In Search of My Family’s Home in Pre-Nakba Palestine

A scholar describes visiting the land her forebears inhabited for generations before they were driven into exile on the eve of Israel’s creation

In Search of My Family’s Home in Pre-Nakba Palestine
Protesters wave Palestinian flags during Nakba Day in Tiberias on April 23, 2015. (Saeb Awad/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

My mother was never able to return to Palestine after the Haganah, a Zionist militia that later became the Israel Defense Forces, forcibly expelled her family from their ancestral home in the city of Tiberias in April 1948. They had come first to my great-grandfather, one of the oldest notables in Tiberias, and brought him by force to the border with Syria to signal to the remaining Arab Palestinians that they had to leave as well. Among the people in military fatigues who knocked on their door was a young woman who had survived the Holocaust and had found refuge with my great-grandfather in the early 1940s, as an orphaned Jewish child refugee from Poland. In a Shakespearean moment of reckoning, he turned to her and asked, “You, too?” “Sorry, Hajj Khalil,” she answered, “I’ve received orders from the Haganah.” He saw that the young woman he had sheltered and welcomed into his home was participating in his family’s expulsion.

Having lost his land and home, my great-grandfather died in exile. Among his personal belongings was the key to the family home in Tiberias, which had been stolen from them. His son (my grandfather) stayed behind to provide medical aid during the 1948 war until he, too, was forced to leave his country. When my grandmother died in Beirut in 2007, we discovered that my grandparents had inherited the key, passed on from generation to generation.

In 2010, while I was between academic positions, I spent several months in the occupied Palestinian territories as a TOKTEN (Transfer of Knowledge Through Expatriate Nationals) advisor affiliated with the United Nations Development Programme in Palestine, counseling the Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel. Amid Israel’s relentless bombardment and the destruction of Gaza, I find memories resurfacing, memories of what turned out to be a very personal journey into my family’s past and their long-lost land.

For work I drove daily from East Jerusalem to Ramallah in a car leased from a Palestinian dealership with yellow Israeli license plates, which are the “right” color for passing relatively easily through checkpoints. My personal journey through my family’s past took me further afield — to the occupied Syrian Jawlan, or Golan, and to Tiberias, my mother’s hometown. I wanted to look for her past, but all traces of the city’s Palestinian heritage had been erased since she was expelled in 1948. The last days of my journey were spent in beautiful Gaza, vibrant with life despite Israel’s long siege.

My foreign passport made the journey possible. In Haifa I met with Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were gathering for an annual meeting through the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. They denounced the discrimination they experienced on a daily basis and their second-class status in the supposedly democratic state of Israel, while also expressing support for their fellow Palestinians living under occupation.

From Haifa I drove up to the Syrian Jawlan/Golan. The bulk of its population were expelled into Syria in 1967, when Israel first occupied the territory, which it then annexed in 1981. Both the occupation and the annexation are still illegal under international law. The population that remained after 1967 grew into a vibrant community of 500,000 Syrians. A monument to Sultan al-Atrash, the Syrian nationalist Druze leader who led the 1925 revolt against France, which then held the mandate over Syria, stands in the middle of the town of Majdal Shams.

Many people in the shops I visited expressed surprise and pleasure at meeting a compatriot all the way from Damascus. Through various contacts in East Jerusalem, I connected with youth organizations and activists who promoted nonviolent resistance to Israel’s occupation. Their acts of resistance included stalling or rejecting the Israeli government’s efforts to impose Hebrew as the primary language in schools, and the preservation of their identity and customs as Syrians. Unlike the Druze citizens of Israel, Syrian Druze have refused to serve in the Israeli army. I also witnessed a rift between members of two different clans, one accusing the other of having cut down the trees in their orchards. With tears in his eyes, the head of one family explained to us that he believed Israelis had committed the act of destruction to sow seeds of conflict between different families.

I also saw people updating their relatives on the “other side” of the fence. As I had seen enacted in Israeli films, they shouted their news through megaphones. Since the 2011 Syrian revolution and the decade-long war that followed, the fence has been replaced by a steel barricade that prevents people from visiting Syria to meet their families and exchange news in person. The division is also ideological. Older, nostalgic Jawlanis sided with Bashar al-Assad, to the dismay of the younger ones, who supported the popular uprising against his regime.

