Remembering Al Nakba

Dr Khader Abu-Hayyeh gave a moving account of his family's 'disastrous' life as Palestinian refugees in front of a packed audience at Hastings Mosque.

The Mosque opened its doors for the 'Remembering Al Nakba' commemoration event, welcoming over 70 guests from across the community, as well as Hastings Mayor Nigel Sinden.

The Nakba (Arabic word for 'catastrophe') was the forced expulsion of over 750,000 Palestinians from their villages and towns after the State of Israel was declared in May 1948.

The Israeli military terrorised Palestinians, committed appalling massacres, razed towns and villages and forced hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives.

Dr Khader was just a four-year-old boy when Israeli soldiers came to his family home in July 1948 and ordered the whole family to leave within half an hour - or they would all be killed.

A soldier then shot dead their family dog in front of them.

'We had to obey their orders,' said Dr Khader. 'Otherwise we will be shot.'

Already, the Israeli army had carried out a massacre in Dr Khader's town of Al-Lydd, 15kms east of Tel Aviv. The military invaded the city and ordered all the men and boys of military age to go to the Dahmash Mosque, where they were assured they would be safe.

'Then all of a sudden the Israeli military came with their machine guns, invaded that mosque and killed about 80 people inside,' said Dr Khader. 'And they gave orders not to open the mosque, to keep it closed. The bodies were kept inside the mosque and this was in July. It was very hot, the bodies decomposed and rotted and stayed there for 10 days and then they ordered the Palestinian people to collect these bodies and burn them.'

Since they left in a hurry Dr Khader's family took very few personal belongings and no official documents.

'We thought we would only be gone a matter of a day or two, until things settled down, and then we would be back.'

But the family were never allowed to return home. They walked for miles in the boiling summer heat to a village called Ni'lin and then on to the town of Bir Zeit.

But the heat and exhaustion were too much for the elderly and young infants and Dr Khader recalled the distressing sight of abandoned babies and old people on the side of the road, too weak to survive the gruelling 'death march.'

The family first sheltered in an olive grove for a month, along with many other families, desperate to escape the onslaught. They tried to reach Gaza but were turned back and eventually they arrived at a camp near Jericho where the family of eight lived in a tent in the hottest place in the Jordan valley near the Dead Sea for three years.

'We all lived in one tent - the whole family, there were eight of us, my grandmother, grandfather, parents and my three brothers,' says Dr Khader. 'No sanitation, no running water, no electricity, nothing. We used to go and fill water during the night from 3 kms away.

'It really was a disastrous life. You cannot imagine now, living in this nice life, people living in these conditions 70 years ago.'

The family were eventually given a small amount of timber to erect a makeshift mud house and they remained in that hut for 20 years with no electricity or running water. After 1967, they emigrated to Amman in Jordan to the Al-Hussain camp where conditions were unsanitary and sewage ran freely down the middle of narrow roads.

Today Dr Khader, 74, has a comfortable life with his wife and two grown-up daughters in Kent but he has never known his real date of birth since his family had no official documents.

'My children ask me - when is your birthday? We need to celebrate. But I don't know my birthday. I don't have my birth certificate. We left everything.'

Dr Khader says that despite making his home in the UK, he will always be rooted to Palestine. In an emotional moment at the end of his talk he produced an olive branch taken from a tree in Jerusalem and another from his home town, and a bag of soil taken from Al-Aqsa Mosque in 2010. Dr Khader said he will buried with the branches and soil.

'These are our roots here,' he said, gripping the soil and branches in his hands. 'It is in my blood. So I will not give it up. Never, never!'

After the Nakba, Palestinians were settled into 60 refugee camps in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza and Egypt and despite the passing of UN resolution 194 in December 1948 which enshrined their legal right of return, they have never been allowed to return home.

Today, there are over 5 million Palestinian refugees worldwide but the number of Nakba survivors like Dr Khader has dwindled to just under 200,000.

Sadly Dr Khader's parents never got to see their home again but he was allowed to return twice in 2010 and 2015, thanks to his British Citizenship.

'I want to go back to my homeland,' he concluded. 'Today, there cannot be a two state solution because of the settlements so my idea, like many others, is to have one state. Forget about wars and go back to 200 years ago when we lived together in peace and harmony. Why shouldn't we try to live in peace and harmony again? One state for Arabs, Christians, Muslims and Jews.'

After the talk, guests enjoyed a short film about Free Running in Gaza followed by an authentic Palestinian meal of falafel, humus, smoked aubergine, musakhan, tabbouleh and Hilbeh cake.

Gill Knight, from the Hastings & Rye Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which co-hosted the event, said: 'This has been a very special day. It's so important to hear first hand testimonies from Nakba survivors like Dr Khader and to remember what has been done to them. But at the same time, it is very sad that we're still having to remember Al Nakba because the Palestinians haven't got their justice, they still haven't got their self-determination and the Nakba goes on today in the form of home demolitions.'

18 June 2019.