Never forget the Nakba

Khalil Yaghi with his grandson Amjad. (Photo courtesy of family) 

On the morning of 6 April 2007, my grandfather Khalil died at his home in the Nasr neighborhood of Gaza City.

Though he was around 90 years old and had paraplegia, his death came as a surprise to those who loved him. He had been strong in his last days, with a keen memory of his long and eventful life.

At this same home in Nasr, I was raised by my grandfather, among lemon and guava trees and a 40-year-old sycamore tree, 15 meters high and one of the oldest in the neighborhood. The pigeons and other birds my grandfather fed were never far away.

Here, I inherited from him the love of Palestine, thanks to his stories, in particular his stories of al-Masmiyya al-Kabira, the beloved village of his birth and youth.

Seventy-four years have passed since the Nakba – the 1948 catastrophe that forcibly expelled my grandfather and thousands of others from their villages. But through my grandfather’s and others’ stories, the memories of those years are still alive on Nakba Day, which Palestinians mark on 15 May each year.

Orchards and a Ford truck

My grandfather was born in al-Masmiyya al-Kabira sometime before 1920. The exact date is unknown, because it was a midwife birth with no official documents.

But later in life, his ID erroneously listed his birth year as 1924.

Al-Masmiyya al-Kabira was an agricultural village in 1948, located 25 miles northeast of Gaza. Historian Ismail Ahmed Yaghi, who is from the village, wrote in his 2002 history of al-Masmiyya al-Kabira that it was known for its fertile lands, abundant with citrus orchards and wheat fields.

The majority Muslim population in 1944 numbered 2,520 residents, according to Walid Khalidi’s All That Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948.

My grandfather had 11 brothers and sisters. One of his brothers, Ahmed Mustafa Yaghi, 84, said my grandfather was a skilled tradesman, with business connections (as well as friends) throughout the towns and villages around Gaza.

My grandmother, Sadiqa, told me before her death in 2013 that her husband was also known for being the only local with a 1947 Ford truck, black and new.

When he was 28 years old, he owned more than 12 acres of land in al-Masmiyya al-Kabira. According to my uncle Muhammad Yaghi, 59, this was unusual then as it is now for a man of his age (I’m older than 28 yet I don’t even own an apartment).

But by 1948, my grandfather was well established in al-Masmiyya, with a wife and three children and a thriving business.

He had established friendly relations with Palestinian Christians and Jews in al-Masmiyya and neighboring villages.

Among them were Palestinian Jews who rejected Zionism and wanted to live in peace. They warned my grandfather about the Zionist brigades’ intent to attack the village.

My grandfather’s brother Ahmed said they had also heard of Zionist brigades committing massacres in nearby villages.

In July 1948, when the Zionist brigades arrived at al-Masmiyya al-Kabira, they summoned the elders. The brigades gave the residents 48 hours to evacuate or else they would enter with full force.

Many of the residents were fearful for the fates of their children.

From there, the family migrated to the nearby village of al-Majdal, according to Ahmed. They traveled there in my grandfather’s Ford truck and stayed in the village for two months.

Some of the family then went on to Gaza, and other family members went to villages in Hebron and the Aqabat Jabr refugee camp in Jericho, where they had relatives. (After the 1967 war, many of these relatives moved to Jordan, and some of them even became members of parliament.)

Joining the police

In September 1948, my grandfather arrived in Gaza, where, according to his brother Ahmed, they rented a house from the al-Alami family. My grandfather stayed on in the Shujaiya neighborhood and, in 1952, became a police officer under the Egyptian administration.

At that time after the Nakba, the Gaza Strip was under the direct administration of Egypt. Like the Egyptians, he was called the slang term shawish, meaning a police or army sergeant.

In 1955, he moved to Beach refugee camp. He always hoped to return to al-Masmiyya, where he owned land, and when people tried to sell him land in Gaza, he would respond, “Are you crazy? I’ll return to al-Masmiyya in two years.”

