Nakba: what the catastrophe meant for Palestinian political development

Photo by Sander Crombach on Unsplash

The political consciousness of a people can be fragile. Not because people themselves are fragile but because the forces ranged against them are too powerful.

I was thinking of this in the context of Haifa university Professor As’ad Ghanem’s 2013 paper ‘Palestinian Nationalism: An Overview’.

The paper describes Palestinian political development until Israel’s creation as follows: it was “similar (until 1948) to that of other Arab countries and of many Third World peoples”.

But after that, there was the nakba, which is Arabic for catastrophe, not just for the Palestinian people but for their political development and consciousness.

Consider the hows and why.

As the professor writes in the paper, until 1948, Mandatory Palestine, the geopolitical entity established in the region of Palestine under a League of Nations Mandate, had nearly two million people. Two-thirds of them were Arab; the rest were Jews. The majority of Arabs and almost all the Jews lived in the region that became the state of Israel. But after mass expulsions as well as the flight of many frightened and vulnerable people, only 160,000 Palestinians remained there; nearly 780,000 became refugees in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in neighbouring Arab countries.

The dispersion of the Palestinian population “disrupted political and social processes that had been at work in the Palestinian community before the war,” writes the professor. The result was that “the processes that should have led to the formation of a Palestinian political entity were disrupted or halted in their tracks.”

The mass dispersion built upon the situation that already existed from 1944, while World War II was still underway. The Palestinians had  effectively been rendered leaderless and even though some attempts were made to put forward candidates for leader, the ructions continued. After the  mass dispersion of Palestinians – starting with the moneyed and professional class, they were rendered even more mute, almost invisible. The professor writes about “…their subjection to regimes that were generally hostile to the idea of Palestinian nationalism and the establishment of the Palestinian state”. This, he says, “inaugurated a period of almost total paralysis of Palestinian initiatives to highlight their distinctiveness and national affiliation (aside from a few actions taken by the ‘Government of All Palestine’).”

But then came Gamal Abdel Nasser.

More on that next.