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Palestinians Revisit ‘Catastrophe’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early on a Saturday morning, Saleh abu Laban steps onto the land his Palestinian grandparents once owned in this hillside village and picks up a shriveled pomegranate. But his presence soon rousts the Israeli who owns it all now.

In fluent Hebrew, Abu Laban tells the pajama-clad Israeli that his family lived in Zekharya half a century ago. His mother planted the tree whose fruit he holds; his grandparents’ home was the empty, one-room house that stands nearby. He has come to visit his roots.

The Israeli is hesitant, then friendly. Nahum Sadok, 42, says he was born here after his family of Kurdish Jews came to Israel in the 1950s. He shakes hands with Abu Laban, 45, and his brother Amjed. And he tells them that he has no plans to demolish their grandparents’ tiny home.

Saleh abu Laban gazes after the man as he walks away. “He has my life,” the Palestinian says without apparent bitterness. “And he is here instead of me.”

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As Israelis reflect with pride on the 50th anniversary of their state, Palestinians such as Saleh abu Laban and his family are remembering what they call the nakba, or “catastrophe,” the 1948 loss of land that is the Palestinians’ defining historical moment.

The Abu Labans, a clan of farmers and religious leaders that once owned 75 acres in Zekharya, became refugees in the war that followed Israel’s declaration of independence. That facet of their history still scars each of them--from family patriarch Abu Ibrahim, 85, to his son Saleh, to Saleh’s ponytailed daughter, Tamara.

In October 1948, Abu Ibrahim and his wife frantically bundled their children into a donkey’s saddlebags and fled Zekharya under Israeli bombardment. In the years since, the family’s story--one of loss, division, violence, achievement and peacemaking--has, like the story of all Palestinians, been intertwined with that of Israel.

It is punctuated by seminal events in the history of the two peoples: the 1948 creation of the Jewish state, which led to the Palestinian uprooting; the 1967 war and Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; the bloody, seven-year Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that ended earlier this decade; and the arduous, often frustrating path toward peace.

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Along the way, members of the Abu Laban family have served time in Israeli prisons and been deported for violent or political resistance; others outside the country when war broke out were forced to remain abroad. Teenage cousins were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in demonstrations during the intifada.

Today, the Abu Labans say their days of violent opposition to Israel are over. Saleh, who spent 15 years in prison for an attack on Israeli troops when he was 16, actively works to promote dialogue with Israel. The family of angry young protesters has become one that includes teachers, agricultural engineers, aid workers and officials of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat.

Like most Palestinians, the Abu Labans support the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements and strongly believe in the compromise--two states, side by side--that their forebears and other Palestinians rejected more than 50 years ago.

And while some among them dream of a return to Zekharya, this quiet village of olive and fig trees that all Abu Labans consider their “real” home, they know that this will not occur. All but a few of the Arab homes here were demolished long ago, and it is now an Israeli farming community populated by Jewish immigrants who have sunk their own roots into its fertile soil. It will not be part of any eventual Palestinian state, the Abu Labans acknowledge.

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“We have the dream, and we have reality,” said Abdel Nasser, Saleh’s first cousin and neighbor in the Dahaisha refugee camp. “We know they are not the same.”

The Past Dies Hard

For now, reality for Saleh and most of his family is Dahaisha, a dusty jumble of cinder-block structures and narrow alleyways that houses about 10,000 people on the southern edge of Bethlehem. Its residents are members of families that became refugees in 1948, most from 40 villages southwest of Jerusalem, including Zekharya.

Inside the cramped confines of the camp, the past dies hard. Residents refer to one another and to sections of Dahaisha by the names of the villages that they lost 50 years ago: Jerashia after the community of Jerash, Ajajra after Ajar, Zekharawa for Zekharya.

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It is conversational shorthand, a way to place themselves and one another in context, but it is also a means of keeping alive the increasingly distant memory of their loss and displacement. Many choose to stay on in the camp for a similar reason, to show the world that the refugee problem is not yet resolved.

Abu Ibrahim abu Laban needs no such reminders. He has instilled in his nine children an understanding of Palestine’s tragedy, telling them repeatedly that they must never forget. He makes sure that his 33 grandchildren are exposed to the family history too.

