Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Watching Gaza Reminds Us of Our Nakba

2023-12-19    |   

Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: Watching Gaza Reminds Us of Our Nakba

As fate would have it, the children and grandchildren of those forcibly expelled from Palestine in 1948 are witnessing – live on air from the ground in Gaza – stories resembling those their parents and grandparents continuously tell them lest they forget. In one fell swoop, Israel combined all the preceding chapters of killing, victimization, intimidation, forced displacement, and decades-long genocide. This is how some of the Palestinian refugees who were expelled from their homes 75 years ago and then settled in camps in Lebanon see the situation in Gaza. They speak of their memories in Palestine. They were terrorized and brutalized, saw their villages destroyed, and were removed from their land under a promise of return that was never fulfilled but remained ink on paper [ a possible reference to UN resolutions]. Neither the 25 deeds for land in Maghar, Jabal Saad, Hariqa, and Abu al-Shaba that Mahmoud Ismail carries, nor the key that Um Akram al-Jammal’s mother kept for the house from which she was expelled in the village of Shaab, nor the remnants of a pickaxe that Abdulmajid al-Ali’s father long used to farm olive groves in the village of Kuweikat have been of any use.


Mahmoud Ismail, 98, Shatila Camp: Twenty-Five Deeds for Land in Palestine


“I was a child no older than 14. They told us we’d be back in a day or two. Here I am approaching my 90s, and neither have I returned home nor have our homes returned to us,” says Mahmoud Ismail, born in 1934. He carries a small bag with such care that I was quick to inquire about its contents.


“These are 25 deeds for my land in Palestine, in Maghar, Jabal Saad, Hariqa, and Abu al-Shaba,” he responds. “If you went there, I could guide you to the land. I know it by heart – how couldn’t I, when I was carrying wheat, barely, and vetch from it? It’s still there. Land does not move, my girl. Where would it go? It is mine, and these are its papers”.


Mahmoud takes the papers out of the bag and points to the phrases “Government of Palestine” and “Certificate of Registration” atop each one. He lowers his hand to the bottom of the page and reads the date: 17 September 1947. He ponders for a moment and then adds, “You know, our neighbors were Jews and we worked together to make a living. There was no quarrel between us. The day the Jews from abroad came, our neighbors hid in their home”.


Mahmoud sighs, shifts in his seat, and says, “In 1948, I remember it was summertime. The Zionists began encircling the village. They entered the houses and removed us from them. They lined up the women on one end, then men on another, and the elderly and children on another. I remember well that there was a woman in civilian clothing with them. She was standing beside me carrying a weapon and speaking Arabic. I asked her where they would take us, and she said to King Abdullah. I didn’t know who he was, so she told me we would go to Jordan”.


Mahmoud tells how the armed Zionists took some of the men to prison and killed others right before the eyes of the people in the square. They then asked the people to walk, surrounding them from all sides: “People from the nearby village of Sajur, whom they had also gathered, walked with us. We weren’t allowed to look left or right. They killed a young man walking in front of me right before my eyes. They killed young men from the village in cold blood and removed us from the village through force and intimidation”.


Mahmoud relates how he dragged his younger brother along, how thirsty he was, and how he found a cushion on the road and took it with him. He walked with the women, children, and elderly of his village for two days until they reached the Lebanese border. Before they entered Lebanon, his mother decided to return home: “She told me that she had heard from someone along the way that [the Zionists] had left the village. So, she went back to protect the house and left us to enter Lebanon with my father, who had hidden and then found us along the way, in the hope that we would return to her”.


Mahmoud and his family did not return to his mother; rather, she returned to them two weeks after they entered the Lebanese village of Rmaich. She told them that she had found nothing in the house. They had stolen the chickens, cattle, and furniture, and the village was virtually empty.


The family, along with a number of others that had reached Rmaich before them, moved to Bint Jbeil, where they lived in the mosque. They were then relocated to Borj el-Chemali in Tyre.


“In Borj el-Chemali, they gave us a tent. Next, they moved us to buildings in Anjar allocated to Armenians who had been displaced like us. Then they moved us to al-Bared and then to Tel al-Zaatar, and then we settled in Shatila camp,” says Mahmoud as he puts the papers back in the bag. He adds, “I want to get them bound. If only we hadn’t left our village. My cousins stayed there, but not in the village itself. [The Zionists] destroyed it completely and expelled them to another area so that they couldn’t benefit from their source of livelihood. They don’t want any evidence, my girl, but these papers exist – here you go, Netanyahu”.


Abdulmajid al-Ali, 87, Bourj el-Barajneh Camp: I  Have My Father’s Pickaxe and a Stone That Once Supported Our Home


Unlike Mahmoud Ismail, Abdulmajid al-Ali does not carry papers proving his ownership of his house in Palestine. Rather, he keeps in his closet the remains of his father’s pickaxe and one of the gravel stones that underpinned the foundations of his home, which he brought from the village of Kuweikat, Acre district. He returned to the village – albeit as a visitor – 46 years ago, 29 years after he was expelled. Besides the stone and pickaxe, he displays in his room a picture of him and his cousins taken in Palestine.


