Forced to leave grapes on the vine: the open wounds of May 1948

Al-Batani al-Sharqi historian Ghazi Misleh

Shadi Alqarra

Each May brings painful memories for some of the oldest Palestinians. Musallam Younis Musallam was among those displaced in May 1948 and never allowed to return home.

Musallam grew up in the village of al-Batani al-Sharqi, about 30 kilometers from Gaza. In May 1948, it came under attack from Zionist forces.

The almost 6,000 residents were forced to flee and the village was totally destroyed. Musallam, then 28 years old, traveled to Maghazi in Gaza, which now hosts a camp for Palestinian refugees.

“Whenever we popped out, the corn branches, where we were hiding, struck our faces,” Musallam told the author of a new book. “We carried our luggage on a donkey and myself, my mother, father and brothers, walked out of the village. We heard that the Egyptian forces were about to come to defend al-Batani al-Sharqi. But they did not come.”

Titled I am from there and I have memories, the as yet unpublished book recalls what the people of al-Batani al-Sharqi endured during the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe), the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine.

It is the result of two years of work by the author Ghazi Misleh, a Maghazi resident.

“No time to spare”

Misleh’s mother, Um Ghazi, is one of the Nakba survivors quoted in the book. In her testimony, she describes picking watermelons from neighboring farms in al-Batani al-Sharqi, as well as oranges from its orchards. “I recall the ripe cantaloupes and the grapes that we had to leave on vines,” she says.

“When I recall those days, I begin crying. We came to Gaza, which looked like a desert. I believe that the Israelis did not even imagine they would take over our lands. Our lands are the most beautiful ever.”

Mudallalah Khalaf died in April 2014, one month after Misleh interviewed her. Khalaf, who lived to the age of 96, described having a “pen of chickens and rabbits” in al-Batani al-Sharqi.

“We had no time to spare but we never felt tired,” she added. “We used to feel really happy. We were forced to flee our farmlands because of the Israeli attacks. May God take revenge on them.”

Form of resistance

Misleh spoke to members of ten different families during his research.

“Sometimes, I spent sleepless nights searching in historical books,” he told The Electronic Intifada. “I visited many libraries in Gaza. Unfortunately, I did not find enough detailed information. I relied on stories told by elderly people. I had to make phone calls to places outside Gaza, such as Jordan, in order to get some more information from elderly people.”

The book includes details of the food eaten, clothes worn and games played in the village. “Among the sweets that used to be made in the village was bahta,” he said. “It is made of milk and rice, mixed with sugar. After these ingredients are boiled together and cooled down, some butter is added — on the top.”

Misleh is planning to publish the book himself, with financial support from a cousin who lives in the United Arab Emirates.

Khaled Safi, a professor of modern Arab history at al-Aqsa University in Gaza, believes that telling Palestine’s stories is a form of resistance to Israel’s apartheid system.

“We need a collective national effort to keep a record of the Nakba,” said Safi. “Israel always attempts to obliterate Palestinian identity and memory. And I believe that such a collective work is not less significant than any other forms of the Palestinian struggle.”

“These kind of books are important,” Misleh said. “I hope that future generations will be able to remain in touch with their history.”

“The expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians back in 1948 should remain a fresh memory.” he added. “It can never be forgotten. At any rate, we are not going to renounce our right to return home.”

Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.