Remembering the Nakba: The Politics of Palestinian History

Jonathan Adler

Palestinians fleeing Jaffa with their belongings, 1948.  [1]

Palestinians fleeing Jaffa with their belongings, 1948. [1]

Ramzy Baroud, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story
Pluto Press, 278 pages, $20.00

The Earth is squeezing us.

I wish we were its wheat

So we could die and live again.[2]


OVER THE PAST TWO AND A HALF MONTHS, a narrow sliver of land in the eastern Mediterranean has transformed into a site of commemoration, resistance, and violence. Since March 30, Gazans have marched to the eastern edge of their territory—to an area no greater than eight-hundred meters in width, extending along the twenty-five-mile length of the Gaza Strip—to join the largest mass demonstration in Gaza since the late 1980s. Over ten thousand have participated in each of the weekly Friday protests; on May 14th, at the height of demonstrations, there were nearly forty-thousand Gazans in attendance. The protests coincide with the seventieth-anniversary of the Palestinian nakba, the expulsion of over seven-hundred thousand Palestinians from their land and homes in 1948. The rallies are an expression of defiance against what Palestinians call al-nakba al-mustamerra—the ongoing catastrophe—particularly in Gaza, where multiple wars, a crippling siege, failing infrastructure, and political infighting have pushed nearly two million Palestinians closer and closer to the brink of societal collapse. And these past two months have themselves marked yet another chapter in the history of Palestinian catastrophe. Israeli soldiers have killed over one hundred twenty Palestinian civilians and wounded over thirteen thousand with live sniper ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas canisters.[3] The majority of those lucky enough to survive the impact of bullets will, according to the local health ministry, be left with lifelong disabilities.[4]

What has been nearly as troubling, though, is the extent to which these basic facts have been distorted to justify the use of deadly force. The Israeli government has claimed that the Islamist fundamentalist organization, Hamas, is behind the protests, using demonstrators as human shields and attempting to breach the Israeli fence.[5] Israeli officials have similarly maintained that their soldiers are acting in self-defense—or, conversely, that the Palestinians who throw stones and makeshift explosive devices, burn tires and kites, and storm the fence constitute a threat to Israeli security. These activities, according to the Israeli government, are acts of war and free the military from the restrictions of human rights law.[6]

On further inspection, these justifications fall flat. While Hamas has indeed provided financial and organizational support to the demonstrators, the Great Return March has been led by a wide coalition of Palestinians from the beginning, including doctors, lawyers, university students and academics, civil society organizations, refugees, and families. Although Hamas has profited politically from the demonstrations, the movement has never “belonged” to them. To suggest otherwise, according to Asad Abu Sharekh, the spokesman for the march, “is Israel’s way to sabotage the idea of the march in order to justify its escalation against protesters.”[7]

Neither have protestors posed any significant danger to Israeli soldiers or civilians. Here, again, the evidence against the Israeli government is overwhelming: not a single Israeli has been physically harmed over the past two months. And at the very least, if Israeli soldiers are acting in self-defense, then they should theoretically injure or kill only those who constitute, by the state’s definition, a violent threat. This is especially true in Gaza, where the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) claims to have acted with super-human precision: its snipers, according to the army’s Twitter account, “know where every bullet landed.”[9] Yet live fire has struck medical teams and ambulances.[10] Snipers have shot elderly women and children.[11] It is hard to see how any of these participants threatened the integrity of the Israeli state. The fact that the IDF maintains, despite much criticism, that they were confirmed threats is all the more troubling.

