Palestinians Get a Book Of Hope

As many Palestinians look back in anger at 50 years of Israeli occupation, Rawan and Dima Damen, a pair of Palestinian teenage sisters in this West Bank city, quietly press for reflection over fury.

"We think it's important to know the history and how we got to this stage, but we don't need to make our point with so much violence as there is today," Rawan says.

The two young women recently published a well-received book of 25 profiles of Palestinians who were evicted or fled from their villages during the 1948 war for Israel's independence.

Yesterday, marches marking what Arabs call the Nakba - the "great catastrophe" of Israel's founding - turned to riots in which Israeli troops killed at least four Palestinians.

Rawan hopes the next 50 years will be more peaceful. "This event will not change things in itself, only people can change things," she says.

"OK, so it is a half century. But what do you plan to do for the next half century? I don't want it to be a slogan century," she adds.

The sisters aim to provoke that kind of deeper thinking through the stories of those who were children in 1948. They concluded all interviews by asking about making peace. And often, the answers were surprising.

The project was an ambitious one. When most of their peers were spending their summer vacations at play, Rawan and Dima were combing Palestinian towns and villages for refugees who were forced to flee when they too, were just children.

The two set out to hear the stories of children - who accounted for about half of the 800,000 refugees. All of their interview subjects were between the ages of 8 and 14 at the time of the war.

Now, "Expulsion in the Memory of Children," first published in Jordan last year, is being funded for a second printing by the Palestinian Committee for Education, Culture and Science, with funding from the Arab branch of UNESCO, the United Nations' educational and cultural arm. Rawan, a first-year sociology student at Bir Zeit University, and Dima, still a high school pupil in Ramallah, may be the youngest Arab women ever to meet with such literary success.

Armed with a tape recorder, they began looking for subjects by asking randomly for people who were refugees from 1948. Their parents encouraged the research, carried out over three summer vacations, but the idea and its realization were wholly theirs. Their father, an engineer, often helped out by dropping them off at a village where they had an interview and picking them up at the end of the day.

But the degree of independence afforded to the two, commensurate with their maturity but atypical for most young girls in Arab society, was sometimes confusing for their would-be subjects.

"Some people thought, 'It's just two little girls. They can't be serious,' " recalls Rawan. "Some people let us in, and some people closed the doors."

Once they made their way inside, they found the work harder than they expected. Some of the subjects broke down and cried.

After the third interview, they decided to stop working. A week later, they came to the conclusion that the work was too important to give up and resolved to continue.

Their approach left a deep impression on their interview subjects.

"I was overwhelmed by their ability and their human capability," says the Rev. Audeh Rantisi, an Anglican priest who at age 7 was forced to leave the village of Lod, now home to Israel's national airport.

"I was very touched that girls at such a young age were really interested and concerned with my story and with the Palestinian dilemma," Fr. Rantisi adds.

THE Damens themselves were not refugees. The family, originally from a prominent Nablus clan, moved to Jordan in the 1970s and then to Ramallah four years ago. That move was sparked by their father's change in jobs, not because it looked as if peace was breaking out in those early days of the Oslo accords.

And yet, at the end of each of interview, the Damens always asked about making peace with Israel.

"[Those interviewed] said, 'We are ready to live in peace with the Israelis, but that is apart from our own homes and lands,' " Dima says, recalling the thing that she found the most difficult to understand in the older generation.

"We asked them, 'When did you realize that you will not return?' And they said, 'Who said we will not return?'

"We found that very strange. They have in their minds that their rights are so holy, that they can forgive everything, but that the most important thing is that they return to their homes."

Homes, she duly notes, that may either no longer be there, or may have someone else living in them.

In marches yesterday, protesters carried keys or cardboard cutouts of keys, symbolizing the homes they left behind.

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