Nakba74: Palestinian refugees in Gaza remember the Nakba through possessions of their ancestors

Daiffallah Abu al-Gussain (82) shows old documents proving the family's home and land ownership in their village of Al-Shalalah, in Beer al-Sabe. (Mohammed Salem – MW)

Tareq S. Hajjaj

Mondoweiss  /  May 15, 2022

From one generation to another, the stories of how Palestinians were kicked off their lands are passed down. Old generations tell stories of the massacres they witnessed to their sons, explaining how their family came to be refugees in exile.

Every year Palestinians commemorate the Nakba on May 15th. But the Nakba, or catastrophe, does not represent a single day of their life when they became refugees in 1948. 

As one refugee from the Gaza Strip told me, the Nakba “represents daily stories of people who are being killed and displaced from their homes and lands, from the moment that the British Mandate started to plant Jewish settlers in Palestine and arm them, until this moment today.” 

Although 74 years have now passed since the Nakba, many Palestinian refugee families keep memories and possessions from al-Belad, or “home” in Arabic. Some hold on to the old hand-woven dresses from their grandmothers, or antique pottery their families once used for food and water, while others still hold close the decades-old legal documents proving their families existence in their homelands.

These possessions are not collectibles, but they tell a story. Stories of running away from the death that loomed at the end of Israeli rifles. Stories of men, women, and children being uprooted from their homes, never knowing when they would go back.

After Zionist militias pillaged and destroyed villages and towns across Palestine, killing thousands and expelling hundreds of thousands more, Israel was established, and the world celebrated.  

David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, famously said, “The old will die and the young will forget.” 

But Daiffallah Abu Al-Gussain, 82, a Palestinian man in Gaza who is older than the Israeli state itself, says that after 74 years, that statement could not be more false. “The young will get Palestine back,” he said. 

‘For the day you return’

Al-Gussain was forced to leave his home in Beer al-Sabe (now known as Beer Sheva) along with his family when he was just seven years old. He has lived in Gaza for 74 years now, but remembers the day his family fled like it was yesterday. 

“We left before the killing reached us,” he recounted. “People from other villages were fleeing and told stories of what they were running from, so people from the farther villages packed up and fled,” he added. 

Al-Gussain recounted how survivors from other villages told harrowing stories of the crimes they witnessed at the hands of Zionist militias – stories of people running in panic as militias stormed the houses with guns, killed the men and raped the women.  

He remembers that after their families evacuated to Gaza, they believed it was only a matter of time before they returned to their homes. Shortly after al-Gussain and his family of six fled their village of Al-Shalalah in Beer al-Sabe, it was destroyed by Zionist militias. 

Sitting next to his grandson, he pointed his finger to documents showing the properties the family once owned in the village. “These lands belong to your grandparents, I was forced to leave it and you have not seen it, but it is your family’s heritage,” he said to his grandson Abdullah, age 15. 

 “This is a deed that belonged to my grandfather, and dates back to the year of 1938. He owned over 500 acres. My father and grandfather were born there, and worked on the land for a living,” Abu Al-Gussain said. 

“I kept these documents to show you the truth so you carry it to your sons and grandsons to keep hold of our rights until you return,” he told Abdullah. 

Valuable memories

Most people who left their lands in 1948 never imagined that they wouldn’t be able to go back again. They fled at a moment’s notice, carrying only their most necessary possessions. For the generations of refugees that have come since, those few things that their grandparents carried with them, have now become their most valuable possessions.

Every year in Gaza there are remarkable events held across the strip to remember the Nakba, where Palestinian refugees share the remnants of  their original villages and homes. Some people have parts of an old mill, dating back 130 years, that their grandmothers used to grind wheat and barley to knead into bread. Others carry the large iron keys to their original homes, or the clothes once worn by their grandmothers. 