It is not only Israel, though, that has portrayed Palestinian protestors as a legitimate threat. The US government has justified the use of lethal force against demonstrators based on Israel’s right to “self-defense,” the same excuse used to justify Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria. The New York Times, too, has repeatedly misrepresented the protests, which it described as “armed clashes along the border.”[12] In the same sentence, the Times referred to both Palestinian protestors and the Iranian government as “threats” to Israel, collapsing the distinction between stones and nuclear weapons.[13]

There may be a number of reasons why this narrative—that Gazans are violent and thus responsible for their own deaths—continues to carry weight. The influence of the Israel lobby on American politics and media coverage may certainly be one of them. But one of the simplest explanations might also be one of the best: the Israeli government has not only twisted the facts, but has helped to prevent the truth from leaking out. Journalists on the frontlines in Gaza—those who are positioned to provide the best coverage of the protests—have been specifically targeted by the IDF. Though they were wearing helmets and bulletproof jackets, marked with “PRESS” in bold letters, at least twenty-two Palestinian reporters were struck by live sniper ammunition between March 30th and May 21st. Two have died from their wounds.[14] According to the Forum of Palestinian Journalists, the total number of journalists injured at the protests has passed 175.[15] The Israeli parliament has been considering legislation that would ban journalists from photographing on-duty IDF soldiers, where violations would be punishable with up to ten years in prison.[16]  The less the outside world knows about the protests in Gaza, the Israeli government seems to believe, the better.


It is regrettably fitting that on the anniversary of the Palestinian nakba, the narrative of the protests in Gaza is distorted and silenced. Over the past seventy years, history itself—its use, abuse, and erasure—has played an important role in helping to prolong the nakba. Indeed, part of the original catastrophe was the destruction and scattering of vast amounts of Palestinian history. As the historian Rashid Khalidi points out, between 1947 and 1949, “more than half of the Arab population of Palestine fled or were driven from their homes…while the two cities in Palestine with the largest Arab populations, Jaffa and Haifa, were ethnically cleansed of most Arabs.” [17] This forced removal meant that the majority of privately-held historical documents were lost or destroyed in the years following the nakba. As a result, there is a dire shortage of printed material to document the history of pre-1948 Palestine. Even with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, any central archive would necessarily be a fragmentary collection.

Not all of the documents in question are exactly lost, however. Much of the historical material from private Palestinian collections that survived 1948 was collected and kept classified in the Israeli State Archives. Until the 1980s—when the public was granted access to this material, inaugurating a new era of Israeli revisionist history—there could be no challenge to the Israeli nationalist myths that pervaded the historiography and misrepresented both the nakba and the subsequent years of military rule. Even today, the nakba is largely absent from public discourse in Israel, and the state maintains the authority to punish those who commemorate it.[18]

The impact of these restrictions, though, is not limited to historians. As the Palestinian-American journalist Ramzy Baroud argues, part of the trauma of the ongoing nakba for Palestinians is the continued suppression of their own history. In a recent op-ed for The Independent, Baroud recalls a particularly vivid memory from his early life in a Gaza refugee camp. During the First Intifada, Israeli soldiers entered the camp and killed four youth, including one of Baroud’s close childhood friends. But what struck him most severely was the silence in the wake of these deaths. “Once the young men were buried,” Baroud remembers, “my father fiddled hopelessly with the radio, trying to find any news broadcast, anywhere, that reported on the terrible events that took place in our camp on that day. No one did.”[19] This was the same silence that accompanied the destruction of his grandfather’s village, Beit Daras, in 1948. And, Baroud soon realized, this was a silence familiar to Palestinians everywhere, whose stories had been ignored or twisted, and ultimately expunged from the historical record.

Baroud, the editor of the Palestine Chronicle, a former managing editor at the Middle East Eye and Al Jazeera Online, and a frequent contributor to a host of English-language publications, describes his work as an author and a journalist as giving voice to those Palestinians who have been “deliberately muted.” His fourth and latest book—The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story—is a worthy addition to this project. The Last Earth is, as Baroud calls it, a “people’s history,” an account of the nakba and its aftermath told from the perspective of those who experienced it. This is not a conventional work of history: there is little in the way of historical analysis or explicit argumentation. Rather, it is the logical extension of Baroud’s work as a journalist. His goal is to allow Palestinians to speak for themselves, to narrate their own histories, and in so doing, to show “ordinary people as active agents in shaping the present and future.”[20] The Last Earth, then, is a testament to the importance of oral tradition: although physical records have been lost, Palestinian history will endure as long as there are those to remember and retell it.

