new injustice. There are countless possibilities for realizing the return of refugees without harming more people. In any case, practical solutions should be discussed in negotiations in which Israelis and Palestinians will participate.
Various surveys from 1949 to the present show that between one-fifth and one-quarter of Jewish citizens will support the return of refugees if it does not involve the displacement of Jewish Israelis from their homes. This is a fairly broad consensus in relation to other issues under discussion among Israeli society. Palestinian civil organizations oppose harming Jews as part of the exercise of the right of return. They only seek justice and equal rights and mention that Jews have lived alongside Arabs and Palestinians for centuries, clarifying that their struggle is against Zionist colonialism and not the Jewish people.
Even today, it is estimated that about 80% of the Palestinian refugee lands are uninhabited and have been converted into national parks and fire areas, among other uses. In any case, the return is not a return to the past, but rather a precondition for establishing a future Palestinian-Jewish relationship based on justice and equality.
Zochrot was established to re-expose the history of the dispossession of the Palestinian people - a history that was repressed and silenced by the Jewish public in Israel. Focusing on Israel's crimes against the Palestinians doesn’t imply that we ignore crimes committed against Jews: these offenses are simply already known to the Jewish public, and the voice of the Jewish victims is present in the Israeli discourse. Secondly, our aim is to promote recognition and accountability among the Jewish public in Israel for these crimes.
For those who have experienced the severe trauma of displacement and loss, the competition of pain and injustice is meaningless. However, there is a glaring disproportion between the prevention of the right of return for Palestinian refugees and the right of return granted to Jews. Palestinian refugeehood is often compared to other historical cases of ethnic cleansing throughout history in an attempt to excuse or justify it. No deportation is justified. Jews were also uprooted and deported with great cruelty, and this is one of the reasons the world recognized their right for a sovereign state. In several cases (including the present-day heirs of medieval Spain and Nazi Germany), the criminals have apologized after the fact, paid reparations, erected monuments, developed curricula, and enabled second- and third-generation victims to obtain citizenship and reclaim property. The same applies to Jews of Arab and Islamic countries who desire to return to their countries of origin. None of these steps have been implemented in the Palestinian context, and, moreover, the oppression continues apace.
Palestinian refugees are not at all responsible for the fate of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries, and therefore the rectification of their situation should not be conditioned on the rectification of the situation of those Jews.
Additionally, the attempt to silence the Palestinian Nakba also underlies the ethno-class gaps within Jewish society in Israel. The Ashkenazi "founding generation", which held racist, colonialist views, used the Mizrahi communities as a buffer and substitute for the Palestinians while seizing Palestinians’ assets for themselves. A just solution to the atrocities of the Nakba will also put an end to the Ashkenazi privilege and will allow for distributive justice for both Palestinians and Mizrahis.
The occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the re-imposition of military rule across the Green Line is a direct continuation of Zionist depopulation policy and an integral part of the ongoing Nakba. During the 1967 war, more than 350,000 men and women were displaced from their homes, about half of whom had themselves been refugees since 1948. Israel has also deprived the 1967 refugees of rights guaranteed by international law.
In practice, the focus of the intra-Israeli political discourse on the 1967 occupation normalizes the injustices of 1948. That is, it solidifies the initial destruction, deportation, subordination, and deprivation of rights, legitimizing them in Israeli society. The military occupation of the West Bank and the siege of the Gaza Strip are more visible to the Israeli eye, while the ongoing refugeehood, expropriation, and pain are easier to ignore.
It is important to oppose the military occupation, the siege, the shelling, the arrests, the checkpoints, the disregard for human rights, the demolition of houses, the expropriation of land, and more. However, realizing the refugees’ right to return is the only way to honestly acknowledge the fundamental injustice that created the oppressive relationship between Jews and Palestinians that continues to this day. It is an essential step toward justice and healing. Actions that focus on the "1967 lines" while ignoring the rights of all refugees are devoid of good faith and therefore insufficiently address the legacy of the Nakba.
Zochrot welcomes members from all genders. We chose the name "Zochrot" (the female form for “remembering”) because we believed that the way Israelis remember the 1948 war is fundamentally militaristic and chauvinistic, with an emphasis on battles, operations, conquests and heroism. We chose the female-plural form of the verb in Hebrew as an expression of our attempt to create a feminist alternative that addresses the experiences of women, men, and children.
In line with radical feminist historiography, we believe that the meaning of the Nakba cannot be understood without reference to the key element of women’s lived experience. Conversely, we cannot understand present gender relations and roles without reference to political developments within the broader colonialist context.
In a reality that is in constant struggle over what should be remembered and how, the act of remembering is in itself political. Revealing silenced historical facts has been a central goal for Zochrot since its founding, but this is only one of many parts of our mission. We believe that remembrance of and accountability for the Palestinian Nakba by the Jewish public in Israel is a fundamental precondition for a just peace, but this alone is not enough. The Nakba isn’t a historical event, but rather a process that continues today. It is exemplified first and foremost by the violation of Palestinian refugees’ rights: realizing the right of return is the key for the decolonization of the land and for the creation of a just and sustainable solution. We believe that any political solution must rely on cooperation between Israeli residents and the refugees.