silwan

Days Lost But Not Forgotten: My Family’s Account of Nakba Day

Nakba day is a significant day for the Palestinian people. Almost every family has a story to tell about that day in 1948 when many Palestinians were forced to leave their homes to seek refuge in less troubled lands. For the Sabella family, Nakba day is a day of reflection. Today, I visited my aunt Hilda and uncle Maurice in the Old City of Jerusalem along with a friend and asked them to share more about their memories of Nakba day.

My aunt takes a sip of her sweetened Arabic coffee and looks at me with somber eyes: “I still have the paper and the key, you know,” she says. Aunt Hilda was talking about the piece of paper that proved my grandfather’s ownership of his home in Katamon in West Jerusalem in the year 1936. I ask her to tell me more about that house. “Your grandfather purchased the estate from the Latin Patriarchate in 1936 and our family lived in it until 1948 when the war broke out,” she says. “It was a beautiful home with many empty fields around it,” my aunt recalls. “I still remember the view from our front door.”

asked her about what happened in 1948. She shakes her head, takes a puff from her cigarette and takes me back. “Your grandfather used to love this home, but when the Hagana bombed Katamon’s Semiramis Hotel killing 26 people in the process, he decided it was time to leave.” The Hagana was the Jewish underground militia which was active at the time and later formed the core of the Israeli military. My grandfather was worried that the neighborhood, which was the only Arab neighborhood between two Jewish ones, would continue to be targeted by the notorious Jewish militia. He chose safety first, as did many others who were forced to flee in search of safer grounds.

My grandfather Zacharia, my grandmother Margaret, my father Bernard, my uncles Abdallah and Maurice, and my aunts Hilda and Bernadette packed their bags and made their way towards Lebanon where they sought refuge in the small town of Ghazir. They stayed there for nine months until they decided to return to Jerusalem and settle in the Old City, which was under Jordanian rule at that time. This is the very home where we were sitting drinking our Arabic coffee and talking today. It is the very home where my family meets for holidays like Easter and Christmas and where we honor and keep alive the many traditions that were celebrated by my grandparents. Back in 1948, this house in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem was a one room flat. There was no kitchen, no toilet, and no running water. The seven members of the Sabella family lived there in these dire conditions for seventeen years. “But we managed,” says my aunt Hilda.

In 1965, the house was renovated and for the first time, the Sabella family, which by then consisted of ten members with the addition of my uncle Tony, my aunt Therese and my uncle David, was able to enjoy a home with running water and an en-suite toilet. In 1972, my family went back to the place where their Katamon home once stood. “We went back there to visit our home but found that it had been destroyed and in its place was a sixteen-apartment building complex,” my aunt Hilda recalls. My aunt tells me that my family stood there in silence for a while reminiscing about their childhoods and the surrounding empty fields where they used to play and wander.

We, the Palestinians, commemorate Nakba day not because we hate our neighbors, but because while our neighbors celebrated, we suffered. Each Palestinian family has a story to tell which it holds dear to its heart about that day. How can anyone ask my father, my aunts or my uncles to forget the memory of Katamon, to bury their childhood memories of that place, or the empty fields that surrounded their home? We commemorate Nakba day because in a way our Nakba is still ongoing to this very day. Whether it’s a family eviction in Silwan, or the seizing of land in Beit Jala, or a destruction of a Bedouin village in the Jordan Valley, or the stripping of residency rights for Palestinians in Jerusalem, the suffering of our people continues and all we have is our memories to hang on to. We will never forget our past, but perhaps when our people are free, independent, and lead a dignified life, we can start looking for the future rather than mourn our past. But until that day happens, our people will continue to go back in time to commemorate our Nakba.

Say a prayer before leaving your house, dress in your best clothing. Brush your hair well, and smile for the camera. You may end up as another poster on the bleeding walls of the city. No one is safe from their guns.
—  A young Palestinian from Silwan, Jerusalem, October 2015
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this is silwan, a palestinian neighbourhood in jerusalem. the top picture shows (almost) the entire neighbourhood. all of what you see is ordered by the israeli government to be demolished. all of it.

ironically, opposite to the neighbourhood, is the hill slightly shown in the second picture which is occupied by jewish settlers. standing to take the second picture, i was struck by the contrasting view of the two hills opposite to one another and how living conditions differed rather drastically although both were separated by a street; for instance, silwan barely had running water while the settlement on the left had water resorts.

the residents of silwan are faced (literally) with a daily reminder of the sweeping threat that might one day befall their own neighbourhood.

