Clutching a rumpled package wrapped in a shopping bag, Ali Basyuni carefully peels back the layers of plastic and paper to reveal a heavy scroll of faded documents – the deeds to his family home in Yazur, a small village that once lay five kilometers east of Jaffa, Israel. The deeds date back over 120 years, through the Ottoman era and the British Mandate, but the Basyuni family’s history in the village can be traced back even further. The family had lived on the land for centuries. Somewhat ruefully, Ali sifts through the papers to find the crowning glory: the ancient key to his home in Yazur. He places it around his neck. Since the implementation of Israel’s Absentee Property Law of 1950, a law that legalized the annexation of over two million dunums of land belonging to Palestinians who fled during al-nakba (the catastrophe), the artifacts of Ali’s childhood home have become mere emblems of a promise: the Palestinian right of return.
This year marks the 62nd year since Israel claimed its independence from the British Mandate and then proceeded to drive out Palestinians from over 550 villages, giving violent birth to a refugee population of 900,000 exiles. As the refugee question fades from public focus, May 15, Nakba Day, affords the world a day of reflection on the horrors of an all-too-recent past and a reminder that for many, the international law laid out in UN Resolution 194 of 1948 (on which the Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return is based) embodies far more than political rhetoric. It is an international law proclaiming their legal right to return home.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has registered 1,685,810 Palestinian refugees within Israel and the Occupied Territories – 699,810 in the West Bank including East Jerusalem and 986,000 in the Gaza Strip. The Oslo accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority in 1994 marked a turning point in the struggle as Palestine embraced the possibility of becoming a self-governing state. This new potential for statehood, however, shifted the focus of the political discourse away from several formerly fundamental points – including the status of refugees. With no political body to represent the refugee population or address their basic rights of repatriation or resettlement, their struggle has become little more than symbolism.
In Balata Refugee Camp in Nablus (occupied West Bank), Palestinian hopes are still pinned on a doubtful future. Time is plentiful in the camp. So plentiful it may weigh heavy on one’s soul. There is time enough to reopen one’s box of memories, time and time again. Memories of a life in limbo, examined from every angle, stories retold and rehashed for anyone who cares enough to ask. Tonight four refugees have gathered in the camp’s community center; their stories spill out across the table. Their words carry them across decades, across fields of olive green, riotous splashes of Med-blue and citrus orange. The four storytellers, whose ages span from 11 to 73, represent the full era of Israeli occupation to date, from first to fourth generations. Assembled here, they knit together a single image of the Palestinian condition.
At 70 years of age, Ali has the dubious honor of recalling the full 62 years of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Ali has lived most of his life in the Ein Beit el Ma refugee camp in Nablus, but he never passes up an opportunity to revisit his childhood memories of Yazur village, from which he and his family fled in 1948 during al-nakba when he was a young boy.
“We were simple people, farmers,” Ali recalls. “Everyone knew each other in the village, and we worked together as one. My family’s home was two kilometers from the sea, and there on our land we grew oranges, apples, vegetables – everything that we needed.”
It was after the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British government’s first formal policy announcement of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, that Jews first came to the area of Yazur. “There was a Jewish village established five kilometers from ours,” says Ali. “In the beginning we lived in harmony; we would even drink tea together and share our food with them.”
“I remember how things changed after the war, when the Jews began coming to the village at night with British soldiers in 1946,” says Ali. “They came with guns and invaded our homes – like terrorists. My family lived in Yazur from before the Ottoman Empire. We lived under the Turks, the British, only to flee when the Israelis came.”
The villagers stayed their ground through years of escalating violent attacks until 1948. On April 29 that year, Jewish and British forces shot and killed two men from the village. Another four were killed the next night. The villagers began fleeing Yazur two days later, believing they would return home after one week when the violence had been quelled.
“We fled to Lydda [a city south-east of Yazur, renamed Lod] on May 1,” recalls Ali. “Many of us slept in the mosque there, while other families slept in the street. After a month the Jewish militias attacked Lydda with British forces, and my father was arrested by British soldiers. He was held for nine months. My mother, brothers, sisters and I fled to al-Ramle [now known as Ramla], but after only a week we heard the soldiers were coming there too and we fled to Deir Ghassana, a little village near Ramallah. It took three days to reach Deir Ghassana by foot, sleeping in the olive groves at night.”
It was not until 1952 – four years later – that Ali’s family reached Nablus, where they first settled on the slopes of Mount Gerizim, living among the trees and making the daily two-kilometer hike to the nearest well for water. They were soon found by United Nations employees and brought to Refugee Camp No. 1 (later called Ein Beit el Ma Camp, or “Spring of the House of Water”). Located on the outskirts of Nablus, this camp was founded on a tiny portion of land – just one twentieth of one square kilometer – leased to UNRWA by the Jordanian government in 1950. The living conditions were extremely harsh. Seven people crowded into one tent that failed to protect them from the torrential rains of the winter and soaring temperatures of the summer. The lack of food made the struggle to survive even more pronounced. UNRWA did not begin issuing food to the refugees of Ein Beit el-Ma until some six months after Ali’s arrival.
