60 years on, Palestinians still long for lost villages

May 8th, 2008 - 9:17 am ICT by admin  

By Ofira Koopmans
Balata (West Bank), May 8 (DPA) Perhaps a week, not much longer, until the fighting died down, that was how long 14-year-old Ahmed Aswed thought he would stay away from his village in 1948. He had fled with his small sister and brother on his bicycle when the fighting in his village erupted. His parents had packed some basic items on their donkey. They did not contemplate taking more; they would camp out in the field for a few days, they thought.

But the several days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the months, 60 years. Aswed and his family became refugees in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank, no longer able to reach the village they left behind in 1948 near Tel Aviv in what is now Israel.

He ended up in Balata, the largest refugee camp in the West Bank where over 23,000 people live crammed within a fourth of a square kilometre. Up to 800,000 Palestinians fled their homes during the war that erupted when Israel declared statehood May 14, 1948, and opposing neighbouring Arab states invaded the nascent state.

The more than one year of fighting is known to Israelis as the War of Independence. To Palestinians, it is known as the Nakba - catastrophe in Arabic.

Sixty years on, their number has swelled to more than 4.5 million registered Palestinian refugees, who live in UN-run camps scattered throughout the region - 27 in the West Bank and Gaza, 12 in Lebanon, 10 in Jordan and nine in Syria.

Israel rejects the return of all refugees and their descendants to its own territory. Instead, it wants the future Palestinian state to absorb the vast majority. Israel has seven million inhabitants, about 80 percent of them Jews, and, it argues, the arrival of several million refugees would effectively turn Israel into a Palestinian state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas may well understand this, but he has public opinion against him. Two-thirds of the Palestinians continue to demand the return of all refugees to their original homes in what is now Israel, according to the latest Palestinian survey.

For the refugees themselves, what is known as “the right of return” is especially sacred. Nearly all, when asked, are adamant that they will not accept compensation.

“No to an agreement without the right of return,” says a sign in the youth centre of Balata. A map dotted with vanished former Palestinian villages across what is now Israel adorns the wall.

On the adjacent wall, a photograph from 1950 shows how Balata started out as neat rows of tents. Like most Palestinian refugee camps, it turned into a crowded urban area over the years.

In the early 1950s, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), which is in charge of the camps, replaced the tents with brick houses, which were gradually expanded as families were growing.

The result is a jumbled maze of multiple-storey, brick and concrete buildings, separated by narrow alleys of not much more than a metre wide.

UNWRA, which leased the land from the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, supplies all the facilities needed, including water, schooling, a medical centre, and social services.

The agency and the Palestinian Authority are practically the only employers, and unemployment has remained high. Only those who can afford to rent, buy or build a house outside the camp, move to the adjacent city of Nablus or elsewhere.

The camps are often a stronghold of gunmen, whom Israel views as terrorists, and Palestinians regard as resistance fighters. Life is interrupted by almost nightly military raids in pursuit of the militants, with the sound of stun grenades and regular exchanges of fire keeping up residents.

Most of Balata’s residents come from villages near Yaffa, one of the few Arab towns near Tel Aviv that still exist.

Aswed, now a father of 16 and grandfather of - he guesses - some 150 grandchildren, originally came from Qafr Ana, east of Yaffa.

Would compensation ever be an option? “Never”, replies Aswed. “Ask him too,” he then adds, nodding at his 12-year-old grandson Hamze, who immediately answers: “Definitely not”.

From his armchair, the 75-year-old looks at his two-year-old great-grandson playing in his modest living room:

“Even this little boy, when he is old enough to start talking, he will begin to understand and say: ‘where is my village?’”

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