“We walked and walked and walked for days until we finally settled on the beach of Damour,” said 80-year-old Um Zohair. “On the beach we fetched green banana leaves together and with bamboo sticks we made a hut that sheltered us for three months on the sand.”
Sixty-six years ago, Um Zohair was one of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homeland, Palestine. “That was the first time we were displaced,” she said.
Since the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948, a series of upheavals and struggles has marked Palestinian refugees’ nomadic life in exile.
A new chapter in this history of dispossession has been added by the violence against Palestinian refugees in Syria. “Palestinians from Syria are living in sewers,” Um Zohair told me.
While on a recent visit to Shatila refugee camp in Beirut, I was told about Um Zohair’s family and the conditions they endure.
Um Zohair’s daughter-in-law and grandchildren have fled to Lebanon without their breadwinners, their exact whereabouts in Syria remain unknown.
The daily struggle to put food on the table is but one part of the bigger burden of finding US$200 to pay for Lebanese residency permits for each of the four family members who are over the age of ten.
As if the Lebanese residency fees weren’t hard enough to find, she also has to come up with rent money for the dungeon that shelters them: $200 per month.
Six-year-old Haitham has stopped going to school because of a new-found intolerance for loud noises and overcrowded places. The eldest boy, Mahmoud, said: “I wish I could find a job; I’ll take any job so my mother won’t have to go out every morning and beg people in humiliation for money and food.”
In 1917, Arthur James Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary, proclaimed that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine. Almost 100 years later, Zionist settlers continue to degrade the identity, history and wellbeing of the original inhabitants of Palestine.
This failed promise that nothing should be done to prejudice Palestinians’ rights has now developed into what can safely be called apartheid.
Um Zohair, like many Palestinians, is more accustomed to displacement than any human being should be. One year ago, she and her family fled war-ravaged Syria. Their last home was in a Palestinian refugee camp near the Damascus international airport.
When asked about Palestine, she jerked her head high and her eyes sparked as she reminisced. “I am from Safed, Palestine; my village and place of birth is called al-Qatiyya. Do you know it? It is right next to Naameh.
“I was 13, a young girl, when we were attacked, our house burned and later forced to leave by the Haganah [a Zionist militia].
“The Israeli Haganah soldiers started shouting for us to go out and gather in the village square. I remember our neighbours, they were Jews, they were our friends and we coexisted for as long as I remembered.
“It was not they, our neighbors, who attacked us; it was the nationalist Israelis, the Europeans. They pointed their guns at men who were in the village and led them to the village’s outskirts. My father was taken with two of my uncles and we never saw them again.
“Our Jewish neighbors came to our defense at first and I remember clearly how they shouted in Hebrew at the Israeli militants. However, our neighbors could not stop the Israeli militants as they started to burn down one house after another in the village.
“We fled and started the long walk towards Lebanon.”
Um Zohair wished for her grandchildren to return to al-Qatiyya and have a chance to live with dignity. “Palestinians are exhausted from being homeless for so long,” she said.
Palestine is still occupied and Palestinians internationally-recognised right of return is continually denied and violated by Israel.
The urgency and determination of Palestinians to return to Palestine was broadcast to the whole world during the attempt to return while commemorating the Nakba three years ago.
Then, more than 50,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon headed to the border with occupied Palestine. The vast majority were young Palestinians determined to fight for their right to return to Palestine.
In response, as the whole world watched, Israeli occupation forces did what they have been doing best for the last 66 years: they hunted down and killed Palestinians with sheer cruelty, killing nearly a dozen.
Um Zohair is one of millions of Palestinians stuck in exile, banned by Israel from returning to their villages.
[Abridged from Electronic Intifada. Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.]