A database for the displaced

A black and white photo shows people on foot carrying heavy burdens passing a broken down vehicle

Those who fled or were forced to flee their homes and lands in 1948 often kept their title deeds. A new initiative is seeking to collect and preserve such deeds.

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On a red sofa in a room in Jabaliya refugee camp, Abdel Rahman al-Kurd, 81, was talking to Akram Jouda about his lands in Najd village north of the Gaza Strip, before his family was forced to flee to the blockaded enclave in 1948.

Jouda launched the Kushan Baladi initiative (literally: land title initiative) to create an official register of Palestinian land ownership inside the 1948 boundaries of historic Palestine, now Israel.

“We launched this initiative as a response to Israeli claims that Palestine was a land without indigenous people,” Jouda told The Electronic Intifada.

Israel wants everyone to believe, he said, that once “elderly people die the youngsters forget. It wants everyone to believe that Sheikh Jarrah [in occupied East Jerusalem] is a real estate conflict.”

His initiative is meant to counter such suggestions by involving both young people and Palestinians in the diaspora.

His team of 60 have so far unearthed documents from the times when Palestine was under British administration and – before that – part of the Ottoman Empire.

Some of the documents date as far back as 1903.

The team started by seeking out and visiting elderly people in the Gaza Strip like al-Kurd.

“We documented the land areas in a database which now contains more than 300 deeds,” Jouda said.

Jouda’s team – until then self-funded – then reached out to political parties, human rights groups and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Everyone has been supportive, said Jouda, but the PLO went further, adopted the initiative, and is now helping with funding.

“Recently, we have collaborated with the Palestinian Bar Association to help us to pursue our land claims against Israel internationally,” Jouda said.

He advised Palestinians worldwide to publish their title deeds on the internet to show an international audience that Palestinians are indigenous to Palestine.

“The next step is that we want to sue Israel in European and international courts,” he said, referencing both national courts and the International Criminal Court.

A death in the snow

Abd Alrahman al-Kurd told The Electronic Intifada that he vividly remembers the old days in Palestine before the Nakba, or catastrophe, the wholesale dispossession and forced exile of the Palestinian people.

“I was eight when we fled from Najd. I remember those days more than recent days here,” al-Kurd said. “We came to Jabaliya camp in 1948. We used to live in a tent with just a few blankets and mattresses.”

Though the memory threatened to overwhelm him, al-Kurd insisted on continuing.

“In 1949, there was a blizzard. We didn’t have enough warm blankets or clothes, so my 4-year-old brother Abdullah died due to the cold.”

He tries to keep his brother’s memory alive, and uses the story as a way to pass on the history of what happened to his own children.

“I always tell my children about their uncle’s death and the heinous crimes committed by the Zionist gangs against us,” he said. “We prefer to die in the worst way rather than relinquish our rights to return.”

As for Jouda’s initiative, he was very positive.

“I ask people to support such initiatives and tell their sons and youths about the brutality of the Israeli occupation. We [Nakba survivors] saw the real face of the Israeli criminal army. We have to work hard to show the world the real face of the occupation.”

And al-Kurd was keen that people learned about the initiative.

“My message to the youth is: don’t give up your title deeds for the sake of the monsters,” as he called the Israeli army.

A relative, Khaled, 50, said that the Nakba has irredeemably shaped his life and it would ultimately determine his children’s futures.

“It is because of the Nakba that I live with my children in a small house, in a densely crowded camp, under brutal occupation even though we have very beautiful 20 dunams of land in Najd.”

One dunam is 1,000 square meters.

Never forget

Unlike his children, Khaled, not his real name, had actually visited the land from where his family originated.

“I worked in occupied Najd two decades ago,” he told The Electronic Intifada. He was referring to a spell in a bakery in Sderot – a city in Israel, which is partially built on village land.

The village itself was completely destroyed in 1948.

“You can’t imagine how I felt. It was excruciating and unbearable to work in your occupied village for those who stole your lands. But we had to do so to make a living.”

He too said he supported Jouda’s initiative.

“I also advise the new generations to save their title deeds and fight until the return to our lands.”

Khaled’s mother, Safiya, has instilled in her son a sense of the importance of keeping the family history alive.

Her own family was from Simsim, also just north of Gaza.

“My mother used to always tell me about Simsim and her happy life there,” Safiya, 76, told The Electronic Intifada. “So, I’ve been doing the same thing with my sons since 1960 when I got married. Now, I do so with my grandsons.”

Safiya’s mother had very carefully saved her title deeds, and Safiya intends to do the same.

“My mother gave her deeds to my brothers when she died, and I will do the same with my husband’s.

“My sons and grandsons have to save their title deeds to prove their rights. My mother didn’t give up the hope to return to her original village until her death and I will never give up hope. It was our land and it will be ours again. It’s not theirs.”

Maher Mezher, director of refugee affairs for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told The Electronic Intifada that Jouda’s initiative aims to “connect the past with the present and the future.”

“Our parents and grandfathers fled their lands because of the massacres committed by the Zionist gangs,” he said. “But this initiative shows that even when the elderly die, the youth will never forget, and our children will carry on the cause.”

Both he and Jouda said the role of Palestinians in the diaspora was crucial to tell the story of Palestinian dispossession.

“If we make the best use of such initiatives and the Palestinian embassies around the world help to publish our title deeds, we will make a difference and find support from free people of all nationalities,” said Mezher.

Jouda said one of the main aims of his initiative was to “convince every Palestinian around the world that he can sue the occupation because they usurped our parents’ lands.”

Heba Salim is a freelance writer and translator based in the Gaza Strip.