I am a Palestinian
(not his real name)
I am a Palestinian, and as a people we have been waiting nearly 70 years for our homeland to be restored to us. We are stateless, caged in Gaza and the West Bank, or scattered in the diaspora, as the world argues over our fate.
Let me give you a personal example of the effect of all this.
After the dispersion of my people in 1948, my grandfather did not live very long. He died in his sixties from grief, loss of dignity and hopelessness.
Prior to 1948, my family lived in Jaffa, then a modern city about 100,000 in population and the economic capital of Palestine, alongside a slowly increasing number of Jewish neighbours, mainly from Europe and the United States. They are our half-brothers, with Abraham as you call him in the West, as our common father.
As a young teen, my father had a part time job with a Jewish butcher who treated him well, and my extended family owned several houses in Manchia, a suburb of Jaffa, and in the city of Ramla. The family had been living there for many generations: my great grandfather was a tax assessor for the government and my grandfather was a merchant, trading mainly in fruit both locally and overseas, especially to British cities. Our family was middle to upper middle class. The houses were made of stone and we owned the land as well as the houses. My family were prosperous.
However, in the time leading up to 1948, sporadic conflicts occurred between Jewish settlers and the Palestinian inhabitants as the Jewish population grew and made it clear that they intended to take over more and more Palestinian territory, especially along the coast. Undercover Jewish militant groups like Haganah carried out what would now be called ‘terror raids’, leading up to the war which established the state of Israel. My father was in his mid-teens at that time. Thousands of people were massacred, sometimes whole towns like Dier Yaseen, and tens of thousands displaced. We call it the Nakba, the Catastrophe.
It was not just a colonisation but as far as possible a total replacement of the existing inhabitants by the incoming settlers. Nowadays many call this ‘ethnic cleansing’. Jewish people flooded in from the Middle East (eg Yemen) and Eastern Europe (eg Poland) in particular, and the Israeli Army drove us out by force, killing many thousands. Most of those who died were civilians. The British Army which could have acted to protect civilians, did not do so; Britain was totally behind the formation of a new Jewish State within Palestine.
Palestinian armed resistance was no match for the superior weaponry of the Jewish forces which had Western supplied war planes which dropped barrel bombs designed to inflict high civilian casualties and inspire terror.
Around 700,000 refugees streamed into Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They could take almost nothing with them. Most only had the clothes they were wearing on the day they fled. Many even left their jewellery behind. Families were separated, parents lost their children. Many of those who tried to reach Lebanon by sea perished as unseaworthy boats capsized or sank. My family ended up in Gaza where I was born. Later we went to Kuwait.
Becoming refugees was such a shock to all of us. You never imagine this will happen to you, your family, your people. And you never expect the situation to be long term. Many people took little with them because they expected to return quite quickly. This hope has been sadly dashed over and over again in the decades since 1948. Some took house keys and even title deeds to their properties. ‘We’ll be going back soon. It’ll just be a few days,’ they thought. Some of these items now hang forlornly on the walls of their homes wherever they have managed to settle. Nobody imagined that what we thought were a few militant gangs could take over our ancestral lands. Most of us had no concept of the well planned, political game being played behind the scenes by the big Western powers.
The saddest part of all this story is the number of people who have wished that they had stayed in their homes and died there rather than spend generations in exile. That is the saddest thing. It’s not just losing our land, it’s losing our dignity.
In time, the Palestinian diaspora has seen a scattering of our people to most nations on earth. Yasser Arafat called us the ‘zero zero’ people, because of the numerous international phone calls we make trying to keep up with family. He also labelled us the ‘airport’ people because wherever you go you can meet Palestinians in airports as they incessantly travel to visit their scattered loved ones.
Over the years, my branch of the family have visited our Gaza relations a number of times. I don’t remember much of what my grandmother told me about life in Jaffa before the Nakba, but she described it something like this: “Life was prosperous, not like now. We had good friends and neighbours of all backgrounds. There was little or no conflict. Now we just survive from day to day. It’s very, very crowded here and conditions are primitive but at least it’s better than living in a tent like they do in Lebanon or Jordan. At least we have family here and everyone is very welcoming — we’re all Palestinians.” In time, my grandmother was able to buy a house and did a lot to keep the family together — she was a very wise and resourceful woman.
About 1975, my father and uncle took me to Jaffa so I could see where the family had lived and put me in touch with family history. I still remember what my father said.
“There’s the big clock, like Big Ben. There are the shops we used to go to. This is the bakery your mother’s father owned — now under new management, of course! But we must be careful. We don’t want to draw attention and cause a security alert. Don’t point. Oh, look over there — that’s the butchery I used to work in when I was your age.”
I could see the sense of loss, frustration and pain in my father’s eyes as he viewed the places where he grew up and where he was seemingly permanently forbidden to go.
Our clandestine tour continued:
“This is the road where some of the family used to live. It’s not far from the beach actually. Those were our houses. I’m not going to point, and we’d better stay on this side of the road. Those women are probably Yemeni Jews. Look at their headscarves.”
“Hi strangers. Why are you standing their staring at the neighbourhood?” they said in Arabic, confirming my father’s guess as to their origin. “We can see from the way the old man is dressed that you are Arabs. Did you use to live here?”
My father nodded.
“Well you don’t live here anymore, we do, so you’d better clear out!” I can only describe the tone as vicious.
“This is life,” said my uncle. “Life for the powerless. You just have to take it.”
But I was fuming, “I will, I will… I will fight! I will…!”
That was then. I was just a teenager. I’m over that reaction now.
The message was clear, we were not wanted there and any further lingering might result in the security forces being called the get rid of “some Arabs”.
I wish my father and uncle could have let their feelings out, cried, anything.
But our older people just keep their feelings, their depression, hidden away, suppressed. That’s why they die early, maybe sixty, maybe fifty something. They just die!”
We moved on.
“Let’s see if there are any of the old buildings left in the neighbourhood.”
But our efforts were in vain — my father and uncle couldn’t find anything else they recognised. Finally we decided to have coffee. It was a strange feeling sitting in a café built on land once owned by our neighbours. Now we were on the other side, just customers. My father and uncle put on friendly smiles as the young Israeli waitress approached. She was very welcoming and asked us where we were from. My father said,
“We’re from Gaza but we used to live around here.”
“Here? Where here?” she asked.
“Right here, in this area. There were a lot of beautiful chateaux. It was called Bedas Hill.
“Yes, that’s right, but they’re all gone now. It’s a tourist resort as you can see.”
The whole area had been rebuilt. We drank our coffee without much further comment.
But is spite of all of this, my father never gave up hope and I remember him telling me time and time again,
“We will go back. It will just happen one day without a shadow of a doubt. History is history. Nothing stays the same forever. It’s our land! But we must never condemn the Jews or hate the Jews. On the contrary, many of them are very good people. I’ve worked with them. I’ve eaten with them. I know them. I don’t hate them because of their religion or any other reason, but they have stolen our land. It’s a massive theft. It is so bizarre, settlers appearing out of nowhere and taking our land! Don’t you ever forget your land.”
“One day you will go back because right is right. Justice is justice. Time will never wipe out our rights. My son, don’t ever forget your land.”
“And don’t ever give up your faith in God and that he is ultimately in control, in spite of how hopeless things look at times.”
But he never encouraged me to fight, to take up arms. He was very wise. He knew the ‘game’ was bigger than us — it was too big for us. We couldn’t fight the big players who were supporting Israel.
“What you see is not the full picture. It’s not the full reality. And sadly, even our own leaders are part of the game. Politics is dirty.”
So we pray.
I pray every day for peace and for the return of the exiles to their homes.