Living the Nakba in Gaza

23 May 2010

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Mohammed Tooman and Hammad Awadallah, Nakba survivors from Isdud, share memories of their destroyed village. (Eva Bartlett/IPS)

GAZA CITY, occupied Gaza Strip (IPS) - This is the month for Palestinians to remember their Nakba, or “catastrophe,” in which more than 700,000 women, men and children were pushed off their land and rendered homeless refugees by the Zionist attacks before, during and after the founding of Israel in 1948.

Isdud, a farming community to the north of Gaza’s current border, was ethnically cleansed, in the months after the expulsions began in May 1948. It was one of over 530 villages razed and destroyed after the residents were forced out by Zionist attacks.

After three nights of Israeli air bombardment, more than 5,000 Palestinian residents here were forcibly expelled from their houses and land. Most resettled in what are now overcrowded refugee camps in Gaza.

“Most of the houses have been destroyed; the rubble is covered with grasses and thorns,” wrote Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi.

At a Gaza City Nakba commemoration displaying the clothes, agricultural equipment and tools of Palestinian daily life, Mohammed Tooman, 83, wearing the traditional robes of Isdud, spoke of village life and their forced expulsion.

“We were farmers and grew grains, fruits and had orange and palm orchards. Isdud had a large market every week and people from neighboring towns came to buy from us.

“With every sunrise, I expect to return to my home in Isdud. And as the sun sets, I tell my grandchildren about our home and village, to which they will return.”

Hammad Awadallah, 70, also from Isdud, keeps this call for justice alive. “My right is passed down to my sons and daughters and their children. We will not forget our villages and our history. They are instilled in our memories.”

Since 1948 the United Nations (UN) has reiterated over 130 times its Resolution 194 calling for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes. The 1974 UN Resolution 3236 specified “the inalienable right of Palestinians to return to their homes and property from which they have been displaced and uprooted, and calls for their return.”

Roughly another four kilometers east of Isdud, East Sawafir (al-Sawafir al-Sharqiyya) was ethnically cleansed of its thousand residents on 18 May 1948. The village had a mosque and shared a school with two other villages.

“No village houses remain on the site,” wrote Khalidi. “But some traces of the former village are still present on the surrounding lands.”

Abu Fouad was born in 1930, before East Sawafir was intentionally disappeared. After the forced expulsion from his village, he ended up in the tents which eventually became the tiny, poorly-built, maze-like concrete houses of a Palestinian refugee camp.

“My father was a farmer and had 35 dunams (a dunam is 1,000 square meters) of land, on which he grew wheat and vegetables. We had 50 sheep which I used to herd.”

East Sawafir shared a primary school with two neighboring villages. “We didn’t go to school after fourth grade because there were no secondary schools in our area,” says Abu Fouad. “We only learned to write our name and studied religion a little, but nothing much more.”

Life was simple as were the houses. “Ours had two rooms,” Abu Fouad says, “but no bathroom: we would bathe outside. Even though we didn’t have money or the conveniences of today, we lived well, people were happy.”

Like most Palestinians, Abu Fouad has relatives spilled around the world from whom he is cut off.

“We have family in Jerusalem, Libya and Hebron. We don’t know them. And I haven’t seen or spoken with one of my brothers since he left for Libya decades ago.”

His wife Umm Fouad comes from the same East Sawafir community. Born in 1948, she was just four months old when her family fled.

“My father was a tailor and grandfather a farmer. He grew cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and other vegetables. We hand-washed our clothes and cooked food over a fire or a kerosene stove and baked bread in the wood oven.”

Although just an infant at the time of expulsion, Umm Fouad has been told the history of her family’s land and home so much that she has internalized it as her own memory.

“We fled because the Israelis were firing on us. My grandmother couldn’t walk properly, so in the panic we had to leave her there. She must have died in the house. We left walking, carrying only a few possessions as we didn’t have cart or horse. It was days of walking until we reached Gaza.”

And dispossessions continue. Since 1967, Israel has demolished more than 24,000 Palestinian homes in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, says the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD).

“I still come back to the house to work a small piece of my land that is 700 meters from the border. But even then I get shot at by the Israelis,” says Jaber Abu Rjila. His home and poultry farm east of Khan Younis lie just under 500 meters from the border. They were destroyed in a May 2008 Israeli invasion into the farming community. Soon after, the family fled, renting a house to escape the regular Israeli attacks.

On 18 May, Israeli soldiers set land near Rjila’s fields on fire, burning the wheat crops of the Abu Tabbash family. The Nakba is not just about memory.

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