Followers of the Palestinian—Israeli conflict are aware of the term “Nakba”, which literally means catastrophe and refers to the war that took place between 1947–1949 and resulted in the uprooting of more than 80% of the Palestinian population that had inhabited the area on which Israel was built for centuries. While the Nakba represented a catastrophic historic event in the collective consciousness of the Palestinian people, it was followed only 19 years later by another horrific war which resulted in the displacement of a quarter to one third of the Palestinian population and the beginning of a new era in which the whole of it got to live under a complex Israeli regime. This additional event got to be known as “the Naksa”, which can be translated as a serious quick escalation of an earlier catastrophe.
The Naksa happened in and after a war that took only six days between Israel on the one hand, and a number of Arab countries surrounding, resulting in a relatively easy victory of Israel and the occupation of territories that were under the sovereignty or administration of its neighbouring states. Although the hostilities of the war itself were quick and not that widespread, the displaced persons from the occupied Palestinian Territory were hundreds of thousands. In other words, the number of Palestinians displaced in that war was out of proportion.
This can be understood only by explaining the ideological background that has, since the Nakba, been informing military, legislative and administrative Israeli operation. As discovered by a stream of Israeli historians who researched Israeli archives covering the Nakba period, and others who researched early Zionist leader’s legacy, the displacement of the Palestinian people away from Palestine was seen as part of the solution to the Jewish problem. Since Zionists wanted to create a Jewish state in an area were Jews were a minority, tilting this demographic balance to favour Jews was only possible by the combination of colonising the land with Jews and moving Palestinians out of the same land.
A Demographic War
When the war took place in 1967, Zionist leaders saw this as an opportunity to make some demographic changes in the occupied territory as a whole and in certain areas in particular. During and immediately after the war, some quarter a million to 420,000 Palestinians were displaced from their homes.1 This happened through war operations and was cemented by making some regulatory interventions that prevented the displaced persons from returning to their homes.
Latroun and East Jerusalem as Strategic Areas
During the war operations, Israel focused its displacement activities in certain areas of strategic importance. One of the most significant was the eviction of three villages near the central Latrun area at the western edge of the West Bank, close to the Israeli border, resulting in the displacement of 10,000 civilians.2 Latroun looks on the map like a finger sticking out the West Bank body, which Israel failed to occupy in the 1948 war. The villages in the Latroun area continued to be populated until the 1967 war, when Israel forcibly expelled the whole population and demolished every single building. The lands that belong to the Latroun villages were later turned into a park called Canada Park, and an Israeli settlement was also built on part of the lands. In addition, Israel built part of its rail line on another part of the lands from which the refugees were displaced.
The evictions of the areas at the edge of the Israel-West Bank borders included more villages and towns. The villages of Bayt Marsam, Bat ’Awa, Habla, Jiftlik and Al-Burj were all destroyed3, together with a significant part of the town of Qalqilyah. Similarly, as soon as Israel controlled the Jerusalem area, it evacuated the Arab residents of the ancient Al-Magharbeh Quarter in the old city and demolished all of their houses leaving them homeless. The residence neighbourhood houses has been an endowment for centuries, and Palestinian families have resided there since then. Israeli officials saw that the opportunity of the war was one that should be taken advantage of to clear this area and open the space in front of the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site in Jerusalem. Similarly, 4,000 Palestinians were evicted from the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, but the houses were not demolished as the displaced Palestinians were replaced later by Jewish inhabitants.4
To the Other Side of the Jordan River
Another area of strategic importance was the Jordan Valley, which is the border between the West Bank and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. During the war, Israel displaced 88% of the population of that area. The first to be driven out of the area were refugees who had been displaced from what became Israel in the aftermath of the 1948 war.5 The residents of three refugee camps in the area were all expelled or fled to Jordan, in addition to half of the native population of the area.
