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PoliticsMiddle East

Palestinians reflect on the Nakba: 'It's part of our lives'

Tania Krämer in Jerusalem
May 15, 2023

Palestinians are marking the 75th anniversary of the Nakba, or "catastrophe" — the mass displacement from their homeland in 1948. DW asked some Palestinians how those events continue to define their lives today.

A Palestinian schoolgirl walks past a "Nakba" mural in the refugee camp of Jenin
What's the key to finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?Image: RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Haya Sinwar is a 22-year-old student and comes from a refugee family. She lives in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza City. The Gaza Strip — ruled by the militant Islamist group Hamas that is classified as terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and others — has been largely sealed off by Israel and partially by Egypt for over 16 years.

"The Nakba is a long Palestinian tragedy, and it is the only event that lives with us every day. It concerns me as a refugee. I live in a [refugee] camp, and I have economic, social and political challenges, I know nothing but the camp, crammed houses and narrow streets, noise and few services, and the general atmosphere is gloomy. I think when a person grows older, and watches life outside the Gaza Strip, it becomes clear that we don't live a normal life. 

A young woman standing in an outdoor cafe
Haya Sinwar lives in a refugee camp in the Gaza StripImage: Mohammed Madhoun

The Nakba affected my life as a refugee and as a Palestinian in general. I see a big gap between reality, my dreams and the right of return.* We did not and will not give up the right of return because it does not expire over time. No matter how many years pass, we must teach our children about the right of return, and at the same time we must live our lives.

There are challenges facing me as a young woman and as a Palestinian. There is no one who has job security, or social stability. I am about to graduate from university, and I am worried about graduation because it is difficult to find a job, and that I have to make 10 times the normal effort, so that I may find an opportunity.

I want to have job security and financial independence, good political conditions, to live without war, without escalation, without living in constant anxiety. There is no peace as they claim. There must be a party that speaks on behalf of the Palestinians and that takes our problems seriously and searches for solutions and not to waste our lives. I never traveled outside the Gaza Strip. Of course, I would love to travel and see the world outside the Gaza Strip."

*According to the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 in 1948, as well as the UN Resolution 3236 in 1974, and the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, Palestinians who are considered Palestinian refugees have the "right of return."

Israel, however, has rejected the "right of return" for Palestinians, stating that this would mean an end to Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

An elderly lady sitting on her porch
Sofie Mukarker fled with her family as a 14-year old to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. The family was never able to returnImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Sofie Mukarker was born in the Old City of Jerusalem 89 years ago. In 1948, her family fled from their home in what is today west Jerusalem. Mukarker lives in Beit Jala, a town south of Jerusalem, in the occupied West Bank

"1948 was a big shock for us, there were shootings, lots of problems in the streets. We lived near Jaffa Gate, my father had a photo studio there. I used to go to a very good school, Saint Joseph's School. I was feeling that I'm living in paradise with this school: We had good lessons, good teachers, it was a nice place, we were taught in Arabic, English and French. 

But we lost all of this when we had to leave to Bethlehem. My parents decided that it was not safe to stay, there was fighting in the streets, shootings, even before 1948. So my father said we better move to Bethlehem, because we had cousins there. Thank God we had people to host us — others had to live in [refugee] camps.

My dad was not able to take any of his equipment from the studio. He lost everything. That was really difficult. We didn't expect this. After we left our home in Jerusalem, my brothers continued to go to school. I was the eldest, I didn't continue school after that and I got married when I was young.

I had my sons and daughters, they all studied. I invested in them, so they have a better future. 

We always thought it was just for a while. But it turned out to be forever. We couldn't go back. The west side of Jerusalem was blocked for Arabs to return. Many of the refugees went far away, to Damascus, Beirut, other places.

Later, when I had a chance to visit Jerusalem and I passed the street, the house, I would see the trees, the lemon trees, everything. It's a sad feeling of knowing what was lost. I think the world doesn't really care about all this anymore. It has been completely forgotten." 

A young woman sitting on a bench
Faizeh Afifi studies design in Ramallah in the occupied West BankImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Faizeh Afifi is a 22-year-old design student in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

"What comes to mind when I think about 1948 is, I guess, I try to imagine what they went through and associate it to what we're living like now. Because when I look at not just the personal level, like my life, also the people that I'm around and the people that I'm growing up with, I feel we're like the aftermath of the aftermath of the aftermath of something that started but hasn't finished yet. It's like it follows us everywhere. We grow up with it. It is part of our lives, whether we like it or not. 