Along with a team of fellow researchers and journalists, Baroud spent the past three years reaching out to Palestinians across the world through social media and other online platforms, sorting through hundreds of potential candidates, and interviewing a final fifty to gather the stories presented in this book. The final product reflects this diversity of time and place: in nine chapters, we move between Gaza and Australia, Jenin and Syria, al-Mujaydil and Lebanon; from the Great Revolt of 1936 to Black September in 1970, from the nakba of 1948 to the Second Intifada in 2002, and from the naksa of 1967 to the Syrian war in 2015.   

It might seem that such a wide scope would belie Baroud’s larger aim in The Last Earth—to provide “a unified perspective on Palestinian identity in modern times.” Yet Baroud manages to weave these seemingly disparate stories into a distinct narrative. Despite everything that serves to divide Palestinians from each other—walls, fences, borders, political factionalism and military force, exile and diaspora—Baroud shows that their individual histories are linked by a common root and a multitude of shared experiences. All of the Palestinians in The Last Earth carry the nakba of 1948 with them, through memories of lost villages, the stories of parents and grandparents, or even a family memento—a key, for example, to a house that has long been destroyed. But this is not merely an historical awareness: they all remain affected by that original catastrophe. Even for those in the diaspora, as illustrated by the stories in The Last Earth, the mere fact of being Palestinian can be a burden. It is the Palestinian schoolchild who, when invited to share the story of her family’s emigration to Australia, is informed by her teacher that “there [is] no such thing as Palestine.” It is the Palestinian refugee in Syria who, while fleeing his country for Turkey, learns to deny his identity because Palestinians are “thrown in Turkish jails for significantly longer durations than their Syrian counterparts.” It is the granddaughter of a Palestinian who carries with her a “nagging sadness”—a guilt for being able to “forget [her] people’s suffering.”

For those living in Gaza and the West Bank, however, the ongoing nakba manifests itself on a daily basis. Here, to be Palestinian is to be persecuted not only by Israel and its Western allies, but even by the Palestinian Authority, whose security forces serve as “a line of defense for the Israeli army,” enter the homes of Palestinians, and “[demand] confessions and [levy] threats.” To be Palestinian is to live under military occupation—particularly for those who have known nothing else. The younger Palestinians in The Last Earth grow up under the constant watch of the Israeli military establishment, and their attitudes towards Israel are shaped by their interactions with soldiers. Hana Shalabi, the infamous Palestinian hunger striker, would often “hear of ‘the Jews’ [as a young girl] but would hardly ever see them.” Her decision to support the First Intifada, then, is not a result of a deep-seated hatred of Jews, but rather a reaction to the murder of a neighbor by Israeli soldiers, “ugly, cruel men who spoke a strange language and wore military uniforms.”

To be Palestinian, as exemplified by Shalabi, is also to be part of a long tradition of resistance. Baroud, however, steers clear of glorifying his subjects: the Palestinians in The Last Earth resist desperately, driven by the need to regain a sense of agency. Baroud captures the humiliation and despair that push those living under military occupation, particularly young men, towards violence. But he does so without endorsing it—if anything, he emphasizes its consequences. It is Shalabi’s brother, Samir, who decides to place a bomb in the middle of a street to ambush an Israeli military convoy, and who is later killed by Israeli soldiers while attempting to carry out a suicide attack. But it is Shalabi who bears the punishment for her brother’s actions: suspected of planning to avenge Samir’s death, she is kept in administrative detention for twenty-five months, and subjected to physical violence, sexual abuse, and psychological torture. When she is arrested for the second time, just months after being released, and assaulted with even greater brutality, she begins her hunger strike:

[A]s Hana grew physically weaker, her resolve grew stronger. Her gums swelled by day twenty. Her hair fell out by day thirty-five. And only when blood began to pour from her nose was she taken to a Haifa hospital…[it was] a sign that her death was imminent.

