We Are Not from Where We Are From

A Palestinian catalog of ruin and resilience.

The words “refugee camp” may evoke an image of a tented city, filthy and exposed. Yet, for a long time and for many Palestinians the camps took a different form. What began as tented cities evolved into our common landscape in Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria—a dense, crowded network of gray buildings and narrow alleys.

In Shatila camp in southern Beirut, site of Ariel Sharon’s infamous massacre of civilians in 1982, electrical wires hang haphazardly across walkways while heroes of Palestinian resistance peer from the walls, their likenesses inevitably fraying or chipping, marking the decades, the acres of time. In Northern Lebanon, the Baddawi camp is juxtaposed with the arresting beauty of the Mount Lebanon range, with its snowy peaks in the winter and spring. In Gaza, the Mediterranean, whose waves crash stormily in the winter, moderates the severity of refugee life—when life there was still possible.

I was born in Tal al Sultan, one of eight refugee camps in the Strip. It sits in the smallest corner of Gaza in the southwest, abutting Egypt and the Mediterranean. My family’s home overlooked the Philadelphi Route, the Israeli name for the narrow buffer zone along the border between Gaza and Egypt. In the years before Ariel Sharon’s disengagement in 2005, the Israeli military patrolled the perimeter in drab olive jeeps, their antennae reaching grotesquely upward, marring our horizon. In December, Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intentions to reoccupy it.

Palestinian refugees, most of whom have never lived anywhere else, identify with their neighborhoods—the streets, the names, the feel of the seasons. Simultaneously, they cast backward into history for a sense of rootedness, a place and an identity. To be a refugee is to be unsettled, fundamentally. We are not from where we are from, an experience I know firsthand.

My mother’s family, Edwan, came from Barbara, a village that sat ten miles northeast of Gaza City. The hamlet was home to Yusuf al-Barbarawi, a scholar of Islamic law who lived in the fourteenth century. Its first mosque was built sometime during the sixteenth century serving several hundred villagers. In 1883 a survey by the Palestine Exploration Fund, a British society founded in 1865 for the study of Palestine, described “a good-sized village, surrounded by gardens with two ponds, and olives to the east. The sand encroaching from the coast . . . stopped by the cactus hedges of the gardens.”

My maternal grandfather’s cousin was Kamal Adwan, a prominent PLO leader. He was assassinated in Beirut in 1973 by Ehud Barak, who went on to become Israel’s prime minister. Half a million people marched in Kamal’s funeral, and later an eponymous hospital was erected in Gaza in his honor. Last month I watched a video of a two-month-old infant, Mahmoud Fattouh, gasping, drawing his last breath before dying of starvation. Dr. Hussam Abu Safiya, head of pediatrics at Kamal Adwan Hospital, said he has seen “many” such deaths.

On my father’s side, the Abu Moor family is one among several that together compose the Bedouin Tarabin tribe. Other major branches of the family include Abu Sitta, Abu’athreh, Alsufi, Aldebari, Abuedwan, Abusnaymeh, Abutaylakh, and Al’moor. Salman Abu Sitta, the scholar who mapped the Nakba, is a distant relative.

Years ago, while scuba diving in the Jordanian town of Aqaba on the Red Sea, I met a man who bore a striking resemblance to my father in his youth. He was a distant relation from the Aqaba branch of the Tarabin tribe. From him I learned that tribal lands extend from the Western coast of the Red Sea through Palestine/Israel and into Saudi Arabia, on the East coast. Traditionally, the fellahin, the Palestinian peasants who inhabited the arable interior of the country, with its wide plains and high hills, did not intermarry with the Bedouin. The groups were regarded, and continue to be regarded, as distinct. But in the pressure cooker that is the Gaza Strip, the lines blurred and the distinctness began to fade. My parents, who were both born in Gaza, met and married. The circumstances of their courtship would have been utterly unlikely in an alternate history of Palestine.

National memories are manufactured, yet they are often rooted in a common experience. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves form the basis of identity, which coheres into something bigger, the feeling of a nation. The Palestinians have many such stories, but perhaps the most political, the most animating across generations, isn’t a single story at all. The Nakba is many histories of diverse people—landowners, peasants, Bedouins, Christians, Muslims—cast together in a searing forge. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Jewish forces in 1948 and 1949 is that foundational event; it is our common language, the indelible mark. Today’s catastrophe in Gaza—the massive displacement and genocide—finds its origin in the Nakba and what came before it. Our stories trace the links in an unbroken chain, a people’s catalog of ruin and resilience.

As a child I often wondered at how a band of colonists and refugees from Europe succeeded in displacing my family, along with hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians. I struggled to picture the scene and could not fathom the material resources and organization required for the task.

In reality the Zionist effort to settle Palestine was a fifty-year project, an exercise in political and organizational will that spanned continents and drew on vast resources. I learned how the Jewish National Fund funneled men, materiel, and arms to the Yishuv, the community of Jewish immigrants in Palestine before 1948. I learned about early twentieth-century Zionists’ sophistication and access to London and Berlin and realized that the Palestinians never stood a chance. In 1937, while chairman of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion wrote,

We must expel Arabs and take their places. . . and, if we have to use force—not to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev and Transjordan, but to guarantee our own right to settle in those places—then we have force at our disposal.

This fact had been apparent to Palestinian residents in the 1920s and later. It was borne out by the statements of Israel’s ideological, military, and civilian leaders. The early decades of the twentieth century saw Palestinians revolt against increased Jewish settlement and colonization of their lands. The uprising first developed nonviolently, in the form of strikes and a refusal to pay taxes to the British colonial authorities. In the face of brutal suppression, the resistance eventually became violent. Izz ad-Din al-Qassam, an early Palestinian nationalist, fighter, and namesake of Hamas’s military wing, was killed by the British in 1935. The Great Arab Revolt, a three-year uprising which started in 1936 and ultimately failed, built on al-Qassam’s legacy and sought to force the British to recognize a Palestinian state.

In 1947, as large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Europe—refugees fleeing the ruins of World War II and the Holocaust—arrived in Palestine, the violence exploded. The British colonial government withered and sought to relinquish responsibility for Palestine. The United Nations responded with a partition plan: 55 percent of the land would be awarded to the Yishuv and 45 percent to the Palestinians, even though Jews formed only 33 percent of the population and owned only about 7 percent of the land. The passage of the plan was met with disbelief and anger by the Palestinians and their Arab allies. Violence followed in which the well-prepared Yishuv, having planned painstakingly for a declaration of independence, quickly deployed more than 50,000 fighters and overwhelmed the 10,000 volunteers of various origins who were prepared to fight for the Palestinians.

On March 10, 1948, Ben-Gurion, leading the Zionist forces, approved Plan Dalet. It called for

mounting operations against enemy population centers located inside or near our defensive system in order to prevent them from being used as bases by an active armed force. These operations can be divided into the following categories:

Destruction of villages (setting fire to, blowing up, and planting mines in the debris), especially those population centers which are difficult to control continuously.

Mounting search and control operations according to the following guidelines: encirclement of the village and conducting a search inside it. In the event of resistance, the armed force must be destroyed and the population must be expelled outside the borders of the state.

The displacement of the Palestinians was thus an official program of the Jewish state. Of 1.9 million Palestinian Arab residents between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, 750,000 were permanently displaced. Some were pushed into Lebanon, where they continue to reside in camps—stateless with limited rights to education and work. Others went to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and the Arabian Gulf countries by any means possible. But some 156,000 Palestinians managed to remain behind; their descendents now hold Israeli citizenship and are regarded as a fifth column within Israel. Many do not view themselves as Israeli, preferring to be identified simply as Palestinians in Israel.

Nada Matta, born into a Palestinian family in Israel, is a professor of sociology at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She shared her family’s story with me earlier this year.

The Matta family is from the Galilee, a fertile region in northern Israel and southern Lebanon. Like other Palestinian villages in the north, their village, Mi’liya, was ethnically cleansed in 1948. But unlike the vast majority of those who were forced from their homes, Nada’s family was permitted to return after the intercession of the village priest, and Mi’liya became one of a handful of Christian villages that would go on to act as the hub of Palestinian life in Israel. Her father was among the first generation to be educated in Hebrew, and he passed as Jewish to gain opportunity.

Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship lived under martial law until 1966 and continue to face institutionalized housing and other discrimination. They are second-class citizens, yet they also enjoy privileges that Palestinians living in camps, or under occupation, do not. Our experiences of Zionism are of the same type, if not degree; solidarities exist, but they can be fraught. When my family lived in Ramallah twenty-five years ago, our neighbor was a Palestinian woman with Israeli citizenship. She seemed exotic, reading Hebrew labels on everyday items effortlessly. Her car carried a yellow plate—a mark of privilege reserved for Israelis—allowing her to drive through checkpoints and on settler roads, even into Israel itself. Unlike Palestinians in Israel, the vast majority of refugees were stranded in a psychological no-man’s land—a place inhabited by ghosts, heavy with symbolism.

I’ve known Hilary Rantisi for over a decade; we met when I was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and she was leading the Middle East Initiative there. She is now Associate Director of the Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative at Harvard Divinity School. She organizes an annual faculty and student trek to Palestine/Israel, showcasing the violence and brutality of life under apartheid.

The Rantisis are a well-known Christian family in Palestine; Hilary’s father was elected to be deputy mayor of Ramallah in 1976. The family’s roots go back to the fifth century in Lydd, just southeast of Tel Aviv. For millennia the city was a pivotal hub connecting the trade routes of the Hejaz, or the Arabian Peninsula, with the Levant. In the early twentieth century Hilary’s family worked to manufacture soap from olive oil, a craft that continues across Palestine and Lebanon today; a modern visitor to Tyre can observe tradesman in their antique vocation most days of the week.

Hilary’s grandparents married in 1931 and by 1948 they’d had seven children, one of whom died in infancy. Her father had memories of the house they lived in before 1948, which he later recounted to his children in Ramallah. Hilary’s grandmother, Faiqa Shehadeh, was a matriarch who could read in Arabic, English and German at a time when most people were illiterate, including her husband. Born in 1912 to the small Christian community in Gaza, she lost her parents to the pandemic one hundred years ago. She was sent to live in an orphanage in Jerusalem which was run by Lutheran Germans, and served children of various religions, including Jews.

Lydd was ethnically cleansed in July 1948; Hilary’s father was twelve. On July 12, Israeli militants—the state was declared in May—knocked on the door of the family home. Hilary’s grandmother answered while carrying her youngest, a six-month-old infant. The troops, recent immigrants from Europe, instructed the family to leave the house while prohibiting them from taking anything along, and after a conversation in German, the family was told that they could return at the end of the day.

The Rantisis first sought refuge at their church. They found their passage blocked by Israeli paramilitaries who directed them to the hills. It was at that time that they realized they were being expelled from their homes. Despairing, they started walking in what they called the “death march.”  The family walked for three days until they reached Ni’lin. They were met there by Red Cross trucks, which transported them to Ramallah. In Hilary’s telling, “It was three days during Ramadan, and it was very hot. There was fighting and a curfew and people died on the way from heatstroke. My father remembers violence and death—a child fell under a tractor and died.”

Looting by Israeli forces was widespread, not unlike today. Hilary’s father witnessed what was occurring everywhere. He remembered, “there was a checkpoint where a new groom, from the Hanhan family, refused to give gold which he’d given his wife. He was shot in front of everyone and killed.”

The family were housed in the Friends Quaker School in Ramallah in a distant echo of the scenes unfolding in Gaza today. Space was limited and they were given a corner of the classroom to live in alongside four other families. By September the Red Cross had provided the family of twelve with a tent, and that winter, when it snowed in Ramallah, it collapsed under the weight of the snow.

My parents’ families experienced similar fates. My mother’s village, Barbara, which had survived the Byzantines, the Crusaders and Mamluks, and the British was destroyed by Zionist forces beginning on November 5, 1948. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris:

In the south . . . the army’s operations combined features of border-clearing and internal “cleansing”, and nowhere was this clearer than in the area roughly between Majdal and the northern edge of the Gaza Strip. . . The orders to the battalions and the engineers platoon were to expel to Gaza “the Arab refugees” from “Mamama, al Jura, Khirbet Khisas [misnamed ‘Khirbet Khazaz’, Ni’ilya, al Jiyya, Barbara, Beit Jirja, Hirbiya and Deir Suneid” and “to prevent their return by destroying the villages.” The paths leading to the villages were to be mined.

Upon visiting the site in 1984, historian Walid Khalidi, cofounder of the Institute of Palestine Studies in Beirut and Washington, D.C., wrote:

The crumbled walls and debris of houses are all that remains of the village buildings. The debris is overgrown with thorns and brush. Old eucalyptus and sycamore trees and cactuses also grow on the site. Some of the old streets are clearly identifiable. One area of the site serves as a garbage dump and a junkyard for old cars. The surrounding lands are planted by Israeli farmers in corn.

