Sunday, March 25, 2012

A #Palestinian Family History - Starting at the Nakba

By Rana Hamadeh who will be on her way to join the Global March to Jerusalem tomorrow!

Only a couple weeks ago was the first time I asked my father about the Nakba and how his family became refugees from Palestine. He was about five years old during the story he shared with me.

My father is a refugee from Tabaria, a town that was entirely ethnically cleansed of its non-Jewish residents in 1948. It's now known as the Israeli city of Tiberias. This historical account is something that we need to maintain and continue to retell, because Tabaria is still our hometown.

For the thirty years prior to the Zionist invasion of Palestine, the British held mandate over the country.

In Tabaria, the British authorities were stationed on one hill over the town on an adjacent hill, which was a Jewish community. My father described as such:

“We knew they were Jewish and that they were mostly from Europe. There was peace between us, we got along, but there was never any interaction. They would come into town to get things but they would never speak to us or let their children play with us. Even on their holidays when they would bake cookies to distribute to neighbours, they wouldn't give it to us in person, they left it and we would pick it up. At the time we didn't understand why they kept their distance”

These were not of the Jews who are historically Palestinian, whom in 1914 were under 8% of the Palestinian population. Those lived among other Palestinians. My uncle was even married to a Jewish woman and they were forced to separate when the Zionists invaded. Her and their sons were taken to safety and my uncle was exiled.

A day came when gunshots began to sound in the night, coming from the Zionist community on the hill. A few days after this, the British authorities evacuated. My father came out of the house one morning and as he tells it, "to see one of our neighbours, a simple old man who all of us children loved because he was kind to us. He was lying on the ground shot dead. I still remember seeing his body."

Now, my father's family packed a few things and left to another home they had in the town, farther away from the Zionist outpost, hoping they could avoid the conflict with this simple move.

My father's sister, my aunt, was always described as the joy of the family. She was bright and charismatic. She had just finished her studies to become a teacher and had only just begun working. She would leave the house during the daytime to go teach.

On her way to work, she was killed and her body left in the street. Now there was shooting day and night and my father's family couldn't go out even to get her body. This was when my grandmother became sick, a sickness that would last the rest of her life and would lead to her blindness.

At this point my dad's middle brother disappeared. This struck my grandmother as another loss.

“Then, in our new home the shots began to come from a closer hill. As for us, we had nothing. We had nothing to protect us. One of our neighbours had a rifle, and just a few bullets. He would stay up all night, afraid of the attack. About twice a night he would put a bullet in his gun and shoot it into the sky. He was careful because he only had a few bullets. It was like a warning; as if to say, we are still here, we are still strong.”

Then came the attack.

“The night that they attacked the town, I remember. The shooting was not from above anymore. It was from all directions. When we realized they were attacking, we each took one blanket and went into the cave under our house.

“My mother prayed. My father stood at the entrance of the cave as if to protect us or to say I will die first. We don't know where our neighbours went, if they survived or what happened to them.”

In the morning a British jeep announced itself and urged people to come out of hiding to be delivered to safety. When they emerged, there was only one truck and one driver.

They left without bringing anything. They expected to return in a couple of weeks.

“What was the safe place they brought us to?” asks my father.

“They threw us on the street in Nazareth. The hours passed without food and we slept on the street. Some Palestinian neighbours came and brought us water.

“All we had now were the gold bracelets on my mother's arm, which she hid under her sleeve. We sold most of them here to buy a house in Nazareth because we couldn't sleep on the street. It was the highest house on the hill. We could see the whole of Nazareth from it.

It was only a few days of peace in this home before the shooting began in Nazareth as well. Here, the shooting happened during the day not the night. When it became heavy we ran from the house into the fields and would hide there among the shrubs as the shooting took over the daytime. For days we did this and we lived off of lettuce that grew in the fields. We were all very sick.

“Eventually shooting began at night as well. One morning, on the footstep of our house we found an enormous pile of bullet shells. We found hundreds, maybe thousands. The neighbours told us the Zionists had set up at the door of our house to be able to shoot at all of Nazareth, because we were the last house on the hill.”

So my grandmother decided that this home was neither safe during the day nor the night and the family needed to leave. Her husband and eldest son went into the mountains because if men were seen they were often arrested or killed. So my grandmother took my father and his sister and they went into town when the shooting was low to try to take refuge in the church. They slept here for a few nights until one day soldiers in armoured jeeps invaded the entire town. They declared a curfew and ordered everyone back to their homes in single file.

When they returned to their home, they found that a wall of it had been blown apart. There was a jeep outside of it and soldiers surrounding it.

“My mother approached the soldiers. They told her, this house has become the property of their 'defense force'. When she asked if we could at least take the few belongings we had, they told her 'we are taking these things as compensation.'

“My mother came back to us in shock. She was crying and laughing and talking. She was perplexed at this term they had used – 'defense'. Who were they defending themselves from? They were attacking us. We had nowhere to go and we needed to wait for my father so we stayed there on the side of the road all day crying. We had nothing and we knew no one in Nazareth. Our situation was meagre. My sister was dead. My brother was gone. Three houses had now been taken from us.

“We still did not know what was happening and when we would be able to return home. We did not know at that time that it would be never. So one hour my mother would cry and another she would laugh.

