“The old will die and the young will forget” — this was the prediction of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. Sixty-three years later, I still wonder what made him think so. Would the Jewish masses — or indeed any of the other millions of people who suffered the Holocaust — ever forget?
As far as I know, having lived in al-Azzeh refugee camp for most of my life, there has always been much space even in the narrow alleys of the camp for the collective memory of Israeli massacres, systematic displacement and ethnic cleansing. These images are imprinted in the minds of Palestinian refugees both young and old.
I never forget that in the spring of 2003 my grandmother and I “went back” to our destroyed village, Beit Jibrin. We managed to get there despite the checkpoints and the high level of Israeli security; it wasn’t easy even though the actual distance that separates my refugee camp from the village is less that an hour’s drive.
Mine is the smallest West Bank camp, covering only 0.02 square kilometres. The camp’s original residents came from Beit Jibrin, on the western hills of Hebron.
I’d been to Beit Jibrin a few times before but never with my grandmother. I walked behind her climbing up a hill in the village. She seemed much stronger and able to walk faster than I remembered. She knew where exactly we were going, as if she was there yesterday.
We sat under a fig tree, and my grandmother smiled and remembered when she used to play with her friends, decades ago. She said, “It’s the same tree, a little bit different now; it’s been more than fifty years after all. Nonetheless, it is the same tree.”
My head was saturated with thoughts; she must have whispered some of her childhood secrets to the old tree. She didn’t say much but the sadness in her eyes said it all. We smiled and stayed seated, listening to birds singing and breathing in as much of the village’s fresh air as possible as if we had never drawn breath before. This is, after all, the village I have been raised to understand is mine.
Her memories dated back to 1948. She was nearly ten years old. Despite her young age, she remembered. She remembered her school, the lovely summer evenings she spent with her family in the village. She remembered the harvest time and traveling to Haifa and Yaffa (Jaffa) with her dad to sell their produce.
She also remembered the nights when the peaceful village was first attacked. “We never saw a fighter jet before,” she said. Maybe they had, I thought, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same sight as the one that was now spreading death and fear into people’s hearts in 1948. This was the same year that witnessed the expulsion of approximately 750,000 of the native Palestinian population from their homes and villages. So far, to this day, they have never been able to return.
Sixty-three years since, and despite the numerous United Nations resolutions and world condemnations, Israel’s impunity still prevails. No justice has been achieved as Palestinian refugees are yet to see the implementation of UN Resolution 242 that clearly affirms “a just settlement of the refugee problem” as well as Resolution 194, which states that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.”
As much as these resolutions have been alive in my grandmother’s memory, they are also imprinted in refugees’ consciousness, whether they are acquainted with international law or not. Every Palestinian refugee resolutely believes in the right to live in the town or village from where they originate, and indeed from which they and their families have been uprooted by force.
My grandmother passed away last year in March in the refugee camp. However, her dream of returning to Beit Jibrin is still alive and I deeply believe that she is in a place where borders do not exist. Her soul is finally free of the shackles of ethnic division, and she is able to hover over Palestine and our beloved village — our home — Beit Jibrin. She might be whispering secrets to the fig and olive trees there right now. Her dreams of return are still alive.
I will never forget her nor will I forget her passion when talking about the village. I will always make sure I pass her dreams and aspirations to the coming generations. This, I believe, is a promise that each refugee has made consciously or unconsciously until the return and the full realization of our rights.
We will never forget my village and all the ethnically-cleansed Palestinian villages, as the memory remains in the heart and soul of all Palestinians. For us, the old may well die, but the young will never forget.
Merna Alazzeh is a Palestinian human rights activist, community and international development professional living in London. Alazzeh has obtained a masters degree in human rights from the London School of Economics.