29th October 2004
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation. It has been shocking to witness what Israeli colonialism has done to the land of the West Bank yet inspiring to see what it has not been able to do to the people. The land: divided, exploited, exhausted, tortured. The people: imprisoned and controlled yet united, defiant and beyond control.
What has to a large degree been more shocking and difficult to witness is the occupation of Palestine '48. The Arab character of Palestine '48 has been completely erased, replaced. The streets, buildings, people and lifestyle are mostly European. In some areas there was not one trace of a Palestinian people or history, very similar to Sydney and the sacred Aboriginal land that lies just beneath the concrete paths and buildings there. Everywhere I looked there were basketball courts, soccer fields, McDonalds, Burger King, skyscrapers - everything but Palestine.
And then we reached Yaffa. Beautiful ancient Yaffa on the coast of Palestine. The old Palestinian homes there are used as Israeli cafes, restaurants or nightclubs. The fliers advertising these places don't even hide the fact that these homes are occupied "an old Arab (never Palestinian) home has been converted into one of Jaffa's finest restaurants." I stood on the beach and thought about all of my friends from Yaffa who mostly live in refugee camps and I prayed for their return. I cried and screamed inside that they couldn't be here watching the sun set behind the sea on this first day of Ramadan. Israelis swim and shop while Palestinians are trapped behind concrete camp walls. I felt like exploding.
From Yaffa we drove up to Acre where we spent one night. Acre has a large Palestinian population however it is still scarred by European-Jewish colonialism. The area is beautiful yet it is dressed up with the bright colours and neon lights of commercialism. When Jewish Israel was created most of Palestine '48 was razed to the ground except for the large, strong and attractive buildings. The newly arrived colonialists were quick to use them for profit or leisure. For me to stand there and watch how they have been exploited was to feel dispossessed all over again.
In the morning we made our way up towards the north of Palestine to visit my village and the nearby town of Safad, the town of a sister living in Australia who too has been dispossessed. The drive up was the most breathtaking experience I have ever had. The untouched nature was beyond anything I had imagined. I didn't realise that I came from such a beautiful part of the world. It somehow hurt more because it was so beautiful. In Safad I stood on a hilltop and thought about Salwa. I thought about her family and filled a bottle with soil for a Palestinian father buried far from home.
From Safad we began making our way to Safsaf. It was in the refugee camps in Lebanon, before even coming to Palestine, that I realised that I had already seen the most important part of my village - its people. Most of the people from Safsaf live in Ain El Helweh refugee camp in Lebanon where the camps are divided up into areas which get their name from the people who live there. When I walked through the alleys of Safsaf in Ain El Helweh I knew that a very big part of me and my history lives within those walls. My cousins and other people from Safsaf asked me to bring them some soil from the grounds of our village and to film it so that we can watch it together during a Safsaf gathering when I return to Lebanon.
I felt angry and somehow guilty that I was able to visit Safsaf and they were not. I remembered photos that my relatives showed me of themselves at the Lebanon/Palestine border standing there with Palestine behind them - the closest they can get. Safsaf can actually be seen from the Lebanese border.
During the drive up I began to recall stories that my father had told me about the day they fled Safsaf. In October 1948 the men of the village fought to protect the lands and people of Safsaf. My father, who was nine at the time, remembered the day when his father returned home after weeks of fighting. His gun had melted and he no longer had the means to fight. The men of the village were insufficiently armed and outnumbered so they decided to gather their families and seek refuge in Lebanon until the situation calmed and they could return after what they believed would only be a few months.
On the 29th October 1948, Safsaf fell. On that day almost half of the 250 villagers were massacred, ten of whom were from my family. Many of the young men were lined up against the wall and shot down in front of their mothers. Those that were able to get away fled to Lebanon and have been dispossessed ever since, living in a refugee camp that is only three hours drive away. Safsaf is one of over 500 localities that were ethnically cleansed and destroyed in 1948-49, each with a history and a story that has been buried for over half a century.
The only reference point that we had to find Safsaf was an Israeli area called Sifsufa (its not just the lands that were stolen, but even the names), which was built by the Jewish Agency in 1949 beside the lands of Safsaf. The only way to find Sifsufa was by using an Israeli map which had all the names of the Jewish areas that had replaced Palestinian ones.
