The story of my family’s Nakba

How strange is it to see the events that defined the lives of three generations of my family as a mere paragraph in a book? How strange is it to discover that your family’s lived experience is considered merely a footnote on the pages of history?

By Nooran Alhamdan

Palestinians stand inside a makeshift train, symbolically heading to the homes and lands they left in 1948, as they commemorate the Nakba day in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on May 15, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinians stand inside a makeshift train, symbolically heading to the homes and lands they left in 1948, as they commemorate the Nakba day in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, on May 15, 2016. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

It is a sweet July night, with the smell of citrus heavy in the air. The sound of women ululating and laughter echoes through the hills. The center of the village of Qazaza is a celebration, with men jovially drinking bitter coffee and children chasing after one another. My grandfather was one of these children, screaming in delight and trying not to trip over the bare earth.

The village had gathered in a pre-celebration of a much anticipated wedding between my grandfather’s older brother, Abdulla, and a woman who was said to be of the most beautiful in the village. The year is 1948. Despite all the hardships the village had seen with recent political upheaval in Palestine, Qazaza remained a simple place, full of families whose duties never extended beyond harvesting their crops.

The air was pierced by a sudden shout; the voice was shrill and the language foreign. Three men appeared in front of the gathering. They spoke again and the foreign language revealed itself to be broken Arabic. The villagers understood who these men were, but strained to understand what words were shattering the air, until eventually the shards formed “etlaa o bara” — “get out.”

Abdulla, the soon to be groom, stepped forward in an attempt to speak to the men. No, we won’t leave. Why are you here? You should leave.

The words barely left his mouth before a gun appeared, then a bullet, then the sound of the shot. It reverberated between the hills, replacing the sound of children and ululations. There was now only silence, a silence that began on that July night in 1948 and has hung over the village since — a stillness unbroken for over 70 years.

I first heard the story of my family’s Nakba, the “catastrophe” that upended the lives of millions of Palestinians, from my father. He told it to me in passing, I don’t recall exactly when or for what reason. I do remember the surprise that I felt. I must have been no older than 10 years old, because I recall that my most pressing concerns involved fitting in with my American peers. I didn’t understand what Palestine was or why we couldn’t return to our village. I forgot about the story for a long time after that.

My mother came to the United States as a teenager, fleeing Kuwait and the Gulf War, where Palestinians were paying the price for politics they had little to do with. My father came here as a university student, one of the first in his family and in his refugee camp community in Jordan to accomplish the dream of receiving an education in the U.S. I knew that my parents were immigrants, that I was the first to not be born in a refugee camp. My perception of my identity began to change with every summer trip my family took to Jordan, where I would spend my days struggling to learn Arabic and running errands with my grandparents.

Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return to the village of Lubya in northern Israel, May 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Palestinian citizens of Israel take part in the March of Return to the village of Lubya in northern Israel, May 6, 2014. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

I heard the story of my family’s Nakba the second time from my grandfather. This time, I was a teenager. I knew more about Palestine but had yet to feel any connection to its place in my family’s story. I was sitting with my grandfather in the courtyard of his home in Amman, the smell of jasmine and citrus and peaches from his garden intoxicating him with the memories of the past. He told me the story. This time, I was hearing it from a survivor. I had never seen my grandfather cry before. He shrank into a boy who had just witnessed his older brother be shot by the Haganah on the night before his wedding.

Years later, as a college student, I learned that the ethnic cleansing of my grandfather’s village was part of a broader campaign of premeditated expulsions conducted by the newly formed Israeli military. In a book by the Israeli historian Benny Morris, “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited,” I found written in curt academic language the story of my own family’s tragedy. Over the span of a mere 1o days, from July 9 to July 18, in 1948, a wave of ethnic cleansing had destroyed the lives of hundreds of Palestinian families like mine. I recall reading in horror: “On 16 July, Giv’ati HQ informed General Staff/Operations that ‘our forces have entered the villages of Qazaza, Kheima, Jilya, ‘Idnibba, Mughallis, expelled the inhabitants, [and] blown up and torched a number of houses. The area is at the moment clear of Arabs.”

