‘Your grandparents couldn’t return to Al-Sajara. But I know they died hoping’

Little remains of the village from which +972 editor Vera Sajrawi’s grandparents were uprooted in 1948. Living out the rest of their lives close by as internal refugees, they yearned for what was taken from them.

This is the second in a two-part series by +972 editor Vera Sajrawi retracing her family’s Nakba stories. Read the first part here.

“Every time we honor our pain and struggle, the healing that results affects us all.” – Brené Brown.

I drove out of Haifa with a heavy heart. After researching and investigating for weeks, I could not find the house that my maternal grandparents lived in before the 1948 Nakba, when they were driven out of the city by invading Zionist militias. I was able to find the street on which they lived in the Wadi al-Saleeb neighborhood, but their house remained a mystery. 

Not only was this absent information bothering me, but lamenting about the whole tragedy weighed on me: my grandparents abandoning their cherished belongings to save their children and themselves; the thousands of Palestinians in the city who were surrounded and pushed toward the port on the Mediterranean Sea; the Zionist forces that bombed the harbor while people scrambled to get on ships to save their lives — my people’s elimination and displacement.     

My co-traveler and photographer, Maria Zreik, and I headed to Al-Sajara, the uprooted village of my father’s parents on the outskirts of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias). In any other context, it might have been a beautiful 40-minute drive from the Mediterranean to the Tiberias region, but when knowingly passing dozens of destroyed Palestinian villages along the way, where many innocent Palestinians lost their lives or their homes, it is a dark journey.

Out of the many displaced villages on the route between Haifa and Al-Sajara, one place may be the most shocking. Just 14 kilometers southeast of Haifa was once the village of Al-Jalama, completely destroyed and ethnically cleansed of its people in 1948. This fate is not unique, but what is even more outrageous is that, in 1951, Israel turned the site into a military base and built the Kishon detention center, where Palestinian minors are held — even in solitary confinement, as The Guardian reported more than a decade ago. 

Outside the building, I could see guards talking loudly at each other, almost screaming — the typical aggression of Israeli police officers — as they slammed the heavy gates shut. I despised the ugliness of the building and the way the barbwire blocked the view of the skies.

Kishon Detention Center, built on the lands of the destroyed Palestinian village of Al-Jalama. (Maria Zreik)
Kishon Detention Center, built on the lands of the destroyed Palestinian village of Al-Jalama. (Maria Zreiq)

Rayya and Moussa’s story

We finally arrived at what was once my family’s village, Al-Sajara, named after the Arabic word for “tree,” amid lush Galilee nature with a spectacular view of rolling hills and beautiful fields. At the entrance to the Israeli settlement built adjacent to the site of Al-Sajara, a sign read “Ilaniya” — a derivative of the Hebrew word also meaning tree. It baffled me that they did not even bother to come up with a new name for their colonial settlement, and simply translated the indigenous Arabic name. They did not even try to hide it, and they still do not try to hide it.

My father and his family were forced to escape their home in Al-Sajara while under bombardment. After growing up and understanding the catastrophe of the Nakba, the same thought has returned to me throughout my adulthood: What if Zionist and Israeli forces never occupied Palestine? We would still be living in our hometown, right on the hillside, 250 meters above sea level, surrounded by amazing nature and close to Lake Tiberias.

The Palestinians of Al-Sajara lost around 2,757 dunams to the occupation. Vast fields of olive trees, fruit trees, and vegetables were snatched from their owners, homes full of belongings were seized, and farm animals were stolen or killed. Just under 900 people lived in the village in 1948, all of whom became either internal refugees in neighboring villages or exiled refugees in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, or elsewhere. Today, its refugees and their descendants number almost 5,500 people, still yearning to go back to their village, or at least visit it. 

I am one of those descendants — the grandchild of Rayya and Moussa Salayma, who had to leave everything behind and flee for their lives with a toddler and a newborn as Zionists attacked Al-Sajara.

Rayya and Moussa Salayma, the paternal grandparents of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)
Rayya and Moussa Salayma, the paternal grandparents of +972 editor Vera Sajrawi. (Courtesy)

My grandfather, Moussa, was born in 1918. Soon after, his father was taken by the Ottoman Empire to Siberia under the horrible Seferberlik — the forced conscription of men during the Balkan War and then the First World War.