“All my father’s stories are about Zekharya,” said Amjed, the eighth child. “This was his life, what he loved.”

Abu Ibrahim’s parents grew corn, wheat and lentils on their land on the village outskirts. They also led the local adherents of Sufism, a mystical offshoot of Islam; Abu Ibrahim followed his father and grandfather in becoming an imam, or religious leader.

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In about 1930, he began hearing talk that groups of Jewish immigrants were arriving in what was then British-ruled Palestine. The newcomers were buying land at a great rate, and many Palestinians said the immigrants wanted to establish a Jewish state. He and others in Zekharya found the accounts disturbing but paid little attention; they felt sure that it would not affect them.

Abu Ibrahim was shocked to learn on Nov. 29, 1947, that the U.N. General Assembly had voted to end the British mandate and partition Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. To his relief, the Arab nations voted against the proposal. He clung to a hope that it would not go forward.

By then, Abu Ibrahim had heard that many of the Jews arriving in Palestine had fled war and pogroms in Europe, especially Hitler’s Germany. “It was painful to hear that the Nazi army was killing these people. We were taught to respect all human beings, that all were alike.”

But, he added, “in our country, the Jewish people were preparing to take over. We thought they were using this Holocaust in order to gain sympathy. We thought that for one death, maybe they said 10.”

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On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence, and surrounding Arab armies invaded. By October, the war had arrived in Zekharya.

Israel launched an offensive against Egyptian positions in villages along the southern coast, near present-day Ashkelon, and against a string of communities southwest of Jerusalem, including Zekharya. On Oct. 16, Israeli forces began shelling the village from the heights to the north. The Egyptian soldiers posted in the village quickly pulled out, telling residents to do the same while they regrouped.

The counterattack never came.

Under fire, Abu Ibrahim, his wife and other relatives grabbed food, blankets and clothing and hurried out of the village, heading southeast toward the Hebron hills. With sons Ibrahim, 9, and Mustafa, 7, on a donkey and infant Sadik in his mother’s arms, they joined a stream of Arabs fleeing into the hills.

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“I swore I would not leave my village until I saw them coming in with my own eyes, but the shelling was too much,” Abu Ibrahim recalled. “We were forced to leave.”

In May 1949, the Red Cross offered the Abu Labans and other refugees a choice of several camps being created in the Jordanian-controlled West Bank. Abu Ibrahim chose Dahaisha; it was closest to Zekharya.

Splintered by Conflict

Israelis and Palestinians still debate the number of refugees the war created. Some Israelis say the total was no more than 250,000; some Palestinians claim 1 million. A widely accepted figure is 600,000 to 700,000. There is no question, however, that the conflict splintered the Palestinian people.

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Those who stayed within Israel became known as Israeli Arabs. Others, like the Abu Labans, left their homes in Israel and ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza or neighboring Arab countries. A third group, also refugees, moved in with family or friends in the West Bank and Gaza. And some Palestinians who were living abroad had no choice but to stay away.

For Abu Ibrahim and his growing family, the first years as refugees were a time of confusion and desperation, of grinding poverty and bitter cold.

Dahaisha had no concrete shelters until 1956, and the refugees spent the first few winters shivering in donated tents. The weather was unusually bitter, with bouts of snow and freezing rain; at times, young children from the camp were evacuated to stay with families in nearby homes.

Abu Ibrahim became the camp’s Muslim religious leader, which earned him respect but only a few Jordanian dinars a month. Every two to three years, another child was born--another stomach to fill. The family lived on donated rations, remembering the days when they treated visitors to their Zekharya home to feasts of roasted lamb.

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The Abu Labans’ economic situation did not improve until the early 1960s, when the two oldest sons graduated from high school, left the West Bank and took jobs as teachers in Saudi Arabia and Algeria. They sent money home, allowing the family in 1964 to become one of the first in Dahaisha to build its own house, a four-room structure of concrete and cinder block.

The camp, meanwhile, was becoming more and more political, reflecting the birth of the Arab nationalist movement in the 1950s and the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964. For the Jordanian soldiers struggling to control the area, Dahaisha was earning a reputation for trouble.

