- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
In much of the Middle East, Wednesday was Nakba Day, commemorating the 65th anniversary of the exodus of Palestinian refugees in the war that resulted in the establishment of Israel in 1948 — an event known in Arabic as "al-Nakba," or "the catastrophe."
Predictably, the largest demonstrations were held by Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank; the Associated Press estimates the total number of protesters in the tens of thousands, some of whom skirmished with Israeli police and military forces. But neighboring countries, despite having large Palestinian refugee populations and politicians who pay frequent lip service to the rights of Palestinians, remained quiet.
In the heyday of the pan-Arab movement, May 15, the day after the declaration of the state of Israel, was an annual rallying point for expressing solidarity with the plight of displaced Palestinians, Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut, told FP by email. Palestinian groups "tied resurging Arab nationalism in the early 1950s to the Nakba, which became its legitimizing cause. The Baath party and other pan-Arab parties … observed it, as well as [refugee] camp residents, on an annual basis." But that waned with the pan-Arab movement and, after 1967, "Arabs forgot about the Nakba Day and focused, instead, on seeking to recover the lands Israel occupied in that war."
The anniversary this year was barely acknowledged outside of the protests in Jerusalem and the West Bank. There were, for instance, only a handful of events in Lebanon. Iran’s PressTV struggled to find a Nakba event to cover in Egypt, settling on a half-empty Nakba Day press conference hosted by the Building and Development Party. A handful of protesters posted signs outside of diplomatic buildings in Cairo, but for its article on the commemorations, Ahram Online chose to run pictures of larger protests in 2011. Tunisia’s governing Ennahda Party released a statement on its Facebook page for the occasion, but Tunisian news sites didn’t report any significant protests. The same in Jordan, home to the largest population of Palestinian expatriates. Meanwhile, approximately 350 people in Sydney, Australia shut down a thoroughfare, and a couple hundred university students in Karachi, Pakistan gathered for a protest.
The most notable Nakba Day protests outside of Israel in recent memory took place in 2011, after years of relative indifference to the occasion in the region, when protesters in Syria and Lebanon rushed the border and several were killed as Israeli forces responded. A month later, though, Michael Weiss reported in the Telegraph that the incident was orchestrated by the Syrian government in an attempt to distract from the country’s growing domestic protests. A Google Trends analysis of "nakba" shows a spike of searches for the word in 2011 and a precipitous decline in interest over the past two years.
Unless an Arab government tries to revive Nakba Day as a distraction again, that trend’s unlikely to change soon. "Arabs are currently preoccupied with their internal strife," Khashan told FP, "and the Palestinians are divided between the PLO and Hamas. In this period of uncertain transition, the Nakba Day has retreated to insignificance."