Driven by a desire to return to his childhood village, Salman Abu Sitta is rebuilding the map of historic Palestine.
In 1948, Zionist militias attacked Palestinian cities and villages and destroyed more than 530 Palestinian villages. About 13,000 Palestinians were killed and more than 750,000 were expelled from their homes, becoming refugees.
Here three Palestinians share their stories of displacement, loss and hope to return to their villages.
|Abu Arab: “Everything had been taken from us”|
Nazareth – Ameen Muhammad Ali’s tiny store – little more than an alcove – is easily missed amid the bustle of the main thoroughfare of the market in Nazareth’s Old City.
His shop is a time capsule, transporting visitors to a period before the arrival of the cheap kitchenware, women’s fashions and electronics stocked by neighbouring traders.
Hanging outside from the awning are traditional sheepskin rugs, battered copper cauldrons and faded brass coffee pots. In a rusting bowl are hundreds of old coins of a currency no longer recognised: The Palestinian lira. Muhammad Ali, better known as Abu Arab, cherishes these relics as keenly as he does his memories of a home and way of life he lost 68 years ago, when he was 13.
Israel does it best to silence us, banning talk about the Nakba from schools so the younger generations will not know what happened.
“I am sure one day I will return to Saffuriya,” he says of a Palestinian village only two kilometres outside Nazareth that Israel destroyed during the Nakba in 1948. He pauses, then chuckles as he injects a note of realism: “If not me, then my son – and if not my son, then my grandson.”
Unlike the majority of refugees from the 1948 war, 81-year-old Abu Arab lives near his former village, in a neighbourhood of Nazareth whose residents are all refugees from Saffuriya or their descendants.
Today, he is an Israeli citizen, but has no more rights to return to his village than his relatives in the camps of Lebanon. In Israeli legal parlance, he says, drawing heavily on one of the cigarettes he always has to hand, he is classified as a “present absentee” – present in Israel but absent from his property.
Over the village lands, Israel has built an exclusively Jewish community and given it the similar, Hebraicised name of Tzipori. Where the houses once stood is a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund.
How does he feel about Israel? “We are not against Jews. We are just against the ideology of Zionism. [Jewish] Israelis can be partners if they can overcome their brainwashing and are ready to accept a resolution that is fair to everyone.”
Abu Arab’s infectious optimism is eclipsed only when he recalls the events of July 1948, as Saffuriya was attacked. His face grows sombre, his eyes distant. “They bombed us from the air just as we were breaking the fast for Ramadan – they knew we would all be in our homes.”
His parents fled with the children – three brothers, including the late poet Taha Muhammad Ali, and a 12-year-old sister – into the dense undergrowth nearby. In the morning, as Israeli troops occupied the village, they were forced northwards towards Lebanon.
Shortly after they arrived in a refugee camp there, his sister died from heat exhaustion. “My mother would sit by her grave every day, lost in grief.”
Finally, his father decided they must make the dangerous journey back. “It was very frightening – we never knew if we were about to stumble into the Israeli army.” At the journey’s end, they found the village gone. The area had been fenced off and declared a closed military zone – and anyone entering risked being shot.
“We had nothing. Everything had been taken from us,” he says, his large hands that have animated his memories finally falling silently by his sides. The family hid in a friend’s house in Nazareth, and slowly the three brothers started to rebuild their lives, selling cakes from a street trolley. When Abu Arab had saved enough, he bought his current shop.
There has been a gentle, melancholy tone to these recollections, echoing the poetry of his celebrated brother Taha. But as his focus returns to the present, his voice grows steelier. “All the refugees have the right to return – and no one can strip us of that right.”
The events of 1948 must not be erased from the collective memory, he adds. “Israel does its best to silence us, banning talk about the Nakba from schools so the younger generations will not know what happened.”
In that spirit, he helped to found the main body representing the internal refugees, ADRID – the Association for the Rights of the Internally Displaced, which for the past 30 years has organised an annual Nakba March on Israel’s Independence Day.
On Friday thousands attended a procession in the northern Negev to the destroyed village of Wadi Zubala.
Abu Arab is also active in the Saffuriya Cultural Association. Over the years he has taken items from his shop to stock a museum commemorating the extinguished way of life in the hundreds of villages like Saffuriya, wiped off the map in 1948.
