I belong to the last generation who lived and enjoyed Palestine before 1948. I was born in Jaffa in 1933 and lived in several Palestinian cities: Ramleh, Safad, Nazareth, Nablus and Jerusalem. I have fond memories of the times I spent swimming in the sea of Jaffa and Lake Tiberias. Although I always dreamed of returning to those areas that we were dispossessed of, I did not imagine that this would come in the shadow of a second Nakba (catastrophe) called Naksa (setback) in 1967. We actually did return to the land, but it was not really a return. It was a visit within a new stage of an ongoing Nakba up till this day.
I remember how sad I felt when we visited the sea of Jaffa, which we had been deprived of for the last 19 years. The scene looked so strange, and the language was not familiar that I found myself crying non-stop. I experienced the same pain during my visits to our home in Jerusalem and my grandfather’s house in Jaffa. We the owners of the house, were now strangers in our own house, occupied now by strangers.
When the Nakba took place we were living in Upper Baka’a in Jerusalem. Tension had started mounting due to the many Jewish terrorist attacks against the British Mandate and the Palestinians. One of the first of those attacks was the bombing of the British Mandate Secretariat’s wing of the King David Hotel on 22 July 1946 by the Irgun group, led by Menachem Begin. Although the bombing was directed mainly at the British government, it killed eighty people – half of them were Arabs.
I was still in the boarding section at Birzeit College, (a high school at the time,) and I did not realize that the Christmas break of 1947 would be the last we would spend in Jerusalem. That holiday that we were looking forward to after a long and tedious term, came to an end with the killing of 11 members of the Lorenzo and Abu Suwan families in the bombing of the Samiramis hotel in the Qatamoun quarter in Jerusalem, by the Haganah Jewish terrorists.
As unrest was mounting in 1948 in most of the Palestinian areas, the Birzeit college administration decided to end the school year earlier than usual. In the meantime, the Palestinian commander Abdul Qadir al-Husseini head of ‘Al-Jihad Al-Muqaddas’ army set up his headquarters in Birzeit. The entire town rallied to support his initiative, and many young people joined that army despite its limited resources. We, the female students, participated in the effort by knitting sweaters for those young men.
The high school graduation ceremony was to be held in late April 1948 under the patronage of Commander Abdul Qadir al-Husseini. But he was martyred in the Battle of Qastal on the April 8, so his deputy Emile Ghouri distributed the diplomas on April 30. However the loss of Abdel Qadir was enormous and the feeling of sadness enveloped the whole area. On the next day of that battle and on the April 9, the Deir Yaseen Massacre took place at the hands of the Stern and Irgun Jewish terrorist groups. Almost one hundred were killed, mostly women and children.
This massacre was a major factor in the exodus of Jerusalemites. The Zionist groups went around the residential quarters of Jerusalem in open tanks with some of the survivors of Deir Yaseen, urging Palestinians via loud speakers to leave immediately otherwise their fate will be like those of Deir Yaseen. As a result of this threat, people were terrified and started leaving their homes in Jerusalem. We in Birzeit received four families of our relatives who stayed with us for several months until they realized that leaving their homes did not seem like a short visit or ‘a picnic’ as some had thought, but a permanent situation.
Jaffa fell into the hands of the Zionists on April 30, and our relatives left the city on boats heading for Beirut or Alexandria. From then on the suffering of the Palestinian people started with their being alienated from their homeland.
Welcoming The Ramleh and Lydda People
One of the sad events of the summer of 1948 was the forced eviction of the people of Ramleh and Lydda who arrived in Birzeit on July 13. I was sitting on the balcony, immersed in reading a book, when all of a sudden I saw droves of people coming through the Jaffa Birzeit Road. I left the book aside, and ran out with the rest of the family to receive them. One of them told us how the Zionist forces evicted them from their homes at gunpoint. They robbed their money as well as all the jewelry that the women were wearing or carrying.
Those people were absolutely exhausted after a very long walk on such a hot day. One woman seemed to have had a sunstroke and was delirious. We heard so many stories that would make ‘one’s hair turn grey.’ One woman had her son snatched out of her arms by the Zionist forces, while another picked up the pillow instead of her child, yet another could not get back to the house where her young daughter was waiting for her after she had gone out for an errand.
My aunt, Nabiha Nasser who was the school principal, ordered us to help the kitchen staff to provide food and water to those exhausted people. The churches and mosques opened their doors to provide them with shelter. And one of the school buildings, which was vacant, was also used as a shelter, while many people found sanctuary under the many olive trees in Birzeit, until the Red Cross provided them with tents.
We hosted a Swiss nurse, and I often accompanied her during her visits to those refugees to find out how they were doing and what their needs were. Eventually the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was established in December 1949 as a temporary organization for the relief of the Palestinian Refugees. The Agency began distributing food, and some societies and religious institutions provided blankets and clothes for children.
