Right of Return

A Jew’s Painful Look at The Nakba

Penny S. Tee Article

“Whatever the price of peace will be, is much cheaper than the price of war.”   Ali Abu Awwad

Israel just celebrated Yom Ha’Atzmaut, their Independence Day, when Israel became a state for the Jewish people. They’ve been a nation for 72 years. For Israelis and Jews, we rejoice. However, this same occasion is cause for anguish if you are Palestinian. The Palestinians call the day, “The Nakba” (The Catastrophe). It’s commemorated every year on May 15 and believe me, they aren’t celebrating. Just like all assemblies this year due to COVID-19, large gatherings are prohibited so many acknowledgements of the day were held virtually.

This is one of the most difficult articles I’ve ever written. Why? Because I like to fool myself that as a free-thinking American Jew, I acknowledge the Palestinian side of their anger and objection to what happened in 1948. While writing this, I kept wanting to interject paragraphs of all the defending “buts” presenting the Jewish side. In the past I’ve given the Palestinian side a glance, hesitant to take the time to find out more. Admittedly, if I was honest with myself, I knew I would and probably wouldn’t like some of what I learned.

I wrote in my previous article commemorating Yom Ha’Atzmaut on April 28, “For Jews and especially Israelis, since 1948 Israel Independence Day is a hard-earned, happy day. Jews throughout the centuries prayed facing Israel and specifically Jerusalem. Jews longed to go back home, having been forced out repeatedly, living in the diaspora and wanting to live in their homeland. Now, gratefully, for decades this has been their reality.

Yet, as I was to learn and acknowledge, the same could be said for Palestinians. Our triumph was their tragedy. Yet looking at the history, as is everything in the conflict, it’s complicated.

The establishment of Israel was messy and ever since remains knotty. The 1947 United Nations General Assembly resolution 181 proposed the partition of the British Mandate in Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab entities. The Jewish leadership accepted the resolution. The Arab countries rejected it and declared war on the Jewish population in the area.1

For Jews, what happened next has always been presented as another David meets Goliath story. When the Jewish state was announced, the next day the 1948 Arab-Israeli War began.

The Arab countries of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen attacked this new, tiny country.2 700,000 Palestinians fled (in a move they thought would be temporary) or were expelled.3 The exodus has had long-lasting repercussions.

The result of the attacks defied Arab and probably many Jews’ expectations. Israel won. In the three years following the war, 700,000 Jewish citizens who lived in Arab countries and had been persecuted for hundreds of years, were forced to leave and they took refuge in the newly created State of Israel.4

In the years since, the Law of Return enacted in 1950 has enabled Aliyah (Jewish immigration to Israel), by millions of Jews throughout the world.5 From survivors of the Holocaust to immigrants from disparate reaches of Ethiopia, North Africa, South America, Europe, the Soviet Union and the United States, Israel provides opportunities for a new life. You may be surprised to note that 2019 was the largest year in a decade—an estimated thirty-four thousand immigrated to Israel.6

With all the negotiations and agreements throughout the years, it’s the same bottom line today as it was then. The Palestinians refuse to accept Israel being a Jewish state and want all the land as they chant, “’From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free.’”

I had preferred to look at what they were doing as obviously wrong. They “continue to use their people as human shields and promote bloodshed, while calling their protests non-violent. Palestinians launching thousands of missiles, terrorist bombings, stabbings, sailing incendiary kites through the air with the intention of landing and setting fires, flying drones and car rammings.”

And all of this is true, but it’s the Israeli and Jewish side of things. If I sincerely want to promote Peace, I need to look at both sides. Oy. This is difficult and now time to put on my big girl panties and look at what a few Palestinians say about what happened…

I recently attended another virtual event sponsored by Roots/Shorashim/Judur, a Peace organization that has Israelis and Palestinians meet in the West Bank and discuss life and history as each perceives it. Their perceptions of what has happened is different, as you can imagine.

The panel was comprised of Tamar Hassassian, a member of Taghyeer / Change, the Palestinian national nonviolence movement. I wonder how many people have never heard that there is a non-violent Palestinian organization?

Both Khaled Abu Awwad and Noor Awad work with Roots/Shorashim/Judur. The organization is self-defined as “a unique network of local Palestinians and Israelis who have come to see each other as the partners we both need to make changes to end our conflict.” They also took part in the discussion.

What does Nakba Day mean to Palestinians? What they term “The Catastrophe” is a day of remembrance of “death, displacement and upheaval that befell the Palestinian population in 1948.7

Tamar said that The Nakba was the decimation and cancellation of her national identity. It’s an annual recognition of when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled.