In the eyes of many inside and outside of Israel, the Golan Heights has become a destination for “green” tourism, hiking and horseback riding — all activities promoted without reference to the territory’s occupied status. Its waters and vegetation are indeed rich and enticing, particularly since Israel was able, after 1967, to cut off Syria’s access to the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. Today, Israel is hailed as a pioneer in renewable energy with hundreds of wind farms set up in the Golan — a “green” energy produced on land that has been occupied and looted for 56 years.

From the Jawlan, I drove to Tabariyya (Tiberias) to look for my family’s history. My mother’s only memory, as she was still a child during the 1948 Nakba, was that the family’s properties were next to the “old post office.” Of course, there were no traces to be found. The area was heavily built-up and densely populated, entirely by Israelis. I heard from relatives abroad that the family’s house had been taken over by the local municipality after the expulsion.

Tiberias, traditionally depicted in Palestinian collective memory as a beautiful town by the Sea of Galilee, is today a tacky tourist destination. Such transformations are the reality for many historic Palestinian cities, towns and villages, which have either completely disappeared or been recast within the great Zionist project. The only Palestinians left behind have been pushed to the outskirts of the city and live in impoverished, working-class neighborhoods. I finally found the presumed location of the old post office, dug my hands into the ground and brought some soil back with me to my mother, named Amal (Hope), who spread some over her parents’ tombs in Beirut. She wanted to give them, posthumously, a share of their memories and the past they lost.

My great-grandfather actively supported the Palestinian organizations that opposed the Zionist movement for a Jewish home in Palestine, which came at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population. He also believed in the historical coexistence of Palestinian Muslims, Christians and Jews in Palestine. My great-grandfather spoke Hebrew and helped the bereaved Jewish refugees who fled Europe to Palestine in the 1940s amid the Holocaust. His family had lived in Tiberias for several hundred years. When Israel was established in 1948, they lost everything — their house, all their properties and the large swaths of land my great-grandfather adamantly and repeatedly refused to sell to the Jewish National Fund, which led the purchase of land for Zionist settlements. Within a few days, Tiberias, once a mixed city where Palestinian Arabs and Jews lived together, became an entirely Jewish city.

During those British Mandate days, the Haganah and Irgun, both military wings of the Zionist movement, actively sowed terror among Palestinians, triggering the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948 Nakba (catastrophe). Before the war, my great-grandfather had sent his son, my grandfather, to study medicine at the American University of Beirut, a hub for Palestinian graduates for many years. My grandfather, who by 1948 was a practicing physician, decided to stay behind in the city of Tulkarem in the West Bank, where he lived with my grandmother and their children, to care for the wounded during and after the war. He sent his family to Beirut, the birthplace of my Lebanese grandmother. I heard stories about how Dr. Adib used to refuse payment from poor peasant families, and they, in gratitude, brought live chickens and other animals to his house, to my grandmother’s dismay. When I knocked on doors in Tulkarem to find pieces of my mother’s childhood, an old lady remembered the doctor who used to give her shots as a child and guided me to the house. It was now an abandoned structure, soon to be demolished and replaced by a shopping mall.

In 1950, my grandfather was forced to leave Palestine and joined his family in Beirut, where he died in 1963. In Beirut in 1952, my grandmother, Wadia Qaddura Khartabil, a leader of Palestinian women’s activism, founded the Union of Arab Palestinian Women, the first general union of Palestinian women in the diaspora. She was also a member of the first Palestine National Congress held in Jerusalem in late May 1964, which later became the Palestinian National Assembly at which the Palestine Liberation Organization was established. Her memoir, published in 1995, provides a rich description and history of Palestinian feminism and resistance over half a century, and a lifetime of advocacy in support of the Palestinian cause at the United Nations.

