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The Story of a Palestinian Refugee Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Riyadh Bseiso, Canada Jul 19, 2004
Human Rights   Interviews
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The Story of a Palestinian Refugee This is the story of Saf-Saf, a small village in the north of Palestine during the British Mandate. This is also a story of Afif, a boy who lived in Saf-Saf before ‘al-Nakba’, or ‘the Catastrophe’ as it is known throughout the world, befell the Palestinian Arabs in May 1948, and beyond, after the creation of the state of Israel.

Saf-Saf was a small village of 900 or so inhabitants, only a few kilometres south of the Lebanese border. As Afif recalls, the villagers had a large piece of fertile land, known as the ‘Bayader’ in Arabic, where they would grow wheat. The villagers would cut and refine the wheat, and tie it to cows in long strands to transport it. Agriculture was a primary source of income for these simple villagers, and in addition to wheat, Saf-Saf grew olives (a staple of Palestine), grapes, figs and tobacco.

As Afif describes it, Saf-Saf for the most part produced enough to feed its own inhabitants, with the occasional trip being made to major Palestinian centres, such as Safad, to sell excess Agricultural produce. Lacking much modern infrastructure at the time, excess produce of the village would be transported via donkeys, or simply carried there using clay pots. There was only one paved road that passed by Saf-Saf, where the occasional car would drive by. Since there was no plumbing either, the villagers would go to a spring in the Bayader to collect cold fresh water.

Among his few childhood memories, Afif recalls having a wooden bicycle and playing with a ball in the bayader. He also remembers attending a small elementary boy’s school, founded during the British mandate in Palestine. Saf-Saf was a simple village, with most of the houses made of clay or mountainous rocks, where the people enjoyed a simple and relatively peaceful way of life on their fertile land. Many of the small Palestinian villages were similar to Saf-Saf; humble Mediterranean peasant communities. It is not hard to see then, how the events of the 1948 ‘Catastrophe’ came as an unexpected shock to most Palestinians, in both magnitude and endurance.

Afif recalls his village having a handful of old rifles, about 4 or 5, with a similar number of men volunteering every night to guard the village. This was in response to the rising military activities of the Israeli militias, namely the Haganah, Irgun and the Stern Gang, whose more prominent members included future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Interestingly, the latter at the time were wanted by the British authorities for ‘terrorism’, and it is thought that the word itself was first used to describe these characters.

The majority of Palestinian villagers at the time probably did not imagine that many of them would become refugees at the conclusion of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war which began after Israel declared independence in May 1948, and was attacked by Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq (Jordan had a prior agreement with Israel over land annexation). By the end of 1948, approximately 750,000 Palestinians became permanently dispossessed from their homes, and approximately 400 Palestinian villages, including Saf-Saf, were destroyed or abandoned. Eventually, most of this abandoned property was annexed by Israel with the passing of the 1949 ‘Absentee’ law.

Israel generally states that because the Arabs rejected the UN’s partition plan of Palestine, and attacked Israel, they are responsible for the fate of the Palestinian refugees, despite the fact that Israel began expelling Palestinians from their villages prior to the war’s outbreak. Israel’s position also largely ignores the well-documented systematic campaign of intimidation that either forced the Palestinians to flee directly, or indirectly.

In Saf-Saf’s case, a young Afif recalls how his mother had warned him not to play outside and stay home. Innocent as a young child would be, he heard that “the Jews were coming” and thus he was forbidden from playing in the Bayader and straying too far away from home, not quite comprehending what was happening.

As fate would have it, Saf-Saf fell on Friday October 30th, 1948, after a fierce battle between members of the Arab Liberation Army and the Israeli Militias, during what was known in Israel as “Operation Hiram”. The village defenders fruitlessly attempted to save the village, but being severely under equipped and relatively unorganized in comparison to the Israeli militias were unable to resist, subsequently raising the white flag signaling their surrender.

Afif’s faint recollection of the ensuing massacre of approximately 60 youths, and the subsequent rapes and deportations that took place after the village surrendered are strikingly similar to those described by Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy. In a book review entitled “Exposing Israel’s original sins (11/03/2000)” in the prominent Liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, he describes the systematic Israeli military campaign whose primary aim was to deport, frighten and terrorise the Palestinian population, which was predominantly peasant, to flee.

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