Unlike the majority of Palestinian refugees dispersed across the Middle East and beyond, Wagih Semaan can drive a few kilometers from his house, cross a ditch and a fence and sit in the stones of the village he was driven out of at the age of 11. But despite his Israeli “citizenship,” he is no more able to return to live on his land than the Palestinian sitting in Ein al-Hilwe camp across the Lebanese border.
Wagih is one of more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees who are internally displaced — they managed to remain in their homeland yet are denied access to their lands and homes. Like the rest of the million Palestinians inside Israel, internally displaced live with Israeli passports yet in all sectors are treated as second class citizens. While the brutality meted out to residents of the West Bank and Gaza demonstrates clearly that Palestinian life is not valued by the state of Israel, the second class status of Palestinians inside the Jewish state shows the inherent apartheid nature of a state defined as Jewish. Israeli apartheid would not end even in the (very unlikely) scenario that Israel totally withdrew to 1967 borders. The case of the internally displaced and land confiscation from Palestinians legally defined by Israel as “citizens” — both in 1948, and continuing since that date — undermines any Israeli claims that it functions as a democracy for its Palestinian citizens.
The Semaan family come from Suhmata, a northern Galilee village attacked by Haganah [the pre-state Zionist militia that later became the Israeli army] aircraft in October 1948. In addition to more than one thousand inhabitants, by that stage many hundreds of refugees exiled from other villages already occupied were seeking shelter in homes and olive groves. As villagers fled the onslaught in terror, 16 were killed, as Wagih explains: “they put a bullet in the head of one young man in front of his father; another woman’s body was left for the dogs to eat.” ** Some tried their hardest to stay to no avail. “My father didn’t want to leave — he hid under the trees. One time he had just moved and the tree which he had been under was hit from the air. He was lucky to stay alive,” says Wagih. The village was surrounded from all sides except the northern direction to Lebanon. The message was clear — there was no room for Palestinians in the new state. Ninety-three percent of Suhmatans became refugees in Lebanon and Syria, one famous village son being Abu Maher al-Yamani, the deputy of the late resistance leader George Habash.
Seven percent, however, succeeded in sheltering with relatives in some of the few Palestinian villages which were not destroyed in the Israel occupation, finally becoming citizens in the new Jewish state. But remaining in the homeland was not an easy option. Creeping into the fields around their village, in the first months Suhmatans saw some of their homes dynamited. The oldest Semaan brother approached the village to see that their home had been dynamited. “He just could not bring himself to tell our mother,” one of the Semaan brothers recalls. Other homes were quickly occupied by a group of Romanian Jews waiting for their own settlement to be built on the land of the village. Within a few years the village was destroyed — Jewish settlers moved into the new buildings — and Israel believed it had shattered the hopes of the refugees to return. “They even took the stones from our houses to the new settlement,” says Wagih.
From 1948 to 1966 all Palestinians remaining in Israel, not just the refugees, were subject to military law, similar to that imposed on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied in 1967. *** Military rule brought curfews, restrictions on movement and employment, and strict penalties for any political activity. At this time the struggle was simply to eat and to live, to stay alive. The Semaan family lived 13 in one room in the village of Fassuta; as Wagih explains, “lying next to each other we couldn’t move.” As a young man Wagih was pursued by the police for political activity with the Communist Party; many people were just too frightened to even try to speak out.
Although the days of military rule for Palestinians inside Israel are over, a more sophisticated system of surveillance and political control of this minority remains in place. Many Palestinians inside Israel today remain nervous of political activity, fully aware of its implications for themselves and their families, but an increasing number are prepared to speak out. To draw attention to the continuing injustice of the Nakba six decades on, the Suhmata Committee in the Galilee has launched a new petition to protest further settlement expansion on their land.
Individual village committees, and later an overarching umbrella organization to promote the right of return for the internally displaced, were formed in the wake of Madrid Conference 1991, when Palestinians inside Israel realized that their status was not to be represented at the negotiating table. Having previously relied on international movements for the liberation of Palestine, many Palestinian political activists inside Israel decided to take control of their own struggle, to fight to be seen as an integral part of the Palestinian people and not an Israeli “domestic” concern.
The Suhmata committee promotes awareness of the village amongst remaining Suhmatans, running a regularly updated website (www.suhmata.com), organizing visits and tours to the site of the village and attempting to protect remains, particularly in regards to the holy sites. Over the past decade villagers have held events at the village — today grazing ground for settler cattle — on Nakba Day, Land Day and other Palestinian national events, summer camps for children, renovation work in the graveyards. The village even has its own play, performed in the ruins (as well as other locations across the globe).
The current petition demands a halt to Israeli plans announced in January 2008 for the building of around 3,500 new housing lots on land of Suhmata to expand the Jewish town of Ma’alot. Ma’alot was founded in 1957 as part of Israeli attempts to Judaize the Galilee which still had a significant Palestinian population. The town already overwhelms and confiscates the lands of the still existing Palestinian villages of Tarshiha and Mi’lia.
Villagers are under no illusion that a petition can transform the direction of Israeli policy but see it as part of the wider struggle to spread awareness of the rights of all Palestinians to return and Israel’s continuing attempts to establish “facts on the ground” and to dictate their own terms of any future settlement — a settlement which would not bring justice to the refugees.
“Why is this land open to the Russian immigrant yet forbidden to us?” asks Wagih.
“It is enough — stop this project — this is Palestinian land. We call on the conscience of all good people, here and outside. They speak about peace, but there will be no peace without a solution to the problem of return; while they continue to build on our expense.”
* This caption originally read in error that the photograph was taken in 1950.
** This sentence originally read in error, “As villagers fled the onslaught in terror, 16 were killed, as Wagih explains: ‘they put a bullet in the head of one young man in front of his father then left the body for the dogs to eat.’”
*** The text originally stated that military law was imposed from 1948 through 1967. The Electronic Intifada regrets these errors.
Isabelle Humphries has worked for several years with Palestinian non-governmental organizations in the Galilee, and is completing a doctoral thesis on Palestinian internally displaced. She can be contacted at isabellebh2004 A T yahoo D O T co D O T uk.