Israel's Declaration of Independence was the culmination of what, in retrospect, looked inevitable--the establishment of an independent Jewish state, made up of the Jewish diaspora, and the triggering of a new, Palestinian diaspora.
The Catastrophe in Numbers
More than 700,000 Palestinians either fled their homes or were thrown out in 1947. Most thought they were fleeing only temporarily, until hostilities calmed down, or until neighboring countries and the rest of the world came to their aid. None of that came to be. The resistance Palestinian and Arab armies could mount against Jewish forces was disorganized, tribal, and entirely ineffective.
Jews could and did systematically uproot a majority of Palestinians from land previously set aside for Arabs in the United Nations' partition plan.
Voluntary or Involuntary Palestinian Exile?
For years, Israeli historians and official Israeli mythology claimed that most Palestinians left voluntarily. It was also the narrative put forward by Leon Uris' widely popular novel, Exodus, where Uris writes of "the absolutely documented fact that the Arab leaders wanted their population to leave Palestine as a political issue and a military weapon."
That was not the case. As Benny Morris and other Israeli historians began to document in the 1980s, from archival sources, more than 60 percent of Palestinians in Israel were systematically and forcibly expelled from 49 villages up and down Israel, while others fled from 62 villages from fear of rumored massacres. Most went to the West Bank and Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt.
Al-Naqba, the catastrophe, takes is root (historically and linguistically) from that uprooting.
Stereotype and Assumptions
The stereotypical view of the Palestinian Arabs voluntarily abandoning the land and society they'd thrived on was a Western implant, developed early in the narrative of the Jewish-Arab conflict--and countered, from time to time, just as early by factual observers.
Dana Adams Schmidt, writing in The New York Times on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel's Declaration of Independence, illustrates the point:
Zionists commonly indulge in certain fallacies about their Arab neighbors.Schmidt's analysis is borne out by now-undisputed casualty totals of the 1948-49 war: According to Benny Morris' 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War (Yale, 2008), Some 12,000 Palestinians and 6,000 died, compared with 1,400 Egyptians and, among Syrians, Jordanians and Iraqis, several hundred each.
Firstly, they imagine that opposition to Jewish immigration comes only from the effendis (the term originally applied to landowners) and other representatives of a vestigial feudalism. On the contrary, Arab opposition is wide and deep. Even though the upper classes are articulate, the Arab fellaheen resents the foreign "intruders" and their innovations and has drunk his share of the new wine of Arab nationalism.
Secondly, many Zionists maintain that the Arabs of Palestine do not mind the influx of Jews and would live in peace with them but that "foreign Arabs" from other Arab states have stirred up trouble and led attacks.
In fact, although the Palestine Arab may be even less gifted militarily than others and Syrians and Iraqis constantly crop up in the news, most of the shooting in Palestine has been done by Palestinians.
Israel's Promise Unfulfilled
The state of Israel, the country's declaration of independence stated, "will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."
To some extent the 20 percent of Palestinian Arabs who live as citizens in Israel proper, but especially the more than 3 million Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, have many reasons to feel that the words of the Declaration don't apply to them: Palestinian refugees who were displaced or fled in 1948 and 1967 are not allowed to return, let alone claim Israeli citizenship, even though Jews from anywhere in the world are granted precisely that right.
In the Occupied Territories, Israeli law and protections apply to Jewish settlers in illegal settlements. But those very laws and protections take the form of cudgels and repression so far as Palestinians in the territories are concerned. There, al-Naqba is a daily rage, not just the commemoration of May 14, 1948.