They dispersed to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza. She said another quarter million Palestinians were internally displaced in Israel. This is “very complex, emotional and explosive…For two decades it was treated as a refugee problem.”

Tamar informed us of U.N. Resolution 194 which said,

“refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property …”8

This of course opens a huge can of worms were Palestinians all to return to Israel. Why has Israel refused to comply with Resolution 194? After many years the Palestinian numbers have significantly multiplied. Tamar told us that in the second generation of Palestinians who left there are seven million! If they were to return to Israel, the majority of the population in Israel would be Palestinian. How long do you think the vote would take to make the state no longer Jewish, but Palestinian?

And in the beginning of the resolution it says, “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours,” well, if their neighbours are Palestinian or Arab, no problem, but Jewish? Given the past, it’s not likely to go well.

I was riveted, listening to Khaled Abu Awwad’s story. In his mind, his entire family’s story was rooted in The Nakba. What amazed me was how he was able to transform himself to become a Peace activist given his family’s repeated tragedies. He has been awarded the UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Prize for the promotion of nonviolence and tolerance in 2011, and was named one of the 500 most influential Muslims in 2010 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center.

Today he lives in Beit Ummar but his family is originally from Al-Qubeiba. His parents also left in 1948. He said when he spoke with the elders, they told him they thought that they would be gone for about three to four days. They only took a few things with them and they have never since been able to return home to live.

In his village in 1948 there were approximately 900 people. Today, although dispersed in many different places throughout the world after generations, he estimates there are about 22,000.

In his immediate family he has many brothers and sisters, although some he hasn’t seen in years, since they live in different countries. The Nakba cut his family into pieces and scattered them to different countries. The pain of this fact was apparent as he wondered out loud what his brothers’ and sisters’ families were like, even how they looked? How were his nephews and nieces faring where they lived?

As a second-generation child of the Nakba, he lived as a minority. His grandfather had had lots of land, but it was gone. They took his house. His family had to start over several times—they had nothing. His father had to work hard to provide for his family. His dad told him not to make trouble.

As he was growing up he began to question who caused his family this pain. He grew up hating being a refugee. His answer: Israelis and Jews. In 1987, the First Intifada started and his family became part of the leadership. They handed out brochures, gave orders to close shops and told people to boycott and protest.

Khaled has been personally impacted by the conflict in many troubling ways. Eventually many of his family were arrested and given jail sentences. Khaled also served eighteen months in confinement. His mother was a leader in the Palestinian movement and sentenced to six years in prison. His brother Ali, who I know and have written about also was jailed for several years. In fact his story is in my book, “BLASTED from COMPLACENCY: A Journey from Terror to Transformation in Israel.”  His sister was in prison for one year.

In 1993, Arafat and Rabin signed the Oslo Accord, the first Peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. They thought that they would now be able to live in freedom, without the occupation and checkpoints. That they wouldn’t have to fear the military coming in the middle of the night and taking their family members away.

One day he went into Hebron. There were about 500 cars waiting in a line. He asked a passerby why is there still a checkpoint? The man answered, “Someone was throwing stones and Israel closed Hebron.” He thought maybe it’s too soon and they have to be patient. Nothing changed in his life.

He went back to the university and later worked hard and built a large successful company. He continued to watch the political atmosphere. He said that he saw houses demolished and Palestinians being shot.

On December 16, 2000, his brother Youssef was driving his car and approached some Israeli soldiers. They asked him to turn off his car and he obliged. As he was waiting, there were some kids throwing stones and he asked them to stop because he didn’t want his car damaged. One of the soldiers started to get angry and began throwing stones at his car. Youssef asked the soldier to stop throwing stones at his car. The soldier walked toward Youssef, shot and killed him.

Thousands of people came to pay their respects. There were 4,000-5,000 mourners at his funeral as they walked to his grave, which is the Muslim custom.

The Awwad family didn’t know how to deal with the loss of Youssef. Who would? They had many questions. Should they go back to fighting? Should they take out revenge? They thought the Israelis don’t want Peace.

One day their family received an invitation to join a group of bereaved families—Israelis and Palestinians who had lost family members to the conflict. They wanted to visit them and share their pain in solidarity.

The Awwad family members were suspicious. They thought, This is strange. What do they want from us? In their minds all Jews and Israelis were guilty of Youssef’s death. Most of the family refused to attend. But his mother said, “What else can happen to us? Maybe these people will bring something new—a miracle? Let’s listen to them.”