Jerusalem came as a shock. Its physical beauty and exhilarating sense of history clashed with the ostentatious signs of domination, the Jewish settlements and encroachments on the eastern side of the city. In East Jerusalem I learned that my ancestors on my father’s side, who traveled from Jerusalem to Damascus about 500 years ago, were given the custodianship of the Tomb of David on Mount Zion in Jerusalem by Salahuddin Ayubbi, or Saladin, as a reward for their courage in fighting the crusaders. To reflect that honor, the family name was changed from Bayt al-Dajani to Bayt al-Daoudy (Arabic for “House of David”). The idea of Muslims honored with protecting the last remains of a Prophet similarly respected by Muslims, Christians and Jews seemed quite befitting to this very special place. Tensions, however, were palpable on every corner, every day. I couldn’t wait to leave the city with its oppressive military presence and settlers.

One of my more memorable meetings was with Khalil Tafakji, director of the cartography department (formally called the mapping and geographic information systems department) at the Arab Studies Society, a Palestinian nongovernmental organization that was housed in the Orient House, a landmark Palestinian institution in East Jerusalem regularly shut down by the Israeli authorities. Tafakji kept meticulous records and maps of the Palestinian presence in Jerusalem — of a community faced with evictions and harassment by the Israeli army and settlers occupying the eastern part of the city — and more broadly on the growth of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. He urged me to collect and send him any “tabu papers,” Ottoman-era land registry deeds that established pre-1948 land ownership rights for the Palestinians, which are still held by my family and many Palestinian refugees. In 2017, Israeli forces closed down the department, broke into Tafakji’s house and arrested him, confiscating his maps and other collections. They officially accused him of a “sovereignty breach” for collecting information in Jerusalem for the Palestinian Authority. He was released, but then arrested again in 2020.

Other encounters in Jerusalem with Israeli activists and journalists gave me hope for the possibility of coexistence between the two populations, just as active opposition against the war in Gaza expressed today by Jewish and Israeli groups, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, with their slogan “Not in Our Name,” paves the way for real peace and equality.

Michel Warschawski, former leader of the Marxist anti-Zionist group Matzpen (Compass) and founder of the Alternative Information Center, a joint Palestinian-Israeli NGO, told me that he regularly drove visitors from abroad to the West Bank settlements so that they could see the reality of the occupation. Haaretz journalist Amira Haas, the only Israeli civilian living among Palestinians in the West Bank — and the daughter of Holocaust survivors — told me that some of her fellow Israelis rejected her due to her reporting on the destruction caused by the occupation.

Ramallah felt like a new Amman, lined with Western-style cafes. It embodied Israel’s post-Oslo hegemony disguised as peace. In my interactions with several water negotiators, I came to realize the extent of the domination that had been sanctioned and institutionalized through the so-called peace process. The Oslo II Accord, signed in 1995, made it mandatory for Palestinians to submit the blueprints of proposed water projects to the Israeli authorities, who conditioned the granting of permits on connecting their illegal settlements to Palestinian infrastructure. The Israeli authorities also demanded a list of the Palestinian negotiators but refused to disclose the names of their own negotiators, so the Palestinians didn’t know who was in the room with them.

The “peace money” from the European Union and other donors meant that a select few Palestinians lived in expensive houses and drove fancy cars. But only miles away from the suave de facto capital of Palestine, the reality was very different. The village of Bilin offered a sharp contrast, as the young and the old, the local and international, the urban and rural regularly demonstrated against the Israeli occupation, confronting heavily armed Israeli soldiers. I attended one of those demonstrations, which is where I experienced the pain of inhaling tear gas and the fear of facing soldiers who had come to break up peaceful protests. From a safe distance the mighty IDF launched tear gas and rubber bullets on unarmed protestors, gravely injuring a young man in the forehead. I do not know if he survived. An old peasant lady in front of me, dressed in her traditional Palestinian thobe, kept going bravely at them with a handkerchief pressed over her nose and mouth.

A block away from gentrified Ramallah, the Israeli settlements continued to grow at a rapid pace. The settlers drove past Palestinian cities and towns while brandishing assault rifles on their shoulders. “That’s what we are here for,” the Israeli soldier guarding one of the Jewish settlements said to me one day, when he approached my car as I was lost on my way back to East Jerusalem. He naturally assumed that a woman driving alone at dusk was a Jewish settler in need of his protection, especially as I was driving the “right” type of car, one with the visibly yellow license plate.