I learned that the story of my grandfather’s Nakba and our village Qazaza was one part of a broader campaign to empty the Palestinian cities of Lydda and Ramle, located today inside Israel proper. How strange is it to see the events that defined the lives of three generations of my family as a mere paragraph in a book? How strange is it to discover that your family’s lived experience is considered merely a footnote on the pages of history?

Israeli soldiers in battle with the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee, October 1, 1948. (GPO)
Israeli soldiers during a battle in the Arab village of Sassa in the upper Galilee during the 1948 war, October 1, 1948. (GPO)

Too often the Nakba is either denied or hardly acknowledged. It is said that the Palestinians chose to leave their homes, or that they deserved to be expelled for opposing the settlement of their land. Stories of survival are hardly told, yet that moment of trauma continues to define the lives of millions, condemned to a life of exile and rootlessness.

My grandfather is still alive and lives in his house with a courtyard in Amman, a house my father and uncle bought him decades ago. Prior to that, he lived in an Amman neighborhood teeming with Palestinian refugees. Before that, he lived in Baqaa refugee camp, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the Middle East.

We are not a people confined to the pages of history. The Nakba is not a catastrophe that is contained in the space between paper and ink, one we can only hope will one day be remembered rightfully as the crime that is was. The Nakba is alive in every child who lives under occupation in the West Bank or blockade in Gaza, in every Palestinian refugee who is condemned to the life of a refugee camp. It is ongoing. It is not an unfortunate consequence of war; its victims are not collateral damage or the product of a moment of political uncertainty. The Palestinian people are still here, despite the wishful thinking of some that they might disappear.

Israeli right wing activists protest next to the annual Nakba Day ceremony in Tel Aviv University, May 14, 2018. of the Jewish state. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Israeli right wing activists protest next to the annual Nakba Day ceremony in Tel Aviv University, May 14, 2018. of the Jewish state. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

I have searched relentlessly for more information on Qazaza, my grandfather’s village. A Wikipedia stub informs me that the village lies in territory considered a closed military zone within Israel proper. There are also some online forums that seek to connect Palestinian refugees whose roots trace to other nearby villages. Most speculate that only a train stop and some buildings remain in the village.

I don’t know how many more generations of my family will be born in refugee camps and exile. I don’t know if Qazaza will forever be held frozen in time, standing still in an inaccessible military zone, or if one day it will succumb to the fate of so many Palestinian villages and towns. I don’t know if the greater Israeli public or the world will ever fully recognize the Nakba for the catastrophe that it was and for the misery it inflicted and continues to inflict on millions. I don’t know if within my lifetime, Palestinian refugees will be granted the reparations and repatriation, in the form of the right of return, that could correct this historic injustice.

Abdulla was buried that same night. The people of the village had no time to mourn. The men and women rushed into their small homes and collected only a few of their possessions. The children were scooped up into arms, strapped onto backs. My grandfather held his mothers’ hand as they tripped over dirt roads, running over damp earth while the night turned to dawn. Maybe this is why, for as long as I can remember, my grandfather would wake up as the sun was rising to tend to his small garden. He would dig down to the roots of the few olive trees and water them with special care. He would mist the branches of the peach trees with a spray bottle, as if perfuming them. Every morning, living the morning that he should have lived as a child in his village.

The remains of Qazaza. (Ynhockey/CC BY-SA 3.0)
The remains of Qazaza. (Ynhockey/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Nooran Alhamdan is a Palestinian-American student of economics and political science at the University of New Hampshire. 

15 responses to “What would Israelis do if Palestinians disappeared overnight?”

  1. Duh says:

    Israel gets a free genocide without having to commit it. They’ll blitzkrieg Jordan wondering if that’ll work twice.

