|Jerusalem: 50 Years of Dispossession
This special issue of ARTICLE 74 features excerpts from interviews conducted in conjunction with the production of BADIL’s new video film “Yoom Ilak, Yoom Aleik - Palestinian Refugees from Jerusalem, 1948: Heritage, Eviction & Hopes”. The full text of the interviews along with the accounts of other Palestinian refugees from Jerusalem can be found on the BADIL website. The Palestine premiere of Yoom Ilak, Yoom Aleik will take place in occupied East Jerusalem during the conference, “50 Years of Israeli Human Rights Violations - 50 Years of Dispossession”, organized by LAW (7-10 June 1998).
Interview by Muhammad Jaradat (Amman, March 1998)
Bahjat `Alayan Abu Ghourbiya (Abu Sami) was born in 1916 in Khan Younis/Gaza Strip, Palestine where his father held the office of Head of the Khan Younis Directorate of the Ottoman administration. His family originates from Hebron where he remained until 1925. In that year, Abu Sami moved to Jerusalem where he spent the major part of his life, studies, and struggle. In the war of 1947-48, he served as one of the commanders of the Palestinian fighting forces of al Jihad al-Muqaddas in Jerusalem and participated in most of the historical battles against the Zionist forces.
On the eve of the partition of Palestine
The power which confronted us, particularly in 1937-38, was the largest military force to leave Britain after the first World War. They were headed by the best commanders, such as General Dell, who was the chief of the British Empire army forces and came to be the General Commander of the British army in Palestine. Britain worked at the same time to arm the Jews, not only in the sense of giving them access to buying weapons, but also donating weapons and training them. They had an expert in streetwars, Mr. Wagell, who helped them build secret stores for hiding weapons. This was done in case of Germans came to the country so they could fight them. Of course, all that the Jews used it for was against us.
At the same time, we were prohibited from any kind of self-organization, even local committees, such as the Arab-National Committee for neighborhoods in the city. The British used to dismantle them and to arrest the members. We established new ones, but they were dismantled and people were arrested. Weapons were absolutely forbidden. The punishment for holding any kind of weapons ranged from imprisonment to hanging. Measures and scales were unbalanced strongly to our disadvantage; on the one side the British built a state and an army, on the other side they prevented people from any move or action.
Reaction to the ‘Partition Plan’
The reaction in Palestine started to appear by the beginning of 1947 when the issue was handed to the United Nations. When the issue was transfered to the UN, we felt that we were at the end. Therefore, the large majority of our people started to prepare for the confrontation, despite the fact that we had no weapons. The Arab countries were forbiddden by the British to help us, but we started to prepare before the Resolution was issued. I personally, for example, went to Cairo together with Abdel Qadar al-Husseini to meet - this was in April 1947 - to study, and to evaluate the situation, and to prepare weapons for resistance. We understood that the issue was not only political, but more, that there were preparations and readiness needed on the military level to hold on to Palestine by military means.
When the Resolution was issued, unfortunately we had the feeling that our Arab possibilities were very weak and our situation was very difficult, while, according to our evaluation, the enemy had power, possibilities and the readiness to implement their plans and aims. We had the Arab fighters and resistance and, on the political level, rejection of the Partition Plan. The term ‘partition’ is a tricky term politically; it replaced the term Jewish state. The Partition Plan called for the building of a Jewish state, and we did not accept establishment of a Jewish state on our land. Why? Because it was clear from the Zionist literature, from the statements of the Jewish leadership, that they wanted a foothold in Palestine for a Jewish state that would later include all Palestine and Jordan and more than that. This meant that if we agreed to give them even a small piece of land to build their state, we would give them the chance to immediately fill it with immigrants and weapons, and foster their power to expand further. This is why we had to start the resistance from the early beginning.
