Jonathan Cook is not yet done with our unconventional tour of Nazareth and we soon find ourselves listening to Abu Arab, a dignified 78-year-old man who is part of the Saffuriya Center for Cultural Heritage. Standing in a large room in an otherwise nondescript apartment building, we see rows of relics, clay pots of all sizes, cooking and farming implements, faded dresses. Hind Awwad is translating and we are soon transfixed by his intense story.
In 1948 Saffuriya was a thriving village of 7,000 people, two schools, three mosques, one church, olive presses, around 120,000 dunams of agricultural land, generous amounts of water and a vigorous community of people with prolific crops and animals. On the sixteenth night of Ramadan, the Zionist forces attacked and 80% of the village fled in a haze of terror and bullets. The next day the surrounding villages were occupied. Abu Arab’s family fled and kept walking until they reached Lebanon; picture the frightened children, the hunger, the thirst, the blistered feet, the total loss and fear.
The 800 people who remained were counted after two weeks and received Israeli ID cards. They were told to collect all the remaining furniture and possessions and load them into trucks which drove away with their belongings. After eight months they were told to gather and given 24 hours to leave or be killed. Those who refused to leave were forcibly evacuated. (The most moral army in the world? Jewish soldiers recently victims of the identity cards, dispossession, ghettoes, firing squads of Europe?) The group took their case to the Israeli Supreme Court claiming citizenship type rights related to their possession of Israeli ID cards. The court cancelled the hearing, relied only on the testimony of the Israeli military, and the town was declared a closed military zone for the next 18 years.
Hind is having increasing difficulties translating; the tears are starting to flow and as I look into the faces of our delegates, those who come from Palestine are quietly weeping as well. We are all feeling a tremendous sadness as Abu Arab’s words sink in. He keeps placing his hands over his heart and I wonder if that is where he stores his all too painful memories.
His family stayed in a Lebanese village and after three months, his sister Hazal became ill and died. The whole family was traumatized and his mother stopped functioning and spent her days at her daughter’s grave. I wonder how much loss can a mother tolerate in one lifetime? After ten months, his father talked with their three sons and said they had to leave for Beirut or Palestine or their mother will go crazy. They chose Palestine.
They walked towards the border for one day and two nights, reached an Israeli village where they stayed for six months until they could get Israeli ID cards. I can hear the outrage in Abu Arab’s voice when he comments on Herzl’s famous quote, “A land without a people?.” We are here bearing somber witness to that lie. Abu Arab never finished fifth grade, “Every day we prayed the school would fall down, but when it did, we cried.”
Like many Saffuriyans, his family moved to Nazareth. In 1978 there was an Israeli assault on one of the five cemeteries in Saffuriya and many dunams were destroyed. After a long battle and negotiation, the town’s members and descendants obtained the right to fence in and maintain their historic cemetery. After Oslo, like many former inhabitants of destroyed villages, Saffuriyans joined an Organization for Displaced Villages. They demand their right to return to their village and live in their homes as citizens of the country.
Abu Arab’s face is brown and wrinkled with a thick head of graying hair, a pack of cigarettes sits in his neatly pressed white shirt. In a calm determined voice he explains that real peace depends on the Zionist recognition of their crimes against Palestinians. The victims need to be compensated and refugees inside and outside the country need to have their right of return. Because these issues have been eliminated from the international conversation, “The Zionist mentality has the seeds of its termination?” Peace will come, “If not for us, then our children or our grandchildren.” He explains that he is against Zionists, not Jews, and that he remembers a time when Jews and Palestinians lived together peacefully. He admits 30 Jewish families now live in the village. “They do not have to leave; we want to live with them.”
For 45 years, Abu Arab has had a small shop in old Nazareth and 30 years ago he noticed that people were throwing away things that he felt ought to be saved. He started gathering artifacts and helped start this museum so that his people will remember the villages they came from. He reminds us of Golda Meir’s famous quote in reference to Palestinians, (this is usually also erroneously attributed to David Ben Gurion, but the messaging for both is indeed accurate): “The old will die and the young will forget.” He assures us that they were very wrong and reminds us that if Jews can remember something for 2000 years, surely Palestinians can remember for 65. “We are against war and the shedding of any blood.” He warns that the Israeli dependence on power and war is not sustainable. “Many regimes have fallen? Nothing remains in a valley except the stones. We are the stones.”
Jonathan takes us past a moshav that is mostly Bulgarian and Romanian, to the site of the old Saffuriya. One house remains in the distance, converted into a guest house and there is a working orphanage. There is a Jewish National Fund forest but the area is a fenced off closed military zone. I feel like we are walking in a ghost town: piles of hewn stones, disappeared houses and schools, voluptuous towering saber cactus, an old church without a roof, a buried reality for a people that refuses to forget.