An Arab veteran of 1948 recalls Palestinian 'catastrophe'

While Israelis are celebrate on Thursday their Independence Day, Palestinians prepare to mark what they call the 'nakba.'

Debbie Hill/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Palestinians: Mahmoud Jadallah stands near a bunker outside Jerusalem where he fought in the 1948 war.
Courtesy of United nations Relief and works agency archive in the Gaza Strip
Palestinians in 1949 fled Israeli shelling of the Gaza Strip to reach boats in the Mediterranean Sea. Other Arabs fled to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon after the war.
Muhammed Muheisen/AP
Key to the past: Many Palestinians were driven from their villages during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Above, Yamnah Ibrahim Harab, 95, reaches to hold the key to her old house in northern Israel that her family fled in 1948. They now live in a West Bank refugee camp.
courtesy of Mona Halaby
Palestine: Zakia Jabr is pictured in front of her family’s home in Jerusalem in 1947, prior to the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. After Israeli independence, her family was driven from Jerusalem and their home occupied by an Israeli family.

Mahmoud Jadallah recalls the 1948 Arab-Israeli war as if it were yesterday. As he guides a visitor through the village he once defended against Israeli forces, the names of outposts and passwords his Arab fighters used trip off his tongue.

But the day that the Jordanians told them to stop fighting is clearest. The war was over – for the moment, at least – and an armistice had been reached between Israel and Jordan. "The Jordanians came along with us and said, 'OK, we don't need you anymore. You can go home. We're in charge now. They're a state, and we're a state.'

"One of our soldiers couldn't believe what had happened. In front of everyone, he put his rifle under his feet and broke it, destroyed it. He said, 'Losing the soil of this land, which is mixed with our blood, this is something I cannot take,' " Mr. Jadallah recalls.

A Jordanian officer chastised the soldier. "This weapon you broke, you should have sold it to buy food for your family." After that, says Jadallah, no one said a word, and the only sounds were of people crying.

While Israelis kicked off the 60th anniversary of their independence Thursday, in celebrations that are expected to continue in the coming weeks, Palestinians are beginning to mark the same series of events as the nakba, or catastrophe.

Just south of Sur Baher, the former Arab village south of Jerusalem where Jadallah fought, young Palestinian demonstrators in Bethlehem carried an enormous key through town Thursday as a symbol of their longing to return to homes they – or more specifically, their parents and grandparents – lost in 1948. But it is the older generation of Palestinians who most intimately knows the details of the sea-change they lived through 60 years ago, and who have the most telling tales to share. And many, like Jadallah, feel almost as frustrated with the state of today's political realities – especially the searing split within Palestinian society between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – as they did six decades ago.

"It was like an earthquake that falls upon people and shakes them up. After it's over, people start looking around for what's left," Jadallah explains, looking out from his balcony toward the semiarid mountains leading out to the desert to the places where he's seen many an army pass: from the British to the Jordanians to the Israelis.

An Arab fighter's journey

In 1947, Jadallah was sent to Syria by Abdel Qader Husseini, a military leader of the Arab forces in what was British-controlled Mandatory Palestine, for training.

"It was known that the British were going to withdraw, and that's why we were planning to have an army. The idea was for us to go to Syria and come back able to train others," he explains.

Things did not go the way they planned, and for this, he points the blame in many directions. He lays it at the feet of the British, which he believes made it easy for Zionist militias to gain the upper hand: a photographic negative of the historical picture seen by most Israelis.

But he also blames the surrounding Arab countries for not providing enough aid. His strongest memories are of "irregulars" from places as far off as Yemen, and a contingent from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

"We were shocked to see that the British withdrawal did not equal our ascendancy. They gave all of their sites and locations and equipment to the Jews," Jadallah says. "Our capacity was very weak. We didn't have the same weaponry they did. We only had some simple rifles and ammunition. "

Sur Baher wasn't a particularly wealthy area, and Jadallah remembers people scrambling for enough money to buy weapons. "We were 105 men in this village and we relied on our own personal resources," he says. "Anyone who had a wife who had a bracelet or necklace asked her to sell it so we could buy guns. We armed ourselves from our own personal resources. But we were starting to see that the British withdrawal was facilitating the coming of the Jewish state."

