In memoriam: of a people, of a land, and especially of Khdaija

Posted on 28 October 2020 | 1 response

Wednesday 28 October 2020

“I took home with me some of the soil, and a handful of olives from the untended trees….”

Life can be a struggle. And for some, a much harder and more painful struggle than others.

Easter 2020 and we were looking forward to going home to Palestine. Then Covid-19 happened. All travel cancelled with no idea when we could re-book.

This week, Covid-19 took the life of Khdaija, mother to Jamal and his siblings; grandmother to their many offspring, and our one daughter. She died a refugee, one of the dwindling number of Palestinians who were violently forced from their lands in 1948. She was just six years of age, but she remembered it with mournful clarity, as if it were yesterday.

In 2008, 60 years after it happened, she told me her story. It is one story of hundreds of thousands. It is the story of her family and what became her future. I share it here again in her memory. Near the end there is one paragraph I’ve highlighted as it has always stayed with me – the enduring pain of loss.

Rest in peace now, Khdaija – you are greatly loved and desperately missed by those you’ve left behind.

Sunday 31st August 2008
Memories of a refugee, part one
Khdaija’s story: the leaving

I was six years old but I remember those events like it was yesterday. Life was peaceful in our valley village. Tel es-Safi was situated on lush, fertile land and my father and his brother owned half the lands of the village. We cultivated fruit and vegetables and had commercial success as we grew so much good quality produce. My father sold most of it direct to a company in Lod.

It was a beautiful place to grow up in. I lived with my father and mother, my sister and two brothers. We wanted for nothing and lived happily in the area with all our neighbours. The next village to us was a “qubbineyeh” (a Jewish village similar to a kibbutz) called Qatre. They had a health centre and we all used it as we had no doctor. We often visited and the relationship between us all was good.

Then we started to hear the news of the fighting. They came from Qatre to tell us that they were horrified at what was happening, and that it was not them but foreign Jews who were expelling Palestinians from their villages and their land. They were worried for us.

We knew the Hagganah was near. We had also heard what had happened at Deir Yassin earlier in the year. My father had an old British handgun and said he would fight alongside the Egyptian forces in the area. We feared something terrible would happen.

Then they came. The shooting was terrifying. We all hid in our house and listened to the fighting around us. We lasted perhaps five days, perhaps a week, I really cannot be sure. Finally my father said we must go to the next Arab village for safety. So we had to run, for our lives.

All my family and our neighbours fled together, all we had were the clothes we wore as we believed we would come home soon, once the fighting had calmed. There was shooting all around us and I was so scared. My cousin fell; she had been shot and killed. We managed to get to Ajur, and from there people went back to collect her body. We stayed in Ajur, along with the residents from four other villages. We slept amongst the olive trees, my mother would cover me with her scarf when I slept at night.

There was little food and we relied heavily on people helping us. Hundreds of people were there, living in the orchards and the olive groves. Every few days some of the men would try to return to Tel es-Safi, but the Hagganah had taken over the area completely. They were shot at each time they tried so had to come back to Ajur. One man who did manage to get back to the village said it had been looted and the homes were being blown up.

Then Ajur was attacked and again we had to flee. We walked to Surif, another small village. I think it took about a day to get there. It was the same there.

People who had been displaced, lost everything and were begging for help. Hundreds and hundreds of people with nowhere to go and no one to help them. The conditions were awful. People were filthy, there was a lot of disease and illness. Everyone had lice. It was disgusting for us.

We stayed for about three months but again the situation was so terrible for everyone we had to move again to survive. It was such a miserable and sad time. I missed my home and my friends. And as we had no idea what might happen we were constantly fearful.

So we walked again, this time to Beit Fajar, a much larger village. By then the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) had been established and we were registered as refugees. I remember we would be given one kg of flour, but it was not enough for us all and a far cry from what we were used to.

My mother and father sold what little they had with them, such as jewellery, and we managed to rent two rooms with three other families. It was so hard for us, but we had to cope with it. There was an announcement in the mosque that called for all refugees to move to the camps established around the area. We would be provided with homes and other help, we were told.

So, we finally settled in Deheishe camp in Bethlehem. This is where I met my husband-to-be, made my home in two small rooms and gave birth to my 11 children.