When we arrived in Safsaf I felt a rush through my body. The village is surrounded by beautiful green hills with tall Safsaf trees - the trees that give the village its name. Only three buildings still stand there, half demolished from the attack in 1948 which destroyed everything else in the village. Humbled by the beauty, history and sacrifice of the place I got down on my knees and cried into the earth and into the stones of the buildings.
One of the buildings was being used as a change room and bath for a sports team. Dirty clothes were thrown on the grounds of one room and a dirty bath in another. Each of the buildings had been spray-painted with Hebrew words that I cared not to understand. While standing there a few Israelis walked over to the area and began walking through the unused building. "What are you doing here?" I asked.
"What are you doing here?" they asked me.
"What am I doing here? I come from here. This is my village".
What they were doing there was turning one of the buildings into a restaurant.
"But these are Palestinian homes!"
"No definitely. My father was born here, my grandfather and great-grandfather, all born here. These are our homes".
"Maybe," and with that he walked away to examine the building.
I felt so frustrated and powerless at the same time. They walked around the building right before my very eyes in total disregard for what I had just told them. I shouldn't have been shocked, they have been doing this since 1948 - taking what's not theirs with full knowledge of who it belongs to.
I wanted to speak to my father and let him know where I was. I called him and heard his loud voice turn soft. When I heard that he was holding back tears I began to cry. He told me "Baba why are you crying? Haven't I always told you that we will be back one day? That it's not over?"
"Of course you did Baba. Of course you did."
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An incident in Ramallah
2 September 2004
Last night I was sitting in a bar in Ramallah having a drink with a friend that I met here. He too had only been here for less than two weeks. It was a nice atmosphere and we were both talking about the western media and its lack of real reporting. We agreed that no article we had read, or documentary we had watched, accurately portrayed the situation here.
And then, in the midst of good conversation and drinks, a bomb exploded just outside. It was the first time Charlie or I had heard or experienced anything like this.
We quickly got away from the window and got down low. People in the bar told us that it was just a sound bomb and tear gas. But nothing they said could stop my heart racing. I was terrified.
The street was then surrounded by four Israeli army jeeps. The boys of Ramallah were also quick to gather themselves. Armed with stones, they were ready. A "battle" than ensued between the Israelis in their heavily armored jeeps and hi-tech weapons, and some twenty or thirty boys armed with stones and anger.
We watched from the verandah. I was surprised how quickly my fear disappeared and turned into anger. Just like that, at 10 p.m., the Israelis can storm into any area they want and terrorise the people of the town.
And the boys … the same boys that were hanging out on the street a minute before! The same boys that tried to chat up my friend Tala and I when we walked past them. The same boys that were just as annoying as teenage boys everywhere. There they were, face to face with an Israeli jeep.
The clothes they were wearing were surely something they wouldn't have worn had they known they would be throwing stones at an Israeli jeep. Polished shoes, nice pants or jeans, a smart shirt, hair slicked back. But there they were, face to face with an Israeli jeep and they were no longer the annoying teenage boys trying to chat girls up or doing any of the things that teenage boys do. They were throwing stones for not being allowed to be teenage boys; stones for all the restrictions imposed on them; stones for the settlements the Israelis are building around Ramallah; stones for all the checkpoints they have to pass; stones for the prisoners on hunger strike.
Trapped in the bar that was now completely surrounded, I stood on the verandah like a mother – or grandmother – yelling at the boys to be more careful.
With a strength that can only be the result of years of oppression they moved closer and closer to the jeep. The Israelis, with the cowardice that can only be the result of years of being occupiers, began to shoot rubber-coated steel bullets into the crowd, the same rubber-coated steel bullets that have killed many of our boys.
I didn't want to witness one of our boys get killed. Ultimately that is exactly what Israel wants – to reduce the number of Palestinians here, either through killing them, or through forced expulsion, or by making life so impossible that people leave voluntarily. Israel has been trying to destroy people internally, to break the spirit of Palestinians, to break that stubborn refusal to die, refusal to leave, and refusal to submit to Israel's colonial plans for the rest of Palestine.
One of the waiters was concerned for those of us standing on the verandah. We were asked to go back inside – including the guy worried about his car that was parked in between the Israeli soldiers and our boys.
Half an hour later we heard some whistling and chanting. The boys were celebrating. They had managed to drive the Israelis out of their town.
© Rihab Charida 2004.
Also by Rihab Charida: Dispossessed all over again
عودة إلى الصفحة الأصلية