Unfolding Trauma: For Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba Continues to Today

Unfolding Trauma: For Palestinians, the 1948 Nakba Continues to Today

Until we come to grips with the political and cultural legacy of the Nakba, calm, stability, and normality will elude Israel.


These are historical days. Palestine and Palestinians everywhere are in revolt. The recent eruption of violence in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and inside the Green Lines of Israel is but the latest episode in the nearly seventy-five-year struggle of the indigenous Arab peoples of Palestine against Israel’s violent, intransigent, and unaccountable colonialism.

In the terms of numerous scholars, the resistance of indigenous Arab people of Palestine is for “recognition”: of their humanity, of their rights and of their self-determination. The widespread Land Day uprising in 1976, the stone-throwing in the first Intifada protests of the late 1980s, the bloody attacks in the Second Intifada of the 2000s, the protests against assaults on Gaza, and dispossession and displacement of Palestinians throughout this entire period are a natural response to a colonial regime that denies Palestinians that basic recognition.


“The Question of Palestine,” as Edward Said framed it, has gone through numerous changes since 1948. In the United States, the best-known assaults have been military, but the siege on Palestinian recognition includes the international Nakba of 1948 that established Israel as an independent state on Palestinian land, the pent-up resistance to occupation released in the first Intifada, the unfulfilled potential of the Oslo Accords, the post-Second Intifada division of lands, and the current upheaval against the status quo. Throughout these phases, various normative discourses and institutions arose that shifted the nature of the Palestinian national movement and its resistance.

On the surface, many specific incidents incited the current upheaval. Prominent among them are the violence toward young Palestinians seated on the stairs of Damascus gate on the first nights of the holy month of Ramadan and Israeli forces cutting the speaker cables of the Al-Aqsa mosque and firing stun grenades inside Al-haram Sharif, the symbolic pillar of Palestinian spirituality and national redemption. At the same time, the decade of brutal dislocation of Palestinian families from the small, nearby Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah continued. All of these—and in particular, the brutality toward the Palestinian residents of that small Jerusalemite neighborhood—mobilized Palestinians everywhere.

The unrest then spread through Palestinian towns and was mirrored in cities inside the Green Line. From Nazareth to Lod, Ramla, Haifa, and Beer Sheva, young Palestinians have taken to the streets to protest the practices of the Israeli occupation. Spontaneous protests, neither united nor prepared and not organized by any political party, called for justice and freedom, for the end of occupation, and a free Palestine. The state of Israel responded with unbridled brutality from its police and military, and unabated mob-driven lynching by its civilian population, incited by the state-funded media, and protected by Israeli police.

These are current events, but violence has accompanied the Zionist colonization of Palestine and the creation of Israel from the outset. Palestinians refer to the 1948 destruction of more than 500 Palestinian towns and the elimination of their friends and families to create a Jewish state as the Nakba, or the “catastrophe.” The UN partition plan that created the Green Line boundaries to Israel set off the Nakba of ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the new state and the near-total collapse of Palestinian society. The most tragic event in the region’s collective history is the killing, expulsion, and flight of the vast majority of the 940,000 Palestinians who then lived in historic Palestine. 

Palestinians commemorate the Nakba’s dispossession and destruction of their homeland as a national tragedy. This year, May 15 marks the seventy-third anniversary of what every Palestinian recognizes as their violent, forced expulsion from their homeland in order to create a Jewish-majority state, as the Zionist movement desired. The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood epitomizes the entire Palestinian story, the Nakba narrated and experienced again. Palestinian refugees forcibly relocated in 1948 are reliving their displacement and terror again. Not one Palestinian family does not know about the loss of home and denial of identity. This is a relived collective trauma. Even for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were internally displaced themselves in 1948 and lost their homes and properties, Nakba is a continual experience of colonial deprivation on every level: cultural, historical, and legal.

