Project tabula rasa
In the Galilee, Jonathan Cook hears how erasing all traces of Palestine and its people was the lynchpin of the Zionist agenda
Amin Mohamed Ali (Abu Arab), 73, is a refugee from the village of Saffuriya, three miles northwest of Nazareth. The village, home to 5,000 Palestinians, was one of the largest in the Galilee and among the first to be bombed from the air, according to Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. It was occupied on 16 July 1948. Most of its refugees ended up in Lebanon, but some fled to nearby Nazareth, where they established a neighbourhood, Safafra, named after their village. Abu Arab's home overlooks his family's former lands, now farmed by a Jewish community called Zippori. His old home was destroyed, now covered by a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund. He is one of the founders of the Saffuriya Cultural Association and organised this year's Nakba procession to Saffuriya.
"It started at Iftar, the meal breaking the fast at the end of the day during the holy month of Ramadan, when two Jewish planes flew overhead dropping bombs. We ran outside to see what was happening and, afraid the houses would collapse on us, fled into the fields and nearby caves to hide. We thought it would be over in a few minutes and we could return, but the attack lasted two hours. I later heard that three people were killed by the bombs.
"Some of the men had guns and they returned to the village while the rest of us stayed in the fields. I was with my father, who was sick, my mother, three brothers and a sister. Later, during the night, the armed men came back to tell us that Jewish soldiers were advancing from the west. We stayed out in the fields and by daybreak could see that the soldiers had taken over the village and were placing explosives in the houses. My father realised it was hopeless to stay and we fled north towards Lebanon to wait out the fighting and return when it was safe.
"We walked across the Galilee's hills for many days, regularly hearing shooting behind us. We stopped briefly in other villages where people gave us bread and water. It was summer and very hot. We crossed the border and stayed for a month in Bint Jbeil before heading on to Beirut and then the Bekaa Valley. The journey was very demanding and my sister, who was 12, died of heat exhaustion a short time later. My mother was devastated and sat by her grave every day.
"After 10 months there my father decided we would make the extremely hazardous journey back to Palestine. My mother was falling apart at the loss of her home and her daughter. We walked by night back across the Galilee's hills, trying to avoid the Israeli army. It was a very frightening time, worse even than the journey when we left. We came back to find the village destroyed and the area declared a closed military zone. Anyone entering would be shot.
"We stayed in a room of a friend's house in Nazareth. We had nothing -- our home was destroyed, and our land and belongings had been confiscated by the government. We desperately needed money. So I and my two brothers started selling sweets and cakes in the city centre. Then we sold felafel, and finally after many years my eldest brother opened a shop. It took me 30 years of working to save to buy a house.
"Will we ever go back? Of course we will. It's only a matter of time. We may not go back in my lifetime but my children or theirs will return. There is no future for Zionism. It is an empty ideology and it will fail. One day there will be real peace."
Masri Nassar (Abu Sami), 75, is originally from the village of Mujaydil, five miles southwest of Nazareth. He was 15 in July 1948 when Israeli forces arrived to expel Mujaydil's 2,200 inhabitants, a mix of Christians and Muslims. Abu Sami still has the Ottoman title deeds showing that his father owned 225 dunams (more than 55 acres) of land on which they grew mainly wheat. According to Israeli historian Meron Benvenisti, Israel wanted Mujaydil ethnically cleansed because it "coveted" its plentiful farmland, which stretched down the Jezreel Valley. Under pressure from the pope, the Christians were offered the chance to move back in 1950 but refused unless their Muslim neighbours returned too. Today, a Jewish development town, Migdal Haemek, has been built over the houses of Mujaydil and various Jewish communities farm its lands. Although all Mujaydil's houses were destroyed, two churches and a mosque survived. In 2003, the mosque was demolished to make way for a shopping mall. Abu Sami has been campaigning for the right of the villagers to use the church for many years.
"We knew the Jews wanted us out months before the Israeli army attacked. When our wheat fields were ready for harvest, the neighbouring kibbutzim [Jewish farming cooperatives] started shooting at us to prevent us from going into the fields. We had to go out secretly at night to collect the crop and we used camels so we would make no noise.
"My father was blind and, although we had land, he struggled to look after me and my sister and younger brother. He had sent me to be cared for at a convent in Nazareth by the time the army attacked. In Mujaydil, the villagers surrendered without a fight. My father told me they went out to greet what they assumed were Arab armies arriving to protect them. In fact, it was the Haganah [forerunner of the Israeli army]. My family was put on a truck to Nazareth.
"We spent the first five months sleeping in a cave with three other refugee families. My parents had arrived in Nazareth with just the clothes on their backs. Eventually we were given a room in a hotel -- there was no tourism after 1948. At first the United Nations provided us with food, but they stopped after two years [when Israel gave most of the internal refugees citizenship, although it continued to ignore their property rights]. I found work in a quarry. After five years we had to leave the hotel and used my earnings to rent a cheap house in Nazareth.
"All that time we were fighting to be allowed to return to Mujaydil. We couldn't leave Nazareth without a permit from the Galilee's military government [which lasted until 1966]. In 1952 we learnt that the village had been blown up by the army and in 1954 a Jewish town, Migdal Haemek, was built over our old homes.
"I was working for Soleh Boneh, a large state construction firm, building in the Nazareth area. In 1959, my boss told me I had permission to leave Nazareth for work. I didn't know where I was being sent. I arrived in Migdal to discover that we were going to build a synagogue. As I walked through the new streets I started to recognise the trees and realised I was standing on my own land. I pictured our old house, now gone. I felt goose bumps, started to sweat and, overwhelmed by the memories, fainted.
"After the military rule ended, I went to Migdal Haemek's municipality to ask about my old house. I was told: 'It was once yours but not anymore.' Now a Jewish family lives in a house built exactly over our old home.
"How have we been treated by Israel? They always want to kick Arabs out. They think the whole land belongs to them. They try to make the country look like a democracy but the practice is very different. Will we be allowed back? As long as Israel is a Jewish state, there is no chance it will allow the refugees back."