The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine Never Ended

Israel was founded with the Nakba, a series of atrocities that ethnically cleansed Palestinians from their homeland. Today we are witnessing Israel engage in ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Gaza on an even larger, more violent scale.

People move past destroyed buildings along a street in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 14, 2024. (AFP via Getty Images)

In 1948, at Israel’s founding, Zionist forces ethnically cleansed and destroyed over 530 Palestinian villages and towns, killing more than ten thousand Palestinians in a series of civilian massacres. As Zionists seized over 78 percent of historic Palestine, nearly one million Palestinians, out of a population of 1.9 million, were expelled from their homes and made lifetime refugees. Many of those uprooted flooded to Gaza, tripling its population overnight and rendering the tiny strip a colossal concentration camp for refugees.

Palestinians refer to those tragic events as the Nakba, an Arabic term meaning “catastrophe,” which has become a synonym for the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

The Nakba did not unfold overnight. It was carried out in different phases — or “plans,” as the Zionists called them. Plans A, B, and C aimed to prepare Zionist forces in Mandate Palestine for military and offensive campaigns against Palestinian targets, with the purpose of terrorizing the native population out of Palestine.

Plan C spelled out clearly punitive actions against Palestinians, which included killing the Palestinian political leadership and senior military and government officials; destroying Palestinian transportation, infrastructure, and sources of livelihoods, such as water wells and mills; and destroying Palestinian social life by attacking clubs, coffee houses, and meeting places. Having mined village files for “lists of leaders, activists, potential human targets, the precise layout of villages, and so on,” Plan C provided Zionist commanders with all the data they needed to carry out those atrocities.

Plan D (Dalet in Hebrew), the final plan, aimed for the systematic and total expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland. In the words of Israeli historian Ilan Pappé, author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, “It was this plan that sealed the fate of the Palestinians within the territory the Zionist Leaders had set their eyes on for their future Jewish State.”

The Terror of the Nakba

The Nakba was a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing, characterized by widespread and brutal atrocities. On April 9, 1948, for instance, about 130 fighters from the Zionist terrorist groups of Irgun and Lehi stormed into Deir Yassin, a village of roughly six hundred people near Jerusalem, and massacred over two hundred Palestinians — men, women, and children. An Israeli soldier later described the Zionist tactics bluntly: “We’re putting in explosives and running away. An explosion and move on, an explosion and move on and within a few hours, half the village isn’t there anymore.”

Fahim Zaydan, who was twelve years old when the massacre unfolded, recalled how Zionist fighters murdered his family before his eyes: “They took us out one after the other; they shot an old man, and when one of his daughters cried, she was shot too. Then they called my brother Muhammad and shot him in front us, and when my mother yelled, bending over him — carrying my little sister Hudra in her hands, still breastfeeding her — they shot her too.”

On May 23, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)’s Alexandroni Brigade rounded up over two hundred Palestinian villagers in Tantura near Haifa, a village of roughly fifteen hundred residents and massacred them in cold blood. A Jewish eyewitness later recalled, “It was one of the most shameful battles fought by the IDF. . . . They did not leave anyone alive.” Some of those atrocities are narrated in Tantura, a film by director Alon Schwarz, which draws on 140 hours of oral testimonies by former Israeli soldiers of the Alexandroni Brigade and local Palestinian residents to recount the horrific war crimes committed by Zionist forces there.

On July 11, in what became known as the Lydda Death March, Israeli forces stormed into the Arab town of Lydda, where they massacred hundreds of residents and expelled some seventy thousand Palestinians. During Operation Danny, as Israel called it, the 89th Israeli Battalion, mounted on armored cars and jeeps, raided the city “spraying machine-gun fire at anything that moved,” Israeli historian Benny Morris writes. When he was asked what is to be done with the population of Lydda, Israeli leader (and future first prime minister) David Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture that said, “Drive them out!”

On October 29, the IDF’s 89th Commando Battalion, which was composed of former Irgun and Lehi paramilitary forces and commanded by Moshe Dayan, invaded the Palestinian village of al-Dawayima, where they killed hundreds of civilians and raped dozens of women. “There was no battle and no resistance,” an Israeli soldier eyewitness later said. “The first conquerors killed from eighty to a hundred Arabs, including women and children. The children were killed by smashing their skulls with sticks. There was not a house without dead.”

Pappé writes, “The events that unfolded in al-Dawaymeh are probably the worst in the annals of Nakba atrocities.” The Zionist atrocities in al-Dawayima were so appalling that Palestinian leaders tried to prevent news of the massacre from reaching other Palestinian towns, fearing it would terrorize more people out of Palestine, as had happened in the wake of Deir Yassin massacre.

