Ever since 1948, Abu Ibrahim has been waiting to return to the simple house that he and his father built in their village which was occupied by nascent Israeli occupation forces and turned into a moshav agricultural settlement. Although he has lost most of his relatives and friends who fled the village with him, he still has hope that one day he will go back.
“If I do not go back alive in order to live in my house,” he told MEMO on the eve of the 71st anniversary of his personal Nakba, “I hope to go back dead and be buried in the village cemetery.”
Mohammad Ibrahim Al-Najjar — known by his kunya Abu Ibrahim — is now 88 years old. His memories of his village, Yasur, include how he and his relatives and friends were ethnically cleansed under heavy fire by Jewish terror gangs.
According to Abu Ibrahim, all the Palestinians at the time lived a “simple” and “stable” life in their villages and cities across historic Palestine. “Like most of the other villages,” he explained, “in Yasur we lived on farming and our animals. Those living in the cities used to work in factories and transportation.”
Yasur was a Palestinian village 40 kilometres north-east of the Gaza Strip. The Zionists drove out its residents — over 1,000 of them — at gunpoint in June 1948 and built the moshav called Talmei Yechi. Its residents fled to other villages and passed through Al-Majdal, now Ashkelon, before reaching Gaza where they stayed. Today, they and their descendants living as refugees in Gaza and the wider diaspora are estimated to total more than 7,000 people.
When Abu Ibrahim was old enough to understand that British occupation of Palestine, he asked his father about the military presence on three sides of his village. “In the west,” he recalled, “there was an airport. In the south, there was an army camp. In the north, there was a barracks.”
During the British Mandate era, the old man said, the villagers of Yasur did not experience much suffering, but they were prevented from owning any kind of arms, even if it was a single bullet. “If anyone had a bullet, he might have been sent to prison for years.” Palestine’s Jews, however, were allowed to buy, carry and store weapons.
“The residents of our village were peaceful. Many of them, including my father, worked in the British camps along with the occupiers and Jewish migrants and at the end of the day, the villagers went to work in their farms and the Jews went to military training camps run by the British occupation authorities.”
Abu Ibrahim was too young to remember much about the disturbances in Palestine during the 1930s, but in the 1940s, he said, he was old enough to observe and remember. “The Jewish gangs started to carry out sporadic attacks here and there across Palestine. In 1948, the British handed over Palestine to the Jews and left most of their arms for them to carry out massacres of the Palestinians.”
He heard about massacres in Palestine’s cities, towns and villages. “We continued our normal life, though. Yes, we were afraid, but it was very necessary to care for our farms and animals. Then on 9 June, 1948, we woke up to the noise of Jewish bullets fired at our homes. We could do nothing except flee.”
He was just 16, and had to take care of his mother, brother, sister and father, who was by then blind. “We persuaded ourselves that it was normal, but we had packed our luggage from the moment that we heard about massacres in other villages.” He and the other villagers from Yasur first headed for Beit Jibrin, 21km north-west of Hebron, before going to Gaza via Al-Majdal.
“Only three of the villagers were killed and four were wounded. We went to Al-Majdal and stayed for a couple of days, hoping that we would be able to return to our home, but the attacks continued and thousands of people walked south along the Mediterranean coast to Gaza.”
Some of the Palestinian refugees in Gaza looked for a chance to resettle somewhere else. Abu Ibrahim’s family, along with around 5,000 others, continued their walk along the coast to El-Arish in Egypt. There they lived in a refugee camp in an old British army barracks. In 1951, they went back to Gaza and lived in Al-Maghazi Refugee Camp. They still hoped to return to their village, but that time has still not come.
“The UN created the ‘Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ — UNRWA — to take care of our urgent needs,” Abu Ibrahim pointed out. “At first, it gave us tents, then built clay rooms and then very small makeshift homes which were later turned into strong concrete buildings by the refugees.”
At 88, Abu Ibrahim has lived under the British occupation, Egyptian rule and Israeli occupation. Despite it being 71 years since he fled his village and it was turned into an Israeli farming community, he still feels homesick for Yasur, its primary school and its mosque.
He told MEMO that he teaches his sons and grandsons about his village and its exact location in order not to miss it when they exercise their legitimate right of return. “I am almost 90 years old now,” he noted. “I still have a lot of hope that I will go home, but in case I don’t, I teach my sons and grandsons about the village, its people, its farms and its exact location in order to go straight to it when the time comes and I am not with them.”
Yasur is just one of more than 550 Palestinian towns and villages from which the residents were driven out and replaced by immigrant Jews. Most of the places have been wiped off the map by the Israelis. Abu Ibrahim himself was among more than 750,000 Palestinian refugees who now number 12 million men, women and children still living in refugee camps or scattered around the world.
The international community and the UN have been unable or unwilling to ensure that justice has been served for Palestine and the Palestinians. Nevertheless, the Palestinians themselves have not given up hope of returning to their homes no matter what their current conditions happen to be.
“If I pass away before we return,” concluded Abu Ibrahim, “my sons and grandsons will continue fighting for their right of return. The old die and the young live on and remember.”
The world should not forget that simple fact. The people of Palestine are not simply going to go away just because Israel and its allies want them to. They have a legitimate right under international law to return to the land from which they were ethnically cleansed, and Abu Ibrahim is not alone in believing that, one day, they will exercise that right.