For Palestinians, a catastrophe Mideast: Refugees look upon the founding of the Jewish homeland as the destruction of their own.

May 10, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israelis are celebrating the birth of their state 50 years ago this month, but when Palestinian Arabs talk about the anniversary, they speak of "al-nakba" -- the catastrophe.

Every Israeli recollection of the modern miracle of the Jewish state comes with an equally poignant memory of a lost Palestinian homeland -- a battle fought and lost, a village destroyed, a people displaced.

Ali Muhammad Ali, Amne Shaqfa and Ayesh Zeidan were children during the 1947-1948 Israeli War of Independence. Their lives follow the national narrative of the Palestinian people since then -- wars, occupation, terrorism in the name of independence, a people's revolt and an uneasy peace with an anxious Israel.

"When I think of al-nakba, I only think of bloodshed and disasters," said Zeidan, a survivor of Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem that exists now only in the memory of a slaughter that helped persuade Arabs to flee their homes across Palestine a half-century ago.

In the late spring of 1948, the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli army, had set its sights on the villages nestled along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Israeli convoys to Jerusalem were being savagely attacked by Arabs from some of those villages.

Fighters from the radical Jewish underground group Irgun Zvei Leumi, operating without full sanction of the Haganah, entered Deir Yassin at dawn April 9, 1948. By the time the fighting was over, four Irgunists were dead but so were at least 107 Arab villagers, many of them women and children.

The Irgun was accused of massacring the residents of the village, not only by Arabs but also by British authorities and by the mainstream Jewish leadership. David Ben Gurion sent a letter of apology to King Abdullah of Jordan.

A 'lie' and a benefit

Menachem Begin, the leader of the Irgun, who became prime minister 30 years later, denounced the stories of Jewish atrocities at Deir Yassin as a "lie propagated by Jew haters all over the world."

But he acknowledged that the story benefited the Jews.

"What was invented about Deir Yassin helped to carve the way for our decisive victories on the battlefield. The Arabs began fleeing in panic, shouting 'Deir Yassin!' " he wrote in his autobiography, "The Revolt."

Ayesh Zeidan was an 11-year-old boy in Deir Yassin at the time. His mother and sisters hid in an area underneath their house. He was spirited away to his grandmother's home in a neighboring village. Zeidan's father was among the village guards fighting the Jews. When the enemy got the upper hand, he fled.

Zeidan's family never returned to Deir Yassin, today the site of an Israeli mental institution. They settled in Beitin, a village in the West Bank that was then controlled by Jordan and has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

Ali Muhammad Ali remembers the spring morning in 1948 when his family fled their ancestral village of Bayt Thul, a hamlet of stone houses perched on a mountain overlooking the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Fires in a neighboring village had blackened the morning sky as Jewish soldiers battled the Arabs for Palestine, and Ali's father expected Bayt Thul would suffer the same fate.

The family spent two years on the move, settled in an abandoned house in Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem and moved again to a refugee camp outside Jerusalem where Ali, now 60, still lives under Israeli occupation.

Bayt Thul is now a mountain park where Israelis picnic and hike.

Amne Shaqfa also is a refugee of the 1948 war. Her family ended up in the wretched refugee camps of the Gaza Strip, where a temporary haven turned into permanent despair. Shaqfa married there, bore five children and lost her husband during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. An artillery shell landed on her small concrete house in the Rafah refugee camp.

Shaqfa's grandchildren -- a fourth generation of Palestinians -- are growing up there. Her home village of Aqir no longer exists. After the forces of the nascent Jewish state captured Aqir in May 1948, Jews resettled the abandoned village and renamed it Kfar Evon.

Shaqfa actually is living amid territory now controlled by Yasser Arafat's Palestinian authority, but she is not satisfied.

"This is not my homeland," says Shaqfa, sitting in the courtyard of her home in the Rafah camp. "This is not Palestine."

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were uprooted a half-century ago with no hope of returning to their original homes.

Today, 746,000 Palestinians live in Gaza, with more than half of them still in refugee camps, according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Some 1.4 million Palestinians registered as refugees live in Jordan, 359,000 in Lebanon and 356,000 in Syria.

Much has happened to the Palestinians since 1948, but the Israeli-Arab war of that year was the defining moment in the collective conscience of Palestinians, said Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American and Middle East expert.

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