N is a Palestinian American writer living in Israel. 

Teaser: 

N is a Palestinian American writer living in Israel. 

Cacti, pomegranate and fig trees

It's funny that a person can live in a place for years, and yet fail to notice the richness of their surroundings. It took pottery lessons in a quaint mountain village for me to realize that history was literally under my feet.

***

When I was a young girl living in Nigeria, my father pulled an old atlas off the bookshelf, and turned to the page which bore the map of Palestine. As my siblings and I leaned over the page, he explained the troubled history of the country of his birth, the country which, in 1948, became known as Israel.

To me as a child, Palestine was not much more than lines on a page in the atlas, and a couple of summer vacations. It was not until I was a teenager that I began to understand the meaning that this land holds for millions of Palestinians.

I am a first generation American-born Palestinian living in Israel. I am not a refugee. Living in Israel, I have gained an appreciation of what was, and anger towards what is.

My pottery lessons were in a small Israeli artists’ village called Ein Hod. I felt a sense of belonging in this quiet, picturesque village. I understood why after I read its history. For over 400 years, it was Palestinian.

In 1948, its population of approximately 800 was forced from their homes by Jews. Although most of the residents settled in the West Bank or other Arab countries, one brave man refused to leave. He moved to his land a couple kilometers up the mountain and started a new village called ‘Ayn Hawd.

Some of the Arab houses still stand in the original Arab ‘Ayn Hawd (pre-1948). The laughter of children, the voices of women sharing stories, and the sound of the adthan (the call to prayer) from the mosque (now a restaurant/bar) would fill my ears as I would walk between the houses. But coming out of my reverie, I would realize that I was just hearing whispers from the past. The voices have long been silenced.

The restaurant/bar in Eid Hod; it used to be a mosque (above). And the new 'Ayn Hawd (below).

And thus began my journey towards discovering my roots, and my undying fascination with the demolished Palestinian villages in Israel.

But this story is not about me. It is about the Palestinians who lived in the villages and became refugees upon Israel’s creation. Israelis consider that day in May the day of their independence. But for Palestinians, 15 May is a day of Nakba, a day of Catastrophe.

Between 1947 and 1949, 750,000 – 900,000 Palestinians were forcefully expelled from 550 villages. Thousands ended up living in refugee camps outside Israel under extremely harsh conditions. Approximately 427,000 became internally displaced persons – Palestinians living in Israel but not in their villages of origin. The Palestinian population worldwide currently stands at approximately 11 million.

Tulkarm refugee camp.

Cacti, pomegranate and fig trees are tell-tale signs of the past existence of Palestinian villages. Israel’s attempt to hide the demolished villages by creating forests there has been futile. It is impossible to hide their presence – signs of the Nakba are everywhere.

Just 10 minutes from Ein Hod, the shrine of a local sage called Sheik Shahada and the cemetery of ‘Ayn Ghazal still stand, as do some buildings, including the mosque of Ijzim. Both villages are now populated by Jews, and bear different names.

Last year I met Abu Hosam. Originally from al-Lajjun, his family was expelled from their homes when he was only seven. Although they settled in a nearby city, 63 years later, his memories of al-Lajjun are still vivid.

Holding a map of the village dated 1948, he took me on an emotional tour of the now forested land. The remains of a few buildings stand amongst the tall trees. The most heart-wrenching moment was when he said with a choked voice, ‘Welcome to my house.’ My eyes were wet as I looked at the dry thistle that he pointed at. The dry ground bore no signs that a house was once there.

Al-Lajjun, 1948 (above) and now.

Not far from al-Lajjun was Qaqun. As old as the Crusaders, this Palestinian village, which was surrounded by fertile agricultural land, was also destroyed in 1948. The village land is now filled with Jewish communities. The soil still produces crops but for different land owners. Nevertheless, towering above it all as a stubborn reminder are the ruins of an ancient fortress, surrounded by cacti.

Fortress at Qaqun.

Sixty-three years after Israel’s creation, the Nakba is continuing. In Silwan, in the Bedouin villages in south Israel, in Jaffa, and even in the West Bank people continue to be evicted from their homes.

Thousands of acres of land have been confiscated by Israel to build Jew-only roads, military zones, the Wall and Jewish settlements. And millions of refugees have not been permitted to return to their homes.

Cactus.