The experience of resistance in 1937
There were two decisions to divide Palestine, in 1937 and in 1947. The first one was issued in 1937 based on the Peel Committee, a British committee which came to Palestine as a result of the Palestinian revolt in 1937 and issued a decision which we rejected. We resisted against it and it was dropped - this is why we had the feeling that we could make the 1947 Partition Plan fail, especially if we had the Arabs’ support. The common position was to reject the establishment of a Jewish state in principle, because its establishment on our land would mean giving the Zionist movement the chance to implement its colonial, expansionist settlement programs. This was the atmosphere. But we felt that our power was weak, this was very obvious to us. But when you feel there is somebody coming to take over your own house, you must resist and defend it with what you have at hand. This is why we started to prepare for defense, in an atmosphere and a feeling of danger.
Adopting a defensive position
We took a defensive position, because in such a case you are stronger in a defensive position. When you are weak and take an offensive position, you will be lost. When people defend their homes and their property, it makes you stronger and more efficient, even if the power is unequal. And in fact this was our role. From the very beginning, they tried to uproot the cities and the villages, and we were only resisting. Those who say - like the Jewish literature - that we established the Jihad al-Muqaddas army so as to destroy the Jewish state are joking, because the Jewish state was not yet established. There were efforts by the Jews to build it - and to build it where? On our remains! To uproot the people and to replace them. Our role was a role of self-defense, the role of a man who defends his own child and home with what is found. This was our real role. Our hope was that the Arab countries would join the war. They had the military power, and if they had participated with their forces - a real participation - the situation would not have reached where it did.
The size of Jewish and Arab forces
I would say that the enemy force we knew of was composed of 5,000 Palmach, 1,000 Aragon, the Haganah had a force of considerable size, and the Settlement Guard - more a police force than an army - counted about 20,000. In total, they were about 60,000 armed persons and 60,000 pieces of weapons.
Our villages and cities, on the other hand, were forbidden to hold weapons. As for our hidden, secret weapons: I for example, was considered a leader and a responsible, but I did not have more than 20-25 pieces of weapons hidden on the day of the Partition declaration. I had agreed with Abdel Qader al-Husseini in April 1947, that a certain number of guns and weapons would be coming to Jerusalem, but one, two, three months passed and nothing had arrived.
The battles around Jerusalem
For the Jews, Jerusalem was
Palestine. It was very important for the Jews to take all of Jerusalem.
Therefore they gathered large forces in the Old City and the western neighborhoods.
They started fighting in Jerusalem on the day of the Partition Resolution,
in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, in Jaffa Street and Cinema Rex,
they started their attacks. These were accompanied by terror acts, by throwing
bombs and explosives in popular places, by night-time raids on the villages
around Jerusalem, so as to terrorize the people and make them leave their
However, the major battles came later, in late March, early April the main battle started over western Jerusalem, over the neighborhoods which separated the Jewish neighborhoods in the north from those in the south of the city; such as Katamon, Baq’a and the German Colony. The Jews concentrated their raids and attacks against these neighborhoods. Abdel Qadar al-Husseini was thus forced to send Ibrahim Abu Dayah with his forces to Katamon and Baq’a. In one of these battles Abu Dayah had 130 fighters of whom 110 were killed in Katamon. He was also injured. One hundred and ten martyrs in one battle! These Jewish raids almost failed, but unfortunately information reached the Jews via wireless calls that the Arab forces were dwindling. They were about to withdraw from Katamon and from the monastery which they had occupied! This battle was one of the most severe, and as I said, the fighters did their best, but they were outnumbered and defeated, and Katamon was lost. This happened after Abdel Qadar was killed.
The battle for al-Qastal
The battle of al-Qastal is
very important. It started in the beginning of April. Abdel Qadar was summoned
to Damascus by the Military Committee to receive weapons. Before he travelled,
he called me and I informed him of my needs for weapons - he was responding
very generously to my requests. His generosity was based on his hope that
he would receive the needed supplies. While he was in Damascus, the Jews
attacked al-Qastal, a village with a very important strategic location
on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem on a mountain top. The number of residents
was small, they had no weapons, maybe some hidden personal light guns or
pistols. They were attacked by an organized military force and easily evicted.
Then some forces came to help from Jerusalem, from the Jihad al-Muqaddas
and the Jeish al-Inqad (Salvation Army). This under Abdel Qadar arrived
and organized the counter attack. This attack lasted until the morning
of April 8, but did not succeed in re-occupying al-Qastal. And Abdel Qadar
became missing in the battle. During the day of April 8, support arrived
from all over Palestine, especially from Jerusalem and Ramle - I was among
those who came to al-Qastal. At about one o’clock we succeeded to take
al-Qastal. This was a central battle.
Moreover, there was another, morale factor used by the other side: while we were at al-Qastal, they attacked us with airplanes. Although the planes did not injure anybody, it meant a lot to us that they had and could use airplanes while the British were still in the country. It had a strong impact on our morale, because it demonstrated their advantage over us. All these factors came together, in addition to their insistance in re-occupying al-Qastal.
The survivors of Deir Yassin
The night we were in al-Qastal, 7 to 8 April, they attacked Deir Yassin. The fact is that the people of Deir Yassin did their task in resisting. They passed three waves of raids, in the third wave, the Jews took over the village. We had the impression then - together with the villagers - that everybody missing had been slaughtered. Later it appeared that there were about 100 - 150, more or less, survivors - children and women. Later we knew that the Jews had taken them and paraded them in the Jewish streets of Jerusalem, a kind of victory march.
Three nights later, at dawn, I was surprised in the Musrara neighborhood, when they called me from beside the gate of Meah She’arim where I had my sand bags - they had a telephone - to tell me that there were Arabs approaching them from the side of the Jews and to ask me, if they should shoot on the crowd. I threw the phone down and ran to the site, and I saw that they were obviously Arabs. The English were still in the country and the electricity was not yet cut. We received them and they were in a terrible condition due to fear. We put them in a school and separated them. We brought them water and food, etc.
They were terribly frightened. I still remember one of them, we called her Umm ‘Azmi, because she had a child called ‘Azmi - later I became his school teacher. One of her children and her husband had been killed. When she arrived, she had two children with her, one 11 the other 13 years old. Just before she reached the Arab side, a Jewish soldier came and took the older one, asked “why he is left to go?”, and shot him in front of her. When she arrived, her child had been killed just minutes before, and her face was filled with horror. I asked what happened to her, and the people told me her story. We separated them away for some time, so they would not mix with the people and effect their morale.
Frankly, we were mislead about the battle. The survivors of Deir Yassin said that there were 400 to 500 people massacred. Everyone missing was considered killed. Also the Red Cross, which went to Deir Yassin, informed via the Jews that the number of killed was 400 to 500. Dr. Hussein al Khalidi, the head of the Arab High Committee, the top of the political level in Jerusalem, issued the news about the massacre with the desire to show the savage face of the Jews. No doubt, this had a negative impact on us, it created great fear among the people. In later massacres, we tried to avoid this by abstaining from broadcasting details.
The division of Jerusalem
And Jerusalem supposedly
should have been an international zone under the UN. The UN did not try
to move a finger so as to show its presence in Jerusalem. The war divided
Jerusalem. The war had divided it, meaning not the Jews, nor the Arabs,
were able to occupy all of Jerusalem. The war brought part in our hands
and the other part in Jewish hands. This is what happened.
Interview by Nathan Krystall (Chicago, March 1998)
Rashid al-Khalidi is Professor of Middle East History and Director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. He was an advisor to the Palestinian delegation in the Madrid peace negotiations. His family is from Jerusalem. He is the author of numerous books, the most recent entitled Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness.
