Palestinian Refugees in Gaza Recall, ‘Torn Bodies’ and Long for Return

86-year-old, Amna was preparing for marriage when her town was ethnically cleansed by Zionists militias in 1948. (Photo: Yousef M. Aljamal, PC)

By Yousef M. Aljamal

The horror of ethnic cleansing campaigns carried out against hundreds of Palestinian villages in 1948 by Zionists militias still haunt survivors 68 years on. Palestinians in Gaza, 80 % of whom are refugees, still recall the mass exodus that Israel celebrates as “Independence Day”. Subsequent Israeli attacks on Gaza have always made the Palestinian memory so impossible to forget, despite the Israeli desire that “The old will die and the young will forget”.

Three Nakba survivors spoke to The Palestine Chronicle about their experiences in 1948 and the trauma experienced when they had to leave their towns and villages and ended up in Gaza’s refugee camps. These three refugees recalled the good life they led with their families until they were kicked out of their towns and had to endure endless suffering.

Misbah Ballour poses in his house in Alnusierat refugee camp (Photo: Yousef M. Aljamal, PC)
Misbah Ballour poses in his house in Alnusierat refugee camp (Photo: Yousef M. Aljamal, PC)

“We owned 80-dunums and enjoyed our life”

Misbah Mahmoud Ballour, 83, from the village of Aqir recalled how his family owned approximately 80-dunums of land: “Life was nice, the family connection was strong, and villages maintained good relationships with each other.”

“When someone got married, the whole village would stand by him. Even when someone died, people from other villages would come and offer condolences as death was a very big thing back then.” Ballour recalled how the lifestyle of Palestinian peasants was different from that of today. “People would wake up early in the morning, have their breakfast, and go with their kids to work in their lands,” he explained.

The adjacent villages of Aqer used to have a very famous season called Robeen, in which they would take days off work and enjoy festivals and shopping.

Swollen Feet upon Arriving in Gaza

The day the Zionist militias attacked Aqir is still vivid in Ballour’s mind. “In 1948, Jewish militias surrounded the village at night and asked for the handing over of weapons held by some fighters in the village. If their demands were not met, they threatened to occupy the village.” As the village was placed under siege, “We feared for our lives and started to leave. They killed some villagers to terrorise the rest of the inhabitants and make them leave.”

The ethnic cleansing of Aqir was part of the Dalit Plan, which aimed at kicking out the inhabitants of villages and towns in the surrounding areas of Jaffa. “At the beginning of May 1948, the villagers fled to the adjacent village of Yibna, and then the battle of Bisheet took place. We used to hear the names of people killed inside the village. We then fled to Majdal through the coastal road,” added Ballour.

“I remember the day we were forced to leave clearly. We walked all the way from Yibna to Gaza. We were 44 people from the same family, all my uncles and cousins. My feet got swollen,” the 83-year old recalled, touching his feet. Among the people killed in the village was, according to him, Ibrahim Shakfa, Abu Bassam Jabir and Hassan Abdallah Mousa.

Upon arrival in Gaza, Ballour explains, “We found nothing to eat. Aid groups came to provide us with our needs. The United Nations provided Palestinians with tents, and people had great hopes to return to their villages”. He explained the life he lived in comparison to his current existence: “Life today is completely different; we used to have security, respect, and co-existence. I am dreaming of going back to my village again.”

Ballour laments the narrowness of refugee camps today compared to the spacious land his family owned: “Palestinians had spacious land to grow their crops and take care of their animals, and we planted all sorts of vegetables and fruit.”

The story of Ballour is not different from that of Ameena Abdallah Qanan, 86, or as she is known in Gaza, Um Jawad Abu Silmia, from the village of Jorit Askalan. Um Jawad spoke the dialect of her village and recalled the fig and grape fields that surrounded her village.

The 86-year old was preparing for marriage when her town was ethnically cleansed by Zionists militias in 1948 (Photo: Yousef M. Aljamal,  PC)
86-year-old, Amna was preparing for marriage when her town was ethnically cleansed by Zionists militias in 1948. (Photo: Yousef M. Aljamal, PC)

Preparing for Marriage

“We were peaceful people farming our lands and taking care of our animals. We were leading a very comfortable life. People from my village would sell their crops and produce in adjacent villages and towns such as Fallouja, Iraq Swidan and Jaffa,” is how she began her speech, with sorrow in her eyes.

“My father was a soldier with the Turkish army and he fought with them for forty years. He travelled to Morocco, Spain and Turkey.”