On October 30, the IDF’S 7th Brigade stormed into the northern Palestinian village of Saliha and butchered one hundred Palestinians. The next day, Zionist forces executed more than eighty villagers in the nearby village of Hula.

Zionist leaders proudly spread the news of their massacres as a warning to all Palestinians that a similar fate awaited them should they refuse to abandon their homes and take flight. As Ben-Gurion declared in October 1948: “The Arabs of the Land of Israel have only one function left — to run away.”

The atrocities sent terror waves across Palestinian towns and villages, forcing thousands to make a rapid exodus, leaving behind warm beds and brewed coffee, damp laundry still hanging from their windows, millstones running at their doorsteps — never to return. By the time of Israel’s founding, whole Palestinian communities in cities like Jaffa, Jerusalem, Haifa, Safed, and Tiberias, had been either expelled or forced to flee in terror. In my hometown of Jaffa, the largest Palestinian city in Mandate Palestine, only about three thousand of seventy-five thousand Palestinians who lived there remained after the ethnic cleansing. In more than seventy massacres committed by Israel, hardly a Palestinian village or town was spared. As Zionist commander Moshe Dayan would later confess:

Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist. Not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.

Those collective executions and mass expulsions meant the wholesale destruction of Palestinian society and the near-erasure of its thriving culture. The massacres have “left an indelible mark of horror in Palestinian memory.” Each Nakba Day, Palestinians mark those events with symbolic marches of return to their vanished towns and villages.

The Second Nakba

While Palestinians have always feared the prospect of a second Nakba, which several Israeli officials have threatened over the years, most never imagined that it would unfold before their eyes in broad daylight, believing that ethnic cleansing belonged in the past century.

They were wrong. For eight months since last October, Israel has massacred and displaced more than three times as many Palestinians in Gaza as it did in all of Palestine during the Nakba. The toll on civilians in the besieged strip has now exceeded thirty-five thousand Palestinians, including over fifteen thousand children, while thousands remain buried under rubble. About two million Palestinians have been displaced, most of whom are sheltering in Rafah, which has been under constant Israeli bombardment and is now facing ground assaults. Since Israeli forces invaded the small refugee town, over three hundred thousand terrified Palestinians have fled Rafah into the unknown — with some thirty thousand fleeing daily —  evoking tragic scenes from the Nakba of 1948.

Once again, Palestinians are being forced to choose between death and ethnic cleansing. The same forces whose commanders screamed “erase it” at Tantura seventy-six years ago are now screaming for the total erasure of Gaza. In a horrifying irony, Israel is now bombing and displacing the same Palestinians who it forced into Gaza as refugees more than seven decades ago. Israel is likely the only state in living memory that has twice ethnically cleansed its native population.

This is a second Nakba unfolding before our eyes: the mass displacement and exodus trails of refugees marching on foot, under constant bombardment and intensifying siege, leaving behind destroyed homes and lives. The civilian massacres, unfolding daily and hourly. The total annihilation of Palestinian life, culture, and society. The razed streets of Gaza, filled with rubble and reeking of blood and trampled by heartbroken survivors. The bodies of dead children strewn in the streets and under the rubble.

Yet the Gaza genocide is only the latest chapter in Israel’s decades-long oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian people, which is why for nearly fifteen million Palestinians, the Nakba never truly ended. For them — whether they are living in permanent exile, under apartheid in the West Bank, under siege in Gaza, in a stateless limbo in Jerusalem, or as an involuntary minority in Israel — the Nakba is an ongoing event.

For decades, Israel has demanded the unquestioning surrender of the Palestinian people. It has denied Palestinians the right to resist nonviolently, even as Israel’s own “right to defense” has become a euphemism for the systematic killing of civilians. Western leaders have watched the ethno-state balloon in size. They have sat idly by while Israeli settlers devoured Palestinian lands bit by bit and violently enforced Palestinians’ subordination. They have winked at the injustices meted out against Palestinians: the brutal occupation, the separate-and-unequal system of apartheid, the merciless siege of Gaza. By backstopping Israel, they have allowed it to become normal to imagine Palestinians as a stateless people deprived of basic human rights and freedoms; and indeed, to imagine Palestinians as less than humans.

For over seven decades, Israel has carried out its ethnic cleansing of Palestinians while escaping justice and acting with impunity, emboldened by Western support and international apathy. Today Palestinians and their descendants demand justice, now more urgently than ever.