The Western Palestinian Arab Neighborhoods
West Jerusalem or what we today call West Jerusalem included the most prosperous Arab quarters in the city with the exception of Sheikh Jarrah. Quarters like Katamon, Talbiyeh and Baqa and so on were the quarters where people with any kind of money lived. And if you go to these quarters today you can see and look at these houses. These are the best built, finest, most spacious, most comfortable houses, bespeaking properity of the 20,000 to 30,000 people living there before 1948, before they were driven out in 1948, before they were driven out in 1948. So in economic and social terms, what we now call West Jerusalem was where the core of the Arab elite lived. So it was extremely important.
There were other areas where the Arab elite lived, like Sheikh Jarrah, where some of the elite lived, some of the Old Muslim families. The Husseinis had some property there. But with those few exceptions, most of the well-to-do and middle to upper-class Arabs lived in West Jerusalem. Most of the Arab-owned businesses in Jerusalem were in the Western part of the city. Especially some of the most advanced, established, built-up, services, some industry, a lot of things were located in West Jerusalem economically.
The western villages of Jerusalem
Jerusalem had a connection with all the villages in its hinterland. Unlike Jewish Jerusalem which was an isolated unit unto itself. There were very few Jewish settlements around or near Jewish Jerusalem. And the new Jewish city was an outgrowth of the Old Jewish quarter, that was really its only link in the immediate city. Unlike that, Arab Jerusalem was organically linked to its hinterland. This was true of areas to the north like Beit Hanina or Shufat and areas to the east, Essawiyah and so forth, Beit Safafa to the south, but it was also true of the areas to the west. In some ways, going all the way down the hill to Abu Ghosh these were some of the most important villages because of the connection between Jaffa and Jerusalem historically was very important. A carriage road had been built there a couple of decades later, connecting Jaffa and Jerusalem. So in the earlier periods, when pilgrims or traders or tourists moved by horse or camel, those villages along the road were extremely important in terms of trade and commerce and in some cases in terms of extracting tolls from travelers. So Lifta, all the villages, Malha and so forth, Ein Kerem, were important economically in terms of providing produce to the city, the revenue that the city drew from them, but also in terms of their place on this important road to the coast.
Jewish-Arab relations before 1948
I would distinguish between what might be called the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv when talking about relations between Arabs and Jews before 1948. Relations with the Old Yishuv, with either traditional Orthodox Jews who lived in Jerusalem historically or earlier immigrants to Palestine over the past couple of centuries whether religious or not had generally been extremely good, as in Tiberias, as in Hebron or the other major centers where there was a Jewish population and outside of which there was no Jewish population before the 19th century. The relations were generally good. The communities lived apart but they interacted economically. They interacted in terms of the politics and justice aspect because under the Ottoman system, each community had their own religious and judicial systems but they were connected at the top of the Ottoman system. But there was very little intermarriage, and relatively little social interaction because each community had its own education systems, justice and so forth.
Relations with the New Yishuv, with the immigrants that began to come after the rise of the Zionist movement were not good and grew increasingly bad as time went on. Immigrants who arrived in Jerusalem and some of the other cities, especially with the second Aliya at the turn of this century, in the wake of the pogroms in Eastern Europe (the Kishniev pogroms, the Kiev pogroms, and some of the pogroms at the very beginning of this century, arrived to establish Jewish hegemony. They felt that the lesson of Zionism is that you can’t live with gentiles. And the only way that you could live was in a Jewish polity and it was their belief that this polity would be in Palestine and that Palestine should be transformed into that polity. And in that polity there was no place for the Arabs. They clashed frequently with the Arabs. More of those clashes took place in Jaffa than in Jerusalem. Relations were not extremely good.
Arab and Jewish relations with the British
Relations between Arabs and
Jews and the British were fundamentally different and they played themselves
out primarily in Jerusalem though this was true all over the country. Jews
in Palestine were members of a group who were described in the Balfour
Declaration as a people for whom his Majesty’s government had agreed to
do everything possible to foster the establishment of a national home.