My family comes from a lot of different places. My grandpa was born in Ramle [near Tel Aviv]. My grandmother's dad was from Akka and her mother from Haifa. My dad was born in Lebanon, actually, he wasn't born in Palestine. Then they came back after the Oslo Peace Agreements in 1995, 1997 and basically settled in Gaza when there was the Palestinian Authority.

[The] first time I went to Haifa, was maybe two or three years ago. And it was like a very weird and different experience. And I remember when I went back home, I called my grandmother and she was asking me about how it was. And she told me about what they were told when they had to leave Haifa: you're going to be leaving for some time and then you're going to come back. Don't worry, this is only temporary. Basically, they lied to them. They didn't pack anything really, they only packed small bags and they took the key with them. They closed their house and they went to Lebanon and they waited for a week and then two and then three. And then they kept waiting to go back. And then they never came back. 

I feel like the youth in Palestine are hopefully becoming more of a collective. I feel like we are all coming together and try to break the boundaries, and maybe be more brave than we already are? Basically we're not able to make our own decisions. Life is very constricted here. You cannot move freely. If I want to leave even from Ramallah to Nablus, it's going to be so many [Israeli] soldiers with guns, terrorizing us. It's so uncomfortable to be in your own home and feel that uncomfortable. It's like the sense of home itself was destroyed. You are exposed to those daily visuals and you see the ugliness every day. 

I don't know what's going to happen, in all honesty, because I feel like even if there was a two-state solution, it wouldn't be by choice. I don't think there's going to be a two-state solution just for the sole reason that I don't think they [Israel] even want a two-state solution. I think they just want to take over the whole thing and just be in control and do what they are doing now."

A man sitting next to a camera
Adi Mansour works as lawyer for a human rights organization in HaifaImage: Tania Kraemer/DW

Adi Mansour is a 26-year-old Palestinian who was born and lives in Haifa, Israel. He is human rights lawyer and an activist in the Haifa Youth Movement.

"For me to think about the Nakba as part of the identity and as part of who I am and how I perceive myself, is really to go and delve deep into the history of my father and my mother, but also the history of my grandmother and grandfather from both sides and the ancestors to understand what went on in history and how the Nakba became part of their lives, but also then afterwards, a part of my life. And really to think about the struggle that my grandfather and my grandmother from both sides went through.

In 1948, for example, my grandfather was kicked out from Haifa. And to think about how he went from there to Lebanon, and later, came back to find that his house was taken. There were Jewish settlers living there instead of him; he was forced to share a house, living with his family in a room where they had all the facilities in one room and how they eventually tried to build themselves up after the Nakba. 

To look at the Nakba is to look how it shattered a whole society and how people who remained, who were disconnected from everywhere, who were disconnected from the Arab world, from the Palestinian people, tried to build themselves back up. […] So a lot of people tend to think that the Nakba is a historical event. In our perspective as Palestinians, it's an ongoing reality. 

But a very important and huge part of us, for us as Palestinian citizens of the state [of Israel], is that the Nakba is part of our status. The Nakba was the framing of our reality and the framing of our status within the state [of Israel]. It is that event that decided that we are the enemy of the state. It was that event that decided that we are going to be second-class [citizens]. 

Nakba: 82-year-old Palestinian survivor shares his story

When I was a kid, I would hear stories. Mainly my parents made sure that I would know history. I also heard the stories directly from my grandmother, it's very important for her to talk. I guess it becomes easier after that many years that suddenly she can talk more about it. But I think I still don't know enough. A lot of people are living with the consequences of what happened in 1948.

There is a lot of discussion: two states, one state, different systems of autonomy and so on. But I think that to start this discussion, we need to understand that the right of return [for Palestinian refugees] should be systemized within the legal system, forcing any future government to implement the right of return. Up until now the right of return remains a political card within the so-called [peace] negotiations.

In the future, if we are talking about some kind of equal state for all its citizens or democratic state in historic Palestine, the right of return should become the law of return and effectively replacing the law of return existing today [it allows people with at least one Jewish grandparent to relocate to Israel and become and Israeli citizen]  that allows any Jew to come and become an Israel citizen; to allow each and every Palestinian to come back and obtain citizenship in this land."

Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report. The interviews have been shortened and edited for clarity.

Edited by: Rob Mudge

Correction, May 15, 2023: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Sofie Mukarker. DW apologizes for the error.