Nakba yesterday, Nakba today: My grandmother's two keys

Nakba yesterday, Nakba today: The story of my grandmother's two keys
7 min read

Emad Moussa

15 May, 2024
Ghefreh has lived through two Nakbas, 1948 and today. Her grandson Emad Moussa tells her story of twinned displacement and how they've now blurred into one.
The testimony of Emad Moussa's grandmother Ghefreh is living proof of Palestinian sumud [photo credit: Lucie Wimetz/TNA/Getty Images]

“History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce.”

Karl Marx coined the phrase to denote the cyclical nature of history. When tragedies reoccur in the same context they become a farcical spectacle, pointing not only to the cynical human nature but also the poor imitation of past events.

My 94-year-old Palestinian grandmother, Ghefreh, does not know Karl Marx, and I doubt she cares about philosophy. But she understands that tragedies do recur and that history can “often rhyme" — to quote Mark Twain.

As a young Palestinian woman in 1948, my grandmother was expelled from her village and ended up as a refugee in Gaza. 75 years later, Ghefreh was displaced again to Rafah and then Nuseirat, only a few kilometres from her home in Gaza City.

The resemblance between two worlds separated by seven decades has blurred and confused her timeline. Her perception of reality has changed tragically, farcically even.

The loss of a home(land)

Ghefreh was born in a village called al-Sawafir in the early 1930s. The village was based on the ancient Roman name Shaffir, and it was located only a few kilometres from Ashdod, a Palestinian city built upon the ancient Canaanite urban settlement with the same name.

Al-Sawafir was ethnically cleansed early in 1948 during Operation Barak, a Haganah-led onslaught and part of Ben-Gurion’s Plan Dalet, the Zionist master plan to conquer all of Palestine. 

In her memories, the hardships of being a villager were irrelevant, what resonated was al-Sawafir’s olive trees, the affluent citrus orchards, and the “coherent community that made it into a paradise.”

“A time of peaceful existence, until the European Jews came”, she would say with a sigh. 

“We had no guns to defend ourselves. The British — before leaving Palestine — made sure of that while pouring weapons into the Jewish militias’ lap.”

I heard this from my grandfather, on the other side of the family, and every one of his generation in our refugee camp. It was not a sense of loss alone, but also betrayal.

My grandmother would add, “My father had a rusty Ottoman pistol that he fired at wedding celebrations. Mother would hide it in her clothes when the Brits came from the nearby camp in the village of Julis.”

From the direction of Julis — a village allegedly named after Julius Caesar — the Haganah attacked al-Sawafir. Ghefreh and her family ran from one village to another, joining the masses of refugees in their search for safety. Behind them, the advancing Jewish militias ran amok, destroying, ransacking, and massacring Palestinian communities in the region. 

She arrived at al-Majdal — the ancient Canaanite town, Asqalan, Hebrewised to Ashkelon — a few days later, holding but the key to her house and some food.

The Haganah besieged and bombed al-Majdal for six months, forcing the ill-equipped and outnumbered Egyptian troops who fortified there to retreat to the Gaza District. The masses of refugees from nearby villages, alongside al-Majdals 11,000 residents, ended up in Gaza as refugees.

“The Zionists tried to starve us in al-Majdal like they do today in Gaza,” she says.

In a tent in Gaza — defined by an eerie sense of disbelief over the loss of a homeland — a new chapter of her life began. The tent turned into a house in a refugee camp. The refugee camp turned into a community, and that community into a whole society of perseverance and die-hard hope to return to Palestine.

As children, we were nourished daily by her stories about le-blaad ('the countries', pre-1948 Palestine), vicariously living the details of her youth, sitting with her under the olive trees, peeling those saccharine tangerines, and even feeling the poppy-fragranced breeze gently caressing our skin.

These are the kind of memories that are imprinted in one’s mind and become almost one’s own.

Displacement déjà vu

Today, Ghefreh is homeless again and again, first in Rafah which she left a few days ago after Israel launched an attack on the region and then in Nusseirat at my sister’s home.

My grandmother's Gazan home was bombed and is now heavily damaged. This is what we were told by people who remained behind. We do not know if this is true, but we tell her it is still habitable.

She spends most of her days sitting at my sister’s balcony, as she did at her other granddaughter’s balcony in Rafah, staring down at an ocean of tents inhabited by people who once were her neighbours in Gaza City.

“Or at least those left of them,” she would say as she swung the key of her Gaza home back and forth.

From that vantage point, she recalls a time seven decades ago when she sat on al-Mintar Hill overlooking Gaza, eyeing another ocean of tents and wondering if she could go back to al-Sawafir.

She tells us that members of her community tried to go back to the village. Most never returned, suspected arrested or killed by the Israeli army.

Palestinians who tried to return to their homes in what later became Israel were labelled ‘infiltrators’ and an anti-infiltration law was enacted in 1954 to ‘legally’ ban - and punish - such attempts. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the Israeli security and civilian guards, and their mines and boobytraps, killed 2,700-5,000 Palestinian ‘infiltrators’ during 1949-56. 

Today, Ghefreh is only a handful of kilometres from her home in Gaza City. And like in 1948, attempting to go back is unattainable.

The Israeli army has split the Gaza Strip into two halves around Wadi Gaza by establishing a militarised strip called the Netzarim Corridor. The corridor and its surroundings have been made into a kill zone. Anyone who tries to return to Northern Gaza is indiscriminately eliminated. 

This kill zone — much like the Armistice Line of 1948 that separated my grandmother from her village — is only a walking distance from where Ghefreh’s sits and grabbles with unresolved feelings today.

The farcical similarities between yesterday and today have brought her two worlds, separated by several decades, together and merged them into one reality.

She would jitter and worry that the Haganah would destroy the olive trees in her Gaza home. Her Gaza home does not have olive trees, her pre-Nakba home did.

She would pause and stare back at the ocean of tents, saying that she feels as if “her soul is stuck to her throat.” Again she goes, “The Jewish militias will destroy my olive trees.”

We reassure her that she will go back home again soon, back to her bed and her little kitchen. We tell her that the war will end and the invading army will withdraw.

We even tell her that the bombing is not as intense now and that is hopeful. We bank on the fact that she is nearly deaf and can barely hear the explosions and the maddening, around-the-clock buzzing noise of Israeli drones.

“I can feel the bombs, the earth shakes,” she replies.

She looks back at her key, re-spinning it around her finger, then moves her eyes toward the ocean of tents. 

Pause…and again.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.