Moussa’s mother became sick and died when he was only 5 years old. As an orphaned child, he was adopted by the Mukhtar, the head of the tribe, of the Salayma family and lived with his foster family until his early adulthood. He worked in the Mukhtar’s fields, went to Al-Sajara’s sole school (for boys only), and excelled in and completed fourth grade, but could not continue his studies because he had to work. 

At age 24, the Mukhtar wedded Moussa to his 14-year-old daughter, Rayya, one of his nine children. The next year, she gave birth to their first son, Ahmad, and the following year to their first daughter, Amna. Sadly, the two children fell ill and died before 1948. Two years before the Nakba, Moussa and Rayya had their eldest daughter, Fatmah, and then her sister Aysha, who was born during the 1948 war.

The Mukhtar owned land in and around Al-Sajara. Palestinians would often ask him to register their land under his name, as they were unable to pay taxes to the Ottomans and later the British, and in return the families would share a portion of their crop with him. He was also a Mukhader, or guardian, who would ride his horse every day and check on the land in the area to make sure everything was in order. My grandmother would never recover from the shock of being the daughter of the Mukhtar one day, and then becoming a refugee in her own land the next.

Zionist militias destroyed all of Al-Sajara’s homes during the occupation war of 1948. Only the deep, wide water well with 33 stairs remains from the whole village. Standing next to it, I closed my eyes and imagined my lean, tall, strong Rayya chatting with other women as they carried water jars.

The remains of Al-Sajara's water well. (Maria Zreik)
The remains of Al-Sajara’s water well. (Maria Zreiq)

An ancient tree, which I chose to believe was the one the village was named after, stands parallel to the spring. Since I was a kid, I liked to wonder: If this tree could talk, what would it tell me? What did it see during the Nakba? But as I learned more about the atrocities committed against my people, it became too painful to know more. I didn’t want to hear what the tree witnessed anymore. Now, the generation who witnessed the Nakba is disappearing, dying out, and suddenly I wanted the tree to tell me everything.

Left by the tree’s silence, I spoke to my father, the youngest of Rayya’s and Moussa’s nine children. According to him, Al-Sajara was established in the 16th century under the Ottoman Empire, as two Arab tribes settled near the spring in the area halfway between Tiberias and Nazareth. 

Ilaniya, the first Zionist settlement in the Lower Galilee, was established in 1902 up the hill, about 500 meters from the Palestinian village. The settlers came from various countries, mostly Russia — including Subbotniks, who had converted from Christianity. “My father [Moussa] said that the settlers were very friendly in the beginning and soon established strong relations with the natives around them,” my father recounted. 

“He also told me that Al-Sajara was a very peaceful village where the relationships between Arabs and Jews existed without any hostility,” my father continued. Yet Ilaniya played a crucial role in the colonization of northern Palestine.

Indeed, in a lot of Nakba stories I heard throughout the country, the Zionist newcomers often used the hospitality of the locals against them. The simple Palestinian farmers did not want to fight in the beginning, and many felt bad for the incoming Jews and hired them to work with them in the fields. Sadly, years later, these newcomers would carry weapons in support of the Zionist takeover, contributing to the war to occupy Palestine and remove its Arab inhabitants.

Palestinians flee their village in the Galilee after the entry of Zionist forces, 1948. (GPO)
Palestinians flee their village in the Galilee after the entry of Zionist forces, 1948. (GPO)

The fall of Al-Sajara

The importance of the village derives from the fact that it is located near the Maskana Junction, which Israel later named after the Golani Brigade — the Zionist militia that played the biggest role in the battle of Al-Sajara. The junction overlooks the road to Tiberias on the one hand, leading to the northern region including Upper Galilee, and the road to the west toward Shefa-‘Amr (Shfaram) and the coast.

Shortly before the battle for Al-Sajara, my father explained, the Jews of Ilaniya came to the Mukhtar and promised him not to attack the village as long as the Palestinians did not attack them or join the national resistance. The Mukhtar gave them his word that the villagers would not fire a bullet. Other Palestinians did not agree with the Mukhtar’s approach, arguing that it was necessary to defend the land against the Zionist occupation. 