“The early Zionists justified the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, saying this was a land without people,” he notes. “The museum is the proof that the Palestinians did exist – and we have a culture and heritage that cannot be erased.”
|Salwa Naser: “Where are we supposed to go from here?”|
Salwa Naser left her family home in the port of Jaffa when she was six. That was 68 years ago. A refugee twice over, today she lives in a small breeze-block room that abuts her son’s apartment in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, an overcrowded square kilometre of land on the city’s southern outskirts.
This is always the case with us Palestinians, we’re always getting pushed from one place to the next. I wish they’d give us a traffic light for once.
Built in 1949, the camp was meant to temporarily house some 3,000 Palestinians fleeing war to the south, but is now home to well over 22,000 people – three generations of Palestinian refugees, poor migrant workers from across Asia, and an increasing number of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees fleeing a war that has been raging in neighbouring Syria for more than five years.
“Jaffa is beautiful… There’s nothing else like it,” said Salwa, recalling her family’s seaside home in Jafa’s Ajami neighbourhood. “Our house was right next to the sea…just down the stairs. There was nothing between the sea and us. We’d play by the sea every single day.”
As violence spiked between Jewish and Palestinian militias, her father, an important figure in Jaffa’s port, pleaded with his Syrian wife to take their nine children and leave via boat to Beirut.
“I remember when the violence all started,” said Salwa, sitting in her sparse, one-room home in Shatila. “I may have been only six when we left, but Jaffa will always be home … I’m still sad about my school. It was … it was a proper school. There was structure … even the food was good. Our uniforms were so cute. We had options – either blue shorts or blue skirts, and a white shirt and a white scarf. I always chose the skirt.”
Salwa said she and her classmates didn’t realise the rising communal tensions until the windows of her first grade classroom shattered one morning after an explosion rocked the quiet, coastal neighbourhood. “My parents really did a good job keeping the kids in the dark about the rising violence – same with the school teachers.”
But after the bombing near the school, Salwa’s father decided that was enough and sent them to stay with the mother’s family in Syria. She has no family left in Jaffa. Nearly the entire family fled to Lebanon and then on to Syria. “We were so excited. A trip on the sea, Lebanon and Syria, it was an adventure,” she said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. We left in the middle of the night. My mother walked us down the stairs to the port to a boat. There were tens of other families doing the same thing.”
As they boarded the boat, Salwa’s mother began to cry. “When we asked her what was wrong, she said: ‘We’re leaving… I just will miss our home,’ and then leaned over to my oldest brother and said ‘I’m not sure we’ll ever see home again’.” As they made it further out to sea, the boat stopped. The city was on fire. “That’s when my mother really started crying,” said Salwa.
After landing in Beirut, the family continued on across land to neighboring Syria. “You’re going to laugh at me when I tell you, but we went to Bab al-Hara,” said Salwa, referring to a Damascus neighbourhood that is also the stage of a popular Syrian TV drama.
Strapped for cash and struggling to lay down roots, the family bounced between schools and neighbourhoods before resettling in a corner of the capital’s old city. “This is always the case with us Palestinians, we’re always getting pushed from one place to the next. I wish they’d give us a traffic light for once.”
At 16, she married a young Palestinian man also from Jaffa. The couple rented a small apartment just off the famous Souk al-Hamadiyye marketplace, before finally settling down in Hajjar al-Aswad, a neighbourhood on the edge of Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk.
“Our home is gone. It was hit by a shell or an air strike… who knows,” said Salwa.
Salwa and her son had left for Beirut in late 2012 as the uprising in Syria turned increasingly bloody and violence overtook the capital. Shortly after they arrived in Shatila, a neighbour had WhatsApped them a photo of a pile of rubble – the remnants of what once was their home.
“I was crying when we left. My sister, she had decided to stay. She asked me, ‘Why are you crying?’ I said, ‘Remember when we left Palestine and Mom said we’d leave for a week and come back? I’m afraid we will leave again and the same thing will happen’.”
Now a refugee for the second time in her life, Salwa said she’s constantly on edge in the teeming Shatila camp. “I’ve always hated violence… even arguments make me nervous. Here in the camp people are always arguing and yelling… It’s never, ever quiet and I’m always nervous.”