Shalabi’s story is certainly a testament to the human capacity for nonviolent resistance. But it also suggests that under certain conditions of oppression, a desire for justice can override our most basic instincts for survival. Here, there is no difference between life and death—they are, as a protestor in Gaza recently affirmed, the “same thing.”[21]


As long as the Israeli government distorts the narrative of the protests, silences Palestinian journalists, and forbids public discussion of Palestinian history, simply giving Palestinians a platform to retell their own histories is a necessarily political act. It is to demonstrate, as Baroud has recently argued, that Palestinians are capable of “making decisions independent from Palestinian factions.”[22] The fact, too, that Baroud relies on oral tradition is welcome: even Israel’s most important revisionist historians have largely restricted themselves to Israeli sources, ignoring the potential of oral testimony. But Baroud’s deeper contribution is to show that despite the lack of recorded Palestinian history—or, perhaps, because of its absence—Palestinians are committed to documenting it themselves.

In The Last Earth, we learn of Salim, a young Palestinian living in Gaza during the Suez War, who is compelled to follow the Israeli Army in “their every move” and write “in his journal everything he saw and heard.” Salim understands the importance of physical documentation: it does not matter whether he can make sense of the events he witnesses on his own, so long he can set everything down in ink. There is also Kamal, a Palestinian youth detained in an Israeli military prison during the First Intifada. Because he recognizes the fragility of his own story, Kamal carves the names of his family members into the cell walls, setting in stone “all that was certain [to him].” And there is Ali, a father in search of his daughter, lost amidst the chaos of the ongoing war in Syria. With Baroud’s help, Ali tries to reach his daughter through the Red Cross, writing a series of letters that will most likely never reach their intended recipient. If he dies before he reaches her, Ali instructs his daughter, she should pass on his story to her siblings and children—the story of a Palestinian Bedouin, “born in a world that had no place for poor people or wanderers.”

Ali’s story illustrates the larger point that in The Last Earth, Palestinian history is confined to family history. The younger generations learn the history of the nakba through the stories of their parents and grandparents. Baroud succeeds not merely by capturing these in print, but by elevating family history as a genre of historical narrative. These stories often convey Palestinian history as well as, if not better than, the traditional academic accounts. A number of historians, for example, have written extensively about the phenomenon of Palestinian land loss during the 1930s and the subsequent urbanization of the Palestinian peasantry. But to hear the stories of these fellahin (tillers, farmers) from their sons and daughters—to learn of their struggle to “fend off the constant attempts of the large clans to deprive [them] of [their] land and strip [them] of what was rightfully [theirs]”—is to grasp this history as a lived experience. So too might we read scholarly accounts of Jamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt and appreciate its importance in the context of Palestinian liberation struggle. But it is more meaningful, and perhaps more memorable, to meet those Palestinian refugees who placed such hopes in this Egyptian leader that they named their sons Jamal in his honor.

These family histories also help us understand the nakba as a constantly unfolding catastrophe: The Last Earth is a tragedy in multiple acts, seen through the eyes of three generations of Palestinians. This is, too, where Baroud makes his largest historiographical contribution. Although he is not the first to record Palestinian stories, most historians and anthropologists have either focused exclusively on gathering oral histories from the pre-1948 period or have restricted themselves to a specific historical event or topic in the post-1948 era.[23] In The Last Earth, however, by zooming in on a single family unit, it becomes clear how al-nakba al-mustamera extends across time—not, as we might assume, in a linear fashion. To take the Lubani family as an example: in the first generation, there is Mohammed, a “well-regarded government employee” from a small Palestinian village. In 1948, when his village is destroyed, he escapes with family to a refugee camp near Damascus, where he is reduced to shoveling cow dung for a living. Despite the upheaval of his childhood, Mohammed’s son, Jamal, manages to gain a respected position as a teacher in an UNRWA school. Yet they are still Palestinian refugees, living in a country where their security and stability is necessarily tenuous. So when their camp is besieged by Syrian government forces, Jamal’s son is forced to flee his home, following in his grandfather’s footsteps. These “echoes of history,” as Baroud puts it, affirm the reality of nakba for Palestinians today, who may be affected by it as directly and as terribly as their grandparents. They suggest that the adversity Palestinians have faced and continue to face is, in fact, linked to that first catastrophe. These historical links, in turn, help us understand the ways in which the commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of 1948 is simultaneously a protest against current injustice.