  2. carmen says:

    They kill palestinians to keep from killing each other. Once that’s done, they’ll turn on each other with a vengeance.

    • duh says:

      I don’t know if Jewish Israelis would fight a civil war amongst themselves but it’s likely there would be minor upheavals (maybe some violent protests here and there) the unity against the Palestinians is now covering up.

  3. Lewis from Afula says:

    These people are JORDANIANS that have simply unilaterally re-named themselves for tactical reasons.
    Therefore, they CANNOT disappear – because they NEVER actually appeared in the 1st place !

    • Rivka Koen says:

      At first I read this as “removed themselves for tactical reasons.” I’m laughing now because this is probably what Lewis would say if this actually happened.

    • carmen says:

      @Lewis – keyboard screaming is the tactic used by people who aren’t telling the truth. Not a good look honey. Just like the more you tell this lie doesn’t make it the true.

    • duh says:

      It would be an interesting plot twist if Jewish Israelis got collective amnesia, then found out they did in fact expel every non-Jewish person from Mandate Palestine. Honestly, the basic idea of the novel is too clever for its own good. Like we need another narrative where Zionists get what they’re after with no blood on their hands.

  4. Firentis says:

    It’s an interesting premise. The truth is that if all the Arabs just magically disappeared there would be a vast celebration. The conflict would be over and all the land would be ours. We could cut the military budget by a huge amount. People would have to do less military service and less reserve duty. The prices for housing would drop because there would suddenly be an extra several hundred thousand apartments unoccupied. The government would seize all the property and would sell it off. Ideally it would use the money generated to vastly improve infrastructure. The towns/villages would be renamed and Jews would move in. Some places would probably be bulldozed and nature would be allowed to take them over. All those beautiful hills in Judea and Samaria would become national parks used for hiking and picnics. There would be much more tourism as well once there are fewer possible risks. Israel could host tens of millions of tourists yearly.

    What would the downside be? Several million fewer consumers buying products would mean that local manufacturers would take a hit. There would be shortages in some professions – doctors, nurses, pharmacists, but also the hospitals would have less patients. I suppose we would have to import doctors and nurses from elsewhere – either Eastern Europe or India. There would probably be shortages in other professions too, like construction, which would have to be filled by importing labor.

    Politically the right-wing would collapse into numerous camps with secular and religious groups within the right-wing splitting on issues of religion/state. I would guess that it would be possible to pass laws promoting a separation of religion/state because absent the need to shore up maximalist territorial demands much of the right would no longer be beholden to the Haredim on issues of religion/state. And also because it would be much easier to form a government with the disappearance of the Arab parties.

    Overall it would probably take a couple of years to adjust. After that all that will remain would be an annual celebration of the miracle of the disappearing Arabs, perhaps with some mixed feelings if the Druze were to disappear as well.

    • duh says:

      “After that all that will remain would be an annual celebration of the miracle of the disappearing Arabs”

      I guess you’ve given up on denying the political movement known as Zionism was always bent on ethnic cleansing. And way to support my point above.

      • Firentis says:

        If the Arabs were to magically disappear, the scenario laid out in the article, is an expression of the author’s Zionist desire for ethnic cleansing?

        • duh says:

          No and I think it should be obvious how that’s a dumb question. You were discussing how Jewish Israelis would react in real-life to a fictional scenario. The sentiment you described clearly doesn’t reflect on the author’s motivation for writing the novel.

    • Ben says:

      You should get together with Itshak and The Great Rav Kanievski and other magical thinkers and have a “let’s play my favorite supremacist fantasy” party.

      • Firentis says:

        Did you read the article?

        • Ben says:

          Yes, but David and I also read what you wrote here and the tone you wrote it in, and we have also read what you have written in several previous posts. Which with all due respect I would call not so much magical realism as cold unrealism with massive contempt. A different genre. Then there is Itshak. And The Amazing Kanievski and his magic act. So consider this a meta-analysis?