Palestinian History Doesn’t Start With the Nakba

by the Palestinian Youth Movement, published on Mondoweiss, May 14, 2023

This year marks 75 years since the Nakba, which saw over 500 Palestinian villages destroyed and depopulated and up to one million Palestinians forcibly expelled from their homes. On May 15th, Palestinians around the world commemorate Nakba Day. Although the Nakba is commemorated on May 15th and often incorrectly framed as a historical event, we understand that the Nakba didn’t begin or end in 1948, nor is the Nakba limited to the geographical confines of historic Palestine. In fact, Palestinians and Arabs have been active agents of resistance against colonialism and imperialism before the Nakba, and the legacy of this anti-colonial resistance lives on today.

Ongoing Nakba, ongoing resistance

Every day, we bear witness to the ongoing Nakba. On May 2nd, 2023, Khader Adnan ascended to martyrdom, having been found dead in his prison cell on the 87th day of a hunger strike. Palestinian prisoner, Walid Daqqa, has been imprisoned since 1986 and remains in prison despite his deteriorating health. The prisoners are the compass of our struggle, and their ongoing imprisonment reminds us of the ongoing Nakba.

In the Naqab, al-Araqeeb is a bedouin village that, as of 3rd April 2023, has been demolished and rebuilt 215 times. The demolition of Palestinian homes and villages continues to this day and reminds us of the ongoing Nakba.

The year 2023 has been the deadliest year for Palestinians since 2006 – between January and April 2023, 95 Palestinians have been killed by the Zionist regime. Our martyrs are the lifeblood of our struggle, continuing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for liberation and reminding us of the ongoing Nakba.

As is the case of the Nakba, Palestinian resistance is also ongoing: hunger strikes in prison are a form of resistance; so too is rebuilding your village 215 times. In fact, Palestinian resistance began well before the Nakba.

Most notably, the 1936-39 revolution marked a popular peasant rebellion made possible through years of organizing, mobilizing, and confronting 15 years of British-facilitated Zionism and colonial capitalism that was impoverishing, dispossessing, and proletertianizing the Palestinian peasantry. The revolts were catalyzed by the assassination of Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam, a Syrian Imam who traveled to Palestine and became a leader in the popular peasant rebellions against the British mandate. In fact, the first armed resistance organized by Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam was that of farmers in Jenin in 1935. Still today, the Jenin Triangle (referred to by the martyr Bassel Al-Araj as the “triangle of fire) is devoid of any settlements – a testament to the region’s ongoing resistance. Prominent Palestinian resistance fighter Leila Khalid argues that Palestine was lost to the Zionists not in 1948, as historians would have us believe, but between 1936 and 1939. This raises a critical question: given the historical significance of the 1936-39 revolution, why does the narration of Palestinian history often begin with the Nakba?

Complicating Palestinian history

While it’s true that the Nakba is ongoing, it is also true that the Nakba (and resistance against it) pre-dated 1948 and was not limited to the geographic confines of historic Palestine.

Beginning the narration of Palestinian history at the Nakba makes invisible the 1936-39 Arab revolution in Palestine, and in concealing this part of Palestinian history, the ultimate purpose of the Zionist settler colonial project is obscured. From the point of view of British imperialism, the Zionist entity was strategically created in opposition to Arab unity and to create a Western imperial outpost in the region. Despite this, the Palestinian liberation struggle has always been, and continues to be, a site of Arab unity in the face of imperial and Zionist attempts at fragmentation. While Izz Al-Din Al-Qassam is one example of this, another is the 1948 Arab Liberation Army which was led by Lebanon-born Fawzi al-Qawuqji and, today, there remains a ‘Martyrs Cemetery’ in Jenin where 44 Iraqi martyrs were laid to rest after they sacrificed their lives for Palestine in 1948. More recently, in April 2023, rockets were launched from Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria in response to attacks on Palestinian worshipers in Al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. From the Zionist point of view, fragmentation of Arabs (broadly) and Palestinians (specifically) is necessary for its survival since there is little else that binds Zionists together. We, therefore, cannot limit our commemoration of the Nakba to the colonially constructed geographical boundaries of historic Palestine – doing so does a disservice to the unity of anti-Zionist Arab struggle.

Another reason why the narration of Palestinian history often begins at the Nakba can be understood through an interrogation of class and imperialism. Indeed, Palestinian history is too often written by the Palestine bourgeoisie, who pay little attention to either. While the Nakba impacted all Palestinians, it was the Palestinian peasant and working class who led the 1936-39 revolution, catalyzed by the frustration of the Palestinian peasantry against the notable class who did not deliver on their promise to overcome the British colonial rule of Palestine. The Palestinian peasantry and working class thus took their fate into their own hands, leading to what became the 1936-39 revolution. This history of popular revolution is often made invisible in Palestinian history through a narrow focus on the Nakba that is void of any analysis of class or imperialism.

A third reason why the Nakba is given primacy in the narration of Palestinian history is to de-politicize our struggle by reducing Palestinian dispossession and oppression to a single, historical moment that happened ‘to us’ and thus negating our ability to change our current reality and realize liberation and return. While Nakba Day had been a date of protest since 1949 (not dissimilar to Land Day, May Day, and Prisoner’s Day), it gathered speed in the late 1990s as the central date in the Palestinian calendar. This was due to the date being officially inaugurated by Yasser Arafat in 1998. More recently, the United Nations announced that 2023 would be the first year it would formally commemorate the Palestinian Nakba. The inauguration of Nakba Day by Yasser Arafat and the acknowledgment of the date by the United Nations reveal how the Nakba has been instrumentalized as a neoliberal talking point for peace and reconciliation rather than return and liberation. Such commemorations center Palestinian dispossession and victimhood, rather than resistance, and bury pre-Nakba and post-Nakba resistance by reducing an entire history and contemporary struggle to a single moment. We have subsequently seen Nakba Day used to re-situate the Palestinian liberation movement within a victim narrative and human rights framework, which does a disservice to both the ongoing Nakba and ongoing resistance.

The current narrative on Palestine that saturates Western media and diaspora organizing spaces is limited to a single time-point and geographical location and is overwhelmingly dominated by a narrative of dispossession and defeat, underpinned by neoliberal notions of peace and reconciliation rather than return and liberation. Through centering and reframing our understanding of Palestinian historical and contemporary resistance, we can foster radical optimism and collectivism that serves our liberation movement rather than paralyzes us into cynicism and inaction. It is our role, as Palestinian and Arab youth organizing in the diaspora to take up this critical work of raising the critical consciousness of ourselves and our communities.

*Featured Image: Palestinians in Abu Ghosh taking the oath of allegiance to the Arab cause during the Great Revolt in 1936. (Photo: G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection) [cropped for header space]


The Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) comprises 14 chapters across North America and Europe, and each chapter has organized different actions commemorating Nakba 75 in their locales. The PYM also organizes transnationally, across chapters, and the most recent manifestation of this is the Nakba 75 Poster Project which produced five posters around the PYM’s Nakba 75 theme: ‘Reclamation and Resistance.’ This theme was selected in honor of our youth refusing to abandon the struggle for liberation, even when dispersed around the globe. All PYM programming across the 14 chapters centers on this theme, thus creating internationally consistent messaging across youth organizing for Palestine in the diaspora.

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