“When my father join us that night, he got together with the neighbours and found a place for us to rent.  We slept on the bare earth. At this point, Nazareth was occupied. Everyday the Zionists would do a patrol and visit any house they wanted.

“One day in the kitchen, I saw my mother crying. I asked her why, but I only understood later in life. A soldier had entered, and ordered she make him coffee. She did. He spilled some on his shirt. She took his shirt and cleaned it with her hands and gave it to him. She was crying. She had done this to protect our family but her dignity could not bear it.” 

So his family decided to leave for a few weeks until the violence subsided. He says, “None of us for one moment thought leaving would be permanent. Not for one moment.”

They hired a smuggler to take them overnight to Jordan. With two other families, they walked for over ten hours through the night. The children, my father and his sister, were on  a horse with the adults walking alongside.

My father describes, “We reached the Jordan river as dawn arrived. We washed and drank from the river. I looked over and realized that my mother's feet were completely covered in blood. On the way, her shoes had broken and she had continued the walk barefoot. She walked all these hours barefoot over the rocks and cacti. From then on her feet would continue to hurt her until the day she died.”

In the town of Irbid in Jordan, they arrived to masses of refugees living in tents. They stayed here in impossible conditions for two weeks before deciding to go to Syria. Again they hired a smuggler. Along the route the smuggler left them in an animal stable to sleep in the dirt for two weeks. The smuggler finally came back for them and they were taken to Syria.

“the first night we slept on the pavement. The next day, my maternal uncle found us. He took us to the refugee camp he was staying in. We lived in tents, but this time they had some mattresses. My uncle used to be very well positioned, a respected teacher. But this is what happened to us.”

Again, they found shanty towns of refugee tents and people desperately searching for relatives. I quote, 

My father's family could not live in this cramped tent with the other family, so they moved to an overcrowded mosque. This again was not sustainable and in the end, they were able to rent a room in a house where each family had one room. This house had no electricity or water. My father at his young age used to haul water in with a bucket for the bathroom and collect sawdust to burn in the cold winter. His eldest brother worked as a driver for UNRWA to support the family. Here in Damascus, his brother who had been missing for some six months miraculously found them.

And so it was like this for many years, they kept moving from one place to another, recognizing their transience until they would be able to return. Most of them, including my father have never been able to return even for a visit.

Two of my father's uncles did have a chance enter the country with a visa and they went to visit their old home in Tabaria. The shock of seeing what they had lost caused both of them to fall desperately ill and die within two weeks of the visit.

I was in Palestine last autumn, for three months, and I spent most of that time reporting and photographing different situations. I spent the first month volunteering with families who pick olives nearby to Jewish-only Israeli colonies that have illegally (by international law) been constructed in the Palestinian West Bank. Violence from these Israeli settlers is common and they are rarely charged.

I interviewed a young woman who broke both her legs when a settler attacked and chased her as she picked olives on her land. Her two young sons had to carry her to safety.

In the city of Hebron or Al Khaleel a few hundred settler took over the main street 17 years ago. I witnessed how despite the illegality and injustice of their action, the Israeli army protects this settlement. So the city has a constant Israeli military presence, and the downtown is often put under curfew so that the settlers and Jewish tourists can tour the area.

This would not be complete without a Jerusalem story. I was not able to enter Jerusalem in 2011 because I am from the West Bank, but in 2008 I entered on my Canadian passport. In the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in Jerusalem, the Al-Kurd family built a wall through their house so that their son could get married and live in the other half of the home. In Israel's process of ethnically cleansing Jerusalem, Palestinians usually cannot buy land or homes.

Settlers broke into part of their house and began to live there, claiming the house as their own. The courts, in a blatant disregard for justice, found a way to support the settlers' claim and ordered that the Al Kurd family would be required to pay rent to the settlers to continue to live in their own home. They refused of course, and an eviction order was issued.

Three weeks later, fifty soldiers would arrive at night and evict the family, and arrest or deport all the activists. The father suffered a heart attack. When he awoke in hospital and learned that everything he had worked his entire life for was gone, he suffered another heart attack and died. Um Kaml Al Kurd is left with her five children. She erected a tent across from her old home and although it has been demolished several times, she continues to rebuild it and argue for the return of her home.

While I was in Palestine me and the other activists were threatened and even arrested by the Israeli forces for simply by taking photos, or voicing disagreement. But what I faced on these visits was nothing compared to what it is like to live under the systemic oppression that Palestinians face on a daily basis. 

It is a continuous and constant process to break the will, the sense of freedom, the sense of justice and of dignity of the Palestinian people. The methods employed are anything from the impositions of curfews so that Israelis can take a stroll, to army night raids on family homes. They ranged from home demolitions, to the building of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and the theft of resources. I cannot even begin to imagine life in Gaza, which was just last week being bombed, and is today (and continuously for many years) suffering from mass food, fuel, and medicine shortages because of Israel's blockade which refuses to let sufficient amounts in.

~ posted with permission by Sofia Smith

1 comment:

  1. Salam
    It hurts reading what you wrote, I am also from Tabaria, my name is Faraj Jamal Said Tabari.
    I heard stories about my family and Tabaria.
    How i wished i was there in 2005.
    I went briefly there, no one recognized the family name, i was a stranger in my home town.