A Palestinian's View of The Catastrophe

by Anan Odeh

May 2008 marks the sixtieth year of al-Nakba: The Catastrophe. Even today, 1948 remains the worst year in Palestinian history, with the destruction of Palestinian society and the dispossession and expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs (70% of the Arab population of Palestine) from their villages and cities by Zionist forces during the creation of Israel. Sixty years later, al-Nakba continues through Israel's military occupation of Palestinian territories, continued land confiscations, and the denial of Palestinians' right to return to their homes and land. For Palestinians, the "Right of Return" is not only a legal right (as set forth by U.N. article 194), it is an inalienable, natural, and historical right that originates from the fact that we were forced to leave our homeland, a place in which we had been living continuously for generations upon generations. Some disagree; many more have never heard the history of al Nakba. I invite everyone to read my story

Today, there are over five million Palestinian refugees around the world, still waiting to exercise their right of return. (Human Rights Watch reports that Palestinians are the world's oldest and largest refugee population, and make up more than one fourth of all refugees.) Most refugees live in the surrounding Arab countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and some live very close to their original homes. In my case, I live only three kilometers from my own village, Lifta.

My parents were born in Lifta where they spent their childhood in its hills and valleys. Like most Palestinians, my family was forced to leave in 1948 and I have inherited the memories of their lives in Lifta. As a child I was captivated by my grandparents' stories. I learned that before 1948 about 3,000 Palestinians lived there, most of them farmers. The lands totaled about 8,700 acres planted with olive trees, figs, cactus, and almonds. Lifta had hundreds of beautiful old-style homes, two schools, a community center, olive press, mosque, library, and cemetery.

On 28 December 1947, Zionist militias (Hagana and Stern Gang) attacked the village coffee shop killing five civilians and threatening the rest. The terrorized community fled the village, with the hope of returning in a few days. After their exodus, the Zionist forces bombed many of Lifta's houses so that people would not find a home to return to.

The estimated number of Lifta refugees today is around 30,000, scattered around the world. My family, along with dozens of other Lifta families, now lives in Jerusalem. We are allowed to visit the village but are prohibited from returning to live there. Yet, a number of Jewish settlers live in the remaining Lifta homes.

I have no words to describe my feelings when I see my house and land in front of me inhabited by strangers who prevent me by their laws from returning to it.

The first time I visited Lifta was with my grandfather. He took my brothers and me to the place he was born and raised. Although I was only seven years old, I remember that day very well. My grandfather nervously showed us where he used to play as a child, where he worked as a young man, and where he spent time with his children as a father. He touched the stones of his destroyed house like a parent patting his child. I remember that he almost cried. He said, "We used to live here and we had a simple life full of love and peace. One day we heard that Zionist military groups are attacking the neighboring villages. We were worried for the safety of our families, particularly, for the children, the women and the elders. They attacked our village and we left for safety, always planning to return immediately after the attacks stopped". With these words my grandfather relived al-Nakba.

My mother would carry on the narrative, recalling the day when she was eight years old and, "trucks came to take us to the unknown. As they threw us in the back I cried; not out of fear, but as an innocent child, I longed to return home but only to retrieve my doll. At the time, I felt only my crying," she would add. "Later, I understood that I was crying with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians. Just as I left my doll behind, others left countless other beloved items. It was only later I realized that what we had really lost was our homeland."

My parents' and grandparents' dream, like all the refugees, is the right to return to their home and live out their days there. My grandfather, like many others, died before fulfilling his dream, which has been passed on to his children and grandchildren. His voice still echoes through the generations, "We lost our land, but we never lost our dignity. Never allow any one to seize your dignity; it is your way to obtain your rights. And be sure that one day you and your children will return."

Lifta, like many other destroyed Palestinian villages and cities, is not just abandoned walls and trees. Lifta embodies a history, a struggle for life and existence, and a future in which victory and peace are achieved through the right of return. Lifta is a reality that nothing can ever erase from my memory.

Anan Odeh is a human rights lawyer and refugee from Lifta, Palestine. Born in 1972, he has lived most of his life in Jerusalem moving to Davis two years ago to continue his studies.