Palestinians call it Nakba, “The Catastrophe.” Each year, on May 15, they commemorate Nakba, which began during the 1948 Palestine War when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes and villages as the state of Israel was established on their land. For Palestinians, the violent displacement from their homes was the catastrophe that has lasted 65 years, with no end in sight.
Today, these refugees, along with their descendants, number in the millions and are scattered throughout the world, with most in the Middle East – Jordan, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, and Syria.
The displacement of Palestinians from their homes and land was a catastrophic event both in the way they were displaced and in the way so many have been forced to live at the hands of the Israelis in the blockaded Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.
Many have testified to what happened in the days preceding and following the 1948 War. Here are two statements, one from a Palestinian, another from an Israeli.
In his memoir, Father Audeh Rantisi, who runs an orphanage in Ramallah, remembers the horrendous events when, at age 11, he and his family was brutally driven from their ancestral home by Jews seeking a homeland of their own.
“I cannot forget three horror-filled days in July of 1948. The pain sears my memory, and I cannot rid myself of it no matter how hard I try.
First, Israeli soldiers forced thousands of Palestinians from their homes near the Mediterranean coast, even though some families had lived in the same houses for centuries. (My family had been in the town of Lydda in Palestine at least 1,600 years). Then, without water, we stumbled into the hills and continued for three deadly days. The Jewish soldiers followed, occasionally shooting over our heads to scare us and keep us moving. Terror filled my eleven-year-old mind as I wondered what would happen. I remembered overhearing my father and his friends express alarm about recent massacres by Jewish terrorists. Would they kill us, too?
We did not know what to do, except to follow orders and stumble blindly up the rocky hills. I walked hand in hand with my grandfather, who carried our only remaining possessions-a small tin of sugar and some milk for my aunt’s two-year-old son, sick with typhoid.
The horror began when Zionist soldiers deceived us into leaving our homes, then would not let us go back, driving us through a small gate just outside Lydda. I remember the scene well: thousands of frightened people being herded like cattle through the narrow opening by armed soldiers firing overhead. In front of me a cart wobbled toward the gate. Alongside, a lady struggled, carrying her baby, pressed by the crowd. Suddenly, in the jostling of the throngs, the child fell. The mother shrieked in agony as the cart’s metal-rimmed wheel ran over her baby’s neck. That infant’s death was the most awful sight I had ever seen.
Outside the gate the soldiers stopped us and ordered everyone to throw all valuables onto a blanket. One young man and his wife of six weeks, friends of our family, stood near me. He refused to give up his money. Almost casually, the soldier pulled up his rifle and shot the man. He fell, bleeding and dying while his bride screamed and cried. I felt nauseated and sick, my whole body numbed by shock waves. That night I cried, too, as I tried to sleep alongside thousands on the ground. Would I ever see my home again? Would the soldiers kill my loved ones, too?
Early the next morning we heard more shots and sprang up. A bullet just missed me and killed a donkey nearby. Everybody started running as a stampede. I was terror-stricken when I lost sight of my family, and I frantically searched all day as the crowd moved along.
That second night, after the soldiers let us stop, I wandered among the masses of people, desperately searching and calling. Suddenly in the darkness I heard my father’s voice. I shouted out to him. What joy was in me! I had thought I would never see him again. As he and my mother held me close, I knew I could face whatever was necessary. The next day brought more dreadful experiences. Still branded on my memory is a small child beside the road, sucking the breast of its dead mother. Along the way I saw many stagger and fall. Others lay dead or dying in the scorching midsummer heat. Scores of pregnant women miscarried, and their babies died along the wayside. The wife of my father’s cousin became very thirsty. After a long while she said she could not continue. Soon she slumped down and was dead. Since we could not carry her we wrapped her in cloth, and after praying, just left her beside a tree. I don’t know what happened to her body.
We eventually found a well, but had no way to get water. Some of the men tied a rope around my father’s cousin and lowered him down, then pulled him out, and gave us water squeezed from his clothing. The few drops helped, but thirst still tormented me as I marched along in the shadeless, one-hundred plus degree heat.
We trudged nearly twenty miles up rocky hills, then down into deep valleys, then up again, gradually higher and higher. Finally we found a main road, where some Arabs met us. They took some of us in trucks to Ramallah, ten miles north of Jerusalem. I lived in a refugee tent camp for the next three and one-half years. We later learned that two Jewish families had taken over our family home in Lydda.
Those wretched days and nights in mid-July of 1948 continue as a lifelong nightmare . . .”
The Israeli Minister of Defense during the 1967 War, Moshe Dayan, also spoke of The Catastrophe:
“Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either…There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab Population.” (from Ha’aretz, April 4, 1969)
At the funeral of an Israeli farmer killed by a Palestinian in April, 1956, Moshe Daya said:
“Let us not today fling accusation at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred to us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived…We should demand his blood not from the Arabs of Gaza but from ourselves…Let us make our reckoning today. We are a generation of settlers, and without the steel helmet and gun barrel, we shall not be able to plant a tree or build a house.” (from Avi Shlaim, The Iron Wall, p. 101)
Rosemary Agonito’s latest book is “Miss Lizzie’s War.”