Sunday September 7th
Memories of a refugee, part two
Khdaija’s story: the return

It was ten years ago when we finally went back. It was after Oslo, so we were finally allowed to go into Israel, the country built on the ruins of my home. Of course, it was not to stay. We didn’t even know what was there now; all we knew was our village had been destroyed.

Tel es-Safi was quite near to Hebron. We drove there, we knew exactly where to go. A huge metal fence, with a padlocked gate, secured the area. It was as it had been left after the destruction. A piece of land, overgrown, uncared for and with no life there.

A man appeared, a Bedouin I thought, who told us we should not be there. I think he thought we were looking for something to steal. He told us to get out, to go; he was holding a large gun and regarded us suspiciously. He asked us what we were doing there. We told him it was our village and that we just wanted to look, we were not there to cause any problem.

His attitude softened. He was actually a “sabra”, a native born Jew unlike the masses of Israelis who have just immigrated over the past 60 years. He asked us why we left our village and we told him how we had fled for our lives, with nothing. He was sympathetic, and he told us we should have come back. It was our land and we should have come back.

He had a key to the gate, although I am not sure why. He asked us if we would like to spend some time there, to look around. He opened the gate for us and I finally went back to my village, after 50 years. Although the buildings had all been destroyed, we recognised where our home had stood. There were tell-tale signs such as a fig tree, and other trees that had grown so much but were still recognisable in our memories.

He wanted us to walk around the area, but he was concerned as there are many wells. The openings all covered by the overgrowth of the plants and trees. He led us very carefully around, minding our steps.

We stayed a while, our memories and feelings surging back. I was so glad to have returned, even for such a short time. But I was so very, very sad that this beautiful place, the place of my childhood, had been left in such a state when we, the people born there and who loved it so much, were denied our right to return back and make it a thriving place of life once again, as it should have been.

I took home with me some of the soil, and a handful of olives from the untended trees….

Khadija still has the key to her first home, given to her by her father. It hangs on the wall of her current home in Bethlehem.

Note: Tel es-safi had been continuously inhabited for thousands of years, until 1948 when Khadija and all her family and friends were forced to flee. See for some background information.

The Siege

Posted on 30 May 2015 | No responses

Last Saturday night (May 23rd) we went to see the final night’s performance of The Siege, a Jenin Freedom Theatre production based on the siege of Bethlehem’s Nativity Church in 2002. The company is touring the UK and we went to the wonderful Battersea Arts Centre, part of which was recently devastated by fire. Despite the massive damage, the theatre was still able to play host to the amazing talent that Palestine has to offer.

For almost 90 minutes I was utterly gripped. The opening was very clever, with ‘Issa’, the Bethlehem tour guide, drawing the audience in to a place of comfort and security. For those who know Manger Square and the surrounding area, the local tour guides are ubiquitous. Cheerful, multi-lingual, persistent, but usually with good humour; Issa was no different. His calm, cheery manner was starkly contrasted when the stage shifted suddenly to the heart of the story: the siege of the Church of the Nativity.

The stage darkened and footage of the invasion of Bethlehem and the subsequent dash of fighters and civilians to Nativity Church was projected onto a massive screen. Suddenly, the stage was invaded: the tension and urgency was palpable. Palestinian fighters were in the Church—seeking sanctuary, trying to stay alive.

Drawing on testimonies from the 13 Palestinian fighters who were exiled after the 39 day siege, the five fighters on stage began to share these untold narratives. Throughout the siege, Palestinians were portrayed as terrorists, armed men, fighters; not as fathers, husbands and brothers. This invariably is the way all Palestinians are portrayed: the truth of their struggle is erased by the need to ensure that Israel remains the victim. The voices that we heard were deeply passionate and human. They told stories of love and fear, of memories and passions, of life and humanity. It was tragic and comic, touching and humbling.

The narratives of Palestinians have been suppressed, distorted or misrepresented for many decades. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient for the West to confront its role in allowing the injustice Palestine to continue; nor does it wish to confront its complicity in the creation of this bloody mess.

The Siege is a vital piece of theatre that has finally given a truly Palestinian account of events that, until now, have been entirely shaped by others. It was also a very powerful reminder that all Palestinians are fighters, no matter who or where they are. And in particular in Palestine, where each day is a struggle against injustice and oppression.