At the same time, and not far away, my father’s family fled their homes in Be’er Al Sabaa, a Bedouin village in al Naqab, the desert that sits astride the Red Sea. Today Be’er Al Sabaa is the Israeli city of Beersheva. And al Naqab is referred to as the Negev by the Israelis who live there.

In 1948 my father’s family was farmers. Their lands extended into the area of what today is the Gaza Strip. When my grandfather learned about the massacre at Deir Yassin he anticipated an attack by Israeli militias—and he took his family and their single camel and livestock and fled to the outer reaches of his farm, not more than three miles away. His intention was to return to the modest house he lived in with my grandmother within a week or two. The weeks turned into months, and years, and now, decades. My grandfather died a young man in the Gaza refugee camp in 1951, possibly of pneumonia; my father was born that same year, and my grandmother was left to care for two small boys in a tent, in misery, among other refugees.

My father described those early years to me. He recalled how UNRWA began to build more permanent structures for refugees in Gaza in the early 1950s. When he was five, the family moved from the tent he was born in into an eighty-square-foot room in the town of Rafah, in southeast Gaza. He recalls one massacre during Israel’s first occupation of Gaza in 1956, documented by Joe Sacco in his book Footnotes in Gaza (2009). Israeli troops are believed to have executed hundreds of men in an organized rampage designed to kill the fedayeen, the armed resistance to Israel at that time. Moshe Dayan, who led the Israeli forces, wrote that “if El Arish [in Egypt] and Rafah fall to us, the Gaza Strip will be isolated and unable, alone, to hold out.”

My father, Atia, who is now seventy-three, recalled the horror as a five-year-old boy:

They came to Rafah and took over the offices of the “Egyptian Governor” who was the head of the administration in Rafah.  We used to live in one room in the refugee camp by the railway and were totally dependent on what we used to get from UNRWA like most of the people. I remember they called all men into the school and killed so many of them and many people were trying to go where the killing took place. All of a sudden there was more shooting and I remember my mom took me and my brother to our neighbor’s house where over ten families gathered with very frightened children. We didn’t have any food and my uncle was told that there are people giving food at the ration center operated by UNRWA at that time. So he went and we stayed the whole day waiting for him to get some food. He came in the evening without anything.

When I ask my father about his experience, he jokes that his kids, my siblings and I, have had it easy. He talks about his years as a child laborer and an orphan with some humor before our discussion turns to Palestine today. The reality is that there are many children in Gaza who are living much as my father did: orphans, hungry and displaced, yearning to go home, a place that doesn’t exist anymore for most of them. And I think about those whose lives have been snatched away, maliciously and unthinkingly, more than 13,000 of them now. And I reflect on all the five-year-olds, like my father, who will recount the horror of their brutalization in conversations with their children seventy years from now.

In 1956, Ben-Gurion explained to Nahum Goldmann the need for ongoing “anti-Arab policy”:  

Why should the Arabs make peace? If I was an Arab leader I would never make terms with Israel. That is natural: we have taken their country. Sure, God promised it to us, but what does that matter to them? Our God is not theirs. We come from Israel, it’s true, but two thousand years ago, and what is that to them? There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that?

In that same late-night conversation, Ben-Gurion, still prime minister of Israel, confided his doubts that the country, a militarized Zionist enclave in the Arab world, would endure—a remarkable concession to the utter wrongness of colonialism and militancy as a permanent way of life.

Meanwhile, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine continues. In February I learned that the last remnant of the Abu Moor farm in Gaza, where my father was born, has now been subsumed by a one-kilometer buffer zone—a literal no-man’s land—that Israel has drawn in the Strip. Families displaced from northern Gaza, including my own, wonder if they will be permitted to return. Those who have been killed by the Israelis—my cousins and their children and thirty to forty thousand other humans—decompose in Gaza’s soil or under the rubble. Where their corpses degrade without dignity, Israelis dance.

History reveals much. To be Palestinian is to lay claim to a vast wasteland. Yet we are not alone. Israel will continue to be buffeted by the force of moral illegitimacy and isolation; the genocide in Gaza has forged that guarantee in blood.

Ahmed Moor is a writer and coeditor of After Zionism: One State for Israel and Palestine. His writing has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Nation, and the London Review of Books.