When I enter his home in Borj el-Chemali camp, Abdulmajid, born in 1936, takes out a small notebook and begins asking about my full name, place of work, and hometown, all the while jotting down the information. Before I can ask why, he answers, “In this notebook, I record every interview I do. It comforts me to talk about Palestine, from which we were expelled. It’s the least I can do”.


Abdulmajid treats this notebook as a document that will tell the story of his exodus from Palestine should he no longer be able to do so himself. He has told this story to his 103 grandchildren, on TV screens, and in newspapers – all of which are documented in his notebook.


He sits in his room following the news of Gaza. As he watches the men, women, and children carrying belongings and marching en masse from the north to the south, he remembers when he was a child holding onto his mother’s dress as they joined all the people leaving their town on foot.


“We were under the British Mandate. I was a 12-year-old child, a student at al-Maarif School. They said, there’s no school today, Britain will withdraw, and war is on the doorstep,” says Abdulmajid.


Young Abdulmajid asked, “With whom will the war be? Or between whom?” As Palestinians, they were prohibited from carrying arms, and anyone caught with a knife was punished. On 22 May 1948, he recalls, battles began in Jaffa and the people of his village began to hear artillery and machine guns. News that the Jews had occupied Haifa, were heading for Acre, and were closing in on the village began to arrive. The two mayors met and agreed to evacuate the women and children and have the men stay to defend the village.


Abdulmajid left with his mother. He held on tightly to the edge of her dress, he says, and they headed to the Abu Snan region, close to Kafr Yasif – the site of the school he incorrectly believed he would again attend. Abdulmajid and his mother stayed in Abu Snan for a week awaiting news from the village. Then his cousin arrived with two camels and told them that there would be no return any time soon. Rather, they would head to the town of Abbassieh in Lebanon, where their Lebanese relatives lived.


“My cousin put bedding and our clothes onto a camel. Two of my cousins and I mounted the other camel, which also carried two boxes. Two of my sisters sat in one and my younger cousins in the other, and we treaded to Rmaich,” he says.


In Rmaich, Abdulmajid spent the night with his mother, two sisters, and cousins in a home that took them in. From there, they traveled by pickup truck to Abbassieh. He remembers a distressing incident as they were leaving Rmaich: “A man flagged us down. My uncle got out, and the man said that we had forgotten a young girl who was beside him. My uncle looked at her and said that she wasn’t with us. It turned out that her family had lost her along the way. Terror and fatigue had caused them to forget her”.


While Abdulmajid and his family were waiting to hear that they should return to their homes, his father and uncle caught up with them. The Jews had committed massacres and cleared the villages near theirs, they said.


Abdulmajid and his family remained in Abbassieh for six years, moving from home to home. He then married and moved with his wife to Borj el-Chemali camp, where they lived – as did other refugees – in stone huts with zinc and wooden roofs until they were allowed to build stone houses.


Abdulmajid worked with UNRWA for 20 years. He was lucky, he says, as after traveling to Jordan because UNRWA’s offices were moved there during the Lebanese Civil War, he managed to visit Palestine. The visit came 29 years after he was driven out: “My relatives sent me a permit via one of my colleagues, and I arrived on Palestinian soil on 12 January 1977”.


Weeping, Abdulmajid talks about those moments: “I entered my village. There were no houses there. Everything had been razed. I began thinking of each home: here was my uncle’s house, here was our neighbor’s house, here was the shop. I took a stone from my house and my father’s pickaxe, which I found broken under the rubble. We own the land, and we were the ones who farmed it”.


Um Akram al-Jammal, 87, Borj el-Chemali Camp: I Remember the Darkness of the Well That Saved Me and the Big Fig Tree


“It’s been 75 years, and we have no right to return. Palestinians no longer believe anyone. Should we believe anyone talking about a temporary exodus? We know our case better than everyone else now,” says Um Akram al-Jammal, born in 1936, when we ask her about Gaza. She lowers her head, wipes her tears, and adds, “Killing, genocide, intimidation, displacement, bombing our homes, schools, and mosques – that’s how they’ve been trying to take our land for 75 years, and they haven’t succeeded yet. This is what I tell my grandchildren. I start with 1948 and come all the way to Gaza”.


Hanifa Salih, known as Um Akram,  tells us how she longs to go to her village Shaab, Acre district, during picking season. The women would sing folk songs about picking as they went back and forth along the trail. She adds, “My mother, of course, kept the key to the house. How couldn’t she when she was the one who locked it and worried about our livelihoods?”