Guarded by Hashomer, the first organized Zionist armed force, Ilaniya was also considered the first settlement presence in the lower Galilee; it became of strategic importance for the colonial Zionists as it formed a spearhead in the face of the natives, and therefore was subjected to sporadic attacks from the resistance in the neighboring villages.

Historians say the fall of Al-Sajara took three major battles, with the fighting lasting from February to July 1948. While the Haganah militia battled Arabs in Baysan (now Beit She’an), it carried out a deceptive attack on Al-Sajara. After midnight on Feb. 17, a unit from the Haganah snuck into the village and bombed two houses while Palestinians slept. The British Mandate’s official statement on the attack said the houses were abandoned. 

Members of the Haganah training in the Jezreel Valley. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)
Members of the Haganah training in the Jezreel Valley. (Zoltan Kluger/GPO)

It is hard to verify everything that transpired, but it is not hard to imagine the Palestinian farmers of Al-Sajara hearing the news of the massacre committed by Zionist forces in places like Deir Yassin, which included the slaughter of scores of people and the rape and assault of women. And so, Al-Sajara’s residents decided to evacuate the children, women, and elderly, leaving only those men who could defend the village and some elderly women to cook food for the resistance fighters. 

In battle, the Palestinian fighters only had 100 rifles, while there were reportedly 1,500 armed Haganah members who attacked the village. When the assault began, the Palestinian fighters desperately defended Al-Sajara; the Zionists initially failed to occupy it, but the Palestinians ran out of ammunition and were swarmed by the larger number of invaders. Some of the Palestinian fighters retreated, while most of them were martyred in the battle that ended on May 6, 1948, with the Zionist army taking over the village.     

In the second battle in June, the Arab Liberation Army — the loose combination of military forces sent by neighboring Arab states — sent a unit to support Palestinian resistance fighters in battling the Zionists who occupied Al-Sajara. But the open fields of the surrounding area led the Arab army to easily come under fire from Zionist soldiers who were perched on the hilltops. 

The sound of the bombardment drew other resistance fighters from nearby villages and from Nazareth, who fought back the Haganah and managed to liberate Al-Sajara. A ceasefire was soon declared under the first armistice agreement on June 11, 1948. The death toll of that second battle was 300 Arab and Palestinian men.     

During the ceasefire, the Zionist forces stocked up on weapons from the British and other nations and attacked Al-Sajara ahead of the truce’s expiration on July 8. In the final battle for the village, for the first time since the outbreak of the war, the Zionists had warplanes that were provided to them during the truce and bombed the villages adjacent to Al-Sajara. Heavy artillery also appeared for the first time on the Al-Sajara front. 

Road signs point in the direction of Al-Sajara and the Israeli moshav of Ilaniya which expanded onto Al-Sajara's lands after 1948. (Maria Zreik)
Road signs point in the direction of Al-Sajara and the Israeli moshav of Ilaniya which expanded onto Al-Sajara’s lands after 1948. (Maria Zreiq)

The power and arms imbalance between the Arabs and the Zionists was obvious during the battle. News crept in that Lydda, Ramle, and other parts of the country had fallen, among them Al-Sajara’s neighbors — Lubya, Nimrin, Hittin, Tur’an, Ein Mahel, Shefa-‘Amr, and Nazareth — all of which dented the spirit of resistance. 

On July 15, 1948, Al-Sajara fell after the months-long confrontation with the Zionists. And with its fall, the Haganah tightened its control over the Lower Galilee. The village was completely destroyed, and its population was uprooted in horrific acts of ethnic cleansing.

From the whole Salayma family, only my grandfather, grandmother, and their two daughters, Fatima and Ayisha, stayed in Palestine hoping to return to Al-Sajara — but their home was destroyed, and their belongings taken over by the adjacent Zionist settlement. They moved to other nearby villages, and soon after the war ended, they settled in Tur’an and became internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the newly established State of Israel.

