The Nakba Palestine
2024 marks the 76th anniversary of the mass displacement of Palestinians known as “the Nakba” or “the Catastrophe” Image Credit: Gulf News

At 4:00 PM on 15 May 1948, David Ben Gurion announced the creation of the State of Israel. Minutes later, the Egyptian Army marched into Palestine through the Neveg Desert. Five days later, they were in Hebron. Iraqi troops arrived in Nablus on 21 May. Two days later they had reached Tulkarem. Jerusalem was being defended by Palestinian irregulars and the Jordanian Army. The Syrian army was mandated to take Lake Tiberius and the whole of the Sea of Galilee.

Future Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser, then a 30-year-old officer in the Egyptian Army, recalled: “There was no concentration of (Arab) forces, no accumulation of ammunition, and no equipment. There was no reconnaissance, no intelligence, no plans. It was a political war. There was to be advance without victory and retreat without defeat.”

A few hours before midnight on 14-15 May, Arab leaders toured the war front, chatting with troops, drinking tea with officers, attempting to boost morale. None of the Arab armies had ever fought a proper war, with the exception of Jordanian veterans of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottomans, led by their king, Abdullah I.

Syrian president Shukri Al Quwatli addressed his troops with a commanding voice: “Palestine is in your hands, my children. God bless you.” Inspecting his troops at the eastern end of the Allenby Bridge that connected the West Bank with Jordan, King Abdullah of Jordan dressed in full military uniform. He took out his revolver and symbolically fired one shot into the air at midnight. “Forward” he commanded.

Read more by Sami Moubayed

Arab numbers

The total number of Arab troops was estimated at approximately twenty thousand. The Egyptian army represented the largest share, with 5,500 men. The strongest of all was the Jordanian army, with 4,500 highly trained professional soldiers commanded by British officers John Bagot Glubb, his deputy Normal Lash, and brigade commanders Teal Ashton and Desmond Goldie.

Then came the Syrian and Iraqi armies, with approximately three thousand men each. Volunteer troops came from Yemen, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco while the Israelis were estimated at 65,000 in July 1948 and would cross the 100,000-man benchmark by early 1949.

Despite two air raids on Damascus that summer, the early weeks of war looked promising for the Arabs, prompting the UN to intervene and call for a ceasefire. A mediator was tasked with protecting the holy sites and brokering the truce; Conte Folke Bernadotte, grandson of the king of Sweden.

A group of Arab refugees walks along a road from Jerusalem to Lebanon, carrying their belongings with them on Nov. 9, 1948. The group was driven from their homes by attacks in Galilee. For the first time, the United Nations will officially commemorate the flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from what is now Israel on the 76th anniversary of their exodus, an action stemming from the UN's partition of British-ruled Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states. Image Credit: AP

He failed, and on 16 June, Nazareth fell to the Israelis. Refugees were thrown out of their homes with nothing but the clothing on their backs. Bernadotte returned in early September, requesting that the Israelis allow 250,000-300,000 Palestinians to return to Haifa and Jaffa, proposing that they abandon the Negev in exchange for the Galilee.

Israel refused — it wanted both. On 17 September, Bernadotte was shot dead by Israeli militias, commanded by future premiere, Yitzhak Shamir.

Reversal of Fortune

From this point on the Israelis began to aggressively claim what was left of Palestine. On 12 October they occupied Bir al-Sabe, forcing approximately 200,000 Palestinians to flee to Gaza. Realising that Israel had won the war, Ben Gurion began a systematic campaign to destroy what remained of Palestinian villages.

By late October, the Israelis had seized all of Galilee, which had been allocated to the Arabs by the 1947 Partition Plan. On 13 December, the Israelis turned against the Egyptian army in Gaza, Rafah, and al-Auja, and crossed into Sinai at el-Arish and Faluga.

This was a far cry from what Arab generals had promised before the war. The war ended with them holding onto nothing but a narrow strip of land running the length of the Palestinian border, with three enclaves in the northern, central, and southern regions. Following the 1949 armistice, they all became demilitarised zones. In total, six thousand Israelis were killed in 1948, along with nearly five thousand Arabs.


The war destroyed the Arabs both psychologically and politically. In 1949, angry officers toppled the president of Syria, followed by the Egyptian coup of July 1952, which toppled King Farouk, while a nationwide uprising brought down Lebanese president Beshara al-Khoury that September. In 1958, the king of Iraq, Faisal II, would be overthrown and killed by Iraqi officers who had fought in 1948.

Popularly coined Al Nakba (The Disaster) by Syrian historian Constantine Zurayk, the 1948 war would continue to strike a raw nerve throughout the Arab World. It reminded the Arabs of how ill-prepared and disunited they truly had been, and remain, 76-years later.

Although debated to death by historians, filmmakers, and journalists, its anniversary carries additional importance today because of what’s been happening in Gaza since 7 October 2023. Nasser’s words still apply; there is no ammunition for the Palestinians, no reconnaissance, and no plans.

But more importantly, it is retreat with no defeat for the Palestinians.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of the best-seller Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.