Also in the aftermath of the war, Israel managed to get rid of 200,000 Palestinians by organising buses departing from Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank to the borers with Jordan, and forcing those going there to sign a document declaring that they are leaving the country voluntarily.6 While some of the residents left voluntarily, a former soldier explained that a significant part was forced deportation. He mentioned:
Although there were those deportees who were leaving voluntarily, but there were also not a few people who were simply expelled. We forced them to sign. I will tell you how exactly this was conducted: a bus was arriving and only men were getting off . . . We were told that these were saboteurs . . . and it would be better that they would be outside the state. They did not want to leave, but were dragged from the bus while being kicked and hit by revolver butts. By the time they arrived to my stall, they were usually already completely blurred at this stage and did not care much about signing. It seemed to them part of the process. In many cases, the violence used against them was producing desirable results from our point of view. The distance between the border point and the bridge was about 100 metres and out of fear they were crossing to the other side running; the border guards and the paratroopers were all the time in the vicinity. When someone refused to give me his hand [for fingerprinting] they came and beat him badly. Then I was forcibly taking his thumb, immersing it in ink and finger printing him. This way the refuseniks were removed. . . I have no doubt that tens of thousands of men were removed against their will.7
“Thin Out” the Palestinian Population
This operation, as noticed by Masalha, has not received much attention, probably because it did not involve dramatic military operations and evictions like the case in the Latroun villages or Qalqilya. However, it actually came into public discourse and started to receive attention when Haim Hertzog, who organised this operation after the war while serving as the first military governor of the West Bank, proudly announced in 1991 that he managed to quietly transfer 200,000 Palestinians by using this method.
In conclusion, we can see that the Israeli occupation forces acted upon the desire to, as Masalha expresses it, “thin out” the Palestinian population in the occupied territory. This has resulted in a large number of refugees and internally displaced persons. After the displacement took place, Israel cemented it with some regulatory tools that resulted in sustaining the exile.
These regulatory tools included first preventing all those who were absent when the war took place as well as those who became refugees or displaced beyond the borders of Palestine from their right to live in their homes. They did so by bringing forth new residency statuses for East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip and giving it only to those counted by the census that Israel itself took in the occupied territory. It intentionally excluded those who were displaced and those who happened to be abroad from this status.
Furthermore, the Israeli military government in the West Bank and Gaza issued military orders according to which it considered any unauthorised entry to the occupied territory illegal, and punished this action by a number of measures including deportation.
All these policies resulted in a continued displacement of these individuals and their families most of whom have not been able to return to Palestine until the current day. In addition, many more Palestinians have joined these victims after they suffered from Israel’s continuous displacement measures, locally known as the continuous Nakba. These measures include residency revocation, restrictions on child registration, home demolitions, and many others.
No just peace can come about without resolving the plight of the refugees of both 1948 and 1967 wars as well as those who were displaced by the Israeli regime after that. More importantly, peace can only be established and cemented by tackling the Israeli ideological motivations for creating such a displacement problem.
1The exact number of those displaced by the war is not known exactly. Soon after the end of the war, the UN Secretary General estimated the number to be almost 255,000 Palestinian displaced persons, in addition to 110,000 Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights. See, UN General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General Under General Assembly Resolution 2252 (ES-V) and Security Council Resolution 237 (1967), September 15, 1967, para. 159, UN Doc. A/6797. Also issued under the symbol: S/8158; The Commissioner-General of the UNRWA estimated the number to be 300,000 with 120,000 among them being refugees from the 1948 war displaced for the second time. See UNRWA, Report of the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (1 July 1996- 30 June 1967) (UN General Assembly, June 30, 1967), para. 1, GA 22nd session official record (30 June 1967). UN Doc. A/6713; Bailey put the number at 300,000 among them 113,000 refugees who had been displaced in 1948.
2Nur Masalha, A Land without a People: Israel, Transfer and the Palestinians, 1949-96,Faber & Faber, 1997.
3U.N. General Assembly, Report of the Secretary-General Under General Assembly Resolution 2252 (ES-V) and Security Council Resolution 237 (1967), para. 65–72; Masalha, The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 198.
4Rashid Khalidi, “The Future of Arab Jerusalem,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 19, no. 2 (January 1992): 139–40.
5UNRWA, Report of the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (1 July 1996-30 June 1967), para. 30; Masalha, The Politics of Denial: Israel and the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 203; Quigley, “Family Reunion and the Right to Return to Occupied Territory,” 225.
6Nur Masalha, The Politics of Denial, ibid.
7Ibid. All the data up to the end of the article are from this book.