The prominent Palestinian poet Abdulrahim Mahmoud was killed during the Al-Sajara battle. His most famous poem is still remembered today:

“I shall carry my soul in the palm of my hand
And throw it into the abyss of death
Either I live a life that delights my friends
Or a death that enrages my foes.”

The famous Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali fled from Al-Sajara to Lebanon when he was 10 years old. He is best known as the creator of the character Handala, the child he once was when he left Al-Sajara; portrayed in his cartoons as a young observer, Handala now stands as an icon of Palestinian defiance. With over 40,000 cartoons, al-Ali often critiqued the Israeli occupation and Palestinian and Arab politics and leaders, reflecting public opinion. He was assassinated in London in 1987, his killers still unidentified.

A Palestinian child passes in front of Handala graffiti in Al-Arroub refugee camp near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, November 3, 2008. (Anne Paq)
A Palestinian child passes in front of Handala graffiti in Al-Arroub refugee camp near Hebron in the occupied West Bank, November 3, 2008. (Anne Paq/Activestills)

The poet and singer Ibrahim Mohammed Saleh, nicknamed Abu Arab, also fled from Al-Sajara to Syria in 1948; he was able to visit the village on a foreign passport a couple of years before his death in Syria.

“About 30 percent of the villagers were killed while the rest fled,” my father told me. “All my uncles and aunts ran for their lives to Lebanon and then to Syria. My parents [in Palestine] never saw any of them or their children again.”

In the shadow of the exodus

After the Al-Sajara exodus, my grandparents did not know who among their friends and family was still alive. The uncertainty was unbearable, and absent the technology we have today, it was impossible to find out who was killed or who made it out to the neighboring countries. Hunger and disease struck Palestinian refugees in the first weeks and months of their exile until host countries stepped in, before the United Nations provided them with aid support through the Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

It was only in the 1960s that my grandmother found out that her family was still alive and living in Syria. She was never able to see her parents again, but she did see her two brothers in Saudi Arabia while performing the hajj; it was one of the only ways that Palestinians in Syria and those inside Israel could meet.    

My grandparents became internal refugees in a neighboring village called ‘Ein Mahil and stayed with a relative for two years. When it became harder to stay with that family, they moved to the village of Kufr Kanna, where the people were kind enough to host them for several years.

Finally, in 1952, they settled in Tur’an, where three generations of my family have been born and raised over the last 70 years. They were welcomed by the Mukhtar, who gave them shelter with a family that lived near the mosque.

A view over the village of Tur'an, north of Nazareth. (Maria Zreik)
A view over the village of Tur’an, north of Nazareth. (Maria Zreiq)

Moussa began working in Sde Ilan, a religious Jewish settlement that was established on Al-Sajara’s land. It must have been hard for him to work his own fields under the colonizers’ ownership, but he needed the money; he had three kids and they needed their own house. Very slowly, he saved enough money and bought a small one-room house. In that room, they would have four boys and five girls, with my father, Ibrahim, being the youngest.

When Ibrahim was 7, he began to work in the fields on weekends with my grandfather, hoping to earn some money. Moussa soon bought a donkey and a cart to help with their work.

I asked my father how the people of Tur’an received my grandparents, and he said it varied. “Some people were generous, hospitable and nice, while others discriminated against us,” he said. “Even today, some people are still discriminatory. I’m called ‘refugee’ and ‘Sajrawi’ as an insult. They did not go through what we went through, they do not know what it’s like to be oppressed [in that way]. That bullying pushed me to work harder in life.”

The most painful story he told me was about my grandmother Rayya, shortly after they arrived in Tur’an. She went to the water spring to fill up a jar for her household. She waited in line, but when it was her turn, a woman asked Rayya who she was, to which my grandmother replied that she was one of the Nakba’s recent refugees. The woman told Rayya she had to wait until the original residents of the village filled their jars, and only then could she fill hers. She pushed Rayya and broke her jar. 

Rayya went home, offended and hurt, and told Moussa that she wanted to move back to Al-Sajara, no matter what. My grandfather told her it was impossible because the new settlers lived there now and would never agree to their return. 