I watched with emotion on Nakba Day as Palestinians jumped over the fences between Israel and Syria, and for the first time stepped on their homeland, making their dream a reality – if only for a moment. The refugees of 1948 made it clear: they want to begin their own journey, just as I did. Don’t they have that right?

All photos by the author.

‘Dreams are for no reason. Let them sleep’

Nivine Ghanem met me at the entrance of the Tulkarem refugee camp in Palestine. I was going to meet her mother, Manal. This was my first visit. 

As we walked along the narrow alleys between the tall unpainted apartment buildings, I stretched my arms out. So narrow are the alleys that I could touch the buildings on both sides. 

Narrow alleys in the refugee camp

Rays of sunshine entered between some buildings, but other than that, drab greyness was everywhere. No grass, no flowers, just greyness. 

The buildings are plastered with posters of martyrs and graffiti, a political story being told. Children played outside, with the faces of the dead watching over them.

One can easily get lost in the confusing maze of alleys, and as I zigzagged through them, I wondered how Nivine manged to find her way. But she has been living here all her life, a product of politics. 

The camp, built in 1950, has approximately 20,000 residents. Unemployment stands at approximately 50 per cent, forcing children to become beggars. 

We arrived at Manal’s house, and she welcomed me inside. Although we shared some laughs, her story saddened me. 

That visit took place a year and a half ago. I was haunted by it, and for three nights I tossed and turned as my dreams took me down the alleys. 

I wanted to write an article about Manal, but so shocked was I by what I saw that as much as I tried, I just could not find the words to tell her story. I have visited her a few times since, and grown accustomed to the camp, and now, in the week when we commemorated the International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners (17 April), I feel I should tell her story. 

Her house is very small, and has only the basic necessities. Hanging on the walls are pictures of Manal’s brother and husband’s brother – both martyrs. 

Manal (below), 37, is an ex-political prisoner of Israel. 

Manal and her embroidery

She cannot forget the day that she was arrested. It was during the second Intifada (uprising). At 3am on 17 April 2003, about 50 Israeli soldiers entered her house. They ordered her husband, Naji, and her three sleeping children outside in the cool night. 

Manal said, ‘The soldiers did not leave anything in the house untouched,’ as they failed in their search for incriminating evidence. 

Manal, a carrier of the blood disorder thalassimia and three months’ pregnant, was beaten, blindfolded and shackled, hand and foot, and taken to the District Coordination Office (DCO) for interrogation, which included emotional abuse such as swearing, spitting and insults. 

She was told she would be gone only five minutes, but those five minutes stretched into over four years. Her children, Ehab, Nivine, and Majid (who also has thalassimia) went to live with Naji’s family. 

Manal describes prison life as difficult. Prisoners were crowded into small, humid cells. Medical care was lacking, and sick prisoners often had to get by with just aspirin. Food was inadequate, often consisting of rice and beans and half-baked bread. 

To Manal, the most ordinary things became treasures. Laughing, she recalls ‘sewing cucumber slices together so that my fellow inmates could see a whole cucumber.’ But when they were given a whole chicken, there was cause for celebration. ‘We held the chicken up high and danced around it!’ she said.

Baby Noor (meaning ‘light) was born six months after Manal entered the prison. ‘I was chained by my hands and feet to the bed in the prison hospital, and with no family by my side, I gave birth.’ The chains were left on her for the entire three days she was in the hospital. 

Noor spent the first two years of his life in the prison with his mother. ‘He thought prison was life – always locking doors and hiding keys.’ 

Manal was in administrative detention – held without trial or charge – for two years.  When she was finally tried and convicted, Noor was taken from her and returned to his father. Her one thought when she was in prison was: ‘When will I get out?’ ‘My thoughts were always with my family,’ she recalls. 

Manal spent two more years in prison, and was eventually released in 2007. 

Life is not easy for the Ghanem family. Naji, who was doing janitorial work for UNWRA is now unable to work because of health problems. And Manal, who occasionally gets requests for her embroidery, says now there is no work. Additionally, Manal had a fifth child, now two years old.

Her wish is for all the prisoners to be released, and for the Palestinian Authority to take care of them. She does not, however, dream: ‘Dreams are for no reason.  Let them sleep.’ 

Majid (below), still sick and missing school days, worded his wishes more graciously when asked what he most wanted. ‘I want your health and happiness,’ he said. His mother helped him out a bit – ‘He most wants a computer,’ she said.

