The establishment of the state of Israel in Palestine in 1948, and the forcible dispossession and destruction of the major part of Palestinian society from the conquered territories that this entailed, is today referred to as al-nakbah, the catastrophe, in Arabic. This article examines the nakbah as a concept that was first articulated and defined in a specific post-1948 Arab universe of discourse. It demonstrates how the notion of 1948-as-catastrophe was to be eventually eclipsed as a result of the defeat of the June War (1967) and how the nakbah's eventual reemergence in its contemporary Palestinian universe of discourse has led to meanings that we today associate with the (ongoing) Palestinian catastrophe. Although the notion of 1948-as-catastrophe is as old as the nakbah, the event as catastrophe and its atrocities only entered the English-language intellectual register in the 1990s as a result of Israeli “new” history and Palestinians' own attempts to revive memories of their pre-nakbah past. Through this discursive reading of the nakbah's six-decade-old shifting significations, this article therefore also explores the broader historical and sociological questions that revolve around power and knowledge when writing the history of the vanquished and the contemporary societies of the colonized.

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