Yet my grandfather built a life for himself in Gaza.

“Khalil owned six dunums [1.5 acres] in the coastal Sheikh Ajlin neighborhood [west of Gaza city, on the beach], which he sold to buy lands in al-Masmiyya, in the hope of return,” his brother Ahmed said. “The value of al-Masmiyya was much greater than any land. It’s worth millions of dollars.”

As a police officer, my grandfather attended to standard police duties, but in 1955, the police arrested a man named Musa, who was Jewish, on suspicion of collecting information from Gaza on behalf of the Israelis. Musa was sentenced to four years in prison. Despite the nature of Musa’s crimes, my grandfather was kind to him.

He shared with Musa his own home-cooked meals, and he would buy Musa clothing in the winter.

As a child, when I heard this story, I wondered how my grandfather could have treated Musa with such kindness when the Israeli army was constantly killing Palestinians.

My grandfather said, “I treated him well so that he knows the value of being a Palestinian, a rightful owner of a land and, after all, a human.”

When I grew up, I understood the value of being more human than the occupier and the enemy.

When the Israeli army occupied the Gaza Strip in the 1967 war, my grandfather surrendered his rifle and military uniform at the request of the army. But he refused to work with them.

The same police station where he had worked was now affiliated with the Israeli administration.

Musa tried to meet my grandfather at the time. But my grandfather refused and asked him never to contact him again.

Israel’s demolitions at Beach camp

In 1970, my grandfather was still living at Beach refugee camp in Gaza when the Israeli army demolished his and his neighbors’ homes. At the time, after the 1967 war, Israel had implemented a policy of mass demolitions in Palestinian camps to “expand the streets of the camp so that it would be easier for them to arrest Palestinian resistance fighters,” my uncle Muhammad said.

Thousands of Palestinian families were displaced yet again as a result of the demolitions throughout the 1970s. But neither the UN agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) nor global humanitarian organizations stepped in to protect the refugees in the camp.

Muhammad, who now lives in North Carolina, recalled that he stood there shocked while camp residents cried. My grandfather tried to assuage his and others’ shock, saying, “This house won’t be more valuable than my house and land in al-Masmiyya.”

My grandfather set up a tent that year in the Nasr neighborhood, on the site of what would become the home where I was raised, where my grandfather would eventually die.

Peaches from al-Masmiyya

The Nasr neighborhood had very few houses then.

And my uncle Muhammad, who was a child at the time, can still recall the whole scene. The Israeli military governor of Gaza said to Khalil, “Who gave you permission to set up a tent here?”

Khalil, my grandfather, brought out documents to prove ownership of the land in Nasr. The governor responded, “This is Israeli land. The document is as useless as a chocolate teapot.”

But Khalil stayed and raised his family there, and we carry the memories of his stories with us. And here I am today, a journalist, a Palestinian refugee in the Gaza Strip, still facing racism on a daily basis.

Before my father, Ayman Yaghi, died in September 2021, he told me the story of how, in 1986, he took a job harvesting peaches alongside Palestinian farmers in al-Masmiyya. He hurried home to his father – my grandfather – to tell him about these peaches from our occupied village.

And my grandfather cried.

The next day, my father angered the Israeli “owner” of the farm by telling him that his family is from al-Masmiyya and owns hundreds of acres there.

My grandfather’s love of Palestine never faded.

I remember his last words to me, in the days before his death. “Crying every day would never be enough for the loss of al-Masmiyya,” he said.

In this spirit and in my work writing about Palestine, its history and archaeology, and the stories of people like my grandfather, I remember the Nakba and our home, al-Masmiyya. Even as world powers and international institutions forget the Nakba in the face of the increased oppression by the Israeli occupation, we do not forget.

I ask, then, when will justice favor the oppressors over the oppressed?

Amjad Ayman Yaghi is a journalist based in Gaza.