Nakba Day Anniversary, 2024: Archives, Libraries, Memory and Narrative

Gaza Strip, Between 1950 and 1977. Library of Congress, Matson Photo Service, photographer.
© UNRWA Destruction in northern Gaza,  2024, posted at this link: UN News,

“The power to narrate, or to block other narratives from forming and emerging, is very important to culture and imperialism, and constitutes one of the main connections between them.” Edward Said: Culture and Imperialism

“There is no political power without control of the archive, if not of memory.” Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

“One of the first few things I saw shook me deeply—books, smoldering like birds with broken wings that had been firebombed, trying to survive under heavy cement blocks.” Mosab Abu Toha, describing what he saw after the bombing of the Gaza Islamic University in 2014

For many Palestinians, May 15th, which directly follows Israeli Independence Day, May 14th, is a day of mourning and remembrance, marking the beginning of their ongoing catastrophe, or Nakba. Nakba Day has been observed around the world since 1949, a year after the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. In 1948, at least 15,000 Palestinian Arabs were killed; over 500 Palestinian villages and eleven Palestinian urban neighborhoods were destroyed or depopulated; and 750,000 Palestinians (out of a total population of 1.8 million in historic Palestine) were driven from their cities and villages into other parts of Palestine or neighboring countries, becoming either Internally Displaced people throughout historic Palestine/Israel, including the Gaza Strip (where many internally displaced Palestinians fled and resettled in refugee camps starting in 1948), or becoming refugees in neighboring countries.

c@UNRWA, The Flight,1948, photographer unknown
“The market in Aqbat Jabr camp, located southwest of Jericho in the Jordan Valley. Prior to the 1967 hostilities, it was also one of the most populated camps, with approximately 30,000 refugees. During the 1967 hostilities, around 25,000 residents fled but were denied permits to return after the fighting halted.” © Undated UNRWA Archive Photographer Unknown

According to UNRWA, today there are 5.9 million registered Palestinian refugees, most of whom live in 58 refugee camps across the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. 

Nakba Day is marked by a variety of commemorative actions: internally displaced Palestinians in Palestine/Israel organize demonstrations and marches to destroyed villages and historic sites, while those living in Diaspora communities, including many here in the U.S., organize events such as collective readings of books  and Village Histories, ringing bells for each destroyed village; viewings/listenings to recorded oral histories, readings of poetry and other commemorative cultural events. Memory, education, advocacy and their underpinnings, namely library resources, archives, documentation resources and cultural heritage sites become vessels of testimony and remembrance, as well as of hope and the affirmation of a better future. 

Edward Said Public Library, Gaza, the only English library in Gaza, founded by poet Mosab Abu Toha, photo featured on the Edward Said Public Library web page:

The commemoration of Palestinians’ experiences of dispossession, exile and refuge also provides the occasion for recognizing the significance of documenting Palestinian culture and experiences as it constitutes the basis of the Palestinian narrative of dispossession, loss, systemic violence, as well as of agency, steadfastness and resistance to erasure (see the speech at the ALA 2020 given by poet and founder of Gaza’s Edward Said Public Library, Mosab Abu Toha, who spoke about the challenges to get books into Gaza due to the longstanding Israeli blockade, and his community’s resilience in building the only English public language library in Gaza, in spite of the numerous challenges). Indeed since 1948, libraries, archives, documentation centers, and cultural heritage sites have been central to Palestinian communities’ efforts to tell and document their experiences, and by the same token, have been singled out for targeting in the attempt to silence the ongoing Nakba narrative and to censor, conceal, reclassify,  confiscate and destroy its physical basis, as part of a sustained strategy of forced forgetting and erasure (see “Looted and Hidden” film and talks by  Dr. Rona Sela about the confiscation of the Palestinian film archive; or the article by Dr. Rona Sela, “Imprisoned Photographs”: The Looted Archive of Photo Rissas (Rassas)—Ibrahim and Chalil (Khalil) Rissas for a critical reading of how the Ibrahim Risas photo albums (a pioneer Arab photographer in Jerusalem) ended up at the National Library of Israel, as part of the Moshe and Batya Carmel archival collection); an article by Dr. Hana Sleiman about the fate of the PLO archive in Beirut; or see The Great Book Robbery by Benny Brenner about the looting of Palestinians’ books and libraries in 1948 and how they ended up as “Abandoned Property” in the National Library of Israel, and still lie there, unreturned to their due owners).

The past seven months have witnessed (in addition to the unprecedented horrific loss of life–at  least 34,183 people have been killed and 77,084 have been wounded in Gaza, with about 72 percent of those killed being women and children– and displacements–nearly 85 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have lost their homes and thousands are missing, still under the rubble) systemic attacks on libraries, museums, archives, cultural and heritage sectors, schools and universities: concerted destruction of the knowledge and learning sectors, which has been described by many as an attempt at cultural genocide.

Two recent reports provide important data here: 

These reports call our attention to a number of important facts:

Since October 7th at least 17 different libraries and archives have been badly damaged or razed entirely, including the Central Archives of Gaza, which held 150 years of historical records pertaining to Gaza’s history; Gaza’s municipal library; the Great Omari Mosque (13th c.) and Library, which contained one of the most significant collections of rare books in Palestine, including works dating to the 14th century; the Diana Tamari Sabbagh Library in the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Center (Al-Rimal, Gaza City, including the destruction of tens of thousands of books in the Tamari Sabbagh Library); the aforementioned Edward Said Public Library, established and headed by renowned poet Mosab Abu Toha and was  Gaza’s only English language library; and Al-Israa University Library and National Museum (near Gaza City), which contained over 3,000 archeological artifacts (the museum was looted prior to its destruction).

The report also highlights library workers who have been killed in the ongoing genocide, showing the losses that go beyond books and artifacts, namely the annihilation of the human beings entrusted with preserving, providing access to and organizing the physical infrastructure of memory, education, and scholarship around the Palestinian heritage, cultures and experiences, in a further attempt to destroy the knowledge system in Gaza. 

Some reports have also highlighted the sporadic loss of, and control over, access to the internet, where regular outages, sometimes total in their extent, undermine the basic human right of access to information for all. 

Other reports detailing ongoing destruction of the cultural, documentation and knowledge sectors, even predating October 7th,  include the following: 

In an effort to counteract this multi-pronged destruction and erasure, we list here some open access resources related to the ongoing Nakba as well as some of our Library resources (with links to WorldCat to facilitate access around the world). The list is very selective, and resources may require access to your local library holdings. The list is divided into four sections:

The Columbia University Libraries hold extensive research collections from and about the Middle East. For further questions, please contact:  Peter Magierski, Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian:, Global Studies, Columbia University Libraries

With many thanks to Kaoukab Chebaro, Head of Global Studies for her help with this blog post and with compiling many of the resources. For contact:

7 thoughts on “Nakba Day Anniversary, 2024: Archives, Libraries, Memory and Narrative

  1. Very informative ! Thank you for lighting up and reviving palestinian history ! Very well explained …

  2. Thank you for this highlighting article. Cultural extermination should be prohibited and punished under international laws and norms!

  3. Thank you for this important information and for bringing our attention to archives, memory and narrative.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *