Between 750,000 and a million Palestinians were forcibly displaced by Zionist militias in 1947-49, never to be allowed back.
Hundreds of villages and towns were destroyed, and thousands were killed, many of them in massacres that terrorized Palestine’s native population.
Seventy-five years later, many of that first generation have died. But some are still alive to tell stories of the Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe.
Fatima Abu Dayya, 82, was 7 when her family was forced to flee their village of Yibna, which was seized by Zionists in 1948. Yibna is 15 km southwest of Ramla.
“My father took the key of our house along with some clothes and then we traveled on a donkey-drawn cart. We first went to Ashdod,” she told The Electronic Intifada. She remembered the way there as “too long and filled with thick sand.”
But Ashdod was not secure. “Ashdod and nearby areas were also subjected to airstrikes, so we were forced to leave and go to Gaza.”
The family eventually stopped in the Beit Lahia area of Gaza, where Fatima grew up in a refugee camp.
“When I think of the word ‘Nakba,’ my heart aches. Nothing feels as bad as being displaced and detached from your own memories and life.”
Yibna was famous for citrus fruits, olive and palm trees, and fresh springs, and Fatima used to help her father, a farmer.
“I miss the fragrance of our lands. After we left, my father never stopped yearning to go back to his crops of oranges and grapes. He never lost hope of going back.”
She remembers vividly how people fled advancing Zionist militias, some running barefoot having left everything behind in order to escape the bombings.
Despite the tragedies Fatima’s family witnessed, they were certain that their displacement would be temporary.
Fatima has 10 grandchildren. She is determined to return to Yibna.
“Every morning, I tell my grandchildren stories about my childhood in Yibna and educate them about its history. I tell them about how simple yet happy our days were.”
Israel didn’t just take the land, she said.
“Israel stole our history and memories. It’s my duty to teach my grandchildren that Palestine is our land, not theirs.”
Hassan al-Deryawi, 83, is from Haifa. After his family was expelled, they too settled in Beit Lahia.
Hassan, a retired Arabic teacher, was 8 when his family was forced to leave Haifa.
“At first, the Zionist militias occupied the Mount Carmel area. Then they started bombing everything.”
Hassan and his family fled with what little possessions they could carry.
“My father prepared a small bag where we put some basic stuff, believing that we would return after a few days. I took my school bag and my ball, as far as I remember. We left everything else behind, our land, our home, our money and our dreams. We even left ourselves there, clinging to the hope that we will return one day,”
HIs father worked at Haifa port, a hub of trade and commerce in those days. The Zionists wanted to take Haifa port as a priority due to the city’s strategic location as a gateway to the Mediterranean region, Hassan, who is a history buff, said.
“Throughout Haifa’s history, it had a significant commercial and military presence. That exposed it to colonial ambition,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
Hassan finished first grade at Haifa’s al-Widad Islamic School.
“The most horrible situation I witnessed was to see my school demolished. I still remember when the Zionists bombed it with artillery.”
The last days in Haifa were fraught, he remembered. As the fighting and bombardment intensified, children would often have to take cover under their seats.
“I used to walk a long distance with my sisters every day to get to school. We had to hide from bullets and run from street to street, until we got to school.”
Before Israel sealed Gaza off from the rest of the world, Hassan would sometimes take his students on field trips around Palestine in the 1980s.
“One day, we visited Haifa and I showed my students where my house had stood and where I used to play football and dance dabke with my friends. I wish I could see it again.“
Hassan sometimes writes poetry about Haifa and always remembers it to his grandchildren.
“If someone gives me a cap of invisibility, I will disguise myself and go to Haifa. I will contemplate every inch of its land, its streets and its port. There is a deep wound inside each one of us and this wound will never heal unless we return.”
Suleiman Hamdan, 81, was six in 1948. Growing up, he lived with his five brothers and four sisters.
Suleiman’s mother, a widow by then, was forced to flee their village of Maghar which meant leaving behind their home, possessions, and even Suleiman himself during the arduous journey.
Suleiman’s mother suffered from a respiratory disease and required constant care while walking. Following an attack by a Zionist militia in Maghar back in 1948, she was forced to leave and move to Majdal, in the TIberias region.
“It was hard for my mother to manage the long journey to Majdal alone. She had 10 children and she forgot to take me with her. Fortunately, one of their neighbors took me and sent me back to my mother.”
But Majdal soon came under attack too and the family had to flee again. They fled south and didn’t stop until they reached Rafah in southern Gaza.
Suleiman now lives in Maghazi refugee camp.
Suleiman worked as a laborer in Israel for many years. He would sometimes work near Yazur, a village near Maghar.
There, bitter memories of his past would haunt him. He never did make it to his own village, though.
He vividly remembers what happened to his brother and many others in Maghar.
A British Army unit was stationed near the village, he recalled. Before the British troops left the camp, he told The Electronic Intifada, they invited the local population to take over the camp.
It was an ambush: The British, who ruled Palestine between the 1920s and 1940s, had given weapons and rifles to a group of Zionists who were hiding in the camp. When the villagers arrived, they were fired upon.
More than 25 young men were killed, according to Suleiman’s recollection. His brother Mahmoud was with the young men, but survived.
It was after that massacre that the people of Maghar fled.
Suleiman’s father had been village chief. He owned more than 50,000 square meters of orange groves and a water well that had been given to his grandfather as a gift for serving in the Ottoman army in the 1880s.
“We were unable to take any of our possessions with us,” Suleiman said. “Despite our hopes of returning to our lands after the war, all those who were displaced were unable to do so. Our properties were lost. It was the water well that my father missed the most.”
Don’t give up your traditions and history. That is what Suleiman tells young people now.
“You should always cling to your origins,” he said. “They are your past; they make your future.”
Yasmin Abusayma is a freelance writer and translator from Gaza.