My daily rides through the stunning landscapes between East Jerusalem and Ramallah went through the so-called “VIP” checkpoints where affiliates of international organizations, as well as officials from the Palestinian Authority, were granted the “privilege” of crossing swiftly while crowds of Palestinian workers and visitors were amassed at the other checkpoints, waiting for long hours under the scorching sun to be allowed in. This ill-begotten VIP status gave the Palestinian Authority a semblance of importance in a position otherwise devoid of agency (and in the eyes of many looked like a betrayal).

When visiting the beautiful Palestinian village of Battir, a Byzantine and Ottoman UNESCO world heritage site with ancient irrigation systems and terraces, I saw how the settlers on the upper hills dumped their raw sewage water directly down onto the village, contaminating the main source of water. In al-Khalil (Hebron), locals also complained about the trash constantly thrown onto them by Jewish settlers determined to push them out of the city.

Finally, I went to Gaza. In “Silence for Gaza,” the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote:

Because in Gaza time is something different.
Because in Gaza time is not a neutral element.
It does not compel people to cool contemplation, but rather to explosion and a collision with reality.

Time there does not take children from childhood to old age, but rather makes them men in their first confrontation with the enemy.

Time was indeed different in Gaza. Walking alone through the long, empty crossing felt like walking in slow motion to the great soundtrack of Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman’s movie “Divine Intervention,” a burlesque, surreal and satirical depiction of Israeli occupation. The Turkish peace flotilla had just attempted to break Israel’s siege on Gaza by bringing food and supplies by sea. On that day, Israel fired on and killed nine unarmed peace activists who were on board. Friends and colleagues from the UNDP showed me around Gaza City — its infrastructure, its beautifully flowering trees and expansive avenues, among ruins that bore the signs of Israel’s airstrikes in 2006 and then 2008-2009.

Gaza was a majestic city that carried the vestiges of its long history of cultures and empires, from the ancient Egyptians to the Assyrians, the Philistines, Romans, Byzantines and Arabs. Gazan Palestinians are among the warmest and kindest people I met during my journey. They carry a special form of attachment to the little piece of land left to them. When the day wound down, children played happily in the sea, the main playground available to them. As they swam, I watched a line of raw wastewater flooding directly into waters lying a few meters away from them. The Israeli land, sea, and air blockade imposed on Gaza since June 2007 has made any necessary upgrades to water and wastewater infrastructures impossible.

Today, this city, which was filled with beauty, joy and life in spite of the surrounding misery, has almost disappeared. I can’t help wondering about the fate of the refugee camp on the outskirts of the city, whose name escapes me as I write, a buzzing but desolate place with water running in the streets. Was it the Jabalya camp that was recently entirely destroyed by Israel, killing hundreds of civilians? It took four years in Syria to reach the same level of destruction. At the time of writing, more than 15,000 people, and probably many more unaccounted for, have been killed by Israeli bombs financed by U.S. taxpayers (including myself), of which almost 6,000 were children, while 1.7 million people are displaced with no access to clean water, homes or health services. In addition to cutting off water and food, Israel’s use of white phosphorus — a war crime according to international law — will leave toxic rubble for generations to come. My friends, who are lucky to have escaped to the south and to still be alive, suffer from acute thirst and hunger. They also face the threat of diseases. They send pictures of their attempts to bake a small piece of bread over coal for a family of 16.

The great Palestinian scholar Edward Said proclaimed to the world the right of the indigenous to write back. Today, the indigenous and nonindigenous unite to speak up against impunity and demand a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, an end to Israel’s long chapter of occupation, killing and displacement of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian writer Yara El-Ghadban argues that a “slow genocide” has been unfolding for years. Israel has wielded colonial practices against the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza that are similar to those employed in the 19th century by European colonial powers, which impoverished once prosperous countries like China, British India and Ethiopia, and created what was called the Third World.

Palestinians under occupation in Gaza and the West Bank are dehumanized in the same way. Their children can be killed, mutilated and starved at the whim of the occupiers, their population expelled at will, again and again, and their diaspora and supporters silenced. Having been raised on the words “once we return to Palestine” and then seeing at first hand the extent of Israel’s settler-colonialism and apartheid system, the current catastrophe represents to me and others — both inside Palestine and within the diaspora — a new milestone in the long history of the Nakba. It will be remembered as one of its most tragic chapters.

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