For Palestinians, a catastrophe Mideast: Refugees look upon the founding of the Jewish homeland as the destruction of their own.


JERUSALEM -- Israelis are celebrating the birth of their state 50 years ago this month, but when Palestinian Arabs talk about the anniversary, they speak of "al-nakba" -- the catastrophe.

Every Israeli recollection of the modern miracle of the Jewish state comes with an equally poignant memory of a lost Palestinian homeland -- a battle fought and lost, a village destroyed, a people displaced.

Ali Muhammad Ali, Amne Shaqfa and Ayesh Zeidan were children during the 1947-1948 Israeli War of Independence. Their lives follow the national narrative of the Palestinian people since then -- wars, occupation, terrorism in the name of independence, a people's revolt and an uneasy peace with an anxious Israel.

"When I think of al-nakba, I only think of bloodshed and disasters," said Zeidan, a survivor of Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem that exists now only in the memory of a slaughter that helped persuade Arabs to flee their homes across Palestine a half-century ago.

In the late spring of 1948, the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli army, had set its sights on the villages nestled along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Israeli convoys to Jerusalem were being savagely attacked by Arabs from some of those villages.

Fighters from the radical Jewish underground group Irgun Zvei Leumi, operating without full sanction of the Haganah, entered Deir Yassin at dawn April 9, 1948. By the time the fighting was over, four Irgunists were dead but so were at least 107 Arab villagers, many of them women and children.

The Irgun was accused of massacring the residents of the village, not only by Arabs but also by British authorities and by the mainstream Jewish leadership. David Ben Gurion sent a letter of apology to King Abdullah of Jordan.

A 'lie' and a benefit

Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, who became prime minister 30 years later, denounced the stories of Jewish atrocities at Deir Yassin as a "lie propagated by Jew haters all over the world."

But he acknowledged that the story benefited the Jews.

"What was invented about Deir Yassin helped to carve the way for our decisive victories on the battlefield. The Arabs began fleeing in panic, shouting 'Deir Yassin!' " he wrote in his autobiography, "The Revolt."

Ayesh Zeidan was an 11-year-old boy in Deir Yassin at the time. His mother and sisters hid in an area underneath their house. He was spirited away to his grandmother's home in a neighboring village. Zeidan's father was among the village guards fighting the Jews. When the enemy got the upper hand, he fled.

Zeidan's family never returned to Deir Yassin, today the site of an Israeli mental institution. They settled in Beitin, a village in the West Bank that was then controlled by Jordan and has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Ali Muhammad Ali remembers the spring morning in 1948 when his family fled their ancestral village of Bayt Thul, a hamlet of stone houses perched on a mountain overlooking the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Fires in a neighboring village had blackened the morning sky as Jewish soldiers battled the Arabs for Palestine, and Ali's father expected Bayt Thul would suffer the same fate.

The family spent two years on the move, settled in an abandoned house in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and moved again to a refugee camp outside Jerusalem where Ali, now 60, still lives under Israeli occupation.

Bayt Thul is now a mountain park where Israelis picnic and hike.

Amne Shaqfa also is a refugee of the 1948 war. Her family ended up in the wretched refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, where a temporary haven turned into permanent despair. Shaqfa married there, bore five children and lost her husband during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. An artillery shell landed on her small concrete house in the Rafah refugee camp.

Shaqfa's grandchildren -- a fourth generation of Palestinians -- are growing up there. Her home village of Aqir no longer exists. After the forces of the nascent Jewish state captured Aqir in May 1948, Jews resettled the abandoned village and renamed it Kfar Evon.

Shaqfa actually is living amid territory now controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority, but she is not satisfied.

"This is not my homeland," says Shaqfa, sitting in the courtyard of her home in the Rafah camp. "This is not Palestine."

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted a half-century ago with no hope of returning to their original homes.

Today, 746,000 Palestinians live in Gaza, with more than half of them still in refugee camps, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Some 1.4 million Palestinians registered as refugees live in Jordan, 359,000 in Lebanon and 356,000 in Syria.

Much has happened to the Palestinians since 1948, but the Israeli-Arab war of that year was the defining moment in the collective conscience of Palestinians, said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American and Middle East expert.

"It's a dividing line. It's a seismic thing. It's what brings Palestinians together, whether your family lives on the West Bank or in Chicago," said Khalidi, a University of Chicago history professor whose family roots are in Jerusalem.

"What happened in '48 unified Palestinians around the same idea. The Palestinians would have been an ordinary Arab state, except for Zionism."

In its zeal to enlist new immigrants to Palestine, the Zionist movement adopted the slogan, "A land without a people for a people without a land."

But in 1948, about 1.4 million Christian and Muslim Arabs lived in Palestine, 74 percent of the population. Arabs owned the bulk of the land. The Jews who were here gained a foothold in Palestine in part by buying land from Arabs eager to sell.

Others made the decision

When the United Nations offered the Jewish people a piece of British-ruled Palestine in 1947, the Zionists took it and declared their own state the minute that British troops left on May 14, 1948. The Arab nations made the decision for the Palestinians -- they rejected the partition plan that designated the West Bank for a Palestinian state.

And the armies of the five Arab countries invaded the new nation-state of Israel, vowing to drive the Jews into the sea.

Although the Palestinian Arabs far outnumbered the Jews, they weren't as prepared for the war. Family rivalries fractured their leadership. They had no organized military or financial support. Their Arab patrons had well-equipped armies but also their own parochial interests in the outcome of the war.

By the time of the 1949 armistice, Jordan held the West Bank, including old Jerusalem. Egypt held the Gaza Strip. The Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese forces withdrew.

Some 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled, trying to get out of harm's way, persuaded by empty promises of a quick victory against the Jews, or in many cases driven out by the Jews.

