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The U.N. is marking the 75th anniversary of Palestinians' displacement

Palestinians participate in rally marking last year's anniversary of what the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe" referring to their uprooting in the war over Israel's 1948 creation, in front of the UNESCO offices in Gaza City.
Adel Hana
/
AP
Palestinians participate in rally marking last year's anniversary of what the Palestinians call the "Nakba," or "catastrophe" referring to their uprooting in the war over Israel's 1948 creation, in front of the UNESCO offices in Gaza City.

For the first time in history, the United Nations is officially commemorating the Nakba, the annual Palestinian commemoration of their mass displacement during the establishment of Israel.

The international body is marking the 75th anniversary of the displacement on Monday to "serve as a reminder of the historic injustice suffered by the Palestinian people" and to spotlight the ongoing refugee crisis, organizers said.

For decades, the Nakba had not garnered universal international recognition, as countering narratives have downplayed the plight of Palestinians. Resistance remains: The United States, Canada and the United Kingdom were among 30 countries that voted against the U.N. resolution to adopt this year's commemoration.

Israeli officials, meanwhile, are urging U.N. member states to boycott the event. "Attending this despicable event means destroying any chance of peace by adopting the Palestinian narrative calling the establishment of the state of Israel a disaster," Israeli's U.N. ambassador Gilad Erdan said.

Israel says tens of countries have agreed not to attend, including the U.S., U.K., Czech Republic and Ukraine. A State Department spokesman told NPR the U.S. would not be represented at the event, and Ukraine's ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, told NPR that Ukraine is declining in order "not to harm (the) Israeli interest."

Monday's commemoration includes a morning key note address from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by an evening event that features an "immersive experience of the Nakba through live music, photos, videos, and personal testimonies." The events, held at U.N. headquarters in New York, will also be livestreamed.

What is the Nakba?

Demonstrators march to commemorate Nakba Day on May 15, 1960 in Damascus, Syria. Palestinians dispossessed of their homes in 1948 took refuge in Arab countries including Syria.
/ AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators march to commemorate Nakba Day on May 15, 1960 in Damascus, Syria. Palestinians dispossessed of their homes in 1948 took refuge in Arab countries including Syria.

On May 15, 1948, one nation's triumph became another nation's catastrophe. Israel was established as a homeland for Jews, while the majority of Palestinians were displaced.

"For Israelis and for most other people who know only the Israeli narrative, 1948 represents the miraculous establishment of a Jewish state in the wake of the Holocaust," Rashid Khalidi, a Middle East historian and author of The Hundred Years' War on Palestine, told NPR's Throughline podcast in 2021.

But Palestinians call it the Nakba — "the catastrophe."

"For Palestinians, it represents the destruction of their society, the loss of self — the right to self-determination and the expulsion of most of them and the expropriation of the property of most of them," Khalidi said.

In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state, a catalyst that sparked fighting between Arab and Jewish militias. After Israel declared independence the following May, regional Arab armies invaded. By the time Israel won the war in 1949, the vast majority of the Palestinians there had fled or were expelled. Their homes were given to Jewish immigrants or destroyed.

For many Palestinians — millions of whom remain a stateless people to this day — the Nakba isn't just history for today's generation, but what they call an ongoing catastrophe punctuated by the violence of an entrenched Israeli military occupation.

Israel marked its 75th Independence Day in April, corresponding to the anniversary on the Hebrew calendar, amid street protests against Israel's current government and deep divisions between Jews over what kind of country Israel should be.

Today, Israel's most nationalist government in history includes a far-right minister who has called to "erase" a Palestinian village in the occupied West Bank and another far-right minister who campaigned to encourage Palestinians to leave.

Some Palestinians say they fear a second Nakba. To prevent another historic displacement, they say their role is simply to stay put.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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