What Is Nakba Day? A Brief History

How Palestinians began officially marking the loss of their homeland 50 years after the event.

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Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948.
Palestinian refugees leaving a village near Haifa, June 1948. Credit: Corbis
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Palestinians have been mourning the loss of their homeland since 1948, but Nakba Day, an annual day of commemoration inaugurated by the Palestinian Authority, is a relatively new addition to the calendar.

A Palestinian boy shouts slogans as others wave flags after Friday prayers during a protest to mark Nakba day near the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City, May 15, 2015.Credit: Reuters

"Nakba" is just the Arabic word for disaster. After 1948, with the definite article “al” (i.e., al-Nakba), it became the proper name for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of persons and the establishment of a Jewish state following the Israeli War of Independence.

Credit: Amos Biderman

Yet for decades, no day was singled out as a day of commemoration, though some Palestinian Israelis took advantage of the national holiday on Israeli Independence Day to visit their lost homes or deserted villages within Israel.

This would change in 1998. As Israelis were preparing an elaborate celebration for the nation's 50th anniversary, Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat decided that Palestinians should mark the 50th anniversary of the Nakba as well. He declared May 15, the day after Israeli independence in 1948, as Nakba Day.

Nakba Day, which was observed this week, marks the 69th year of the Palestinian nation’s disaster, but also of its dignity, capabilities and strength.
A musician from a marching band looks on as Palestinians participate in a march to commemorate the 'Nakba Day' in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 13, 2015. Credit: AFP

(Note that Nakba Day was set as May 15 every year, while Israeli events such as Independence Day are set by the Hebrew calendar. Since the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars do not correspond, in a given year, the two events may fall on the same day, or they may fall weeks apart.)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on April 3, 2016.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office on April 3, 2016. Credit: AFP

On the evening before the first Nakba Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented that “Israel was not responsible for the Palestinian tragedy, their leadership is."

For that first Nakba Day, the Palestinian Authority organized rallies in the Palestinian cities, refugee camps, and towns in Israel. The rallies turned into demonstrations, which escalated into violent clashes with Israeli security forces. The IDF spokesman said that the Palestinian Authority encouraged the violence. Four Palestinians were killed by IDF fire and 71 more were injured.

Nakba Day has been noted annually ever since, though the level of violence changes from year to year. The Nakba days of 1999 and 2000 were relatively quiet, but in 2001, the day turned violent with four Palestinians killed and dozens injured. One Israeli, Idit Mizrahi, 22, was shot dead.

A boy holds a key in Bethlehem to mark the Nakba, on May 14, 2014.
A boy holds a key in Bethlehem to mark the Nakba, on May 14, 2014.Credit: Reuters

In 2005, Nakba Day and Israel's Independence Day fell in the same week for the first time. This caused some conflation of the two events, with left-wing activists and Palestinian Israelis holding Nakba Day events, such as visiting deserted Palestinian villages on Independence Day, to the moral indignation of some other Israelis.

From that year, joint Nakba Day-Independence Day commemorations became an annual event. In 2011, however, the Knesset passed the so-called “Nakba Law” in 2011, which empowered the finance minister to defund NGOs marking Independence Day in a mournful manner.

That year’s Nakba Day was the deadliest on record. Palestinians in Syria, the West Bank and Gaza held rallies and marched to the Israeli border in an attempt to enter Israeli territory. On the Syrian border, the IDF fired at the protesters, killing 22 and injuring dozens. In the West Bank and Gaza, 125 Palestinians were injured and one was killed as he tried to place a bomb on the patrol route separating Gaza from Israel.

While Nakba Day events of 2012 and 2013 saw clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces, with injuries on both sides, the events of 2014’s Nakba Day were relatively peaceful.

Palestinians participate in a march to commemorate the 'Nakba Day' in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 13, 2015.Credit: AFP

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