68 years later, Palestinians bitterly remember
Ramallah - Mohammed Mansour, 93, fled his home in the village of Salbit when the Jewish Haganah paramilitary annexed British-mandate Palestine and proclaimed an independent Israeli state in its place on May 14th, 1948.
Mansour’s memory is failing him as he tried to recognise faces and recall names but he is never wrong on details of the 50 hectares his family owned near what is now Ben Gurion International Airport. He was married and saw his grandchildren get married but never allowed time to erase Salbit from his memory.
Mohammed’s eldest son Abdulqader, 58, said his father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, “forgot the names of most of my brothers and sisters due to illness and age but he certainly did not forget Salbit”.
One day recently, Mohammed surprised the family when he collected his personal effects he said he wanted to “take home to Salbit”.
Sixty-eight years ago, about 750,000 Palestinians fled for their lives or were forced out of their homes in cities, villages and towns in areas now known as Israel.
To Palestinians, May 14th — the declaration of Israel’s independence — is known as Nakba, Arabic for “the catastrophe”. It is one of the most jarring events in Palestinian history, which led to Israel capturing more Palestinian lands in the West Bank, including traditionally Arab East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, sending millions more Palestinians into exile.
When Zionism advocated the creation of a Jewish state, Jews, facing growing discrimination and oppression in Europe, dreamed of having their own state. They eventually inflicted the oppression on the Palestinians.
In 1917, Britain conquered Palestine from the Ottomans and British foreign secretary Arthur Balfour pledged British support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.
Under British control, the number of Jews migrating to Palestine increased significantly. In 25 years, the number of Jews in Palestine went from 11% to 31% of the population.
In the 1940s, the British decided to end their mandate of Palestine and exit the country, leaving the fate of the territory to be decided by the United Nations. It devised the UN Partition Plan for Palestine and advocated the creation of two states in what has historically been known as Palestine: one for Jews, known as Israel; and one for Palestinians, Palestine.
Palestinians rejected the plan because it seized land that had been owned by their families for generations. As tension grew, the British declared an end to their mandate and the Zionist movement, assisted by the Haganah, which became the core of the Israeli Defence Forces, declared the establishment of the state of Israel.
Driven by fear over purported Israeli massacres in Palestinian areas, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled to neighbouring countries, including Egypt, leaving their belongings, homes, plantations and livestock behind, thinking they would soon return home.
Today, one-in-three refugees worldwide is Palestinian. UN records indicate there are about 6.5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide, with the biggest concentrations in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. More than 3.8 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are registered for humanitarian assistance with the United Nations.
Nakba is commemorated on May 15th in Palestinian areas with demonstrations, vigils and statements of condemnation in the face of Arab and international silence.
The right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland is a lingering point in stalled Palestinian- Israeli negotiations.
“Any peace deal that excludes a solution for Palestinian refugees to return to their homes is incomplete and unjust,” said Alaa Hamamra, a 25-year-old university graduate from the West Bank town of Jenin.
As years go by, many Palestinians say that the longer the conflict remains unsolved, the harder it will be to realise a Palestinian state and celebrate the return of those who were forced out decades ago. Desperation and hopelessness seem to be the prevalent reaction.
Sari Hammouri, a 29-year-old from Jerusalem, said: “Sadly speaking, our families won’t be able to come back, because Israel has no respect for any law.”
Ramallah housewife Lubna Darwish said she feels hopeless. “The refugees who fled don’t seem to have a place to be allowed back to,” she said.
Young Palestinians share similar frustration and disappointment.
“The number 68 frightens me a lot,” said 26-year-old Ahmad Sabah from Nablus. “As the years pass, I feel more scared and desperate. When will the count end?”
In Gaza, Palestinians say they do not have the luxury to lament the past or think about those who dream about returning to Palestine. For many of Gaza’s youth, getting through the day is their priority.
Abeer A., 28, said she no longer commemorates Nakba because she is too busy worrying about electricity schedules, closed border crossings and making a living. She argued that if crossings open on Nakba, Gaza will be preoccupied with the borders instead of marking the anniversary of the event.
For Abdulqader, Mohammed’s son, hope for returning home remains alive.
“I may not live to see Palestinians return to their lands and homes but other generations will definitely see it,” he said.