From the fig-harvesting trail, Um Akram returns to the day her first expulsion from Palestine began, when she was just 12 years old. “In the summer of 1948,”, she relates, “there was a battle in the al-Birwa region near my village, Shaab. The people of the area were driven out. Next, the Jews occupied Miar, also near Shaab. Then they entered Shaab atop tanks, and most of the families left the village”.


Um Akram’s family headed to el-Baneh, where her aunts lived. She remained with her invalid grandmother and her 113-year-old grandfather for four months before joining her family in el-Baneh. She did not stay long there as the Zionists returned and entered the village, terrorizing and committing crimes.


“They said, ‘The men are going to prison; women move aside’, and began shooting. They took two men and shot them in front of us to terrify us. They began shooting between the houses. We left the village and headed to Ain Sajur, leaving my grandmother, who couldn’t walk. We went to Hurfeish and then up to Rmaich. They brought the cars and took us to Beit Yahoun,” she explains.


Um Akram tells of the arduous journey, of how they searched for bread and water. The sight most engraved in her memory is that of a childbirth: “A woman delivered her child along the way. Her name was Labiba, and I remember her well. I remember how the child came out, how they severed the umbilical cord with a rock and tied it with thread that the women pulled from their clothing. They wrapped the child in a headscarf and girdle, and we continued on our way”.


From Beit Yahoun, Um Akram, along with her family and the others who left the village, moved to the Tyre camp. “We were 12 per tent. There were empty tents and every family took one tent,” she says.


Eight months after arriving in Tyre, Um Akram returned to Palestine on foot with one of her relatives to take care of her grandmother. She stayed with her grandmother in her home in a climate of terror: “The Zionists were passing between the houses and terrorizing us. We were even afraid to go out to collect wood. The women would take off their shoes when they walked in the streets out of fear of making noise”.


Months later, Um Akram’s aunts returned to Palestine because someone had told them that the Zionists would give expelled Palestinians Israeli identification papers and allow them to return to their homes. Instead, days after they arrived, the Zionists assembled the people in the town square, killed some, and said that they would take those who remained back to Jordan. “Someone took me – a child – and put me down a well. We sat on its edges with the water right below us. I remember that there were perhaps 13 of us. We stayed in the well until morning. We heard the armed men say that there are saboteurs in the well. My heart stopped, but they tossed the bucket down, heard water, and walked away,” she explains.


The following day, Um Akram and those with her returned to Rmaich and then headed to Anjar, where her family had moved, before settling in Borj el-Chemali camp.


Thirty-five years after her displacement, Um Akram returned to her relatives via the International Red Cross after obtaining a visitor’s permit. She stayed there for 42 days, during which she hoped she might die so that she could be buried in her land. She asked her relatives, who had been expelled from their village, to take her to her village and the fig tree that she had memorized. “The houses were no longer there – all demolished. The fig tree persists. It was next to my aunt’s home. My aunt is in Jordan, and the fig tree is here standing. They demolished the homes to wipe out all traces, but we remember the figs and the olives,” she says.


Amina Dahir, 78, Shatila Camp: I Emerged From Under the Rubble Only to Be Displaced Over and Over


Amina Dahir, born in 1945, has never forgotten her mother’s voice as she shouted that Amina was still under the rubble of their house in the town of Deir el-Qasi, Acre district. Whenever she watches the news from Gaza, the sight of Gazan children – some being pulled out from under the ruins of their homes – takes her back to when she was a three-year-old child stuck under the rubble of a house that once was safe.


“Do you know what their excuse was? They wanted to bomb a school inside which they said the [Arab] Liberation Army was hiding. The enemy hasn’t changed,” she says.


She shares details of that day: “I was sitting with my siblings and cousins, and suddenly our home was bombed and part of it destroyed. All those inside emerged, except for my young sister and me. They pulled my sister out dead. The people were marching out of the village, and my mother shouted, ‘My daughter Amina is under the rubble!’, until they pulled me out”.


Amina recalls how her mother carried her sisters – one dead and the other wounded – and asked Amina’s brother to take her to her uncles in Ayta el-Shab, her maternal grandmother’s town. “My mother carried my dead sister on one shoulder and my wounded sister on the other and told us that she would go to Hurfeish to treat the latter. My uncle took my deceased sister and buried her underneath an olive tree beside the house. It was her birthday. She was born, weaned, and killed on the same day, so my mother often said”.


As a child just three years old, Amina arrived in Ayta el-Shaab – the first stop for the displaced – on her brother’s shoulders, only to be displaced dozens of times thereafter. She moved from Ayta el-Shaab to Baalbek, then to Borj el-Chemali, then Deir el-Ahmar, and then Tel al-Zaatar. She and her family left Tel al-Zaatar carrying white flags in a scene that resembles the exodus of Gazans today from the north of the strip to the south. “My father tore up a white sheet and wrapped it onto a stick. We walked, carrying the white flag, and went to Damour. Oh, how many displacements we endured before becoming refugees in Shatila Camp,” she says.

This article is an edited translation from Arabic.

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