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The Nakba / The Catastrophe

Every year Palestinians commemorate the Nakba ("the catastrophe"): the expulsion and dispossession of hundreds of thousands Palestinians from their homes. Throughout modern-day Israel, over four hundred Palestinian villages were depopulated in the 1947-1949 war. With houses mostly destroyed, mosques and churches put to other uses, and cemeteries plowed under, Palestinian communities were left geographically dispossessed. Palestinians have since carried their village names, memories, and possessions with them into the diaspora, transforming their lost past into local histories in the form of "village memorial books". Numbering more than 100 volumes in print, these books recount family histories, cultural traditions, and the details of village life, revealing Palestinian history through the eyes of Palestinians.

According to British Mandate Authority population figures in 1947, there were about 1.3 million Arabs in all of Palestine. Between 700,000 and 900,000 of the Arabs lived in the region eventually bounded by the 1949 Armistice line, the so-called Green Line. By the time the fighting stopped, there were only about 170,000 Arabs left in the new State of Israel. By the summer of 1949, about 750,000 Palestinian Arabs were living in squalid refugee camps, set up virtually overnight in territories adjacent to Israel's borders. About 300,000 lived in the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by the Egyptian army. Another 450,000 became unwelcome residents of the West Bank of the Jordan, occupied by the Arab Legion of Transjordan.

For Palestinians, the refugee question embodies their cause. More than any other, the refugee question carries the weight of their dispossession and collective anger against Israel; their frustration with the inability of their leaders to resolve their national crisis; and their sense of abandonment by the world, depite the reality that millions of Palestinian refugees daily receive services from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. The refugee question connects their statelessness and their ambivalent relationships with the Arab states that - with the notable exception of Jordan - have denied citizenship and equal rights to Palestinian refugees.

The refugee issue for Israel is about the expulsion of as many as 850,000 Jewish refugees from the Middle East and the absorption of 600,000 of them into Israel in the fragile first years of its existence. In varying degrees, and in varying circumstances, between the years of Israel's founding and the 1967 Six-Day War the Jews of Iran and the Arab world were compelled by circumstance. For Israelis, these factors, combined with six decades of unremitting war and terrorism, and the implications of demography, make Palestinian demands concerning refugees sound not like calls for justice, but calls for suicide.

Jewish refugees have been successfully absorbed in Israel and elsewhere and, perhaps, as a result, their claims and misfortune have been largely ignored. The Arab world having denied them more than mere sufferance of their presence, most Palestinian refugees-including many who lack even legal identification-still linger in refugee camps that have in fact become small cities. Enraged and helpless, they have watched the national movement and institutions that were to have ended their statelessness, and resolved their claims, stagger, stall and stand now in real danger of collapse or disintegration.

The refugee question the central and, perhaps, the most difficult of the final status issues. For Palestinians, the refugee question, more than any other, embodies their cause. It carries the weight of their dispossession and collective anger against Israel; their frustration with the inability of their leaders to resolve their national crisis; and their sense of abandonment by the world,

Even as the claims have lingered and the grievances of the refugees have hardened, time has not stood still. The reality is that an exchange of populations has taken place; that the Jews of Iran and the Arab countries are not going back to those lands; and that the Palestinian refugees will not be returning to homes in the State of Israel. Too large an edifice of illusion about the "right of return" has been built up to be dispensed with overnight. For a majority of Palestinians, "refugee-hood" has become an indelible component of their identity, and that an imaginary world with a "right of return" has become more precious than actual citizenship in Palestine. This reality-gap is a problem.

Long term health impacts of internal displacement (ID) resulting from political violence are not well documented or understood. One such case is the ID of 300,000-420,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel and their descendants during the Nakba of 1948 (Palestinian Catastrophe). Palestinian internally displaced persons (IDPs), that is, those who were forcibly displaced and dispossessed from their homes and lands during the Nakba and its aftermath, as well as their families and descendants, and who reside within the current borders of Israel, had an odds ratio of 1.45 (95% CI = 1.02-2.07) for poor self-rated health (SRH) compared to non-IDPs after controlling for demographic, socioeconomic and psychosocial factors. No difference was found between IDPs and non-IDPs in limiting longstanding illness following control for confounders. Low socioeconomic position and chronic stress were significantly related to ID and to SRH. There are adverse long term health impacts of the Nakba on the IDPs when compared to non-IDPs. These disparities might stem from IDPs' unhealed post-traumatic scars from the Nakba, or from becoming a marginalized minority within their own society due to their displacement and loss of collective identity.

After decades of Palestinian exile, the Middle East Peace Process provided a framework for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, excluding the majority of Palestinians from the state-building process. In that context, the 50th anniversary of the Nakba triggered confrontation between competing narratives on Palestinian past.

The Nakba is central in the conflict in relation to the failure of Israel to acknowledge the uprooting and dispossession of Palestinians from their lands in 1948. So are policies of transfer, colonisation and dispossession implemented since the Nakba to remove Palestinians from their lands.



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