What It Was Like Being Forced to Leave Palestine 60 Years Ago
Editor's Note: The current conflict between Hamas forces and Israel has rekindled memories among many Palestinian expats of a time more than six decades ago when they were forced to flee their homeland as violence erupted there. A 78-year-old Palestinian expat, who wants to remain anonymous, shares some of those memories with New America Media reporter Suzanne Manneh.
DALY CITY, Calif. -- It's been 61 years since I've seen my homeland of Palestine. I'm one of many Palestinian elders living in exile. And sadly, one of many who may not live to see home again.
I left Jaffa, Palestine, now part of Israel, when I was 17. It was a violent time in Palestine, leading up to the Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, the expulsion of Palestinians from Palestine, and the creation of Israel.
My family and I fled on April 27, 1948. My cousin, who lived a block away from me, was severely injured from a missile attack on our neighborhood, but survived. The next day, Jewish defense forces said we had to leave or die, so we packed whatever we could, as fast as we could, and left for Jordan, hoping for a more peaceful, stable life. But an unstable Jordanian economy in the 1970's ended that dream and started another, in the United States.
When I came to the United States, I hid the fact that I was Palestinian, or even Arab. I said I was Greek. I was worried Americans would call me a terrorist and reject me. I surrendered my homeland and my identity as well. Some found out I was Palestinian and insulted me.
In the last two weeks, I've been glued to my television set, watching from my home here in California the fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza. And as I watch, I cry. Watching this is the closest I think I can get to home.
My last memories of home are like this. Chaos. Death. Blood. Tears. Fear. Anger. Screaming. And above all sadness, so much sadness. One minute you're enjoying a meal with your family and boom! you're uprooted.
One afternoon, at the end of January 1948, I was riding my bicycle home from my father's taxicab business. I was in downtown Jaffa and saw one of my uncles riding his bike. "Hurry on home!" he yelled, "I hear this area is next to get bombed!"
I didn't believe him, but I didn’t want to take any chances. I rode toward my house and he toward his. Seconds later, I heard a huge explosion. I saw buildings go up in smoke and fires behind me. Hundreds of people were running in the streets, screaming. I was shaking uncontrollably when I got home. I learned that my uncle had died in the explosion.
The violence escalated in the following days. My Jewish friends were shocked. They couldn't believe what was happening. There had been riots before, a little violence, but never like this.
Each day there were more attacks. Palestinians felt they had to retaliate, so it became violence against violence.
The Jewish defense forces began forcing people to leave their homes. If they didn't, they would kill everyone, they said. I remember Palestinian girls getting raped. I saw three sisters from my neighborhood jump into a well because the defense forces tried to rape them.
Many families who didn't have cars in which to escape scrambled to find a family that did. They squished into them, 12 to15 people to a car.
Others managed to take boats north into Lebanon. Some fled by foot. Many of them died of dehydration and exhaustion while escaping. We were lucky. We had a cab from my father's taxicab company at home and we drove off in it, leaving everything else behind.
The other day, I saw a close-up of a little girl's face on my TV screen. She was four, maybe five, years old. Her eyes were swollen from crying. She was screaming, "Mommy! Daddy! Mommy! Where are you? I need you!" Her parents had been killed in missile attacks.
When I saw her eyes, I remembered a little girl from 1948 in my neighborhood. She too had eyes swollen from crying. She found her parents shot dead in front of her home. They hadn't cooperated when they were told to leave. The little girl was still asleep inside the house.
In that violence, over 750,000 Palestinians were forced out. But today I see cruelty that cannot compare to 1948. This is worse than a slaughterhouse. I see fields of human bodies with arms and legs missing. I see dead bodies lying on top of each other in pools of blood, injured people, homes turned to rubble.
I see children in the streets all alone. I see people crying. They have been without food, water, medicine and electricity for weeks.
In 1948, I thought the Palestinian issue was just a Palestinian issue, but this current conflict has become a global humanitarian crisis. International human rights are being violated. Palestinians deserve a home, deserve peace, just like everyone else.
Growing up in Palestine, I had many Jewish, Muslim and Christian friends. You could sense the harmony between us.
I remember many of them visiting me in Jaffa. I, in turn, would visit them in Gaza, an hour's drive away. I still remember the smell of fresh citrus and wild flowers in the air.
I haven't seen or heard from them since I came to the United States. I'm not sure if they're okay, or even if they’re still alive. I have no way of finding out. When I fled Palestine, I was lucky to have my parents, brothers, sisters and a few other immediate relatives to stay with. It was impossible to keep track of everyone else you knew when you were ripped apart from everything and everyone.
After the state of Israel was created, the Israeli government made it difficult for Palestinians to return to their homeland. If I had to go back, I would first need to complete forms and be investigated before I am given permission. Imagine needing permission to go home. It's like someone ripping my heart out, stepping on it and feeding it to the lions. If there had been peace in Palestine, I would have preferred to be there now, even if it meant living like a peasant.
I cried and prayed for peace in 1948, and every time a fresh outbreak of violence erupted. For too long I have been hearing the terms, "cease fire" and "peace talks."
But historically, that part of the world has been an unending cycle of violence and ceasefire. I don't want to see this cycle continue. There must be peace, real peace, and equality.
The only thing I can do now as a 78-year-old man is to pray. Pray for my people. Pray for everyone. Pray for peace.