In retrospect, he says he regrets that the Partition Plan for Palestine, passed by the fledgling United Nations on Nov. 29, 1947, was a failure. Palestinian Arabs felt they had no choice to but to fight it, he says, because they didn't feel the division of land was fair. Israel agreed to the partition plan and Arab states rejected it, which led to the outbreak of the war and Israel's declaration of statehood less than six months later.

"We liked the concept of partition, but we felt it was not done correctly," Jadallah sighs. "We reached a moment where partition was an opportunity, and we missed it. Our only option was to protect the land on which we were living, because we saw that the Jews were taking much more than the partition called for." Israel's portion of the land in the partition plan was indeed designated to be smaller than what it became by mid-1948; Zionist leaders believed the partition's narrow borders to be indefensible.

Jadallah says he wishes that Arabs would have been more united in their stance and strategy. He looks at the splits then – those who favored a cease-fire and those who didn't – and can't help but look with dismay at the schism in Palestinian society now, following Hamas's takeover of Gaza last summer. Gaza, where many Palestinian refugees fled to in 1948, is now cut off from the Palestine Liberation Organization-run Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

"We weren't united then and we're not now," he says, sitting in the reception room, in which he has pictures of Jerusalem and a photograph of him embracing Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader whom he outlived. In Jadallah's eyes, no one will again be able to bring together Palestinians the way Arafat did. At the same time, he adds, "Arafat was never satisfied with what he was being given, so he got nothing.

"Had all Arabs been united in 1948, we would really have created an impact. Israel was so tiny then and we were big," he says. "Today, it's essentially the same. We are as disunited now as we were in 1948."

A village transformed

Sur Baher remained part of Jordan until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank. Israel later annexed Sur Baher and other Arab neighborhoods and villages to Jerusalem, expanding the city boundaries several times, and thousands of East Jerusalemites like Jadallah were given Israeli IDs with the status of "permanent resident."

Sixty years on, they're still not citizens of any country. They can, however, get rights afforded to Israeli citizens, such as education and healthcare, and travel on Jordanian or Palestinian passports.

And so in an area that Israel counts as part of its capital, Jadallah can still, in a short walk from his home, visit the very sites where he once fought.

First he passes the school that his men used as a base, which is, once again, a school. Then he goes by a hill where some of the heaviest fighting took place, where there were casualties on both sides.

"This was one of the trenches," he says, pointing to a hidden cement box embedded in the hillside, with two holes through which guards would watch or shoot. "It was called 'mujahid,' " Arabic for one who wages holy war. "You can see how crucial this one was, because all of the Jewish settlements nearby were exposed to it. Every night, I would come and supervise the trenches. There was a password for anyone who came near."

They changed it all the time, but it always started with a hard Arabic 'h' – one that they could count on most of their enemies to mispronounce because Hebrew has a different, more guttural 'h.'

"The years of 1948 to 1950 were years of sacrifice. We lost a lot of colleagues, of homes, of land. All of this makes me sad," he says, "because it makes me feel like we didn't achieve anything."

Jadallah went on to have a large family – seven girls and three boys – and now has close to 70 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

To many of them, living with Israel is a reality with which they grew up. Jadallah's son, Nihad, has worked with Israel's ambulance service, Magen David Adom, for 27 years. He speaks excellent Hebrew and is clean-shaven. Still, Nihad says he feels there's still great discrimination in how he's treated at work.

Not long ago, he says, when his father was feeling well, he couldn't get his own ambulance company to enter Sur Baher without an Israeli army escort, causing a half-hour delay. He still feels suspect, the "other." He is expected to come to an Israeli Independence day celebration for all employees and was struggling with whether to go. But earlier this week, when colleagues at work were receiving free Israeli flags to put on their cars, he drew the line. "It's not my flag," he says, "and it's not my state."

• Part 2 of 2. Thursday's story: Israel's never-ending struggle for security.

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