And for me in particular, this was personal… intensely personal. I was living and working in Bethlehem during this time. I’d been in Palestine since the start of the second intifada, September 2000, and experienced the uncontrolled descent into chaos. The play transported me back 13 years to a time of darkness and despair. I remembered things I’d forgotten and it stirred emotions that have been buried deep. The juxtaposition of the footage and the actors was immensely powerful, linking the faceless and mechanical relentlessness of military might to the human cost of such actions. The script, staging and performance were outstanding and as good as anything I’ve seen on stages with far more resource than the Freedom Theatre could hope for.

The day the siege ended is one that I shall never forget. I had lived in an office for six weeks with numerous people from all over the world coming and going, but that morning I was alone—and I was so glad I was alone. I turned on Bethlehem TV and watched as the men came out, one by one. And I wept as I knew the price that had been paid by so many already, and the price that many more to come will continue to pay. And as I watched the closing scene on that stage in London, which included that very same footage from Manger Square all those years ago, I wept again. This time I was not alone.

Read my journals from April and May 2002.

The road is long…

Posted on 28 September 2014 | No responses

For most people, a holiday involves day trips, seeing the sites and enjoying time with family. But if you’re Palestinian, and you’re in your homeland—you know, the place you were born, your parents were born and generations of your family were born—then forget it. Read more

Palestine’s ever decreasing circles

Posted on 31 August 2014 | No responses

Saturday August 30th

After lunch, which is usually at around 4pm, we decided to go to Wadi Fukin to visit family. I’ve written before about the village which sits directly east of the 1949 armistice line, more commonly referred to as the Green Line. Each time we visit, I am always shocked. This time was worse than I expected. The lush, fertile valley is being closed in by colonies, which will result in Wadi Fukin being surrounded. Read more

Five point action plan for political advocacy in the UK on Palestine around reconstruction

Posted on 31 August 2014 | 12 responses

Palestinians don’t need endless rounds of talks, or talks about talks: they want action.

Regardless of the ‘symbolic’ nature of the UK parliament’s vote to recognise Palestine, it is still a significant step in the political establishment’s attitude towards Palestine. Now, more than ever, individuals and organisations need to work hard at the political level to ensure that Palestine remains an issue that needs to be addressed, and that MPs and government departments are regularly and repeatedly receiving questions from their constituents on the subject.

Below are five points that campaigning organisations and individuals should be using in all discussions and correspondence with their political representatives in support of the Palestinian people. This is written as UK-specific because the UK government, through DFID, will likely play a leading role in co-ordinating Western-backed operations for the reconstruction of Gaza. The five point action plan relies on international law and the UK’s responsibility as a signatory of the IV Geneva Convention.

I would urge all civil society organisations and individuals in the UK to read this, share it and help implement it as a campaign.

There is a general election in the UK next year, let’s work now to make Palestine a key issue for MPs, especially the issue of the Blockade. And if thousands of us demand action on the following points, we will be presenting the government with a cohesive, structured advocacy campaign that might actually result in action. Working together with one voice is far more effective than working alone and without a clear direction.

These five points are written to complement the AIDA policy paper: Reconstructing Gaza: Five Principles for Transformative Change.

1   Demand Israel pays for the damage it caused

Israel (the ‘perpetrator’) must be held accountable, meaning, that UK taxpayers should not pay for Israel’s destruction of Gaza—Israel should. Taxpayers financially support the UK’s international development work through DFID and any UK assistance in the rebuilding efforts would be doen through this channel. We should therefore demand that Israel reimburses all of DFID’s costs. The UK government should send an itemised assessment, in effect a bill, to the Israeli government. The bill should clearly state that the UK government is issuing it as part of third-state responsibility to ensure accountability and prevent impunity for international law violations. Third party states must also take all measures to prevent (and deter) further violations, meaning, by making Israel pay for its violations, may deter Israel from bombing these UK-funded structures again. The UK is obligated as a third state party to the IV Geneva Convention to demand from the violator to pay compensation.

2   Demand that the UK government publishes details of all destroyed and damaged projects

UK taxpayers have the right to know what the UK funds in Palestine Government funding of overseas projects must be transparent. Part of the fulfillment of that right, is the obligation of the UK government to make public the complete list of all UK-funded projects destroyed and/or damaged and/or setback and/or delayed by Israel’s war on Gaza. This should also apply to the West Bank and East Jerusalem demolitions. This includes DFID funding of INGO’s who partner with local NGO’s, not just direct DFID funding.

