Home is where the hurt is
I wanted to understand and I hung on to their every word. They were holocaust survivors. They were Jewish and I, an Arab, was in their home in Virginia. It was my first encounter with survivors of the Nazi holocaust. With pain, the couple, in their mid-70s, described the horrific events they had endured. By the time they had finished, I fully agreed that Jews needed their own homeland. And then it came – the statement that has perplexed and angered Arabs for half a century.
‘Palestine was an empty land,’ they said. ‘It was a desert.’
Shocked, I stared at them. Empty land? Desert?
‘There were towns and villages as in any other country,’ I stammered.
They admitted that there had been some people living there, but ‘the Palestinians left of their own free will’.
It’s been over a year since I visited the couple but I keep hearing their words.
I was training in a newspaper company in the US. The Palestinian Intifada had recently renewed and I was assigned to write an explanatory article about it. I knew that the only way readers could understand the conflict was to appreciate the historic events which occurred 53 years ago – the creation of the state of Israel. And so I set out to interview the holocaust survivors and a 96-year-old Palestinian man – all residing in the US.
I tried that day to convince the couple that indeed there were people, towns and villages in a country called Palestine. But the answer was the same: ‘It was a desert and we made it bloom.’
They truly believed that. It was what they had been told. What more could I say?
When I repeated the conversation to American friends, I was warned to be ‘careful or you will be labelled as anti-Semitic’.
Considering I am Semitic myself – as Levantine Arabs are – it would be a rather ridiculous accusation. And surely questioning and criticizing the creation and policies of Israel doesn’t make me anti-Jewish?
Fortunately, none of my Jewish friends think so.
When I repeated my conversation with the couple to some Palestinian refugees in Lebanese camps, I thought I had inadvertently started a revolution.
‘What do they mean it was a desert? What do they mean we left of our own free will? Why would we leave our homes to live in filthy refugee camps denied our basic human rights? The Jewish army killed our families and kicked us out,’ they yelled at me.
Since the Intifada restarted more than a year ago, refugees have been feeling increasingly frustrated. Unable to help their relatives fight Israeli aggression, many are glued to their television sets, counting the ever-rising toll of Palestinian deaths.
But, against all hope, their dream of returning to their villages is still very much alive.
‘All refugees in the world are allowed to go back home,’ said Abu Ibrahim, a 72-year-old Palestinian residing in the overcrowded Sabra and Chatila camp. ‘So why can’t we?’
It’s not so simple. Most of their villages are now inhabited by Israelis. And with up to 1,000 immigrants arriving into the Jewish state every week, the chances of Palestinians returning seem slimmer and slimmer.
But refugees are unwilling to hear or understand the argument that Jewish residents and their offspring are not suddenly going to ‘go back to the European countries they come from’ – as many Palestinians say.
‘It’s our right to go home,’ said Abu Ibrahim.
This ‘right of return’ is enshrined in every Palestinian – and Arab – heart.
As Zahi, a Palestinian friend, puts it: ‘I will not go and live there. But I want the world and the Israelis to acknowledge this right.’
As an engineer, Zahi is well settled in Lebanon. ‘The idea of starting again in another country doesn’t appeal to me. If I left Lebanon, I’d prefer to emigrate to the US or Europe.’
The Intifada itself and any solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict is based on the acknowledgement of this ‘right’. And to acknowledge it means to acknowledge that Palestine was not a desert, nor was it a land without people.
Palestinians will quickly point out that there seems to be little international concern for their fate. The Intifada continues.
‘But there certainly is a lot of concern for Israel,’ said Zahi. ‘Look at the big deal they [the world] make when one Israeli is killed and yet remain silent when hundreds of Palestinians die.’
‘So,’ he added, ‘maybe the international community should look at it in another way: if you care about Israel and want its peace, then acknowledge our right of return.’
Only then can serious negotiations begin that will lead to a true peace.