"I put 90 percent blame on the Arab armies," recalled Zeidan, a 60-year-old stone cutter. "The Palestinians it is true we are emotional. We did not use our minds, but we had no weapons to defend ourselves."

The 1967 Arab-Israeli war pushed Palestinians on the refugee road again. Israel's armies swept across the West Bank, sending thousands of 1948 refugees there scurrying across the Jordan River into Jordan.

Israel gained control of Arab East Jerusalem, the West Bank -- the heart of biblical Israel -- and the Egyptian-held Gaza Strip and Sinai.

For the Palestinians, this was the beginning of the Israeli occupation. The Israeli army moved in as the resident police force. The government began confiscating large tracts of land.

Economic entanglement

Eventually, Jewish colonies began appearing on the hilltops of the West Bank. And Israel became a workplace for the Palestinians, creating an economic entanglement that survives to this day.

The 1967 war dealt a devastating blow to the Arabs as a whole and the Palestinians in particular. Yasser Arafat, a Palestinian-born engineer, had assumed control of a reconfigured Palestine Liberation Organization with a mission to put the Palestinians and their cause back on the world map.

He was determined to wrest the Palestinian homeland from the Israelis. The word Palestinian became synonymous with terrorism for everyone except the Palestinians, who regarded the guerrillas as freedom fighters.

They unleashed a reign of terror against Israelis -- including women and children -- and others that left the world reeling. They hijacked planes, bombed buses in Israel and carried out assassinations for more than a decade.

Expelled from Jordan, they continued operating from Lebanon until Israel invaded in 1982. The Israeli army pushed all the way to Beirut to drive out the PLO.

Arafat and 15,000 of his fighters left in ignominy aboard chartered cruise ships that ferried them to Tunisia -- far away from Israel's borders.

The Palestinian people endured another five years of Israeli military rule. Then, in late 1987, they took matters into their own hands with a stone-throwing street revolt against Israeli soldiers that became known as the "Intifada" -- the uprising.

It was a collective response to 20 years of occupation, a five-year campaign that resulted in the deaths of 1,700 Palestinians and 100 Israeli soldiers and civilians, the jailing of 105,000 Palestinians and the emergence of two new Islamic militant groups. Some of the Palestinian casualties were inflicted by other Palestinians.

But the Intifada also helped pave the way for peace.

In 1994, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met the recognized leader of the Palestinians, Arafat, on the White House lawn to sign a peace accord that had been secretly negotiated for a year in Oslo, Norway. The agreement provided a framework for Palestinian self-rule and eventual statehood.

After 26 years, Israel pulled out of most of the Gaza Strip and, gradually, from major Palestinian cities on the West Bank. Arafat returned triumphant to Gaza to head the new Palestinian authority.

International aid poured in. Palestinian exiles -- freedom fighters and terrorists among them -- returned to take up jobs in the new government.

A people governed by outsiders for centuries elected a legislative council. Democracy seemed attainable. Palestinians living in the diaspora began investing in their old homeland.

Khalid Darwish decided to make a personal investment. Born in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, he spent 20 years teaching in Bulgaria. After the peace treaty was signed in 1994, he moved to Ramallah to realize the dream of an independent Palestine.

Four years later, the dream eludes him. "I wish the dream continued to be a dream," the 41-year-old writer says today, sipping coffee in a cafe in Ramallah.

Darwish's disappointment in the Palestinian experiment in self-rule is felt by many here.

"We did not achieve independence and liberation," said Zeidan, the Palestinian stone-cutter whose West Bank village of Beitin remains under Israeli control. "We are like a ship in the middle of the sea without a compass."

The prosperity and freedom envisioned under self-rule haven't readily materialized. Militant Islamic groups work to undermine Arafat and the peace process.

Pressured by Israel to fight the terrorism, Arafat built up a police force and intelligence service that have treated Palestinians brutally in many cases. Critics fear the emergence of a repressive regime.

"I gave everything for the cause," said Ali Muhammad Ali, whose four sons spent time in Israeli prisons during the Intifada. "What did the Palestinian authority give me? What we got in return was humiliation. If they want to arrest somebody, they arrest them. They take people to jail. This is unacceptable to me."

He says this even though two of his sons work for the authority.

Terrorist attacks in Israel over the past two years have resulted in Israeli-imposed sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian economy. The peace process has virtually collapsed under a new hard-line Israeli government opposed to the Oslo accords.

"I don't see it coming, I don't see peace," said Othman Hallak, an East Jerusalem businessman, "because the maximum that Israel willing to give up is much less than the minimum that you could accept. What the Palestinians have today is a very poor deal."

The issues at the heart of the Palestinian struggle -- an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of Palestinian refugees -- remain unsettled. Palestinians still living as refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon have gained nothing from the peace.

The sheer number of refugees seems to preclude their return to a country intent on retaining its Jewish majority. And permitting the refugees to relocate to a state of their own seems unthinkable for a country divided on the idea of an independent Palestine and concerned about amassing greater numbers of Arabs on its borders.

A Palestinian state likely would follow the contours of the West Bank and Gaza. But most refugees refuse to give up the notion of returning to their native villages.

For Ali Muhammad Ali, the promised land stretches across a mountaintop of stones and wild mustard. The ruins of his ancestral village of Bayt Thul can still be found amid the wild grass, carob and prickly pears.

The retired stonemason has returned here often since 1967. He lives 10 miles away, in a spacious home he built on the edge of the Anata Refugee Camp outside Jerusalem. This is the third house he has built -- the Israelis tore down the beginnings of the other two.

All that remains of Ali's native village are a few stones, an old well and the olive and almond trees once harvested by his family.

Yet, he says, "If they let me go back, I will give them everything I have over here and go empty-handed."

Pub Date: 5/11/98

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