“I’m scared something will happen here…imagine! But here, living here, I don’t like it. I’d rather go somewhere else. Maybe Switzerland…I’d try it. Definitely not America… I’ve heard that life there is difficult. Norway sounds nice though. I have my father’s passport… it’s the only document I have. It’s from the British Mandate. I was too young to have any documents.”
Salwa’s sister is getting ready to leave…her son took a boat to Europe. He is in Germany now.Salwa hopes that one of her children, who have Palestinian Syrian documents, might be granted asylum in Europe. “All of them are hoping to go to Germany. But the entire world is going there…I don’t know.”
“What kind of luck is that … we fled one war only to find another,” she said. “Where are we supposed to go from here?”
| Um Omar: “We never saw a happy day after we left”
Umm Omar,76, was only eight when her family was expelled from their home town of Jusayr in 1948 and landed in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. “When they stole our country, I was only eight,” she remembered. “It was May and the weather was rainy.”
Near the Palestinian town of al-Fallujah, her family lived off their farming in Jeseer. “Life was good there. We used to grow wheat. I remember going out with my parents in the wheat fields when I was a little girl,” she recalled. “We had wheat, flour and goats. We never saw another happy day after we left.”
I still hope that I’ll die in my home town. I may be using a walker to move around today. But if they told me I can go back to Jeseer, I’d run all the way.
The Jabaliya refugee camp was established by the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) in 1948 for an estimated 35,000 people who were evicted or fled from the southern Naqab (Negev) region of historic Palestine.
Today, however, the camp is the largest in the besieged coastal enclave, with more than 110,000 refugees living there.
After Zionist armed groups attacked their village, Umm Omar and her family took refuge in a nearby Jewish Arab village for four days before they were able to move on. “They were good people,” she said. “They were Palestinians like us. They helped a lot.”
As the Egyptian army advanced in the area, they decided to continue in al-Fallujah and eventually al-Majdal, a Palestinian town near present-day Ashkelon, now an Israeli coastal city. As violence continued to spread and Palestinians were evicted from nearby villages, they moved to Jabaliya. Moving from place to place and without security, food or medicine, she remembered many old people and children dying along the way.
The Zionist armed groups attacked refugees along the way, she said. “They used to shoot us just like what is happening in Aleppo today,” she said, referring to the city that has become a focal point in the Syrian civil war. “They shot at us with guns. Bam, bam, bam. They weren’t like the rockets they use on Gaza today.”
Once in Jabaliya, her father decided the family would wait for a month until the fighting stopped. Eventually, her father went with other men from the village to check on their home and land back in Jusayr. “They saw that everything was OK. It was just like we left it.”
But on their way back, Umm Omar’s father stepped on a mine planted by Zionist militias. He died on the spot. “My father was a good man,” she said. “May God rest his soul.”
As time went by, Jabaliya camp became permanent. Years later, her family married her to an 18-year-old cousin, Jaber Abu Omar. She gave birth to 12 children over the years – five boys and seven girls. “My children became adults here,” she said, adding that her oldest son, Omar, now has 10 children.
Omar, who used to work in present-day Israel to sell vegetables and fruit, took her back to Jusayr 31 years after they were displaced from the village.
“The village wasn’t like it used to be. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing it again, but it wasn’t like I remembered,” she said. “I took Omar around and showed him where our house used to be. It was gone. I showed him where the streets of Jusayr were.”
The pain of displacement never ended for their family, however. They lived through three Israeli military offensives in Gaza since 2009. Like tens of thousands of Palestinians across the narrow coastal enclave, Omar’s home was destroyed by Israeli air strikes during the 51-day offensive in Gaza in 2014.
Her husband blames the Arab armies for the Palestinian plight. “The Egyptian people, the Arabs – they’re good,” Abu Omar told Al Jazeera. “But the governments betrayed us since the Nakba until today. They lied to us and now our country is gone.”
Several years ago, the couple buried their home deeds and keys in a location that only their children know, hoping that they would be able to return to Jeseer one day. “I still hope that I’ll die in my home town. I may be using a walker to move around today. But if they told me I can go back to Jusayr, I’d run all the way.”
Umm Omar asked her son to find a way to bury her in Jusayr if she dies without returning. “I tell my kids, my grandchildren and even my great grandchildren about where we are from,” she said. “If only God would get rid of this occupation.”