Interview: Ahmad Abughoush: "Imwas : Canada Park's Concealed Crime "

Imwas before its destruction Imwas before its destruction

The Palestinian village of Imwas, together with the villages of Yalu and Beit Nuba, were razed to the ground in the 1967 war. In the mid-1970s, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) used donations from its Canadian branch to establish Canada Park on the lands of the three villages. We spoke with Ahmad Abughoush, president of Lajnet Ahali Imwas (Imwas Society) about the plight of the village, the villagers, and their attempts to return home.


 What do you remember of your village, Imwas?

 I was almost fourteen when we were expelled from the village. Imwas had a middle school that took students to the ninth grade; I was in the seventh grade. As with most people, the topography of my hometown had a huge impact on my childhood. It was, and continues to be, as beautiful as a village could possibly be; lush green fields that stretched out to the sea towards the west, and the roaming hills of the West Bank and Jerusalem to the east. The village had more than twelve springs and seven wells spread out across the village lands. Almost half of the village was from the Abughoush family.

The location of the village in what is known as the “Latrun salient” has historically been very important, as it serves as the main entrance to Jerusalem for anyone coming from the coast. As such, the powers that have controlled Palestine have always paid special attention to controlling it, and the village has a very long history. It was the site of an important tax strike against the Romans – who called it Nicopolous (the city of victory) – and of the Imwas Plague that struck the Islamic armies stationed on the village lands at the time of the Islamic conquest. The two main leaders of that army, Abu Ubeida al-Jarrah and Muath Bin Jabal, died from that plague and are commemorated by two maqams (burial shrines) that are still standing, although that of Muath bin Jabal is in very bad condition and it may not be long before it crumbles. The village has a religious significance for Christians as it is said that Jesus appeared to two of his disciples and gave them pieces of bread, for this the village has a church, as well as a monastery that is still there. While the village went into decline during most of the Ottoman period, the Abughoush family was tasked with protecting christian pilgrims coming to Jerusalem, and so after a period of decline, the village economy was reinvigorated and it began to grow, a pattern which continued during the British Mandate.

The village had 55,000 dunams (almost 14,000 acres) of land. Fifty thousand dunams lay in the plain area just to the west of the built up part of the village – this was where most of the agricultural land was. In the 1948 ethnic cleansing, the Zionist forces took control of the plain, but were unable to get past the village that, because of its elevation, was quite easy for the few villagers with weapons and Jordanian troops stationed there to protect. Despite attempting six or seven times to capture the village, the Zionists’ failure forced them to go further south to try to reach Jerusalem through Bab el-Wad and al-Qastal, which they ultimately succeeded in doing. However, even though we managed to stay in our village and save it from destruction, Israel and the two-kilometer wide militarized zone took all of the fifty-thousand dunams of agricultural land in the 1948 Nakba.

Having lost our main source of livelihood, some of the villagers were forced to look for work elsewhere. But many stayed and turned to education and craftsmanship as sources of income. Like I said before, the village was spectacularly beautiful; when they [the JNF] made it a scenic picnic area later, they didn’t have to do much.

What do you remember of the 1967 war?

The dislocation from our land since 1948 made our village a very culturally and politically vibrant place; after all, the village lands were right in front of us every time we looked westwards. Most of the villagers were outspoken supporters of the Arab unity project exemplified by the Egyptian President Jamal Abdel-Nasser. As such, many of the villagers volunteered to help the Jordanian troops stationed in the village. The day the war started, the Jordanian troops left the village, telling the volunteers that they were not withdrawing, rather they were going on a mission to support an Egyptian commando operation targeting the airport in al-Lydd. We later learned that this was not true, but either way, the Jordanians left behind a defenseless village. It also turned out that our village was a major military priority for the Israelis, both for its strategic location, and as revenge for holding out in 1948 and the Zionist casualties inflected by the successful defense of our village.

On Tuesday, 6 June 1967, the second day of the war, Israeli troops surrounded the village and opened fire. When no one fired back they realized that the village was defenseless and entered the village from the north-west and south-west. For many of the villagers, the 1948 Nakba was a vivid memory. Those in southern parts of the village sought sanctuary in the monastery. Upon capturing the monastery, the Israelis imprisoned the young men in this group for two months. The Israelis forced those in the central part of the village to gather in the village square and those on the northwestern part of the village were gathered in an open field, both groups were then forced northwards towards Ramallah. There is a famous story that the soldier speaking to one of these groups said that “Everything from here to Jeddah is ours [Israel’s], and so everyone has to walk beyond that. Anyone who stops on the way will be shot!”