The week Um Jawad was expelled from the village along with her family and her old father, she was preparing to get married. She recalled that experience with a smile on her face, “I was supposed to get married the week we were forced out of the village. My husband proposed to me a year later in Gaza, but my father refused and swore that the wedding would never take place except in our village. My husband brought a group of figures with him who pressured my father and he finally agreed. They told him: “You could do another wedding when we would return to Jorit Askalan, but that second wedding never took place.”

“Some 170 Palestinians were Killed in Jorit Askalan”

Moshe Dayan led an attack against the village which Palestinians defended with the little weapons they had. “Moshe Dayan brought armored vehicles and started shooting at us in orchards and on the roads. Planes threw powder barrels on our village killing some 170 people. Rumors spread that the Jews will attack us, so women started to leave the village. We spent seven nights in orchards. They told us we would be back within a week. We are still refugees until this day.”

According to Um Jawad, the victims of this massacre included Mohammed Ayoub and his three kids, eight other people from the Alwan family, and three kids of Hamouda Abdulghani. “There was a man with the name of Asmail Ayoub Ghrab from Jaffa who rented a house in our village. 15 people from his family were killed in the massacre,” said Um Jawad.

“Warships took part in the attack on the village”

Jewish warships took part in the attack. “Saleem Abujahjouh was killed. His son was born a day before he was killed,” Um Jawad recalled.

“We have never thought that we will be made refugees for this long period of time. We ended up in Gaza and we stayed near the Gaza Valley. Then we stayed in Rafah until 1956. Then we moved to Khan Yonis for 40 more years and we finally ended up in Al Nuseirat.”

Israeli soldiers shot Jawad, the eldest son of Um Jawad, dead in 1986 when he took part in a student protest in the West Bank town of Birzeit.

Never Lose Hope”

Um Jawad still has hope that she will return to her village. Women who are older than the state of Israel have message for it: “You will go away just like other foreign nations that occupied Palestine went away. We will never lose hope.”

“I tell young people: never forget your lands and towns. I remember the Valley of Ants, the grape fields, and the orchards of Askalan. I remember the good days in Jaffa when I sold birds that I caught near the hills of Yibna. I remember Iskandar Awad and the Balabseh Markets as well as the Bridge and the Seaport Streets in Jaffa. They were the best days. One day we will return.”

Aysheh Zaqout, 100, still longs to her town and dreams of returning back (Photo: Essam Zaqout PC)
Aysheh Zaqout, 100, still longs for her town and dreams of returning. (Photo: Essam Zaqout, PC)

100-year old Refugee, Aysheh Zaqout’s life in Asdod

The 100-year old Aysheh Zaqout from Asdod shares Um Jawad’s hope of returning to her village, and her pain of losing her son. In 1989, and just after the Eid prayer, Israeli soldiers shot her son, Mohammed, dead, leaving nine kids, a wife and a sorrowful mother behind, whose memory of what happened in 1948 is still vivid.

“When Zionists drove us out of Asdod in 1948, I was married with two kids, Zaki and Hussain. We were living in our 60-dunum-orchard, which was planted with sesame, peaches, apricot and figs. Our house was located to the West of Asdod, near the main station. It was made of mud, and we had a simple and beautiful life. In fact, we were very happy.”

Bombs fell around us”

This happiness, however, did not last too long, as Jewish militias started attacking the city. “Jewish gangs attacked us through the fields and farms. They came from the western side of our orchard and opened heavy gunfire on us. We could see bullets hitting our house,” recalled the 100-year refugee.

“Bombs were falling on us everywhere. I saw the bodies of Palestinians scattered on cactus trees across the road from our house. A huge bomb fell near the house of Mohammed Saleh, our neighbor. We managed to escape by riding on the backs of our donkeys and mules. We moved along with hundreds of refugees through the fields and farms. Our destiny was unclear. We decided to go to Gaza.”

Aysha Zaqout still remembers the details of her town and longs to return. “Just show me the Ghabin café and I will accompany you to our house,” she bragged. The 100-year old is ready to do whatever it takes to return to her town “I am ready to take up arms and fight with my grandchildren to return to our village.”

Until someone shows Aysha the Ghabin café, takes Misbah back to his orange orchard, and accompanies Ameena to Iskandar Awad’s market, millions of Palestinian refugees will continue to long for homes that once were theirs.

– Yousef M. Aljamal is the Palestine Chronicle Correspondent in the Gaza Strip.

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