As a mother, I could feel her pain and tears filled my eyes as Khaled spoke.

So the Awwad family invited the Bereaved Families to their home. When they entered they were respectful and provided their condolences.

One of the Jewish women told her story. Her teen daughter had gone to Tel Aviv to celebrate the end of the school year and instead of coming home with a big smile on her face, she had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber.

As they each began to tell their stories, Khaled realized that the Israelis also grieved and were trapped in this horrific situation.  Before, he thought the Palestinians were the only victims and that the Israelis lived in Paradise.  Everyone was paying too high a price living without Peace. They all were suffering and wanted to live with security without fear.

Khaled started questioning his personal assumptions. As more and more cruel events happened in his life, he had created in his mind an image of Israelis and Jews of being inhuman monsters. Between the losses of their home, land, jailings, shootings and losses of life, it’s understandable. Now, having the opportunity to speak with Israelis, he was beginning to realize that they had more in common than he had previously given them credit for.

Khaled has been a Peace activist now for twenty years. He is one of the Palestinian founders of the Bereaved Families Forum, of Al Tareq/The Way, a Palestinian non-violent movement and is part of Taghyeer, the Palestinian non-violent movement. Adding to the shocking number of personal tragedies that Khaled has suffered, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that two years after Youssef died another of his brothers, Said, died after being wounded.

Khaled has also suffered pain as one son, Muayyad, was seriously wounded and left handicapped and in 2009 and 2015 his son, Muhanad, was jailed.

With all that’s happened in his life, his resilience amazes me. He says, “To anyone who says that it is only by war or by force or by eradicating the other side that rights can be won or dreams achieved, I say, ‘That is not so.’ For one side cannot eradicate the other. We cannot kill their dreams and they are unable to kill ours. We must divide this place among us all and live in peace or all of us will live in hell.”

Noor Awad is a tour guide and works in Bethlehem south of Jerusalem. He wasn’t born in 1948, he is twenty-nine, and was born in Amman, Jordan.

However, he feels that all Palestinians suffered from the events in 1947-1948. He believes a terrible mistake happened in 1948 and they changed from having British occupiers to Israeli occupiers. In his opinion, a Palestinian state should have been established.

He said, 60% of Palestinians became uprooted from where they originally lived. He feels the descendants of the refugees always felt the responsibility to try to resist and change what happened to their ancestors. They inherit this idea and identity from previous generations. He feels his people have incurred generations of suffering and misery with each new war or Intifada being just another chapter in their story.

Noor’s grandparents had to leave their village in 1948. What struck me after hearing his story, was the continuous upheaval and the number of times his family moved, always seeking a better life. He feels that now it is his turn up at bat to face the harsh, continuing Palestinian saga.

His parents were born in Bethlehem. His father was born in 1957 after the Suez crisis with Egypt and his mother was born three years before the Six-Day War in 1967. The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was another sad chapter in their journey.

His grandfather realized that he wouldn’t be able to go back home after two years in the Bethlehem refugee camp. He didn’t want to stay there so he moved to the city of Bethlehem.

During the 1980’s, it didn’t look like there was much of a future there, so his father moved to Jordan. His mother also emigrated to Jordan, they were married and Noor was born in 1991.

Two years after Oslo, they moved back to Bethlehem where the rest of his family lived. At first it felt normal to him, but in time he learned many family stories.

One day crossing the Allenby bridge from Jordan into the West Bank, he was with his father and the Israeli Intelligence took his father for questioning. The soldier offered for his father to work for Israeli Intelligence, but his father refused. Although Noor was very young and didn’t really understand the conversation he could feel the tension and he shouted at the soldier and cursed him. It seemed to me that it was a memory that Noor took pride in.

From 1995-2000 his father was a plumber and worked in Jerusalem. Sometimes Noor went with him. Every Friday, his father, brother and Noor went to the Al-Aqsa mosque. There was a checkpoint then too, but it wasn’t anything like now. It was just an open road with no imposing wall. When he was almost eleven, he began to notice more. It was in the beginning of the Second Intifada and “for the first time I am facing Israelis as my enemy.”

Noor first learned about the Nakba from asking his mother questions. He wanted to know where they are from and details about Malha. In his Palestinian school he studied history and also learned about the Nakba which he feels is essential for Palestinian nationalism.

