Seventy years ago, just before the State of Israel was established, its military command developed a secret programme titled Plan D.
Its goal was to expand the boundaries of the state beyond the areas allocated to it by the UN in its Palestine partition resolution of November 1947, and to consolidate control internally by eliminating resistance and removing Palestinian communities that stood in the way of Israeli forces.
The outcome of this process became known as the Nakba (catastrophe in Arabic), the destruction of Palestinian-Arab society, and the ethnic cleansing of 80% of its people who resided in areas that became part of Israel, about 60% of the overall Palestinian population (720 000) who became refugees.
Israel thus became a Jewish-majority state, with Palestinians reduced to 15% to 20% of its population, the others falling under Jordanian and Egyptian control (the West Bank and Gaza Strip), until they were occupied by Israel in 1967, or were forced to move into neighbouring countries.
In the next few decades Israel became a destination for Jewish immigration from eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and those who remembered pre-1948 Palestine, in which Jews and Arabs had lived alongside each other, soon became a small segment of society.
But the erasure of memory was never complete. In towns such as Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and Ramle, many buildings and neighbourhoods remain as a testimony to that past.
Frequently they were repopulated by Jewish immigrants, interspersed with remnants of the older Palestinian residents.
Stories told by conquerors and survivors alike ensured that knowledge of what had existed did not disappear.
Palestinian citizens of Israel who stayed in their homes and communities carried forth the memory of the process that transformed them into a marginalised group in their own homeland.
Many became internal refugees or “present absentees” – allowed to live in Israel but not in their original communities – making the Nakba an ever-present aspect of their consciousness.
Israeli authorities have denied any responsibility, blaming the refugees for their own fate, despite solid historical evidence – including from Israeli sources – of the steps taken to expel entire communities and apply pressure on others to leave, in fear for their lives.
Ever since 1948, the theme of return has been a constant feature of Palestinian culture, expressed in the work of prominent writers such as Ghassan Kanafani (Returning to Haifa), and Mahmoud Darwish, who writes about his ancestral village in Standing before the Ruins of al-Birweh thus:
“He says: What about the modern roads on the rubble of houses?
I say: No, I don’t see them
I only see the garden under them
and I see the cobweb
He says: Dry your two tears with a handful of fresh grass
I say: That is my other crying over my past
The tourist says: The visit is over
I haven’t found anything to photograph except a ghost
I say: I see absence with all its instruments
I touch it and hear it. It lifts me high
I see the ends of the distant skies
Whenever I die I notice
I am born again and I return
from absence to absence.”
Commemorating the event has become central to the regrouping and mobilisation of the Palestinian movement. Nakba Day is marked globally on May 15 (the day on which Israeli statehood took effect), though Palestinians living in Israel use the Hebrew calendar so as to coincide with Israeli Independence Day (falling this year on April 19).
Since the 1990s, the Association for the Protection of the Rights of the Displaced, a Palestinian organisation, has conducted an annual Procession of Return, a march on land that belonged to hundreds of villagers who were forced to flee in 1948.
Most of the villages were subsequently demolished, with the land usually passing into state hands and leased to Jewish-only settlements.
This year the march was conducted in the area of Atlit, on the coast south of Haifa.
Participants, numbering more than 20 000, included all major movements representing Palestinian citizens, as the event serves to unify the national community beyond party-political divisions.
They were joined by progressive Jewish activists.
Palestinians in Gaza, at least 70% of whom are 1948 refugees and their descendants, embarked on a similar campaign over a two-month period, in protest over the siege and deprivation and in support of the right of the Nakba refugees to return to their ancestral homes
The only response Israel has offered so far has taken the form of shooting protesters with tear gas and live ammunition, killing almost 50 young people and wounding thousands.
The main reason for the emergence of this grassroots campaign is the long-term failure of diplomacy and negotiations between states and official actors to take the needs and concerns of refugees into consideration and to acknowledge their right of return.
No viable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict is possible without addressing this issue.
As observers and sympathisers, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about the current predicament of Palestinians under siege and military occupation, and in exile, and mobilise in solidarity with this struggle for justice, rights, redress and, eventually, reconciliation.
Greenstein is an associate professor in the department of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand