A Guide to Resources on the Palestinian Nakba, Memory and Identity

"Cement block houses replace tented refugee camp, Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, 1955 (Photo/J. Madvo, UNRWA Photo Archives)

“Cement block houses replace tented refugee camp, Khan Younis, Gaza Strip” 1955 (Photo/J. Madvo, UNRWA Photo Archives). Today, 80% of the population of Gaza – 1.2 out of 1.5 million – are refugees and live in some of the most densely populated areas on Earth.

The 1948 Palestinian exodus, also known as the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), holds particular importance for Palestinians. It refers to the mass expulsion and exodus of, as well as the destruction of villages belonging to, Palestinians who inhabited the land that is now part of the State of Israel. By 1950, there were already 750,000 Palestinian refugees in what is now Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian territories (Gaza and the West Bank).

Returning to their lands, otherwise known as the “Right of Return” and symbolized by a key – many Palestinians who were expelled from their homes took their house keys with them – is usually seen among the most sensitive and urgent issues to solve before resolving the so-called ‘Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’.

In recent years, movements dedicated to spreading awareness on the Nakba have multiplied. This could be attributed to an apparent increase in Western awareness of the crimes inflicted upon Palestinians by the State of Israel. Last year's protest for Gaza in London, for example, was the largest of its kind, attracting up to 150,000 people.

Understanding the Nakba is of crucial importance if you wish to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To that end, we're putting together a list of resources for you to learn about the Nakba.

Handala Facing the Sea. Photo by Mazen Abdulaziz from Yemen, Tumblr.

Handala Facing the Sea. Photo by Mazen Abdulaziz from Yemen ( Tumblr). Handala was created by Palestinian cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. He's always represented as a 10 year old barefoot boy, seen from behind. Handala now symbolizes the Palestinian struggle and the Right of Return.

Throughout the Arab World, Palestinians are known for their resilience. Whether it's the creativity of Gazans trying to find ways to survive the current Israeli blockade or the weekly non-violent demonstrations in West Bank villages, Palestinians are seen as examples of, to paraphrase spoken word artist Rafeef Ziadah, life-teaching resilience. Their struggle has come to be known as among the aspects of the ‘Arab Malaise’, coined by the late Lebanese journalist of Syrian and Palestinian origins Samir Kassir – in other words, attempting to explain why, in Kassir's words, there's “feelings of persecution for some, self hatred for others; a deep disquiet pervades the Arab world.”

Understanding the Nakba, therefore, is key to learning not only about the so-called “conflict” in Israel-Palestine, but also about wider issues touching the Arab world.

Articles and Photography Series

Writing about the Nakba can be tricky. Where to start? What should we focus on? Should we start with Plan Dalet? The ‘actual’ Nakba during which 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes by Zionist paramilitaries or left out of fear, and made refugees in (primarily) Lebanon, Syria and Jordan? Massacres such as the infamous one in Deir Yassin? The Institute for Palestine Studies decided to leave it up to Palestinians themselves to tell their own stories. It has put together a series of articles under the title “The Nakba – In The Words of Palestinians“.

Palestine refugees flee across over the Jordan river on the damaged Allenby Bridge during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. (UNRWA archives)

Palestine refugees flee across over the Jordan river on the damaged Allenby Bridge during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. (UNRWA archives)

Giving Palestinians a long-denied voice is a way of taking back what Edward Said called the ‘Permission to Narrate‘. Therefore, in the same spirit as the Institute for Palestine Studies, self-styled “progressive Jewish” website Mondoweiss has put together a list of stories by Palestinian descendants of Nakba survivors as well as other related pieces. Among the stories are Amer Hussein's “the burden of remembering” and Mariam Bargouthi's “Memory (On Nakba Day)“. Pieces on more recent Nakba-related topics include Amjad Alqasis’ “Israel’s state ideology tantamount to the ongoing Palestinian Nakba” and Yara Dowani's “‘So wait, the Nakba is…?': Listening to Israelis discuss the Nakba“. Other relevant pieces include “The Nakba and the ‘great book robbery’ of 1948“, “The Palestinian Nakba: A time to remember global indigenous struggles“, “‘For Palestinians, history is never behind us': Family memories on Nakba Day” and “Photo essay: Continually displaced, Palestinian refugees spend Nakba day in Iraqi IDP camp“. Also published in a Western media outlet was the widely-shared piece by Saleem Haddad for Slate.com entitled “The Dispossessed” .

Middle East Eye has put together a “#Nakba” series featuring commentaries by such Israeli figures as historian Ilan Pappe (“The Nakba: A crime watched, ignored and remembered“) and journalist Meron Rapoport (“The return of the right of return“). On their part, The Electronic Intifada focused on the ‘on-going Nakba’ with stories of current challenges faced by those resisting occupation. Examples of such stories include Shahd Abdusalama's “How my grandmother stood up to Israel’s occupation” as well as an editorial on how to fight the on-going Nakba today. Furthermore, the Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU) has released a “General Facts and Figures” post.