The text of the Balfour Declaration is included in the Mandate of Palestine
which Britain assumed in 1922. In that language, Jews are members of a
national community for whom a national home is being built. They are a
people. Therefore the Mandate worked to give them and helped to foster
the creation of national institutions. You had a Jewish Agency; you had
an elected body for that agency. You had that agency with the right to
organize its communal affairs legally because it was a national community.
The Balfour Declaration said it, the terms of the Mandate had consecrated
it, therefore the British dealt with the Jewish community in Palestine
which was 60,000 in 1919, 1920 or 1922 as if they were a nation or a nation
coming into being, but a nation.
The evacuation of Palestinian Arabs from the city
There were no rumors at the time and there were no appeals at the time instructing anyone to leave. People left because they were scared or because they were physically driven out of their homes or because of psychological warfare directed against them by the Yishuv. And I would add, include under that category, mortar bombs which were really meant to scar people by killing a few and wounding a few rather than any particular military purpose. They fired into civilian neighborhoods with the objective of emptying those neighborhoods of those populations. And of course they were made to feel insecure. One of the weapons which the Jewish forces, Zionist forces used with great effectiveness was a mortar called the Davidka which essentially fired a very loud and not particularly effective bomb extremely inaccurately at a distance of a couple hundred meters. They would fire these horrible things into Arab residential districts, essentially with the purpose of panicking the inhabitants and causing them to flee, which succeeded.
This has to be stressed. This is not just a military process. This is a process of ethnic cleansing at the same time. Villages were being destroyed. Villagers were being murdered with the objective of driving the population out. It was not just a military operation. It was also a demographic transformation that was taking place. And this is especially important in the villages immediately to the west of Jerusalem.
Now why there later came to be a huge monstrous false myth about Arabs fleeing has more to do with Israeli guilt, the need of Israeli propaganda, and the need to white-wash Israel’s original sin and turn it into an immaculate conception. That has nothing to do with what actually happened in 1948. There were never such appeals. There never has been proof that there were. It was solely a claim by people such as Ben Gurion who had to lie because otherwise they were responsible for displacing and exiling 750,000 people which they were. But they didn’t want it to appear that way so the record was in effect changed. Because Israeli propaganda, in effect, determined what many people felt, it was believed for many decades thereafter that this was true. In fact it was a monstrous, false lie with no basis in fact. It never happened and no one at the time ever claimed that it did. They left because they were terrified.
The role of the Arab Legion
It is often argued that the Arab Legion could have done more than it did. It succeeded in preventing the Old City from falling, which I believe it would have done, had not the Arab Legion entered the city. But I think there is some question as to whether they could have done much more in Jerusalem. The Arab Legion was inferior in numbers in comparison to the forces of the Israeli army which were up against them in Jerusalem. The only reason that they managed to hang on was because they were behind the natural defensive ramparts of the Old City. The Old City, built by the Ottomans - by Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century along the lines of Mameluk fortifications going back to the crusades - in fact, served the Arab legion extremely effectively in defending the city in 1948. Behind those walls, the Arab Legion was formidable. Had the much smaller forces of the Arab Legion gone out in the much wider streets of the newer city like the Arab neighborhoods of Katamon and Baqa or the Jewish areas, I seriously doubt they would have had any success. In fact they would have probably been routed.
The fate of Jerusalem refugees
As far as I know, not one single Palestinian who lost his or her property in 1948 has been able to obtain restitution for or recover that property. And as far as I know, no Palestinian from West Jerusalem of from any of the villages adjacent to West Jerusalem like Ein Kerem or Deir Yassin and so forth, has been allowed to return to and obtain rights of residence in their home, or for that matter anywhere in Jerusalem. As far as I know there have been no cases of restitution of property or where rights of residence or citizenship have been granted. And we’re talking about 30,000 to 40,000 people in 1948, so right now we are talking about a very large number of descendants of these people.
