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What is the Nakba?

An Arab word for “catastrophe,” it signals a mass eviction from the 1940s that created a refugee crisis.

Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon, take part in a rally marking the 66th anniversary of the Nakba Day (Catastrophe), in front of the ESCWA building in downtown Beirut, Lebanon on May 13, 2014.
Bilal Jawich/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The 1948 war uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that is still not resolved. Palestinians call this mass eviction the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — and its legacy remains one of the most intractable issues in ongoing peace negotiations.

Not surprisingly, Palestinians and Israelis remember the birth of the Palestinian refugee crisis very differently (here’s a helpful side-by-side comparison). Palestinians often see a years long, premeditated Jewish campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine of Arabs; Israelis tend to blame spontaneous Arab fleeing, Arab armies, and/or unfortunate wartime accidents.

Today, there are more than 7 million Palestinian refugees, defined as people displaced in 1948 and their descendants. A core Palestinian demand in peace negotiations is some kind of justice for these refugees, most commonly in the form of the “right of return” to the homes their families abandoned in 1948.

Israel can’t accept the right of return without abandoning either its Jewish or democratic identity. Adding 7 million Arabs to Israel’s population would make Jews a minority — Israel’s total population is about 8 million, a number that includes the 1.5 million Arabs already there. So Israelis refuse to even consider including the right to return in any final status deal.

One of the core problems in negotiations, then, is how to find a way to get justice for the refugees that both the Israeli and Palestinian people can accept. Ideas proposed so far include financial compensation and limited resettlement in Israel, but the two sides have never agreed on the details of how these would work.