And here I recall the words of martyr poet Kamal Nasser who was in Birzeit when those refugees came “My brother, the refugee! They offered us poison with our food and we ended up like a dumb flock of sheep” UNRWA would have served those refugees much better had they insisted on the implementation of UN resolutions, calling for the return of the refugees to their homes, and be able to live in dignity and security.
The War Of June 1967
When the June 1967 war began, my father called to urge me to go to Birzeit, thinking that it would be safer there than in our house in Beit Hanina, which was located near a Jordanian army camp. There and then I recalled the 1948 Nakba and was worried that I would not be able to return to my home.
However my husband insisted that I go with the children while he stayed at home. But soon after, he realized that the Jordanian army camp had already been evacuated. Almost overnight, the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Sinai fell under Israeli control, and we faced a new reality and new restrictions. Once again, the United Nations failed to implement Security Council resolution 242 adopted unanimously on November 22, 1967, which called for the withdrawal of Israel from the occupied territories.
With the support of the United States, Israel has been able to violate all UN resolutions, as well as international law with impunity. It has annexed East Jerusalem, established Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, and it continues to deny access to Jerusalem to Palestinians residing outside Jerusalem. Thousands of Palestinians continue to be detained in Israeli jails -including around 350 children.
The Nakba Goes On. Is There Hope?
Without hope, we would not have survived all those years, and we would not have established our various educational, health, cultural and social institutions which have contributed to the steadfastness of our people. We cannot lose hope because our cause is a just cause, and our right of return is both a collective right and an individual right. Therefore, we cannot abandon Palestine – the cause, the dream and the homeland. As the saying goes, “No right will be lost as long as there is some one continuously demanding that right.”
Reflections from Palestine: A Journey of Hope
Rimal Publications, 2014, 240 pages, $20.00
Samia Nasir Khoury is a community volunteer who served as national president of the YWCA in Palestine, and as President of the Rawdet El-Zuhur School in Jerusalem. She is a founding member of the board of trustees of Birzeit University and Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Centre, earning recognition from local NGOs and a citation of merit award from Southwestern University from which she graduated with a BA in 1954. Samia lives in Jerusalem and was married to the late Yousef Khoury.
Several books appear on the shelves every month on Palestinian issues. Very few of them are actually written from within Palestine, and Palestinians write even fewer. Of course, you can never judge a book by its writer, but it is high time for Palestinian writers to fill the gaps and produce narratives of their own.
The book is based on the reflections that she wrote throughout her life, as she served community and educational institutions. She starts the book with the overnight reality of the 1967 war. A family wedding took place one day and the occupation on the next. She talks about the bittersweet experience of seeing Palestinian houses inside the areas occupied in 1948, and she speaks of her visits to the seashores of Jaffa where she was born.
Some of Samia’s stories are personal, like the deportation of her brother, the imprisonment of her son, and the assassination of her cousin. But she also tells the shared Palestinian stories of marriage, faith, resistance, funerals, weddings, food, family and children. It is astonishing how in being so personal, she manages to be so collective. Again and again, as I was reading through the stories, I found myself having to put the book aside and reflect on my own story and my own experience.
Although many of the Palestinian stories are those of anger, sadness and despair, the strength of Samia’s writing lies in how she describes those difficult situations. She lifts the reader up with stories of joy and success, never losing faith, dignity, or her sense of humour.
This book is a comprehensive diary of Palestinian life over the last 40 years. As she writes the early days of the first Intifada, she vividly describes the solidarity among the people, contrasting it with the the hopelessness that we feel these days with the fragmentation of Palestinians into two separate entities in the West Bank and Gaza.
“This book is an inspiration from the occupation, I assure you”, Samia writes. She takes us back to the euphoria of peace following the signing of Oslo accords and writes that the image of children throwing roses at the tanks instead of stones was a strange sign of hope, prospect for peace.
I recommend this book to all those who are interested in studying the first and the last victim of occupation, namely normal life, because under occupation anything can happen at any time. It is like “you get up on the right foot, you don’t know if the other foot is going to follow.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Tanya knew that Palestine was her symbolic homeland. Always curious about her identity and connecting with her roots, she was eager to strengthen her ties to the Levant and traveled the region, desperate to learn more. It wasn’t until her first trip to Palestine that she became spiritually and emotionally connected.
She studied Political Science and Sociology at the University of Toronto. She then moved to the UAE, supporting numerous NGOs related to children’s welfare in the region. When she had her own family, she created the My Olive Roots platform in the hopes that her children and the Arabs diaspora would have a place to connect, learn and preserve their roots. Tanya enjoys discovering humanist stories and exploring the connection of food and art with culture.