IT WAS the most loving fax I've ever received. I had just come back to the office from asking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few questions at a news conference during his visit to Washington in January. I was astonished to learn that my dad, in Amman, Jordan, saw it on CNN International. "You were fantastic," he wrote me.
I was thinking of dad - and the fact that he and 700,000 other Palestinians were forced from their homes in 1948 - as I asked the Israeli leader if it was time that Israel acknowledged this wrong. The most he conceded was that the Palestinian people have indeed suffered - because of their own bad leadership.
When Netanyahu returned to the United States this month, the Israeli prime minister rejected the paltry pullback from 13 percent of the West Bank that the Clinton administration favors. Netanyahu's position denies the Palestinian leadership even the slightest face-saving deal. In fact, if Israel gets its way, the Palestinians will be subjugated to "Bantustans," living in dense population areas and having limited control of the areas surrounding them. Israel wants to continue to control the population flow from various cities as well as most of the land and the water resources in the West Bank. As Netanyahu stalls for time, he confiscates more Palestinian land, heaps more injustice on an injured people and sows the seeds of more Palestinian resentment.
The inability of the Clinton administration to make any sort of progress prompted the French and the Egyptians to call for an international peace conference. That could put the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict where it was 50 years ago: in the hands of the United Nations.
When I talked to dad on his birthday - April 9 - it was a low-key conversation. Neither of us mentioned that it was 50 years to the day after the massacre of Dir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem, by pro-Israeli forces. My father witnessed another massacre in Eilaboun, a village in the Galilee. The last time I was in the Middle East, I visited the towns and villages where my father was in 1948, and he put some flesh on events that he had hinted at for years.
One evening, we walked around Terra Sancta College, where my father was a boarder at the end of the British mandate, in a largely Jewish part of Jerusalem. On a similar evening in 1947, he was puzzled when he heard jubilation and dancing in the streets. Another student said that the United Nations apparently made a decision that the Jews liked. The United Nations had voted to partition Palestine. They had good reason to celebrate. The Jewish state was allocated 56 percent of Palestine, even though Jews owned only 6 percent of the land and made up one-third of the population - and most of them were mandate-era immigrants.
We visited Tiberias, where my dad was born. We saw the lovely stone house he was raised in, now empty, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. I had visions of its becoming a museum for what happened in 1948 - before it is demolished to make room for another hotel. Despite my prodding, my dad, hardly a shy man, did not want to try entering the house.
My dad told me of his earliest memories of his father, who was vice mayor of Tiberias, gerrymandering election maps. But a Christian, no matter how adept at dividing districts, could not secure re-election without substantial Jewish and Muslim support. There certainly were prejudices, but the intermingling of the faiths contradicts the "ancient hatreds" mantra we hear so often. Two of my uncles were nursed by neighbors because my grandmother had trouble lactating. One had a Muslim wet nurse, another was breast-fed by a Jewish neighbor.
We went to a lawyer's office, and he showed us the land records with my grandfather's name, "Yousef Habib Husseini" in English, crossed out as the owner, and the "Israeli Authority of Construction" written in Hebrew. My father's claim to ownership, though completely documented, has been denied by Israeli authorities because they regard him as "absentee" and thus not a legitimate inheritor. Never mind that he was driven out at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the World Jewish Restitution Organization is recovering Jewish property confiscated by the Nazis.
Tiberias fell to Israeli forces 50 years ago. It was then that my dad and his younger brother went to the small village of Eilaboun, where they had relatives. Today, my extended family members there are educated, but they retain a simplicity I haven't experienced elsewhere. They are technically Israeli citizens, but since they are not Jewish, they're third-class citizens. They and other Christians and Muslims cannot buy or lease land that the Israelis confiscated from my family - controlled by quasi-governmental organizations such as the Jewish National Fund.