In some cases what happened to these Palestinians is near to what happened to other Palestinians. In some cases, because, they were better off, they faired somewhat better. Many of those people who had some assets or some education never ended up in refugee camps or if they did passed through them relatively quickly. That was less true though in villages. The villagers of West Jerusalem, some of them ended drifting to Arab Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, some of them ended up in the camps, Shuafat, Deheishe. I know people from Ein Kerem, from a couple of villages in West Jerusalem, who are in camps. Many of them ended up doing what the great majority of people in camps end up doing, that is make their way out of the camps. A small fraction, under a quarter of whom were refugees in 1948, are still living in refugee camps. The great majority of Palestinian refugees by dint of their own efforts made their way out of the camps. And that’s probably even more true of Jerusalem refugees and refugees from the villages near Jerusalem, in relation to others.
West Jerusalem and international law
The status of West Jerusalem is what you would call disputed or unsettled. The United Nations, in fact, recognized the de facto control of Israel over West Jerusalem and Jordan over East Jerusalem after 1948. Initially the United Nations insisted that the corpus separatum laid down by the partition plan be respected, but as time went on there was an erosion of this insistence by the UN and there was a de facto acceptance by the US and by the UN to the fact that basically Jordan controlled the Eastern part of Jerusalem and that Israel controlled the other side. That is not to say that the UN ever accepted Israel’s annexation or Jordan’s annexation and administration of their respected sides of the city. It’s simply to say the UN ceased to insist on internationalization although it is really a matter to this day up in the air. Internationalization is not excluded and the United Nations has never rescinded the Partition Plan.
The return of refugees to Jerusalem
I think that Palestinians who were refugees in 1948 have different views on the issue of return. And I think one of the important questions is the return to what. I think there are individuals, maybe very many of them and its hard to quantify the numbers, for whom return involves a personal return of the individual to his or her home or town or city. In the case of West Jerusalem as it happens it would be possible for virtually every single refugee from the city itself and a certain proportion from the neighboring villages to return, because the houses and some of the villages continue to exist. Some of them don’t exist. Lifta does actually exist. Strangely enough. Its abandoned on the hillside. You see it every time you drive up to or down from the city. Those beautiful stone houses empty. And the neighborhoods, Baqa, Katamon, Talbiyeh are just as solid and prosperous as desirable in 1998 and 1999 as they were in 1948-9. But whether we are talking about the about return in that sense or a return to Palestine by people who live in the US or somewhere else, is a matter that operates differently for each individual. For many people, what return means is a return from a situation of exile or state of alienation to a situation where you are not in exile or not in alienation. And what would be a situation of a Palestinian polity or a Palestinian state. And I think it is unlikely that a village like Lifta, West Jerusalem or Deir Yassin are going to be part of a Palestinian state. They are going to be part of the state of Israel as they have been since 1948 when they were annexed. So I think that return means a different thing to different people and I wouldn’t even hazard to guess as to what it means this and how many it means that. There is no way of saying. We’re talking about several million people after all.
West Jerusalem Land Ownership
Palestinian property - site of a new US Embassy?
As far as West Jerusalem is concerned, there were a few Khalidi waqf properties in West Jerusalem. One of them as it happens is right there where the US embassy is supposed to be built, if and when it is ever moved to Jerusalem. And if our Congress has its way, it will very soon be moved to Jerusalem. This does not belong to our family alone and it is not free-hold, it’s not outright, it’s property held as waqf by several families, and it’s the subject of a great deal of contestation, because like everything else in West Jerusalem, it was just taken over by the Custodian of Absentee Property, by the Israeli government or some agency of the Israeli government like the Jewish National Fund, the Keren Kayemet of Israel and was then leased out or given over to government use. And apparantly this is the land that the Israeli government has agreed to give to the United States for use as an embassy. And of course it does not belong to the government of Israel, neither does it belong to the government of the United States. It belongs as waqf, as an inalienable Islamic endowment to a number of families, one of them is my family.