Al-Nakba” also commemorates the beginning of the Palestinian resistance to their colonizers, a resistance to the asymmetry of power between a colonial oppressor sanctioned by global superpowers and the much weaker Palestinians. The natural response of the colonized is violence against being held in subservience for many years by an inherently oppressive and violent colonial system. For Palestinians, resistance in its many forms is considered a form of heroism and a blatant challenge to Zionist colonialism’s ongoing attempt to eradicate the Palestinian people. In the face of organized state violence, the Palestinian resistance has not perished. Neither is it inexhaustible. Instead, it changes form, shifting from the armed struggle of the sixties and seventies to the mass uprising of the eighties and the suicide operations of the Second Intifada, or the Hamas resistance in Gaza, a prisoners’ revolution and hunger strike, or the current form of independent protest against the Nakba everywhere.

Palestinians experience the efforts toward their eradication as intensely today as in 1948. Today’s settler colonialism operates through the elimination of indigenous people's existence on the land, without which settler empowerment cannot operate. The Israeli colonial settler state past and present is not merely interested in exploiting the Palestinians for their land and their menial labor (as home builders or workers to erect the separation wall). It attempts to negate the very existence of the Palestinians as a people, to render them invisible as a collective. This mindset is clinched by the well-known Zionist slogan: “A land without a people for a people without a land.”

Early Israeli settlers viewed Palestine as an empty land that was sparsely cultivated. Leading Zionist movement thinkers and writers, such as Theodor Herzl, Hayim Nahman Bialik, and Max Mandelstamm propagated this view in writings that negated the existence of Palestinians as a people. The dominant Zionist perspective, unchanged since 1948, views the Palestinians as an invisible and insignificant entity. This perspective has shaped a discourse of masters and slaves that has yielded a racist and bloody colonialist system inside Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories across the 1967 borders. This system does not give credit to any rights of natives. Basic human needs such as identity and security are not seen or acknowledged. The Zionist settler understands and treats the Palestinian not as a member of the collective people with inherent rights, but as an illegitimate intruder on “the promised land.” As identity-less individuals, Palestinians can live on the land only through the settlers’ benevolence, only if they follow the master’s rules and forfeit any right to the land.

Nonetheless, the Israeli colonialist sees himself as the victim and the only victim. Israel does not feel any guilt or any need for accountability to the Palestinians because it sees its actions as just and justified. The lack of Israeli accountability frequently is attributed to the tragic Jewish past and was perhaps most explicitly stated by Golda Meir in her famous quote (quoted by Gideon Levy): “After what the Nazis did to us, we can do whatever we want.” Accordingly, the Israeli public, media, and political leaders express a perpetual surprise each time Palestinians revolt. They are shocked and in disbelief because they do not know or even truly see the people they dominate.

Israelis generally avoid the moral questions that come with colonization through a Jewish-centered historical narrative and through limited knowledge of their colonized Palestinian subjects living beyond the Green Line or inside it. Israelis know little about their Palestinian neighbors. As a Palestinian who lived most of her life inside the Green Line, I learned that in the streets and even within academic institutions Israelis did not want to know anything about me or my people. They accept the notion that prior to Nakba the land was without people and now belongs to the people who were without a land. They believe that the scattered inhabitants of the land were Arabs who simply happened to live in that place without any deep connection to it. The Arabs lived along with Jews, to whom the land always belonged.

The perpetual Israeli—“surprise syndrome”—is an existential condition that also allows them to justify their colonial behavior. They do not see their policies of apartheid, demolition of Palestinian homes, discriminatory laws (like the Jewish Nation law, the Nakba law), the constant repression, the killings, arrests and confiscations of land as provocations. Rather, Israelis claim or argue that “the barrier of fear is broken” because of Palestinian actions, and the solution lies in “frightening them more” so that they will return to their homes, to their daily lives, and their businesses.

Israel, its leaders, and media deal with these uprisings as if they were unprecedented and yet seasonally triggered events. The specifics are always surprising, the context is always short-term, and history need be taken seriously as the crises are relatively fleeting.