January 9, 2010

Take me back to my homeland, even as a rose

Today in Israel, a center for culture and science, medicine and high tech, religious revival and literature, famous nature reserves and gorgeous beaches, I learned how to step across coils of barbed wire.  It is critical to walk cautiously, to place your foot firmly at the intersection of several coils simultaneously to avoid the spring-like action in the wire, or the grip of the rows of sharp knife points, waiting like shark’s teeth for a hapless victim. As you move forward, you must lift your foot slowly to avoid catching the back of your leg or ensnaring the person behind you when the coils spring into place.  This is not the kind of skill that makes me particularly proud to be a Jew, but I am getting ahead of myself because I neglected to explain that the large curls of wire were placed around a mosque in El Ghabsiya, just south of the Lebanese border in northern Israel.

But why, you ask, does a mosque need to be wrapped in barbed wire?

I have just taken the train from Tel Aviv to Nahariya to meet with two attorneys, Wakeem Wakeem and his brother Salim, their father Elias, and colleagues Dahoud Badr and Suhail Miari. In Wakeem’s office just beyond the train station there is a poster with the caption: “Take me back to my homeland, even as a rose.” And so the story begins. These men, all Israeli citizens, work with groups including the Arab Association for Human Rights in Nazareth and the Association for Defense of the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons in Israel and I am here to document some of their story.

As we drive through the area, they point out various Jewish towns and cities, such as Shelomi and Shlumit, as well as Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948.  They point to a crumbling mosque and palm tree, formerly the Arab village of Zeeb.  The mosque has been closed since the war, but the local Jewish population uses the land adjacent to the mosque for festivals, parties, alcohol is served, and as one man explains, this feels like a deliberate desecration, “It hurts the feelings.”

I am well aware that during war, many ugly events occur, but there is a painful personal reality to the stories that I am told. The older man, Elias, explains that in 1948, the town of Al Bassa contained 3000 people, 2/3 Christian, 1/3 Muslim, and was a famous village and transit point on the border with Lebanon, for people and goods. “In 1948 we thought we can give up to make agreement with the Israelis to enter the village peacefully and we also thought to them, we can give up our weapons.” Agreements were made and broken, collaborators misled the villagers, and in May, soldiers attacked, leaving only the northern border open so most of the villagers fled to Lebanon. During further negotiations, Elias reports the Palestinians were told, “We ask the Jewish settlers why you attack us and they said ‘We want the land without the people.'” The Palestinians became further victimized in Lebanon and have endured generations of suffering, with the the Christians moving to the Rashidia Refugee camp, the Muslims to the Dbaya Refugee Camp.

Elias tried to return three times because his mother and aunt had fled to Nazaria. “I ask the Israeli authorities when they arrest me [for the third time], will you give me my mother and aunt or give me permission to stay here?”  He was granted permission “on humanitarian grounds,” married in 1952, moved to nearby Miilyia, and had eight children. We drive to the sight of Al Bassa and I expect to see fragments of ruins and clusters of spiky saber cactus, but the area is completely built up with industry and the local kibbutz has confiscated large tracts of farmland. What is left is a crumbling neglected church,  a Christian cemetery, also poorly maintained, family crypts with gaping holes, fragments of bones visible, a mosque surrounded by barbed wire and tall white metal fencing, also in disrepair, and a neglected Moslem cemetery. For years the mosque was not closed and the Jewish Israelis used the building for goats, cows, and sheep.  It seems that one sheep has found its way into the grassy area beside the mosque and blankly stares at us as we peek over the fencing.  Despite multiple legal and political efforts, the Israeli authorities have forbidden the local residents to maintain or to use any of these facilities.  It seems that even the dead cannot escape the consequences of the Nakba.

We are now standing in front of the mosque from the town of El Ghabsiya where I have just had an intimate acquaintance with the perils of barbed wire. Daoud Bader explains that the story of the town of El Ghabsiya is slightly more complicated and has become a symbol of the failure of justice for Palestinians living in Israel. He speaks deliberately with a quiet passion, I am afraid he will start to weep. In 1948, the village had 700 inhabitants and a prominent town leader made an signed agreement with the Haganah that they would cooperate in exchange for a promise not to attack. In May 1948, the Jewish forces entered the village and as the soldiers approached, Daoud Zaini climbed to the roof of the mosque waving a white flag. The Jewish soldiers shot him dead and killed eleven other residents despite the lack of any resistance. The inhabitants fled, not even having time to bury Daoud.

In most cases like this, Palestinians who were expelled from their villages but remained within the borders of the State of Israel were declared “present absentees,” a Kafka-esque category that designates villagers as internal refugees, people and their descendants who were driven from their homes in 1948 and thus considered “absent” when the determinations of land ownership were made by the Israeli authorities.  Often present absentees who are Israeli citizens live a few miles from their original homes and farm lands which are now state land and made available only for Jews.

Unlike most internally displaced Palestinians, the residents of El Ghabsiya were allowed to return less than 12 months later. In August 1951, Prime Minister Ben Gurion declared the village a closed military zone and the residents were expelled for a second time. For six years the residents fought to return through protests and legal petitions in the Israeli courts. In November 1951 the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the residents had a right to return to their village. As the residents prepared to enter their town, they were met by Israeli military forces who refused to honor the Court ruling.  In 1955 and 1956, Israeli bulldozers leveled the town, leaving only the mosque standing. In 1995 former residents of El Ghabsiya began weekly efforts to pray in the long neglected mosque. The Israeli Land Authority responded  by sealing the windows and doors, erecting a two meter high barbed wire fence, and finally a metal wall.

Today various parts of the metal sheets lean at odd angles and with a bit of chutpah and caution it is possible to penetrate the barbed wire and enter the ruins of the mosque, crumbling stones, trees growing in the courtyard, the school dark and filled with rubble. Treading along the top wall, we look out on the former village, now lush green trees, and beyond we can see the farmlands claimed by the local kibbutzim.

For me, there are so many upsetting aspects to this fragment of Israeli history, the first being the utter lack of respect for religious institutions and cemeteries that are not Jewish.  I can only imagine the international uproar that would occur if I was describing a synagogue or a Jewish cemetery. And then I am constantly appalled by the underlying racism that is such a prominent feature of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.  Lastly, I suspect that Israeli authorities are fearful that if internally displaced refugees are allowed their “right of return” this will open the flood gates to Palestinian refugees everywhere. I am impressed as I talk with these men that while they have moved on, become well educated, well traveled, and lived full and challenging lives, they remain dedicated to their commitment to their right of return. But they are also extremely reasonable and practical.

First they are working to have access and control over their religious institutions and cemeteries, surely this is the mark of a tolerant and democratic society, a standard to which Israelis publicly aspire. Secondly as the land of El Ghabsiya is now forest, they want the right to rebuild their village on land that is not inhabited, seemingly not an unreasonable request.  But this is the point where the tortured Israeli land policies, the long history of deception and dispossession, and the inherent contradictions of building a state for Jews when 20% of the population are Palestinians become painfully obvious.

I wonder, perhaps, if this is the place to start a new chapter for these decent and resilient Israeli citizens.

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