The Nakbah and the Post-Exodus Events

  December 12, 2023   Read time 7 min
The Nakbah and the Post-Exodus Events
The Palestinian refugees who reside in the camps of Lebanon are primarily from the Galilee, Tiberias, and Safad provinces of Mandatory Palestine. Galilee had been a largely Arab region of Palestine, rich in water and sparsely colonized by new Jewish immigrants; whereas Safad had a slightly higher concentration of Jews.

The primary economic engine of this northernmost part of Palestine had been agriculture and the villages were by and large self-sufficient in production of fruits and vegetables. Most of the villages had a mixture of Muslim and Christian residents, with religious institutions and village mukhtars (headmen) who governed their respective confessional groups. Between December 1947 and May 1948, an event known by Palestinians as al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, destroyed entirely the Palestinian polity and dispersed the community. At the beginning of 1948, the population of Palestinian Arabs and Jews in Palestine had been 1.3 million and 600,000 respectively, and Jews held 7 percent of the land. By the end of that year, the Arab population had halved, and the state of Israel came to hold 77 percent of the Palestinian territory. The superior military capabilities of the Zionist forces, the collusion of some Arab leaders, Palestinian institutional failures, and the lack of unified and capable military leadership and organization all contributed to the Palestinian defeat. The Arab Rescue Army organized by the Arab League seems to have been largely ineffective, if not downright helpful to the Zionist forces. Many refugees recalled the lack of any backing from the Army and its active role in disarming the Palestinian peasants during the hostilities.

By the time the war had ended, its violence, not to mention the overt or implicit ‘‘transfer’’ policies of the Zionists, resulted in the uprooting of some 726,000 Palestinians, around 110,000 of whom ended up in Lebanon. The first wave of refugees had included the affluent urban professionals and merchants who resettled in Arab capitals. The majority of the peasants who were abandoned or expelled from their villages began leaving in the early spring of 1948. Many fled after hearing rumors about Zionist forces’ rapes and massacres of Palestinians in villages near and far – most significant among them Dayr Yasin. Many others were forcibly expelled, in direct attacks on the villages. A major wave of mass expulsion followed in July 1948, when in a ten-day period, Israeli commandos drove more than 100,000 peasants to Arab-held areas or to the borders with Lebanon and ‘‘ordered them to run as fast as possible to the other side of the border and not to look back’’. Another major wave of expulsions and massacres of civilians occurred in October and November 1948. Many of those who fled or were expelled thought that they would eventually be able to return to their homes.

For the first few months after the exodus, the borders were still porous. More than a few refugees who had left thinking they would return after a day or two, returned – often at great risk – to retrieve buried gold, cash, and other valuables, should the war last longer. Many of the refugees attempted to return to the villages from their place of temporary refuge, to water their fields or orchards, or feed their farm animals with the expectation of eventual return for harvesting the crops. Thousands were shot dead as ‘‘infiltrators’’ by the Israeli forces. To bar the eventual return of the refugees, in the coming months and years, the Israeli state confiscated Palestinian properties and turned them into ‘‘national land,’’ and implemented draconian measures to ensure ‘‘infiltrators’’ – frequently peasants attempting to return to their harvest and homes – could not enter the country. Furthermore, in dealing with the remaining villages, Joseph Weitz, the head of the Jewish Agency’s Land Department, ordered the ‘‘destruction, renovation and settlement by Jews’’ of Palestinian villages. In all, the nascent Israeli state destroyed more than 350 villages and incorporated or transformed others into Jewish settlements/villages.

Between 1947 and 1949, the peasant refugees walked or were trucked by the Haganah – and after 1948 by the Israeli military – to the Lebanese border. Many spent their first few nights – and some, their first few weeks – under olive trees. Others were fortunate enough to be helped by Lebanese villagers: We lived in poverty; the men who were finding work were only getting 2 livres, and the women were getting only 75 ’irshes and sometimes one livre. The people in Qana were as poor as the Palestinians, so life was hard. My father who was used to tending trees and farming wanted to find this kind of job. We were renting our home from this family, but they stopped taking rent from us and we stayed in their house as if we were their family; but my father stopped taking his wages from them [in return for the lodging]. The people of the south were kind people, unlike other people now.
Some of the Palestinians who ended up in Lebanon had been urban professionals and merchants who had minimal financial problems resettling in Lebanon, but the majority of the refugees who became camp residents in Lebanon were originally rural laborers, small-holders, and village artisans. Their uprooting and resettlement resulted in simultaneous, radical and traumatic processes of urbanization,2 proletarianization and loss of whatever political rights they may have held in Palestine. Though ordinary Lebanese men and women provided food and shelter for many of the refugees, the Palestinians’ presence exacerbated Lebanon’s internal sectarian and class frictions from the very beginning. The refugees constituted 10 percent of the Lebanese population, and the confessional adherence of a majority of Palestinians to Sunni Islam was said to endanger the fragile sectarian balance of power in Lebanon. Ironically, the vitriol many local elite had used in their rhetorical attacks against Palestinian refugees did not prevent them from exploiting the Palestinians as a source of cheap labour, forcing them to relocate at the pleasure of the Lebanese state and businessmen.
Between 1948 and 1950, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) served the refugees, providing them with tents and humanitarian assistance. In 1949–1950, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established and given the mandate of assisting the refugees. Though UNRWA provided some financial relief and health and education services to the refugees, it was considered by the Palestinians to be ‘‘part of the machinery of dismemberment and dispersion’’ (Sayigh 1979: 109), intent on settling the refugees in host countries rather than finding a political solution to their dispossession.3 By the late 1960s, the tents originally given to the refugees by the ICRC and UNRWA had given way to cement-block houses with corrugated tin roofs. In 1971, ‘‘less than twelve per cent of homes [in the camps] had toilets; sixty percent had no running water. Most camps lacked either garbage collection or adequate sewer systems’’ (Brynen 1990: 28). Only in the mid- to late 1970s did the camps receive proper electricity, water and sewerage services. The transience of life in the camps was partially reinforced by the Lebanese state’s refusal to allow any construction which could indicate permanent settlement. The Lebanese state considered roofs on houses to be a sign of permanence, and as such the Palestinian addition of corrugated zinc to keep out the weather could be construed as illegal.
Throughout this period, if the refugees mobilized political dissent, this often occurred using the idiom of Nasserist pan-Arabism, itself considered subversive by the Lebanese regime. Though Nasser belonged to the ever-growing ranks of Arab leaders who wished to dominate Palestinian politics, and despite the fact that many of his more fiery statements in support of the Palestinians only remained within the realm of rhetoric, he was nevertheless revered by many as an anticolonial hero and the only Arab leader who could realistically challenge Israeli hegemony in the region.

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