My family lived up the hill on the eastern end of the village, and we fled towards Yalu, but upon reaching that village we realized the Israeli army was already there and we could not enter. We ended up walking for sixteen hours to reach Ramallah, thirty-two kilometers away. Every time we tried to reach a road we’d find soldiers blocking our way. When we reached Ramallah, we entered the city which had been largely surrounded by Israeli troops who would occupy it a few days later. A week after our expulsion, we heard that we’d be allowed to return. My brother was one of the people who went to see if this was true. Alas, the army had set up a barricade and once people got close to the village, the army opened fire and shot at the returnees.

A few days after this incident, the army began to demolish of the houses of the village. Something that perhaps sets our village apart from other Palestinian villages that were destroyed is that there was an Israeli photographer [Joseph Onan] who took photos of the demolition. Also, a few families living on the outskirts of the village had managed to remain in their homes. At the time of the demolition, these families were expelled, and there are photos of their expulsion. Another thing we always remember is that in the village there were thirteen elderly people who could not walk and stayed, we never heard of them again. Hussein Shukri, a young man, also disappeared. He had a physical disability, and the monastery had arranged an electronic wheelchair for him, definitely one of the first of its kind in the country. I remember that he was a very active young man who was very athletic, and a skillful bird hunter. All the disappeared are thought to have been buried under the houses when they were demolished.

 Map showing the location of the three destroyed villages in the Lattrun salinetImwas Map showing the location of the three destroyed villages in the Lattrun salinetWhere are the Palestinians of Imwas today?

As part of our work in the Imwas Society, we try to maintain contact with as many of the people from the village as possible. Our estimate is that of the 23,000 Imwas villagers alive today, 18,000 are in Jordan. There are another 1,500 in the West Bank, and most of those are in the Ramallah area – Betounia in particular – and others in the Jericho and Jerusalem areas.


Were there any attempts to return to Imwas after 1967?

Of course return is something we always want, demand, and struggle for; it’s also not limited to Imwas, two-thirds of Palestinians are people who are denied their right to return to their places of origin, and our struggle to return is inseparable from the broader struggle.

My father, Hassan Ahmad Abughoush, told me that after the expulsion in 1967, the Israeli military commander in the area asked to meet with representatives of the three destroyed villages: Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba. My father was the representative for Imwas, Mahmoud Ayyad represented Yalu, and I can’t remember the name of the Beit Nuba representative. The officer wanted to offer the villagers compensation for the villages and to arrange for them to be resettled in the area where Ofer military prison sits today. My father reportedly told him that “we won’t accept a dunum of land even in heaven in exchange for our village land. That is where we were expelled from and that is where we shall return. Furthermore, the army must rebuild the houses it destroyed.” The representatives also told the commander that if there was to be any compensation that would result in ending claims to the village and their lands, all the villagers would have to be consulted and not just a small group of representatives.

That was the last time we heard from Israel on the matter, and, on paper, Imwas has been a closed military zone since then – even though there is the JNF picnic area. Until 1991 it was possible to go and visit the site of the village, which we did often, but since then it has been blocked, and we had to smuggle ourselves through the hills to get there, which we also did. Since the construction of the Wall, this has become virtually impossible.

I should also note here that our relationship with the monastery on the village lands has always been very strong. Before 1967, more than forty of the villagers were employed there, and recently the monastery has become a very strong financial supporter of the Imwas Society’s work to support impoverished Imwas families. My father was one of the people that helped build the monastery, and when I visited there in 1988, the older monks sat me down to tell me nostalgic stories about him. Perhaps most important is that the monastery has publicly stated that they will donate the costs of rebuilding our village when we return.

 When did you first learn of the JNF and its role in covering up Israel’s crime on your village?

I was a student in Beirut from 1973 to 1976 and also active in the liberation movement. I returned to Palestine in 1976 and was soon arrested by the Israelis for being a member in a political organization. I was imprisoned for ten years and nine months until my release in 1988. In prison I learned about the JNF in my general studies about Zionism as part of my prisoner education. At first, I refused to learn Hebrew, but by 1982 realized the importance of being able to read that language. When I did learn it, I began to follow the Hebrew press, and learned a great deal more about the JNF that way.