Before the days of the First Intifada (or “shaking off”), Ali was able to return to the remains of his village hundreds of times, simply to visit the land he still holds claim to and to reflect on what might have been. “My home is still standing,” he says. “The first time I went back there, I knocked on the door of my house. A man opened the door, and asked me what I wanted. I told him that the land he is living on belongs to me. He told me that he left his land in Europe to come here – and now he owns the land.”
“The truth is that even if Israel returned every dunum of land to me I could not be happy – they’ve taken not only my land, but my life.”
Zugdiye Ahmad Soleman Ekhdish is a stately woman who has witnessed and weathered much in her 73 years in Palestine. Her words weave worlds of the past: her childhood in Ijzim village, 19 kilometers south of Haifa, where her family grew olive trees, pomegranates and chickpeas. Zugdiye was 11 years old when the Jewish militias of the Golani, Carmeli and Alexandroni brigades came to her village on the night of July 24, 1948, forcing the residents out of their homes at gunpoint and onto buses that would transfer Ijzim’s entire population to Jenin.
“We left with nothing,” says Zugdiye, recalling the night that the ethnic cleansing of Ijzim took place. “My mother, father, four brothers and sisters and I, we left with only the clothes on our back. My family stayed in Jenin for two months, although many people from Ijzim fled further: to Iraq, Jordan or Syria. When I was married in 1960 my husband and I came to live here, in Balata Refugee Camp. We came because we thought registering as refugees and living in a camp might give us a better life. All we wanted was to return to our village, and we thought that UNRWA would be able to help us do that.”
From the very beginning, Palestinian refugees have held a unique status. In 1948 the United Nations established a body, UNRWA, specifically to address the Palestinian refugee crisis. A 1951 UNRWA report shows that from the start, the goal for displaced Palestinian refugees was resettlement or repatriation since “sustained relief operations inevitably contain the germ of human deterioration.” However, the political situation complicated this goal. Caught between an uncooperative Jordanian government and Israel’s priority of mass absorption of new Jewish citizens from Europe and the Middle East, the refugees’ status was deadlocked. Denied resettlement or repatriation, exiled Palestinians were left in camps intended for short term relief, unable to move forward with their lives.
In 1975 Zugdiye made the journey from the West Bank to Israel to visit what remained of her village. “I fell to the ground and prayed on the land,” she says. “I picked pomegranates from the trees, and took a stone to bring back with me to the camp. I saw my house still standing. Jews live there now.”
Conditions in the cramped houses and narrow alleys of Balata camp, coupled with the extreme violence inflicted upon the camp during the Intifadas, signify Zugdiye’s life, a life lived far from the fresh air and olive fields of Ijzim. During a 1992 invasion, the elderly woman was hit in the stomach by a rubber-coated steel bullet; she has seen both her sons imprisoned in Israel’s jails, the elder, Khaldi, being sentenced to 20 years.
Lana Ali Salih, 11, and her sister Duho, 14, represent Palestine’s fourth generation of UNRWA refugees: those who not only do not remember the Nakba, but have never seen their family’s home or life outside of the camps. “We live in Balata refugee camp in Nablus, but we are originally from Salama, a village near Jaffa,” says Lana. Salama was ethnically cleansed of its 8,000-strong population on April 25, 1948. Ten of Salama’s original homes and one mosque remain standing today, surrounded by what is modern-day Tel Aviv.
The two girls recall the days of camp life during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, of days and weeks spent inside their home during times of violence in the camp. Lana and Duho’s uncle, Hani Rami, was killed by Israeli soldiers in 2008. “We don’t know why they killed him. He was praying in his home [in the camp],” says Duho. “He was 24 years old.”
The young sisters’ proud assertion of refugee status highlights the inherited stalemate mentality of a Palestinian refugee. However unconscious the assumption of refugee identity may be, it delineates a clear line for those who hold it, bound to a past that, like all pasts, is unattainable in essence. But how is the refugee’s struggle kept alive when they identify themselves not with the exiled nation – Palestine – but as refugees?
“I believe that we will return to Salama someday,” says Lana. Zugdiye nods her head approvingly. “We’re not happy here,” she says matter-of-factly. “I would be happy to live in Ijzim in a tent, as long as I was on my land. The world must have a solution for the refugee problem. This is our land, it belongs to us.”
Bridget Chappell has been working with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank since August 2009. She is 22 years old and is from Australia on paper and Palestine at heart.