Some 2,000 Palestinian demonstrators gathered deep in a pine forest on the slopes of Mount Carmel near Haifa on Wednesday this week as most Israelis celebrated their 58th Independence Day with open-air barbecues and parties.
The Palestinian refugee families were joined by 150 Israeli Jews in an annual procession to commemorate the mirror event of the establishment of the State of Israel — the Nakba (Catastrophe), when the overwhelming majority of Palestinians were driven from their homes and out of the new Jewish state under cover of war.
This year the families marched to Umm al-Zinat, a Palestinian farming village whose 1,500 inhabitants were forced out by advancing Israeli soldiers on 15 May 1948, a few hours after Israel issued its Declaration of Independence.
Along with more than 400 other Palestinian villages, Umm al-Zinat was entirely demolished by the Israeli army to prevent the refugees from ever returning. Children held aloft colored placards bearing the names of all the destroyed villages, while others waved Palestinian flags, an act of defiance that could potentially land them in jail.
Millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza and in the camps in neighbouring Arab states will officially commemorate Nakba Day on 15 May, but the smaller number of refugees inside Israel have traditionally staged their own event to coincide with Israel’s Independence Day (the anniversary of which varies according to the Hebrew calendar).
Few of Umm al-Zinat’s refugees could attend the 3 May procession, however. Most were expelled from the state during the year-long war of 1948 and today live in West Bank cities such as Jenin, Tulkarm and Nablus, or in Jordan. Israel usually refuses entry permits to Palestinians living in the occupied territories and in Arab states.
But a handful of original inhabitants were there to tell their stories. They remained inside Israel, many of them close by Umm al-Zinat in the nearby Druze town of Daliyat al-Carmel and in Haifa and Fureidis.
Today, some 250,000 Palestinians in Israel — a quarter of their total number — are believed to be internal refugees. All of them are refused the right to return to their original homes and villages, as Israel fears that this would set a precedent for a more general Palestinian right of return.
The lands of Umm al-Zinat, as with many other destroyed villages, were planted with a forest of fir trees by the Jewish National Fund in an attempt, according to historian Meron Benvenisti, a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, to “camouflage the ruins”. Other lands belonging to Umm al-Zinat were handed over to a rural Jewish community, Elyakim, for it to farm.
Palestinian political and religious leaders in Israel, as well as the refugees themselves, used the march to denounce Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian people and to demand the right of the refugees to return to their villages.
Sheikh Raed Salad, a spiritual leader widely respected by Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens, also led prayers at the site as organisers highlighted the continuing abuse and damage inflicted on mosques and churches in the destroyed villages.
Umm al-Zinat’s mosque was razed by the Israeli army after the villagers were forced out at gunpoint. In other villages, holy places and cemeteries are fenced off, usually with razor wire, to prevent them being accessed.
Although for many years Israel’s expulsions of unarmed Palestinian civlians like those in Umm al-Zinat went unremarked, a new generation of Israeli historians has begun bringing to light new evidence of at least two dozen massacres as well as systematic rapes and murders of Palestinians.
The historians have found among papers in state and military archives proof that Israel encouraged the mass flight of Palestinians through well-publicised massacres like one near Jersualem in the village of Deir Yassin. They have also unearthed a series of documents, such as Plan Dalet, that suggest it was the army’s intention to ethnically cleanse the new state of as many Palestinians as possible.
The stories of Umm al-Zinat’s refugees confirm these findings. Badria Fachmawi, who was 14 years old when the Israeli soldiers advanced on the village, says she remembers the sound of Israeli gunfire and then fleeing with her parents and siblings. They had heard about the massacre at Deir Yassin a month earlier, she says, and knew it was dangerous to stay.
Her family ended up in the Druze community of Daliyat al-Carmel, where they joined by as many as 10,000 refugees from other villages seeking shelter. Because the Druze had signed a pact with the Jewish state’s leaders to fight on Israel’s side, their communities were not attacked.
A few days later, she says, the Israeli army arrived with 18 buses to transport the refugees across the border into Jordan. “My father, uncle and cousins hid among the Druze and escaped the expulsion, which is the reason why we are still here today and most of the refugees are not,” she said.
For the past 20 years, Badria and her family have returned to the village to pick the prickly pear fruit of the cactuses that flourish on the mountainside. “It’s hard to come back, though, when we have so many sad memories associated with this place,” she said. “But it is important to bring the children here so that they know where they are from.”
Salim Fachmawi, a 65-year-old refugee from Umm al-Zinat, helped organise this year’s procession. He says he remembers the war crimes the world has forgotten. Three of the village elders who refused to leave when the army arrived in 1948 were executed in cold blood, he says.
And later, when the buses arrived in Daliyat al-Carmel to expel the villagers to Jordan, armed guards took aside many of Umm al-Zinat’s men and arrested them. “They were just farmers but the Israeli army jailed them as prisoners of war for 18 months. Eventually they were exchanged by Israel for Jewish soldiers captured by Jordan.”
His aunt was on one of the expulsion buses that drove towards Jenin, from which the villagers were to be forced into Jordan. “She had with her her gold jewelry and savings stuffed into a pillowcase but she was not allowed to take any possessions with her. Her life savings were stolen by the soldiers.” Then, Salim says, the guards pushed the villagers towards Jenin, shouting, “Go to Abdullah!”, referring to the King of Jordan, and “Don’t look back or we will shoot.”
Salim’s commitment to the village has brought him into repeated confrontation with the authorities. In 1969 he spent two years under house arrest for his political activities. A week ago he was called to his local police station for interrogation after it was learnt that he had held meetings at his home about the march and posted adverts. “They asked me why I wanted to stage the march and I replied: ‘Because you built your state on my homeland. I am older than your state’. I am an old man and they cannot so easily intimidate me.”
Earlier, in 1998, when his father died at 93, Salim also clashed with the police. He had promised his father that he would bury him in the cemetery of Umm al-Zinat, the ruins of which have been fenced off. But when the family arrived with the coffin at the graveyard, they found it surrounded by more than 100 armed police.
“I spoke with the captain and told him of my promise to my father,” Salim said. “But he replied simply: ‘If you want to bury your father here you’ll have to bury me first’. I understood what he meant. We turned back and buried my father in Daliyat instead.”
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist living in Nazareth, Israel. His book, Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State, is published by Pluto Press.