An old building from the depopulated village of Al-Sajara which now belongs to the moshav of Ilaniya. (Maria Zreik)
An old building from the depopulated village of Al-Sajara which now belongs to the moshav of Ilaniya. (Maria Zreiq)

Determined not to be held back, Rayya began digging a well on her own near their house, and a few months later, she found water. She also found a way to pick the produce from the trees that once belonged to her family in Al-Sajara: by paying the settlers to get access to those trees, either with money or a portion of the crops. Many Palestinians inside Israel made similar arrangements — called daman, or guarantee — to stay connected to their land.

My father recounted how once, when picking produce in Al-Sajara with my grandfather, they rested under a fig tree but were suddenly attacked by bees. “My father threw himself on me and covered my body with his — he was stung a lot and I was stung a bit,” he told me. “After he saved me, he started to cry. It was the first time I saw him cry, and I knew it was about his whole tragedy — not just the encounter with the bees.”

‘They never forgot, and neither will we’

My entire family, consciously or not, all suffer from the continuation of the Nakba and discrimination against us as refugees today. The nuances are excruciating, made all the more painful by seeing the society that dispossessed us relish their conquest. Do those settlers in Ilaniya realize they live on occupied land? Do they ever comprehend that they built their lives on the shattered ruins of the people indigenous to this land?  

In the 1970s, the Israeli settlers in Ilaniya put a fence around the water well, because Al-Sajara’s refugees used to visit it so often as it was the only standing remnant from the village. Palestinian families arrived to find the well besieged. Furious, they destroyed the fence, and my uncle Hussein was among those arrested by Israeli police. 

And here I was, decades later, standing next to the well with Maria, taking photos. Israeli soldiers who were training in the mountain of Al-Sajara came up to us, badgering and mocking us. “They think it is theirs,” one soldier said. A female soldier came up to us and asked what we were doing. We chose not to answer, and they became frustrated, so they started bad-mouthing us, but we remained silent. 

A fence surrounds the old well in the depopulated village of Al-Sajara. (Maria Zreik)
A “no entry” sign is seen on a fence surrounding the old well in the depopulated village of Al-Sajara. (Maria Zreiq)

Eventually, the soldiers left, and I could finally breathe again. The last thing I could handle, while painfully retracing this ruined village, was a direct encounter with the militarization of this once-beautiful place. Yet, on the way home, after a long and emotional day, we drove by many tanks the army was preparing to transfer across the country. I had seen these all my life, often wondering if the ones standing before me at any given time had killed people in Lebanon or Gaza.

I was in my last year as an undergraduate when I first began to document stories about my family’s village. I was working on a short film as my final project at the University of Al-Yarmouk in Jordan, and decided to interview Palestinian internal refugees in Tur’an from three neighboring villages: Al-Sajara, Lubya, and Hittin. My grandparents had passed away by then, so I interviewed the oldest Al-Sajara refugee who was still alive – Hani Diabat, the husband of my oldest aunt. (Hani was a classmate and friend of the cartoonist Naji Al-Ali. He never saw Naji again, but loved his art from afar, like most Palestinians.)

“I was 10 years old,” Hani told me, recounting his experience of Al-Sajara’s Nakba. “Many people were killed in the final battle. We simply ran and tried to stay together. Sometimes we lost each other in the heat of the moment. They [the Zionist forces] shot people, and we just looked at them falling and kept running away. They shot at us — including kids, women, and elderly — while we ran away. They followed us, they hunted us. It was not just while evacuating the village.

“At some point, I tried to help a boy who was shot, and my father told me to leave him if I wanted to stay alive,” he continued. “Bombs and bullets were falling on us like rain.”  

Years later, my dad told me that while his father spoke about the day Al-Sajara was occupied, his mother never did. “She kept it all inside. She went every week to Al-Sajara, and sat under the trees, and picked figs and fruits from the trees Palestinians had planted.”

In the last year of her life, my father told me, Rayya asked her sons “almost every day” to bring stones from Al-Sajara to cover her grave. My father and my late uncle Hussein put the stones on her body inside the grave before covering it with dirt. “What does that tell you?” my dad asked me rhetorically. “They never forgot, and neither will we of course.”

Lamenting, my dad added: “I sometimes asked my father if we would go back to Al-Sajara. He would say no, we cannot. But I know they died hoping.”