Rahmeh al Qassas, a 73-year-old Palestinian refugee from Deheishe Camp, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, points to a small area of cultivated land below. "It’s very lonely," she says, squinting in the midday sun. "No people, no homes." Distant memories and the present collide. Her four-year-old grandson, Odeh, holds her hand and looks on silently.
It’s the first time she has revisited this spot, where her family sheltered in a makeshift home under a fig tree during the summer and autumn of 1948. Like hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, they were fleeing the Israeli Hagana military campaign – which many today, including many revisionist Israeli historians, regard as a campaign of ethnic cleansing. More than 500 Palestinian towns and villages were ruthlessly and systematically emptied of their inhabitants and occupied. The fig tree is now gone but almond trees with their beautiful white blossoms are in full bloom around us.
As Israel gears up to mark its 60th birthday in May, millions of Palestinian refugees will commemorate the Nakba or "Catastrophe" – when over two-thirds of the Palestinian population were forcibly displaced from their homes and never allowed to return. Rahmeh, whose family of 44 share a squalid, cramped refugee camp home, curses those who will join Israel’s celebrations. "I wish the worst for those who support Israel," she says with frank contempt.
Days earlier, three generations of the family had gathered in the small living room to hear Rahmeh recount the story of how, as a 13-year-old girl, she and her family nervously monitored the Hagana’s steady advance towards her village of Qubeibet Bin Awwad, about 12 kilometres west of Hebron. Echoes of advancing artillery fire and news from survivors fleeing the neighbouring villages of Beit Jibrin (now Beit Guvrin) and Al Dawaimeh warned them that their lives would soon be in danger if they didn’t leave – civilians were being indiscriminately killed, they were told.
It was just after the Friday prayers, recalls Rahmeh, when the family left everything behind but the keys to their house and started a gruelling journey east for safety. Before she left, Rahmeh covered the rag dolls her mother had made her from spare cloth. She never saw her room or home again.
Sweet black tea is served as Rahmeh tells her story. A son, daughter and three grandchildren listen silently as her story jumps from 1948 to the present, with stern reference to the West’s responsibility for the tragedy back then – and its overt bias towards Israel today.
On that fateful Friday, Rahmeh, a sister, three brothers and her parents – her mother five months pregnant – walked without stopping until they came to Idna, a village midway between Beit Jibrin and Hebron. Several days later, a neighbour from their village appeared with her injured brother – they had been the only survivors of a group of more than 40 people captured by the Hagana in Qubeibet Bin Awwad. The brother had been shot and they had both pretended to be dead until the Hagana advanced to the next village.
Rahmeh’s family continued to flee north-east of Hebron until they reached a clearing with a spring and a fig tree – an area that is today overshadowed by a wall several kilometres long of illegal Israeli homes, which make up the Efrat settlement. Her mother miscarried the day they settled there and the baby was buried.
The family who owned the land allowed them to use the space as their home throughout the summer and autumn months. On the night that the first winter rains fell, Rahmeh’s father took them north to Bethlehem. It was shortly after this that the family heard that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency was registering the names of Palestinian refugees, giving out flour, dried egg and fish, and allocating temporary accommodation at what would become Deihesha camp – their home to this day.
Before the days of the first Intifada, Rahmeh says she and her family could visit their ancestral home, but not the actual village, which remains surrounded by a settlement wall. She once met a Jewish Israeli who now lives there. He told them that he had left Iraq decades ago and was allotted the land by the Government. Rahmeh replied that it had been their land – was still their land. Unsure of how to respond, he offered them a box of grapes.
As the memories of the Nakba wash over her in this field vibrant with brilliant yellow and red flowers and trees in spectacular bloom, I ask if Rahmeh has lost hope over these six decades that she will one day return to her home – a right enshrined in UN Resolution 194 and in international law.
"There’s no way to feel hopeless with God," she says, staring into the distance. "He can bring fire to Earth if He wants." She continues to tell her family about all of the fertile and beautiful land they own – and to which her brother still holds the deeds – because when she dies they will remember this, she says, and maintain her steadfast struggle.
"It’s just a matter of time," she tells me, leading Odeh back the way we came, to Deheishe camp. "No occupation lasts forever."
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