He began to understand his family’s story and it became important to him not to just mention where he lived today, but to identify himself where his family lived before The Nakba and to say that he is a Palestinian and a refugee. He clarified that his family was originally from Jerusalem, an Arab village known as Malha (al-Maliha).9

Hearing him say that to him The Nakba, was a story of ethnic cleansing, hit me in my heart. He feels that Israel is trying to erase his identity. As a Jew, I was used to hearing the Holocaust being described in these terms but had never heard this used with regard to the treatment of Palestinians by Israelis.

Noor told us that the key is the symbol of the right of return. It represented keys to houses that would be successively handed to each generation. In Palestinian culture it also represented the houses that were locked up as they left during the Nakba.

His family wasn’t active politically until the Second Intifada. He remembers in 2002 when “The Church of the Nativity was besieged by Israeli tanks and soldiers for 41 days.”  He had cousins who were inside the church and Bethlehem was also besieged and there were curfews. He described it as a time of war.

Palestinian militants had sought refuge in the church amongst the 200 resident monks. When it ended, the militants were sent to Europe and Gaza.10

I have to admit, hearing the Israeli soldiers described as if they were the perpetrators instead of the militants, caused me to take note.

In 2014, a few years after high school, Noor became a tour guide. He already spoke English and was somewhat practiced at guiding and answering people’s questions. Yearly, three million tourists travel to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.

Some are interested in knowing what the people who live there are like. He is asked questions such as, Why are you still refugees? Why do your people want to destroy Israel? Why is there a wall? What happened in 1967? But all of these conversations were with international tourists, not locals. There were no conversations with Israelis. He would hear arguments, however, from the tourists defending Israel’s perspective.

Noor joined Roots in 2016. One of the most powerful moments was when he met Hanan and he was speaking about his personal story. Hanan said that Israelis and Palestinians have to recognize and empathize with each other, which is the only way to lead to Peace. Prior to that he never listened to the Israeli perspective with any feeling. At that moment, something changed in him and he felt he had to understand the other side’s viewpoint.

I could really relate to Noor’s interest in understanding the other’s viewpoint. It’s why I listened to this discussion and shared what I had learned. How could I work on Peace, if I only knew one side of the equation?

In 2017, a young American Jew asked if he had ever been back to Malha. He said that he had been there, and the core of the village still exists including the mosque. It’s located at Begin Blvd., southwest of Jerusalem. It must break his heart.

He also mentioned that his mother told him that his grandfather went back to Malha before he died. In 1949-1967 you couldn’t cross the border from the West Bank. Jordan occupied the West Bank. The Greenline prevented you from going there. However, after 1967 his grandfather was able to go back to see his former house. A Jewish family now lived in the house. He knocked on the door and they let him come in. He spent time with the family, but Noor doesn’t know the details of what happened.

In the 1950s, Israel began to settle Iraqi Jewish families in Malha. When he mentioned the story, one of the Israeli staff got emotional. She said she lives in Malha and her family are Iraqi Jews. She asked with tears in her eyes, “Will there ever be peace between our people?” He was overwhelmed by the moment and the reality of how he lives. To him, the question of Peace is linked to justice. Will there ever be justice for all people that suffer?

He said, “When we see what’s happening now with the plans of annexation, the expansion of settlements, the unclear future of what’s going to happen here, it seems to be getting from bad to worse. It feels like a continuous Nakba. If someday we have justice, then there will be Peace.”

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have heard their perspectives. It often wasn’t easy to hear—but essential. I’ll let Khaled close with what he feels the Palestinian people want…

“What the Palestinian people want is to live in dignity and freedom.”

May you be blessed with Peace, שלום, سلام.

As always, I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…



1 By Mida, ““The Origins of Arab Settlers in the Land of Israel,” JewishPress.com, December 26, 2018, https://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/analysis/the-origins-of-arab-settlers-in-the-land-of-israel/2018/12/26/

2 “1948 Arab–Israeli War,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Arab%E2%80%93Israeli_War

3 “1948 Arab–Israeli War,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Arab%E2%80%93Israeli_War

4 “1948 Arab–Israeli War,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Arab%E2%80%93Israeli_War

5  “Aliyah,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliyah

6 By JNS.org, “2019 Immigration to Israel Hits Highest Number in a Decade,” Algemeiner, December 25, 2019, https://www.algemeiner.com/2019/12/25/2019-immigration-to-israel-hits-highest-number-in-a-decade/

7 “Nakba Day 2020 – What Does it Mean Today?” YouTube.com, May 11, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9nXpnMpc3rQ

8 Resolution 194 | UNRW www.unrwa.org/content/resolution-194

9 “Malha,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malha

10  “Siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_the_Church_of_the_Nativity_in_Bethlehem

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