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13-year old aspiring rapper, Tayma, eloquently & passionately breaks down the realities of living in Silwan, in Occupied East Jerusalem.

This photo from Jerusalem shows the Palestinian village of Silwan and one of the peaks of the Mount of Olives. M and I sat on the western wall of the Old City and he told me about some of the latest happenings for the Palestinians there. They are being slowly forced out by regular police violence, property seizures, and problematic archæological digs. The aforelinked Wikipedia page, surprisingly to me, actually discusses some of these problems.

JNF Board Member Quits Over Evictions

Reason to Resign: Palestinians are evicted from the Silwan neighborhood to make room for Jewish settlers. An ex-Jewish National Fund board member explains why he quit over the issue.

Some of my earliest Jewish memories involve dropping spare change in the Jewish National Fund’s iconic little blue boxes. I was proud that my money would help plant trees in Israel. The JNF, I knew, was making the desert bloom.

As an adult, I became a member of the organization’s Washington, D.C., board and moved from donating extra nickels to raising thousands of dollars for JNF.

Now, I regret to announce that this week I have resigned my board position and am severing all ties with the organization.

My commitment to building a safe and secure Israel has not changed. My admiration for much of JNF’s environmental work has not changed. What has changed is a sense of betrayal I have at learning that JNF is a force in preventing long-term peace.

This fall, a subsidiary of the Israeli branch of JNF launched eviction proceedings against the Sumarin family, who live in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Under Israel’s controversial “Absentee Property Law,” the state may reclaim homes whose owners were not present in 1967, when Israel took control of East Jerusalem. In the case of the Sumarin family, the children of the original owner, Musa Sumarin, were declared absentees after his death even though there were other family members living in the home at the time. In 1991, the Israeli government took the step of transferring the property to the JNF subsidiary.

I have learned that the action on the Sumarin home is not an isolated case. JNF has gained ownership of other Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and, in many instances, then transferred these properties through its subsidiaries to Elad, a settler organization whose purpose is to “Judaize” East Jerusalem.

In my eyes, the expulsion of the Sumarin family is a violation of human rights. But it is also part of the systematic transfer of Palestinian property to ideological settlers who wish to put facts on the ground that hinder a lasting peace agreement.

A few days before the proposed eviction, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, in partnership with its counterpart in Israel, asked American Jews to write to the CEO of JNF requesting that he stop the eviction. More than 1,300 people responded. I believe that, like me, these writers felt deeply betrayed that the organization many of us have supported since our childhood would act in such unjust ways.

JNF’s initial response was to deny any involvement in the eviction. When legal papers that name a subsidiary of JNF as the initiator of the proceedings became public, the organization decided to postpone the eviction.

I hope that JNF will decide to cancel this eviction for good, and to refrain from pursuing additional such evictions. But I felt I had to resign now because senior people at JNF made clear to me that they still plan to get the Sumarin family out and transfer the property to Elad.

I have always supported Israel through organizations like JNF because I believe that the Jewish people have the right to a secure, democratic and peaceful homeland in Israel. And I strongly believe that the Palestinian people have the right to a secure, democratic and peaceful homeland in a neighboring Palestinian state. By supporting right-wing settlers in “Judaizing” Palestinian neighborhoods, JNF makes this vision harder to achieve. I fear that such actions endanger Israel’s future as a secure and democratic state.

My commitment to Israel remains strong. But I will invest my time and financial resources in organizations committed to peace, democracy and coexistence between peoples.

Day 2: before making our way to Jerusalem for a tour of the Old City, we visited the nearby village Silwan.

There are repeated incidents in this area of illegal houses being demolished, and it has been argued that there are so many here because the Jerusalem municipality grants so few permits, and that those that they do are mainly for minor works.

Recently, the mayor of Jerusalem has proposed a plan for the establishment of a park called the Garden of the King in this area, and there is great concern over the implications of further destruction of Palestinian homes.