The "who is a Jew" debate matters only because Jews in Israel are granted rights that others, like my relatives, are denied because of their religion - Christianity. Yet we are constantly told that Israel is a democracy. They do not dare go to picnics on Independence Holiday for fear of attacks from Jewish extremists - this after my relatives have been Israelis for 50 years.
Dad showed me the square where the massacre at Eilaboun took place. On Oct. 30, 1948, most everyone from the village was in the church as the Arab irregulars were withdrawing. The bombing from the Israeli forces came closer and closer until, finally, a loud voice in the village yard adjacent to the church said in broken Arabic, "He who wants to live, let him come out." They rushed outside with hands held high. The Israeli soldiers occasionally shot those coming out of the church, killing some, wounding others. The priest, with a white flag in hand, watched in horror.
Fourteen civilians from the village were put on a truck and led the convoy going north - to Lebanon. They were told that they were at the front in case of land mines. The Israelis proceeded to force the rest of the people, young and old, to walk. When they wanted people to stop, the Israeli soldiers would fire, sometimes into the crowd. A 3-year-old girl was shot in the arm as her mother was carrying her. My dad, then 16, jumped on top of his 10-year-old brother, who was very frail because of rheumatic fever - figuring that only one body would be exposed. When his father later found out about this, it was the only time my dad saw Grandpa cry.
People walked all day with no food. When a truck with some bread came by and people rushed toward it, soldiers shot at them, killing a 50-year-old man, Samaan Shufani, who was standing next to my dad moments earlier. Later, the Israeli soldiers took all the money from the men, strip-searched them and threatened to kill 10 men if the women didn't hand over 100 Palestinian pounds. My Aunt Julia came through - as she would years later, having saved several of my grandfather's letters. The village later repaid her.
The 14 men on the truck included some distant (by my standards) relatives, and they were taken back to Eilaboun - and shot in the town square. The other villagers were thrown on the Lebanese border. These were all relatively fortunate. My father was lucky because an uncle who was an officer in the Jordanian army took him in so he could continue his studies in Terra Sancta College, which had moved to Amman. Other Eilabounites made their way back to their village. The Israelis turned a blind eye to this, apparently in part because the church had protested the massacre of the 14 villagers.
Hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians are to this day in refugee camps in southern Lebanon - periodically getting bombed by Israel. As we drove around Galilee, we stopped at the village of Lubya. Or rather, all that remains of it. It is one of 418 villages razed by the Israelis after they drove out the 2,000 inhabitants. All you can see are hints of rows of stones tracing the foundations of homes.
As Elie Wiesel and others condemn ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they refuse to acknowledge that Israel has done something similar. ABC's Ted Koppel has falsely claimed that the Palestinians left voluntarily in 1948. Michael Lerner of the liberal Jewish magazine Tikkun has disavowed Jewish culpability in driving Palestinians from their homes. Early in the movie "Schindler's List," a Jew is shown pleading with the Nazis, saying that their seizure of his property violates the Geneva Convention. But Israel violates the same laws as it continues to confiscate Palestinian land.
The year 1948 resonates for Palestinians not just because it was a catastrophic time but also because the removal of Palestinians from their land has never stopped.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Arab-Israeli citizens lived under suffocating military mandates. Similarly, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have contended for decades with Israeli military occupation, government schemes (permits, checkpoints, closures) that, by design or accident, pressure them into leaving. Another mass exodus took place in the 1967 war, and Israel continued expelling political leaders and others into the 1990s. Continued closures and checkpoints by Israeli authorities economically strangle the Palestinians, pressuring them into leaving.
The Israelis use the threat of another mass expulsion to coerce the Palestinians into accepting the starkly unequal terms of the Oslo Accords. Better to be subservient but keep a stake in your home, goes the reasoning of some Palestinians.
What is needed is to get rid of the myths. What is needed is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission similar to the one in South Africa. Real peace can come only through facing the past.
Sam Husseini is the former media director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
Pub Date: 5/31/98