Majid on his balcony

According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, since 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, ‘over 750,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. As of March 2011, 5,777 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails under harsh conditions which include unhygienic, overcrowded cells, inadequate food and medical treatment and various forms of torture. 

My crying heart... Yom el-Ard

My father was born in Palestine in 1930. In 1952, he left his country, which had since become Israel, and traveled to the United States to study. About five years ago, eager to get back to his roots, he returned to his homeland.

Once back, he discovered his hidden talent – painting. Most of his paintings show the Palestine of his childhood, and what his homeland became during the height of its destruction.


My father's painting.

My father is a very passionate man, hurt by the loss of what was. His memories of the past are very clear: demolished homes, the Separation Barrier, and the tears of elderly men and women hang from the walls in his home.

Although it is not new, one painting in particular catches my eye – that of an old man, his head leaning on his cane. The sadness takes one to the heart of the plight of the Palestinian people.


The sadness...

Where is all this leading, you may ask. Well, yesterday, 30 March, was Land Day. On this day in 1976, six Palestinian citizens of Israel were killed, approximately 100 were wounded, and hundreds more were arrested by Israeli Defense Forces.

These people were taking part in a peaceful demonstration which was in response to Israel’s announcement that 5,500 acres of Arab land in the Galilee would be confiscated. Israel’s reasons for the confiscation: security and new Jewish settlements. It was a means to reaching the government goal of creating a Jewish majority in the Galilee, or Judaisation of the Galilee.

This year marks the 35th Land Day, or Yom el-Ard.

Since Israel’s establishment in 1948, the government has created various laws in order to legalize the confiscation of Arab land. There was the 1950 Law of Return which gave those of Jewish ancestry the right to live in Israel and automatically gain Israeli citizenship. But where would these people live? The Absentee Property Law of 1950 seemed to go hand in hand with the Law of Return. It legalized confiscation of lands of Palestinian refugees who fled or were expelled from their lands in 1948. Although many remained in Israel due to this law, they were not permitted to return to their land. They are called internally displaced Palestinians or present-absentees.


An Arab house in Sheikh Jarrah where Israeli settlers are now living.

The 1976 demonstration was the first time since 1948 that the Arabs in Israel developed a form of unity against the policies of the Israeli government.

Land Day has become more than just an issue of land confiscation. It has become a demand for rights – the same rights that the Jews have.

However, unfortunately, not much has changed since those days, and Palestinians, whether in the West Bank or in Israel, are affected on a daily basis and in different ways by the discriminatory policies of the government.

I remember Mostafa Abu Hilal, a Palestinan citizen of Israel, whom I met last year. He was fighting to keep his tiny village of 10 homes and 120 people from being demolished. His village was created before the establishment of Israel, but the government decided it was illegal (and unrecognized, meaning it has no municipal services even though the residents pay taxes) because it sits on what they consider a ‘nature reserve’. In effect, the government plans are to expand a nearby Jewish settlement, and therefore take village land along with it.


A house demolished in the unrecognized village of Dar el-Hanun, which Mostafa Abu Hilal was fighting to save.

And I remember visiting a lady whose home had been demolished. At 2:30 in the morning, Israeli soldiers and police on horses surrounded her home, and she watched as her family’s life savings crumbled into dust. She sat under an olive tree that rainy morning, surrounded by friends, family and a few belongings. Her family’s crime was a lack of a permit to add onto the house. A court date had already been scheduled, but still the house was turned into rubble. It sounds crazy to build without a permit, but the government issues very few permits to those from the Arab sector so people are, in effect, forced to build without them.


The house demolished at 2:30 in the morning.


What's left of the family's belongings.

The December demolitions of seven homes of the extended Abu Eid family in the mixed Jewish Arab city of Lod left 70 people homeless. I can still see a Sheikh Jarrah home owner standing across the street from his house, now occupied by Israelis settlers and covered with Israeli flags. Silwan, in addition, continuously faces violence and home evictions.

And the Bedouin village of al-Araquib, which has been demolished 15 times so that the government can plant a forest on the desert land. The residents stubbornly rebuild each time, refusing to give up their land.


The view of Silwan, where some houses have been demolished.

Just a few numbers: approximately 427,000 Palestinians are internally displaced, in addition to the millions scattered around the world.

According to the Badil Agency for Palestinian and Refugee Rights, between 1948 and 2001, 275, 028 acres of Arab land in Israel have been confiscated (76 per cent of the land). Since 1967, 730,000 acres of West Bank land have been confiscated for settlements (500,000 Jewish settlers), bypass roads for Israelis, and military zones. Additionally, the Wall has taken 45 per cent of Palestinian territory, with 86 per cent of it constructed inside the West Bank.