3   Demand a ‘Gaza’ tax on all Israeli goods imported to the UK/Europe to be used for Gaza’s reconstruction

Accountability includes also guarantees of reparation for the victims by the perpetrator meaning that if Israel refuses to pay for the damages or for DFID’s reconstruction projects, then the UK and EU should not step in and use our tax money. Instead, they should impose a Gaza reconstruction tax, assessment or a fee on all Israeli imports. The fees collected will go towards a Gaza Reconstruction Fund. Further research into UK and EU trade laws is needed to develop this further.

4   Demand that Palestinians rebuild Gaza, not Israel

Assistance must be geared at local economic empowerment, meaning that DFID projects should be aimed at empowering the local Palestinian economy (local means all of Palestine). Israel should not profit from its violations, ie, its markets should be excluded from or be of last resort for providing materials for reconstruction projects.

5   Demand the blockade is lifted, open the international seaport

Third parties are obligated not to render assistance that accommodates an illegal action, meaning that the Gaza reconstruction materials should not be imported solely through the Israeli controlled crossing that sustains the blockade. For the last seven years, UK has demanded that its assistance projects effectively “abide” by Israel’s blockade- obligating projects to import their materials solely by  Israel’s crossing and its restricted rates of imports. This has just perpetuated the blockade. Ending the blockade means ending Israeli control of all imports and exports. The current paradigm needs to be changed through international political action: Gaza needs an autonomous crossing not controlled by Israel, for example, an international seaport. The EU proposal for a Cyprus corridor is a good first start and should be supported by the UK and EU.

It’s the BBC, but not as you know it

Posted on 28 August 2014 | 2 responses

Thursday August 28th

This evening I went to the BBC…that is, the Bethlehem Book Club. It’s been formed by a group of women living in the Bethlehem area, most of whom are married to Palestinians. They meet monthly, at one of the member’s homes which is large enough to accommodate everyone. Tonight I was an honorary member as I do not live in Palestine full-time at present, but one of my best friends is always trying to persuade me to come back now, rather than when R has finished her secondary education. So she took me along as part of her campaign to ‘Bring George Home‘! Read more

The route to university isn’t easy

Posted on 27 August 2014 | 1 response

Wednesday August 27th

Yesterday I drove to Birzeit University near Ramallah.We decided to hire a car rather than use the service (‘servees’ which are mini vans that drive from one place to another when full) as it takes so long, with at least three changes between vans, and it gets costly. Also, depending on the situation at any of the checkpoints, fixed or ‘flying’, being in your own car can give some semblance of ‘choice’. (Of course, living under an illegal military occupation actually ensures that you have no choice.) Read more

A cause for celebration?

Posted on 26 August 2014 | 2 responses

Tuesday August 26th
We’ve been home a few days and life in Palestine has been largely uneventful, by West Bank standards at least.

Tonight we went to an event hosted at the Alternative Information Centre in Beit Sahour. It’s an organisation that was established 30 years ago, and does some great work, especially around the theme of normalisation. Ilan Pappe, eminent Israeli historian and academic was speaking about the relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Read more

Exposing the complex system of Israel’s domination over Palestinians and Palestine

Posted on 8 January 2014 | No responses

Also published by Palestine Chronicle here

Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation and Movement Restriction – Nadia Abu-Zahra Adah Kay, Pluto Press, 2013

The opening lines of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem Bitaqat Hawiyyah (identity card) are a poignant reminder of reality for Palestinians throughout the world:

“Register me!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand”

And it is most fitting that Nadia Abu-Zahra and Adah Kay quote these powerful words within the first few pages of their book, Unfree in Palestine: Registration, Documentation and Movement Restriction. Read more

The rumours of a third Intifada have been greatly exaggerated

Posted on 19 December 2012 | No responses

This article is also published on Palestine Chronicle

Over the past few days, the talk of a third Intifada breaking out in the occupied Palestinian territories has increased. But it isn’t Palestinians living under the occupation who are talking up the chances of a third uprising against Israel’s continued oppression in the territories. Read more

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