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Alun McDonald: A Village Gone, But Not Forgotten

As Israel celebrates its "Independence Day," Palestinians use another term to commemorate the occasion: "Al Nakba - the Catastrophe." Israel's creation in 1948 saw the systematic ethnic cleansing of over 400 Palestinian villages, turning nearly one million Palestinians into refugees. Around a quarter of a million remain in what is now Israel, often living within view of their original villages but denied the right of return by the Israeli government. One such village is Saffuriya, a few kilometres from Nazareth.

A Village Gone, But Not Forgotten

By Alun McDonald, Ramallah, Palestine

Under the burning Galilee sun, day-tripping Israeli tourists wander around the ancient ruins of one of Israel's many national parks. Taking photos of the rolling green hills, the Ottoman castle, the restored Roman mosaics and amphitheatre, and a monastery in honour of the mother of Mary, the tourists listen as their guide outlines thousands of years of history. From the Romans, through the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the British mandate period, right up to modern-day Israel, the area has had a fascinating history.

But the tour groups – from Israel and all over the world – do not quite get the full story. They are not told, for instance, that the village of Tzippori, where the park stands, has only existed for just over 50 years, or of the pogrom of ethnic cleansing that emptied the land of its previous Palestinian inhabitants and destroyed the village of Saffuriya.

A few hundred metres away, Ziad Awaisy fills half a dozen plastic bottles with water from the Al Kastan spring. Several times a week, he drives a few kilometres north from his house on the edge of Nazareth to collect the crystal clear water. “To me it is the purest water in the world,” he says. “It is the only thing we have left of our land and our homes.” Awaisy’s ritual is just one of the many ways in which he and hundreds of others in his neighbourhood retain their ties to the land they consider to be their home, and a village that is no longer found on maps but lives on in memory alone.

In George Orwell’s 1984, “Those who control the past control the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” and in Israel, Palestinian history has been rewritten or erased entirely. Tzippori is one of four Jewish settlements that stand on what used to be Saffuriya, an Arab village whose residents were driven from their homes by Operation Dekel in the 1948 war that created the Jewish state of Israel. “What the Israelis celebrate as their year of Independence, we call our year of Occupation: Al Nakba – the Catastrophe,” says Awaisy, a 29-year-old physiotherapist and bar-manager whose family is originally from Saffuriya.

In the spring of 1948, Zionist forces massacred several hundred Palestinians at villages such as Deir Yassin and Tantura, and Awaisy’s parents fled Saffuriya in fear as the Israeli army advanced northwards. For 10 days between July 8 and 18, 1948, Operation Dekel was one of the fiercest and largest in all of Palestine. On July 15 Israeli aircraft bombed Saffuriya and the army attacked from the south, east and west – forcing the villagers north towards Lebanon and Syria. Like more than half of the village’s 5,000 inhabitants, some of Awaisy’s family ended up in Ein Hilweh refugee camp in southern Lebanon, and also Sabra and Shatila, whose names later became synonymous with the 1982 massacres by the Israeli army, then led by the current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Others fled to the nearby Christian Arab town of Nazareth, establishing a new suburb called Safafriya on the outskirts in homage to the village they felt sure they would soon return to.

But such hopes were dashed for good several years later. The villagers petitioned the Israeli High Court of Justice to allow them to return to their village. They were denied. As the campaign to return gathered momentum, the Israeli army delivered a swift and conclusive riposte: they blew up all the houses and destroyed the village. It was not an unavoidable consequence of war but a cold, calculated decision taken in "peacetime".

The destruction of Saffuriya is not unusual. Around 400 Palestinian villages were emptied in the 1948 war. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes, in a premeditated Zionist action to which the world turned a blind eye and continues to dismiss. Several hundred Saffuriya residents – mostly the elderly who could not bear to leave their homes and fields – stayed put as the Israelis occupied the village. For several months they hoped they would be allowed to stay. Then, on January 7, 1949, when the fighting was over, came the expulsion order. Ali Al-Azhari, whose family had stayed behind, recalls, “It was quite unequivocal. Anyone found in the village 48 hours later would be shot.”

The denial of return to villages emptied during Al Nakba continues today through Israel's racist legal system that is designed to promote the interests of Jews over Palestinians. In 1950 the Israeli authorities initiated the "Absentee Property Law" whereby "empty" land becomes the property of the State. Awaisy, his family and up to quarter of a million displaced Palestinians within Israel are classified by the bizarre oxymoron "Present Absentee." They are present in Israel, but absent from their land. That this absence is forced is deemed irrelevant: the land is now owned – stolen – by the Israeli government.

Today the old lands of Saffuriya are home to several Jewish settlements and Moshavs – kibbutz-like communal centres. The old houses and schools – one for girls, one for boys – were demolished and replaced. Around 800 houses stood in Saffuriya; today just one remains, amid dozens of new brick constructions.

Khalil Abbas, another resident of Nazareth who gazes longingly at the green fields of Saffuriya where his parents and grandparents used to live, shows me photographs from the 1930’s. In the photographs, the hill on which the Ottoman castle stands is lined with houses and buildings. Now the castle remains as a valuable tourist attraction, but the houses are gone. The Jewish National Fund has covered the hill with a forest of pine trees imported from Europe. “They know a crime was committed here and so they set about covering the evidence,” laments Abbas.

The "cleansing" of villages such as Saffuriya continues from its original Palestinian residents through to modern-day history books. To most Israelis, Al Nakba never happened. Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian academic, draws a parallel between Holocaust deniers and the denial of Al Nakba. "The point of resemblance here is not between genocide and dispossession -- they are of course not equivalent -- but of denial that either event ever happened. Palestinians who were expelled from their homeland in 1948 and again in 1967, and who are still alive to tell the tale, are nevertheless told it never happened."

"For Israelis there is nothing more serious than people denying the tragedy of the Holocaust. Six million Jews died; it was terrible; it happened, and the people who try to deny it are rightly denounced," says Mahmoud, another of Saffuriya's lost generation now living in Nazareth. "But now most Israelis do the same for Al Nakba." Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, reports how commemoration of Al Nakba is banned in Arab schools and the very event itself is often summarily dismissed as nothing more than a myth.

Try telling the residents of Safafriya that their history is a myth. The suburb of Nazareth established by the village's refugees was never intended to be a long-term home, but today it has a feel of permanence. Most residents realise that they will see out their days in the cramped streets of Nazareth rather than in the fields of Saffuriya, and with every generation that passes the memories of Saffuriya become that little bit dimmer. But the sense of injustice remains. Two of the streets in Safafriya are even named Sabra and Shatila in respect of the massacres of family members in the refugee camps of Lebanon. Resentment for Israel and the government which continues to deny Palestinians their right to a homeland is still simmering not far beneath the surface.

According to distinguished Israeli academic Ilan Pappe, Ariel Sharon's government has encouraged the "systematic removal of any textbook or school syllabus that refers to the Nakbah, even marginally. Similar instructions have been given to the public broadcasting authorities." Pappe adds that although fewer Israelis remain in complete denial of the events of 1948, growing numbers are increasingly willing to justify it and the "transfer" of Palestinians to other countries.

Ziad Awaisy has no intention of being "transferred" anywhere. "My family's home is just down the road. True, the building is destroyed, but houses can be rebuilt. The land, the fields; they are ours and they are what is important to us. One day we will get it back." The last remark is not said in a threatening tone, but rather with the understated determination of someone who knows that right is on their side.


Alun McDonald,
Ramallah, Palestine (under construction)

© Scoop Media

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