By late spring 1967, another war seemed imminent. Arabic radio stations broadcast reports that Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan were preparing to attack. Israelis feared for their state’s survival, but Abu Ibrahim and other Palestinians, especially in the camps, were hopeful; an Arab triumph could mean a return to their homes.

Instead, Israel won a sweeping victory, capturing the Golan Heights from Syria, the Gaza Strip and Sinai peninsula from Egypt, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. Palestinians were devastated, unable to comprehend the scope of this second debacle.

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Seemingly overnight, 1.2 million Palestinians, hostile, fearful and confused, found themselves under Israeli occupation. Hundreds of Dahaisha residents and others streamed across the border into Jordan.

Abu Ibrahim was determined to stay put. He had lost his home once to war, he said. Now that he had another, he vowed never to leave it.

But his family, already divided, was split again. Three of his sons were abroad--Ibrahim in Saudi Arabia, Mustafa in Bahrain and Sadik studying in what was then Czechoslovakia. Soon after the war ended, Israel announced that Palestinians who were outside the country when the war broke out had lost their residency status and could not return. Sadik would be locked out for nearly 30 years.

Cause to Fight Israelis

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In Dahaisha, the occupation was only a few weeks old when Saleh, Abu Ibrahim’s fifth child, witnessed a scene that was to become almost a staple of the troubled relationship between Israel and the Palestinians.

Standing near the camp entrance one day, Saleh, 14, saw several Palestinian children playfully poke holes in sandbags set up near an Israeli position. The soldiers shouted at them, and Palestinian adults protested the angry tone. The two groups argued, rocks flew, and the Israelis slapped a curfew on the camp while they searched house to house for the troublemakers.

The next morning, Saleh went outside and saw what seemed to him a battleground: broken windows, houses forced open and a group of beaten, bloodied men about his father’s age.

From that moment, Saleh vowed to fight the Israelis. “This gave me a green light to try to be free of the occupation,” said Saleh, who is now a lieutenant colonel with the Palestinian Preventive Security Service. “I will never forget the fear my mother, my father and I felt that night. I had the right to refuse my occupier; all people have this right.”

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He and a cousin formed a small resistance cell. At first, their activities were minor; they wrote anti-occupation slogans on the camp walls or displayed the outlawed Palestinian flag.

Within a year, however, they made plans for what Saleh called “more active” resistance. They made contact with the Popular Liberation Army, a Muslim guerrilla group operating from Gaza, and obtained two grenades from a go-between.

It was an era of growing radicalism, inside and outside the occupied territories. Arafat, who headed the PLO’s Fatah faction, became the leader of the entire group in 1968, the same year it declared armed struggle the only way to liberate Palestine.

On a February evening in 1970, Saleh stood on a hill near his home and lobbed a grenade at a truck transporting Israeli soldiers while his cousin Mohammed stood watch. Several soldiers were badly injured. Saleh bolted for home, hearing shooting from the scene behind him. His father stood in the doorway, listening. “He said, ‘Where were you?’ I told him I was playing billiards” at a youth club in the camp. “My parents didn’t know about my secret life.”

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Six weeks later, however, his parents and the Israeli army learned the truth. Saleh and his cousin were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison: Saleh for 25 years and Mohammed for 20.

Within days, the army returned to Dahaisha and gave Saleh and Mohammed’s families an hour to remove the contents of their homes, then blew the houses up. Abu Ibrahim had lost his home again, but he supported his son.

New Views of Conflict

Saleh used the long years to educate himself, studying Hebrew, English, politics and philosophy. He read Palestinian histories and realized that his views were changing.

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“I started to look at the conflict in new ways and to believe that we must solve our problems through two states, without more violence,” he said. “Before that, I had the idea that I would like to finish off Israel, but in prison I began to see that this was impossible. Five million Israelis live in this place, so we should be more realistic. They are not going to go away.”

It was the beginning of an evolution, one that ultimately took him to Madrid as part of a Palestinian team negotiating peace with Israel. But the path would not be smooth.