It might seem odd, given Baroud’s focus on the nakba and Palestinian identity, that The Last Earth begins outside Palestine—in a refugee camp in Syria, present day, with the story of a third-generation Palestinian. Though he identifies as Palestinian, Khaled is born in Yarmouk and has known nothing else. For him, Palestine only exists “in books, or as the tattered map in his family’s living room, and in old fables conveyed by long-dead grandparents.” Amidst the violence of the Syrian crisis, Khaled escapes from Yarmouk. But unlike his grandfather’s expulsion, nearly seventy years before, Khaled’s exile is not an exclusively Palestinian catastrophe. As he makes his way towards western Europe, Khaled is accompanied by refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, all of whom are fleeing war and desolation, and who carry on with a dogged persistence despite the many obstacles. Perhaps, then, Baroud wants us to see the Palestinian story as a universal one—a story shared by the millions of refugees and exiles that wander the earth. If we are moved by these stories of hardship, Baroud seems to suggest, then Palestinians cannot be excluded from our sympathy. And if we agree that all people deserve a permanent home—a “last earth”—then we cannot fail to extend this right to Palestinians.

But if The Last Earth begins by universalizing the Palestinian struggle, then the end reminds us that the nakba occupies a distinct place in the human narrative of exile and loss. “The Last Sky”, the eighth chapter of the book, is the story of Leila, also a third-generation Palestinian. Yet Leila’s family has seemingly managed to escape the legacy of 1948. Born in Saudi Arabia, she spends her childhood in Jordan, where her Western-educated parents operate a successful business. Palestine is peripheral to her existence: “there did not seem to be a need to mention their refugee status, or include Palestine into everyday discussions…the Nakba was rarely invoked at the dinner table or at family gatherings.”

When the Syrian crisis erupts in 2015, Leila is moved by the images of refugees crowding into small boats, desperately seeking an escape from their war-ravaged homes. Armed with a medical degree and a doctorate in psychology, she travels to an island in Mediterranean to volunteer at a refugee center, assigned to help “dejected refugees negotiate their pain and cope with their traumas.” But when she arrives, she is informed that there are no Syrians present. Here, there are only Palestinian refugees: men, women, and children who have fled camps in Syria, Gaza, and Lebanon, and are now stranded in the middle of the sea. Though Leila was motivated by a basic human desire—an urge to help end suffering—her journey brought her back to Palestine. On average, she remembers, refugees live in exile for seventeen years; yet for these Palestinians, “exile did not have a time limit.” If, Leila wonders, we hope that Syrians might someday return to Syria, then for these refugees, “why not to Palestine? Why never Palestine?”

Leila’s story reminds us that the deeper we are willing to look, the more we realize that our contemporary crises are inextricably connected to the nakba, in both its past and present forms. We should care about Palestine because we believe that all people are deserving of certain universal rights: the right to return to one’s homeland, to be equal under the law, to be secure on one’s own property, to protest without risking death. But we cannot ignore the fact that the nakba is exceptional in its scope—that this seventy-year saga is, in its historical specificity, particularly tragic. As the late Edward Said argued nearly twenty years ago, any permanent resolution to the nakba cannot require Palestinians to “forget and renounce [their] history of loss, dispossessed by the very people who taught everyone the importance of not forgetting the past.”[24] The stories collected in The Last Earth serve as evidence of this history of loss and resistance, a history that continues to unfold today. But they also stand as a testament to the power of history itself, of the need to recount the past, as part of that struggle. They remind us that yes, this nakba must end; but so too must it be remembered.