The list of discriminatory practices goes on and on…



'What I'm doing is right, and I have to do it'

The image of Hani Amer’s face behind the metal gate is still with me two months after meeting him. It is hard to forget a person whose convictions are so strong that he is willing to compromise his safety by accepting a form of imprisonment in order to be free. Ironic, isn’t it?

His story of freedom, dignity, honour and ownership is an example of how one’s power can cause suffering for others. It is a story heard too often in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Filled with uncertainty, I drove on the main road of the Palestinian village of Mas’ha. Except for a lone pedestrian, the street was deserted. Could it be because it was Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, I wondered? I was later to find out that Mas’ha, population 2,000, was always empty.

The pedestrian’s directions: ‘Just go straight, but you can’t get in.’ What does he mean I can’t get in? I was soon to find out.


The fencing leading to the settlement.

Ahead, a series of metal fences and twisted barb wire blocked my way. Not sure where to go, I called Amer. Then I saw him on the other side of the fence. He unlocked a yellow gate which was attached to tall concrete slabs, and welcomed me to his home.


Amer behind the yellow gate. His house and the settlement can be seen in the background. 

Looking around, I realized that his land is completely encircled. A surreal feeling came over me. The Amer family is BOXED in!

I suppose it is Amer’s misfortune that his house is the last one in the village. The surrounding natural beauty is interrupted by electric fences, barb wire, a tall concrete wall, cameras, and a military road, all in the name of security – not the security of the Amer family, but rather that of Elqana settlement, just a few metres away.   

The Amers are yet another Palestinian family whose life is defined by settlements and the Separation Barrier aka the Apartheid Wall, which separates Israel from the West Bank.

For Amer, 53, the past and present run together. Amer complains: ‘Every day Palestinians pay the price for the Nakba,’ referring to the Catastrophe of 1948 when Palestine became Israel, resulting in the loss of homeland, and the suffering of millions of Palestinians scattered around the world today.


The Wall. Amer's children, together with others, painted on the wall, but the military put a stop to it.

His family’s lack of financial advancement resulted in no-one obtaining an education. Life has taught him that one must first fulfill basic priorities such as food, housing and clothing, and then if one is financially able, one can get educated.   

However, in 1973, Amer built his home on his three-quarter acre plot, and his family lived simply and comfortably. But in 1977, Elqana was built, and life lost its simplicity.

Approximately 1,977 acres of village land were confiscated in order to build three surrounding settlements. Villagers can no longer reach their lands, businesses were forced to close (thus the emptiness when I entered the village), and the fences around the settlements have blocked roads, not only separating villages, but also making the distance between villages unreasonably long.

As for Amer, he lost both his right to build on his own house, and his five acre plot of land became inaccessible to him.


The Amer house is on the left (blue shutter), and the settler house is on the right.

Efforts to force him to leave his land failed. His restaurant, chicken coop and nursery were demolished on the pretense of him not having a permit. ‘I did not refuse a permit; they just would not give me one,’ he explained. ‘They don’t want anyone to make a living.’

Refusing the family entry to their home for a month in 2000 also failed. Upon their return, they found their belongings had been broken, burned or stolen.

Then in August 2003 construction of the Wall began, just twenty metres from his house. Again, attempts to get him to leave his home were met with refusal. ‘I thought of only one thing – I want to live in my house because if I don’t, where will I live?’ he said.

Now his home is neighbour to an eight-metre high, 54-metres long concrete wall.

The military offered him passage through a gate which they ‘generously’ agreed to open for 15 minutes a day, in effect giving the army control of the family. With the help of human rights organizations, he finally got the key to the gate. ‘I am in control of my home. What right do they have to tell me who can and cannot enter my home?’ he stated defiantly.

Amer does not feel safe, and rarely leaves the house unattended. Settlers sometimes throw rocks at their house, and soldiers enter his property and house when they feel like it, often on cold nights.


Amer with his wife Munira.

Amer’s goal is to ‘remove the occupation,’ he said. ‘I am convinced that what I am doing is right and that I have to do it.’

Upon completion, 46 per cent of West Bank land will be annexed by Israeli settlements, military areas, and the Wall. 266,442 Palestinians will be forced to leave their homes due to difficult living conditions.

Photos by the author.

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