In Dahaisha, his family was struggling. Saleh’s parents and three of his siblings lived in one room donated by the U.N. agency that ran the camp. Two grown sisters lived close by and found work as nurses’ aides to support the family and save enough to build again.

In 1985, Saleh was released early in a deal that traded 1,100 Palestinians for four Israelis. He came home to Dahaisha on an army bus that carried him past Zekharya, the village he knew only from his father’s stories. Fellow prisoners, aware of his origins, pointed it out.

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He wanted to settle down. Within a few months, he was married and enrolled at Bethlehem University, planning to become a teacher. For two years, he and his wife, Fadwa, went to school and ran a small bookstore inside the camp.

But in 1987, little more than a year after his daughter, Tamara, was born, the Palestinian uprising began, pulling Saleh into a new kind of confrontation.

Always restive, Dahaisha became a hotbed of rebellion. The Israelis constructed a fence around the camp and controlled access through a single gate.

Saleh was asked to help lead the camp’s “popular committee,” which organized the rock-throwing demonstrations in Dahaisha along with nonviolent forms of resistance that were an effort by Palestinians to divorce themselves from all forms of Israeli control. He coordinated committees that tried to provide residents with health care, education, policing and social services, all from within the camp.

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“We wanted to show that we would not cooperate with this occupation anymore,” he said. “But I did not throw a stone or plan demonstrations.”

Palestinians were proud of their home-grown resistance. Yet the uprising was also a time of hardship and disruption, of lives put on hold. Schools were closed, and many people were out of work.

In September 1988, Saleh was arrested again, this time as a leader of Dahaisha’s popular committee. He went back to prison for a year, serving alongside hundreds of others who had helped direct the intifada. Today, he credits the uprising with forcing Israel to recognize the need for peace with the Arabs.

Hopes for Peace

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Saleh left prison to finish his education degree and begin a series of new jobs, including working with Israeli human rights groups monitoring the refugee camps. And he and other Palestinians began meeting with left-wing Israelis, including politicians and kibbutzniks, in a search for common ground.

In 1991, he traveled to the Madrid peace conference as an advisor on refugee affairs to the Palestinian negotiating team. The talks were inconclusive, but for the first time, Israelis and Palestinians had met, officially, to talk peace.

It was a period of hope. Barriers constructed over 50 years crashed down, and achievements came in breathtaking succession. Israel and the Palestinians signed a landmark peace accord in 1993. Arafat and his top aides returned to the West Bank and Gaza. And the Palestinians held their first democratic elections, choosing Arafat, who had renounced violence, as the president of their self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority.

For Saleh and his family, one of the happiest days was in 1995, when Israel withdrew its troops from Bethlehem and Dahaisha came under Palestinian control. Residents pulled down the hated fence, and Palestinian police replaced Israeli soldiers in patrolling Dahaisha’s twisting alleys.

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“We began to think we were going to a quiet and safe life, that maybe we could be a normal people and live like the others,” Saleh said. “But it didn’t last so long.”

Today, the peace process is at a standstill. The hand-over of land to the Palestinians has stopped, with 97% of the West Bank still under full or partial Israeli control. Israeli settlements are growing, covering the land where Palestinians hope to create their own state. And the mutual trust built up painstakingly in small, careful steps is eroding.

Saleh said he struggles to hang on to the twin hopes he nourished in prison: for an independent Palestinian state beside Israel and for a lasting peace. “Why should we not now solve the problem? Why should we pay more blood for this on both sides? Palestinians need to have our rights, and both sides need to have peace. Why not now?”

Tamara, his daughter, agrees. Sitting with a friend in her parents’ home in the refugee camp, Tamara, 11, said peace will be possible if both sides work hard at compromise.

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But Palestinian history runs deep, even in one so young. “The Israelis are the aggressors,” she said, also using an Arabic word meaning “evil ones” that drew laughter from her parents.

“What about the ones you know?” Saleh asked, listing the family’s many Israeli friends, made through his peace work and Fadwa’s job as a coordinator for women’s issues. “Oh, they’re OK,” Tamara said hastily, looking abashed.

“Maybe this next generation will solve the problem,” her father said. “I don’t know the way exactly, but I hope they will find it.”


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