Memories Of A Distant Era

Palestinian women rest at the entrance of their house as they escape the heat during a power cut at Shatti (beach) refugee camp in Gaza City September 15, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A Nakba survivor recalls being forced out of her home 68 years ago by the Israelis

By Sami Abu Salem

Between May 2016 and May 1948 are two very different images of Palestine, a country which has, over the past 68 years, suffered from wars and division. Today, native Palestinians live as refugees, while Israeli settlers celebrate their new home.

Every May, Palestinians worldwide commemorate Nakba, an Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster. It is the month when Israeli armed militias forced over 700,000 Palestinians out of their homes and even their country, rendering them internally displaced, or refugees living in the diaspora.

On May 15, 1948, the first Israeli Premier, David Ben Gurion, declared the establishment of Israel, the very moment the British mandate over Palestine ended at 12 midnight on May 14. And so it was that May 15 became the day that Palestinians mark as their misfortune.

Their houses were taken from them and given to Israeli settlers, while other homes were demolished and Israeli settlements and cities were constructed over the ashes of hundreds of Palestinian villages.

In 1948, there were still several Palestinian villages and cities that were populated by Palestinians.

According to survivors from the first wave of Israeli attacks, “Jewish militias,” which later became part of the Israeli army, resumed their “cleansing” of the land after the Nakba, in an attempt to keep their new entity a pure Jewish state.

The Palestinian coastal town of Al Majdal, also known as Asqalan, is one of the cities that was occupied by Israelis in 1948. Its name has since been changed by the new settlers to Ashkelon.

Latifa Baalosha, 82, is a Palestinian who hails from Asqalan. She was 14 she says when Israeli warplanes bombarded her city and forced its 12,000 residents out in fear of their lives.

In an interview with Newsweek Middle East, she recalls her exile from in Asqalan. It was during those last moments that she became a witness to bloodshed. Baalosha is registered with the U.N. as refugee in her own country.

“It was late in 1948, in November. I was playing with my friends in our neighborhood. We were not far from our house.Suddenly I heard planes and explosions,” she recalls.

“The planes dropped explosive barrels on the market place. My friends and I hid in a store till the air raids stopped.”
Closing her eyes, she recounts how one of the bombs fell near the house of a neighbor, Abdallah Al Aloul. She doesn’t remember if anyone survived.

“People were running everywhere announcing the names of dead people and destroyed houses. Shouting, crying, fear and chaos were everywhere,” she says, as she frowns to the memories painted across her sad face.

Baalosha rushed to her house but realized it was partially damaged by the bombing. Part of the house collapsed on a refugee family that was staying at her house after that family escaped from Israeli shooting at the village of Aker, North of Asqalan, she says.

“I remember thousands of people arriving in Asqalan from nearby villages. They came to Asqalan and waited for the situation to calm down so that they would go back to their villages, but they never materialized.”

Her cousin and all of his family were killed on the spot in one of the explosions that day. She recited their names as if they were still there. “Mohammed Baalosha and his wife Halima. Khaled Baalosha and his wife Roqayya, Khaled Baalosha and his kid Saleh and his daughter.”

Rumors of massacres committed against Palestinians by the Israeli military, namely the massacre of Deir Yassin, West of Jerusalem, spread an atmosphere of terror among the unarmed Palestinian civilians. That fear sped up the process of evacuating towns as residents ran for their lives before the Israelis arrived.

Some 350 Palestinians, mainly women and children, from the Deir Yassin village, were reportedly killed by the Zionist militias Irgun and Stern, in April 1948.

In Asqalan, civilians left their houses and stores to nearby citrus orchards owned by Shaker Maliha, according to Baalosha. There, they spent at least two days eating oranges and drinking from a water well waiting for the explosions to stop, but Israeli bombings traced people to inside the orchard.

This forced families to leave the groves. Some left the city southwards towards Gaza, while others took whatever luggage they could and disappeared.

“We ran away and headed to Gaza. I escaped with my parents and two brothers: Mahmoud and Fawzi. We took nothing with us except for one blanket, which my uncle gave us,” she says.

“We were so thirsty and hungry and it was terribly cold at night. We had no mattresses and we slept in the open air. Along the road, we encountered a woman baking bread in a clay oven. She gave us some bread as we sat nearby warming our bodies against the fire. From there we continued to Khan Younis city, 60 km away from Asqalan.”

Baalosha’s father bought a tent which the family slept in, but it barely stopped the rain from drenching them.
“I felt cold and was starving. We were five sleeping on that one blanket.”

The family roamed the roads for two months with little food and barely any proper clothing to fend off the elements of nature.

“Those were the most difficult months in my life. Our main source of living was whatever people gave us as charity.”
Two months after the family’s escape, people heard that the bombing had stopped in Asqalan and that the Israelis had left the city, she says, adding that tens of families had returned to their houses.

“We went back to Asqalan. The town was empty and most houses were destroyed. Our house was demolished, so [we]moved in with my grandfather Ismail Zaqout and his wife Yasmine.”

But the story doesn’t end there. A couple of weeks later, the Israelis returned to install barbed wire around the town’s populated area and allowed few people to move in or out with special permission.

Asqalan’s citizen-turned fighter, Jamil Ismail Almadhoun fought back, and carried out attacks against the Israeli military, recalls Baalosha.

“The Israelis were looking for him all the time. Then they killed his mother and wife inside an orchard… I did not see this, but people spoke of it back then and news travel fast in a small town.”

For two years, people in Asqalan lived inside those perimeters set by Israel. No one was allowed in or out, unless they had special permits. People were starving and unemployment was high. The town’s once thriving textile industry quickly died, and so did the orchards as no one was able to take care of them.

“After two years of living under siege, the Israelis brought in trucks and loaded all of us in them. Some of us were expelled to Gaza, which was under Egypt’s control. Others were sacked to Hebron, which was under Jordan’s control. And some were forced out of Palestine to nearby countries,” she says.

Baalosha married Mohammed Almadhoun in the late 1950s. She has since been living in the Jabalia refugee camp, north of Gaza. She has six sons, one daughter and many grandchildren.

According to U.N. statistics and Palestinian official numbers, some 957,000 Palestinians, 66 percent of the population back in 1949, were expelled by Israel from their cities and villages.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, estimates show that up to 5.4 million Palestinian refugees live in different refugee camps inside the Gaza Strip, West Bank and neighboring Arab countries.

Their right to return home, guaranteed by U.N. General Assembly’s resolution 194 of December 1949, is yet to be realized.

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