Jonathan Adler graduated from Yale University in December 2017. His work has been published in Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England and the North Carolina Historical Review. 


[1] See Palestinian Journeys, “Fleeing Jaffa,”

[2] Mahmoud Darwish, “The Earth is Closing in on Us,” quoted in Ramzy Baroud, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, 2018), 251.

[3] “Gaza Protests: All the latest updates,” Al Jazeera,

[4] Amira Haas, “Israeli Fire at Gaza Border Protests Causing Wounds Not Seen since 2014 War,” Haaretz,  April 22, 2018,

[5] Tovah Lazaroff, “‘There Are No Innocents in Gaza,’ Says Israeli Defense Minister,” The Jerusalem Post, April 8, 2018,

[6] Yaniv Kubovich, “Israel to Top Court: Gaza Protests Are State of War, Human Rights Law Doesn’t Apply,” Haaretz, May 3, 2018,

[7] Maram Humaid, “Fears of More Violence as Palestinians Protest in Gaza,” Al Jazeera, April 6, 2018

[8] Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, “You’re Far More Likely to Be Killed Protesting in Gaza than Firing a Rocket,” +972 Magazine, April 27, 2018,

[9] Hazem Balousha and Oliver Holmes, “The Gaza Strip Mourns Its Dead after Protest Is Met with Bullets,” The Guardian, March 31, 2018,

[10] “Israeli Fire at Gaza Border Protests Causing Wounds Not Seen since 2014 War”

[11] "Blaming a child for the sniper's bullet that killed him," +972 Magazine, April 24, 2018,; "‘Aedah Al-Majdalawi, 63, Recounts How She Was Hit by Live Gunfire When She Went to Help Youths Injured near the Gaza Perimeter Fence,” B’Tselem, April 1, 2018,; “Dead Gaza Teenager Ignored Mother’s Warning,” Reuters, April 21, 2018,

[12] See, for example, Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger, “Gaza Militants Barrage Israel with Mortars and Rockets,” The New York Times, May 29, 2018, 

[13] David M. Halbfinger, “Israel Feels Pride but Senses Peril as U.S. Moves Embassy,” The New York Times, May 13, 2018,

[14] "Second Palestinian journalist dies of wounds from IDF sniper fire," +972 Magazine, April 25, 2018,; also see the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists:

[15] “Gaza: 112 Palestinians Killed, including 13 children, in Great March of Return,” Ma’an News Agency, May 21, 2018, 

[16] Yair Altman, “MK proposes banning taking footage of on-duty IDF soldiers,” Israel Hayom, May 24, 2018,; Jonathan Lis, “Israeli Plan to Jail Anyone Filming Soldiers in the West Bank Hits Legal Wall,” Haaretz, June 17, 2018,  

[17] Rashid Khalidi, The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood (Beacon Press, 2007).                                     

[18] “‘Nakba Law’ - Amendment No. 40 to the Budgets Foundations Law - Adalah,”                                                                                       

[19] “This Is Why the Nakba Still Matters to Palestinians 70 Years on,” The Independent, May 11, 2018,

[20] Baroud, The Last Earth, 266.

[21] Iyad Abuheweila and David M. Halbfinger, “For Gaza Protester, Living or Dying Is the ‘Same Thing,’” The New York Times, April 29, 2018, sec. World,  Ramzy

[22] Baroud, “Gazan Gandhis: Gaza Bleeds Alone as ‘Liberals’ and ‘Progressives’ Go Mute,” The Palestine Chronicle, May 2, 2018, 

[23] See for example Walid Khalidi, ed., All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2006); Nafez Nazzal, Palestinian Exodus from Galilee, 1948, 1st edition (Washington (DC): Institute for Palestine Studies, 1978); Susan Slyomovics, The Object of Memory: Arab and Jew Narrate the Palestinian Village, First Edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998); Efrat Ben-Ze’ev, Remembering Palestine in 1948: Beyond National Narratives, Reprint edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[24] Edward Said, “The One-State Solution,” The New York Times, January 10, 1999,