From within Israel, no website has done better work than the folks over at +972mag. Among the many articles on the Nakba, recommended pieces include “To return, we must feel what our grandparents went through” by Samah Salaime, “Thousands return to destroyed Palestinian villages in Israel” by Natasha Roth, “Liberating Israelis from the mentality of occupation” by Eitan Bronstein Aparicio and Dr. Eléonore Merza Bronstein and “The road out of the occupation runs through the Nakba” also by Natasha Roth.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) commemorated the Nakba by highlighting its own work with refugees. Indeed, UNRWA started its work with Palestinian refugees in 1950, and has continued its operations to this day, 65 years later. They tweeted under the hashtag #JustSolution, calling for a fair solution for all Palestinians, including refugees, and Israelis. The below photographs are part of their (highly recommended) “The Long Journey” series, a Facebook album filled with photographs and stories chronicling the lives of Palestinians, starting with the UN Partition of Palestine in 1947 and ending with the Yarmouk humanitarian crisis in Syria. It is also available on a separate website.


If you're more into books than articles, you're in for a treat (though be warned: Nakba books aren't exactly the happiest of books). Marcia Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog has put together a list of seven books on the Nakba for Your Middle East. They are: Gates of the Sun by Elias Khoury, Returning to Haifa by Ghassan Kanafani, The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby, As Though She Were Sleeping by Elias Khoury, Of Noble Origins by Sahar Khalifeh, The Woman from Tantoura by Radwa Ashour and Journal of an Ordinary Grief by Mahmoud Darwish.

Book cover of 'The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine' (Source: Wikipedia)

Book cover of ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ (Source: Wikipedia)

The historians from within Israel who have researched the topic of the Nakba are known as Israel's “new historians”. They include Benny Morris, Ilan Pappé and Avi Shlaim, as well as (sometimes) Tom Segev, Hillel Cohen, Baruch Kimmerling and Simha Flapan. The most famous book written by these authors is arguably Ilan Pappe's “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” but other well-known books include “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” by Avi Shlaim and “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949” by Benny Morris.

Even more numerous are books by Palestinian historians and authors. Rather than just talk about the facts of the Nakba, they tend to also include their analysis of Palestinian national movements. In other words, they try and give a more all-encompassing overview of Palestinian history and identity which includes, but is not limited to, the Nakba. A good example of this is Rashid Khalidi's “Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness” which documents the rise of Palestinian nationalism as going back to the Ottoman Era (rather than the British Mandate). Other recommended books include “Nakba: Palestine, 1948, and the Claims of Memory” edited by Ahmad H. Sa'di and Lila Abu-Lughod and “The Palestine Nakba: Decolonising History, Narrating the Subaltern, Reclaiming Memory” by Nur Masalha.

But perhaps no other Palestinian author writing about memory and identity is more well known than Edward Said. Though usually remembered for his masterpiece “Orientalism“, Said wrote about Palestinian identity and the role of memory extensively. Mixing history with personal recollections, his books include “The Question of Palestine“, “Out of Place: A Memoir“, “Reflections on Exile and Other Essays” and “The Politics of Dispossession: The Struggle for Palestinian Self-Determination, 1969-1994“.

Edward Said (Left) seen with Marcel Khalife (Middle) and Mahmoud Darwish (Right)

Edward Said (Left) seen with Lebanese Musician and Singer Marcel Khalife (Middle) and Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish (Right). All three men have written, spoken and/or sang about the Nakba's symbolism. (Source Unknown)


The giant of Palestinian poetry is undoubtedly Mahmoud Darwish. As Adam Shatz wrote in the New York Times, in Darwish's poetry, “Palestine became a metaphor for the loss of Eden, birth and resurrection, and the anguish of dispossession and exile.” Unfortunately, subtitled readings are limited so here's a selection of two poems read by the master himself.

Videos, Documentaries and other Multimedia

Al Jazeera created ‘Palestine Remix‘, an interactive website asking people to tell their own stories of the Nakba. Among the many features of the website are 17 films on the Nakba available in several languages. “This is the story of Palestine like you've never seen it before. Our filmmakers take you on a journey through the Palestinian cities past and present, inside Israeli prisons and behind the scenes of the resistance movements challenging the occupation today.” The website features 250 people's unique perspectives on Palestine, asking us to “meet the array of eyewitnesses, activists, academics and power brokers shaping the reality of Palestine today.”

Interestingly, they also included 580 different places from historical Palestine, many of which were destroyed during the Nakba. “Qisarya. Dayr Yassin. Tantura. These villages were destroyed by Zionists during the creation of Israeli state. Our interactive maps show you how thousands of Palestinian villages vanished and how the residents were dispossessed of their land. We have drone footage that shows you what Palestine's most iconic cities and landmarks look like today.”

It goes over 215 years of Palestinian history. “The Palestinians’ plight today can only be understood through the lens of the past. Our timeline spans more than two centuries to explain the dramatic chain of events that led to Palestine's transformation into a Jewish state. Explore pivotal years in depth through our films.”

Palestine Remix. Source: Al Jazeera

Palestine Remix. Source: Al Jazeera

American author John Green, best known for his book “The Fault in Our Stars“, has released a video on the conflict as part of his World History Part 2 series. While not limiting himself to the Nakba, Green does a good job in providing the context and history of the region.

Al-Nakba: The Palestinian Catastrophe 1948 is a documentary by Benny Brunner and Alexandra Jansse based on Benny Morriss’ “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949″ mentioned above. It is available in its entirety on Vimeo.


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