It wasn’t until my release in 1988 that I went to visit the site of the village and saw that our beloved Imwas had been transformed into a JNF picnic area then I realized the direct connection between the JNF and Imwas. Since then I have worked to raise awareness through the Imwas Society about the JNF’s specific role in our situation.

  sign in Canada Park on the land of Imwas - photo badilHow was the Imwas Society founded and what has it done since then?

The society was founded in 1978 while I was in prison. The founders were six or seven young men from the village who wanted to raise awareness about what happened to our village. I became active in the Society after my release. Since then we have also begun providing services and support to impoverished families from Imwas. In 1994, I was elected Vice President of the Society – the President was my old school principal. I am currently the Society’s President.

In addition to being part of the general Palestinian struggle for return and against occupation, colonialism and apartheid, the specific work of the society at three levels: the international level, the official Palestinian level, and within the Imwas families. At the international level we work with journalists and international agencies to keep the issue of Imwas alive. While the story of Imwas is the same as that of over 530 Palestinian localities destroyed and depopulated by the Zionists, the fact that it suffered this fate in 1967 makes it, like the Jewish-only settlements in the West Bank, part of what the international community is more willing to recognize as a crime. We have also worked to find avenues to reach the Canadian public to let them know that this park was built in their name. A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) documentary in 1991 made the case very well, and I think it is since then that the JNF has tried to market the park as the Ayalon Park instead of Canada Park, but both names are still in use. It is in this vein that we are very interested to support an international campaign to challenge the JNF.

With the Palestinian Authority, we have struggled to make clear that we will not accept any land swap or resettlement proposal. The late President Arafat authorized an “honorary” village municipal council for Imwas in 1998, but this never materialized. We have also tried to keep the issue alive in the Palestinian press. We have refused to go to Israeli courts to press for our rights because it is contradictory to appeal to an institution that is part and parcel of the racist regime that expelled us in the first place. We have also called for a boycott of visits to Canada Park, except for educational visits that educate participants on the history of the place and the plight of the villagers.

Most of our day-to-day work focuses on the families from Imwas, in particular keeping alive our struggle for return and passing it on to the younger generations. This includes Nakba commemorations which we organize in early June on the anniversary of our expulsion. The youth also work on dabka, poetry and other cultural activities that keep alive the memory of Imwas. We organize discussion panels periodically that cover a variety of topics relevant to our struggle. We also produce a yearly agenda/day-planner that includes pictures and information about the village.

We are constantly trying to incorporate new ideas in how we keep the issue alive and struggle for return. In 1995 we joined together and physically defied the military order by entering the village and tending to the village cemetery. We’re also constantly looking for photographs and documents relating to our village before and after we were uprooted. In April of 2009, we organized a trip of more than forty village children who were smuggled to the site of the village with a few of the elders. The children recorded their thoughts through prose and drawings. We learned a great deal from that trip and hope to organize more in the future, although Israeli restrictions make it increasingly difficult.

We are currently working on creating a two-meter by one-meter plaster reconstruction of the village in a project we are calling “Rebuilding Imwas from Memory.” The idea is that children and elders can sit together and take a virtual walk through the village with the children asking questions that the elders can answer, and which together with photos and other descriptions can generate an idea of what the village was like for the youngsters. My niece, Deema Abughoush, has made a ten-minute film about the village called “My Palestine.” She is also documenting the process of making the plaster reconstruction and the children’s experiences.

 Are there any other thoughts you would like to share with our readers?

Perhaps just to say that the JNF shouldn’t be seen as an independent enemy of Palestinians in and of itself. The fact that the JNF has built this park on 1967 occupied land and is involved in settlement construction in the West Bank through its subsidiaries, in addition to all it has done since its inception, shows very clearly that this is an institution that is part and parcel of the overall Zionist movement. Attempts to challenge this institution should be conscious of the fact that it is just a manifestation and not a cause. This does not lessen from the importance of a campaign to challenge the institution, on the contrary, a proper understanding of where this institution lies in the overall Zionist movement can potentially provide a very solid understanding of that movement’s colonial aims and methods. A well organized challenge to this institution can only benefit the overall struggle against apartheid and colonialism in Palestine.