Ayyat Zyadah, 27, is a third generation refugee from the village of Qatra, located between al-Lydd (now known as Lod) and Yaffa (now known as Jaffa). She stands at the side of a gallery in Gaza City, which displays traditional Palestinian dresses, or thobe

One of the dresses on display belonged to her maternal great grandmother. 

“These belongings carry the stories of four generations,” Zyadah told Mondoweiss. “We heard hundreds of stories about the Nakba from our mothers, who heard the stories from their mothers. Horrifying tales about how the Israelis killed their loved ones after stealing their homes and burning them to the ground.”

“With this dress of my great grandmother, I can tell the story of a great woman. In its seams you can still smell the bread she used to make, you can feel how the life of Palestinians was before the Nakba,” she said passionately. “It was colorful, just like these dresses.”

“I am from Qatra, and one day I will return, sooner or later,” Zyadah said. 

In a warehouse in Gaza City, 50-year-old Salah Dibari keeps an array of old antiques from the time of the Nakba, including a Rabab, a popular musical instrument used by his Bedouin ancestors from Beer al-Sabe in the al-Naqab (now known as the Negev desert). 

The instrument belonged to his late father, who brought it with him when he ran away from his home in 1948. For Dibari, it’s not only a token to remember his father, but a symbol of his family heritage, and the place where he comes from.

 “My father passed away two months ago, he was 92. He played the Rabab and used to sing our traditional songs for us as children,” Dibari remembered.  “Until his dying breath, he was dreaming of returning to his home in Beer al-Sabe.”

“The Rabab was the most precious thing for him, because he brought it from al-Belad. For me, it is my father’s legacy, and I will carry it and leave it to my sons to keep our dream of return alive,” Dibari said. 

Awdah al-Amouri, 45, the head of the Bedouin council in Gaza, is also originally from the Beer al-Sabe area. His home is strewn with antique items his family carried with them as they fled to Gaza during the Nakba, and maps of what Beer al-Sabe used to look like before the establishment of Israel. 

He points to the place on the map where his family once lived, and all the smaller villages and hamlets that no longer exist, after they were wiped out by Zionist militias. 

For al-Amouri, the map is an important reminder for the new generations, to remember what happened during the Nakba. 

“Our parents lived and died dreaming of return, they knew their villages, streets, and everything in our land. But now there are generations who were born with no clue about their roots, because they were born under occupation that removed their birthplace from the map,” al-Amouri told Mondoweiss

On shelves along the well, al-Amouri keeps memorabilia from his original village,  including his mother and grandmother’s traditional dresses, and tools which his father and grandfather used for farming their lands.

“We, the elder generation, hold the responsibility of teaching our new generations about their home and lands, so they can carry on the rights of their parents,” he said. 

The Nakba continues 

For many Palestinians, the Nakba is not merely a historical event, but a tale of the ongoing reality of Palestinians and the ethnic cleansing they face. 

“There is no difference between the year of 1948 and 2022 for Palestinians,” Mohammed Abu Jabal, 22 a third generation Palestinian refugee from Askalan (now known as Ashdod) living in Gaza City, told Mondoweiss.

 “People have continued to lose their homes every year, just like in 1948. Last year thousands of people evacuated their homes in Gaza due to the Israeli war. Many of them went back to find their homes destroyed, and they became refugees all over again” Abu Jabal said, recounting how he fled his home in 2021, his father fled his home in Gaza during the 2014 war, and his grandfather fled their home in 1948. 

“The Nakba has been ongoing since 1948 until today,” Abu Jabal said. 

“Everyone in Palestine has his own Nakba, in every house you will find someone who was killed by Israel, someone who was injured and has a disability, or someone who, despite managing to escape death and injury,  lives in poverty due to the occupation,” he said. 

Abu Jabal said that while the goal of the Israeli occupation is “to destroy the Palestinians’ spirit,” he believes that one day Palestinians will rise up and turn the Nakba day into a day of independence for Palestine. 

Tareq S. Hajjaj is the Mondoweiss Gaza Correspondent, and a member of Palestinian Writers Union