75 years after the Nakba, Palestinians still dream of return
For the past 75 years, Um Khattab Doula has lived in the densely populated refugee camp west of Gaza City called al-Shati.
Now 88 years old, she still dreams of returning to the coastal city where she is originally from - Jaffa - once a thriving Palestinian industrial and cultural hub known as the ‘bride of the sea’.
The largest Palestinian city during the British Mandate period, Zionist militias displaced up to 95% of Jaffa’s population in 1948, with most forced to flee on boats to Gaza, Egypt, or Lebanon.
Um Khattab’s 100 square meter home in Gaza was just a tent when she first arrived. Now the camp has a population of around 90,000, mostly refugees from Lydd, Jaffa, and Bir Saba.
"Around 530 Palestinian villages and cities were destroyed and ethnically cleansed during the Nakba by Zionist militias"
In Jaffa, her family’s property had a small pool and a garden, and she has fond memories of her childhood.
"No place equals the city of Jaffa, where life was great in many ways. I recall when I was a child, I used to board a boat along with my cousins and head to Acre and then to Saida in nearby Lebanon, where my Lebanese grandmother from my mother’s side lived,” she told The New Arab.
“We used to have breakfast with my grandmother and then return back to Jaffa in the evening hours. It was a beautiful life, indeed”.
She remembers Jaffa’s thriving cultural life and trips to the cinema with cousins and neighbours to watch Egyptian films featuring the stars of the day, even attending a concert by Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
Jaffa was a mixed cosmopolitan city, and Um Khattab recalls the sense of community among its residents, regardless of religious background.
“I remember very well how nicely we lived along with Jewish and Christian neighbours. I remember our Jewish female neighbour, Sonia, who used to take care of my sisters, brothers and I, when my mother was absent for one reason or another".
Um Khattab’s life in Gaza has been very different. "What to tell you, my son? Life in the refugee camp is such a miserable life, where we have gone through depreciation and poverty.”
After being forced to flee Jaffa, her family went to the Egyptian coastal town of Qantara before arriving at the al-Maghrazi camp in central Gaza and then eventually al-Shati.
Married with five sons and two daughters, she now has more than 80 grandchildren, and is well-known for reciting poetry in the traditional dialect of Jaffa, her rhythmic storytelling addressing the nostalgia she holds for her home city and Palestine.
"We are returning back to you Palestine, we are returning back, to enjoy your sun, your sea and your trees," she recited.
Jaffa was well-known as the city of citrus, mainly orange, and had an urbanised population. Now, the majority of the population is Israeli, with the 3,000 or so Palestinians who managed to remain in the city forced into a fenced area in the Ajami quarter.
"During the 1980s and early 1990s, I visited Jaffa and was able to see my family's home over there. I was surprised to find out it was populated by strangers; Israelis," Um Khattab said.
Like many Palestinians, she still carries the key, now rusty, to her former home in the Nuzha neighbourhood.
Around 530 Palestinian villages and cities were destroyed and ethnically cleansed during the Nakba by Zionist militias.
"No place equals the city of Jaffa, where life was great in many ways. I recall when I was a child, I used to board a boat along with my cousins and head to Acre and then to Saida in nearby Lebanon"
One such area is Al-Jiyya village, located around 40 kilometres from the Gaza Strip, once home to the family of Abu Mohammad Abu Shannab.
"My family had farmland of 25 acres, inherited by my father. He used to plant it with barley and wheat. I remember well that we had six cows and used to make milk. During my childhood, I used to play with neighbouring children around the farmland," Abu Shannab, 90, told The New Arab.
He has lived in the al-Shati refugee camp since 1948, when his family was displaced from his village.
"Al-Jiyya was such a great life, where neighbours lived in peace and harmony. I remember that in times of a wedding, most of the villagers came to congratulate and celebrate," he noted, sitting on a sofa at his son’s shop in the refugee camp.
Abdelkarrem Alkhaldi was born in 1939 and has lived most of his life outside of Palestine, mainly in Jordan, following his family’s expulsion.
"Karatiyya village was adjacent to Fallouja town, 40 kilometres away from the Gaza Strip. The Zionist armed gangs bombarded Fallouja's marketplace. Then, they moved to Karatiyya, my village,” Alkhaldi told TNA from Amman.
Villagers gathered to protect their homes during initial confrontations with the militias. Three nights later, they returned and attacked with heavy machine guns, killing his family’s livestock.
"We moved to the Gaza Strip after being forced out of our Palestinian village. There, we were hosted in a home owned by the grand Gaza-based Shawa family, thanks to them. It was a catastrophe, indeed, as we did not expect that we would be forced out of our village,” Alkhaldi said.
In 1960, he left the al-Shati refugee camp and spent seven years in Saudi Arabia, then divided his time between Syria and Kuwait before settling in Jordan in the 1990s.
“It is true that Arab countries have hosted us and treated us well, but no place is greater than our homeland of Palestine.”
Alkhaldi has been able to visit Karatiyya three times during his lifetime.
"Every time I visited Karatiyya, my nostalgia got greater than ever. Actually, after all these years, I can only say that I can never accept anything but returning back to my home village in Palestine. I will have no problem living side by side with Israelis, but only right on the land of my ancestors in Karatiya," he said.
United Nations records suggest that around 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from their cities, towns, and villages in 1948.
The official number of UN-registered Palestinian refugees now stands at almost 5.6 million in the Gaza Strip, occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt – although the real number is thought to be much higher.
"After all these years, I can never accept anything but returning back to my home village in Palestine"
Raising awareness about the Nakba
Over the past five decades, the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has played a role in raising awareness about the Nakba among younger generations, holding seminars and workshops to make sure the history of displacement is not forgotten.
“On an annual basis, we hold major festivals and exhibitions reflecting on the Nakba. We have been able to encourage and support other related initiatives by local refugees or local refugee institutions in both Gaza and the West Bank,” Naser Ahmad, chief for the PLO's local refugees committee in the al-Shati refugee camp, told The New Arab.
“In addition, we have been in constant contact with United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), over various services which UNRWA provides for the refugee population in Gaza, West Bank, and East Jerusalem".
Beyond the younger Palestinian generation, some feel that there needs to be a greater awareness in the Arab world about the history of Palestinian refugees.
"The Arab masses' awareness of the refugee problem has been influenced by media policies in mainstream media outlets that belong to Arab governments. You know that several Arab countries have now taken some steps towards normalisation with Israel,” Saleem Abu Amr, an 83-year-old veteran Palestinian radio broadcaster and media expert, told TNA.
“I would rather call on grassroots media to mobilise for raising awareness in the Arab world regarding the Palestinian Nakba anniversary," he added.
As Palestinians worldwide prepare to mobilise on 15 May to mark the 75th anniversary of their mass displacement, those who survived the Nakba still harbour dreams that one day they will see their homeland again.
"Stick to your right to return to Palestine,” Um Khattab said. “If I happen to return back one day, I will have no problem crawling back to Jaffa, and I hope to live until this return comes true, Ameen."
Rami Almeghari is a Palestinian freelance journalist living and working in Gaza.
Follow him on Twitter: @writeralmeghari