This is the story of four Palestinian peasants who have been dead and buried for many years, but whose legacy continues to define the collective aspirations of a whole nation. It is also the story of a village that was erased from existence 70 years ago. The peasants are my grandparents, and the village of Beit Daras will always be my home.
My maternal grandfather, Mohammed died a few months after he was expelled from his village.
All I know of Mohammed is what I learned about him from my grandmother, Mariyam. Just 37 years old, he passed away on the canvas floor of a tent provided by the Quakers for refugees arriving to the Gaza Strip from all over Palestine. His ailment was never diagnosed, let alone treated.
“He died from a broken heart,” Mariyam often told us.
My mother Zarefah would cry at the mere mention of her father’s name. When he died, she was too young to differentiate between coma and sleep or understand that death was an irrevocable finality. She was summoned into the tent by the women of the refugee camp to kiss her father before returning to her impatient playmates as they played hopscotch. “Good night, papa,” she whispered in his ear. He never woke from that deep slumber.
“Your grandfather was a handsome man,” mom would tell us. But there was no physical evidence to verify that claim, for his wife had destroyed every piece of paper and every photo that she salvaged from their burning home back in Beit Daras during the “great massacre”.
Mohammed, like other men of the village, fought to the end. When the Zionist militia, the Haganah, finally broke the stubborn local resistance in the village, its fighters torched the houses.
Mohammed only left because Mariyam begged him to, but he fell ill on the dusty road to Gaza. As soon as they pitched their tent in what became the Buraij Refugee Camp in the central Gaza Strip, his illness turned into a coma.
Mariyam erased her husband’s existence from the record for she feared Zionists would find the freedom fighter’s family in Gaza. She feared for her three boys, and for my mother, Zarefah, who as soon as her father was buried joined Mariyam in a protracted mission to survive.
Miraculously, the boys were educated, thanks to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which was established in the years after the Nakba - the destruction of the Palestinian homeland in 1948. Zarefah, however, was not. Instead, she collected scrap metal to sell in a local market, as her mother braved the “death zone” between Gaza and the newly-established state of Israel to collect food for her children.
Every evening, Mariyam would return with a small basket of whatever fruits or vegetation she managed to salvage on her deadly journey. Indeed, Israeli soldiers killed many Palestinians, who ventured close to the border fence in a desperate attempt to redeem the fruit of the land that once belonged to them.
In fact, for Mariyam and Zarefah, that land always belonged to them, despite being unlawfully occupied by gangs of murderous foreigners. They spoke about Beit Daras in the present tense, as a reality that, although disfigured by war and destitution, would remain Palestinian till the end of time.
My paternal grandparents are also from Beit Daras. Thus, being a Badrasawi - as the people of my village are called - became an integral part of my character.
Born into a family of refugees in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp in Gaza, I took pride in being a Badrasawi. Our tough resistance - back in the village and later in refugee camps - gave us the reputation of being “tenacious”. We truly are stubborn, proud and generous. Beit Daras was erased, but the collective identity it has given us remains intact, regardless of whatever exile ensnares us.
When Google Earth was initially released in 2001, I immediately rushed to locate a village that no longer exists on a map. Finding a place that virtually disappeared decades earlier was not, at least for me, an irrational act. The village of Beit Daras was the single most important piece of earth that truly mattered to me.
But I could only find it by estimation. Beit Daras was located 32 kilometres northeast of Gaza, perched gently between a large hill and a small river that seemed never to run dry.
A once peaceful village, Beit Daras had existed for millennia. Romans, Crusaders, Mamluks and Ottomans ruled over and even tried to subdue Beit Daras as they tried with all of Palestine; yet they failed. True, each invader left their mark - ancient Roman tunnels, a Crusaders’ castle, a Mamluk post office building, an Ottoman han (caravanserai) - but they were all eventually driven out. It wasn’t until 1948 that Beit Daras was emptied of its 3,000 inhabitants and destroyed.
Three battles were bravely fought by the Badrasawis in defence of their village. In the end, the Zionist militias, with the help of British weapons and strategic assistance, routed the resistance, which consisted mostly of villagers fighting with old rifles and farming tools.
The “massacre of Beit Daras” that followed remains a subdued scream that pierces through the hearts of Badrasawis. After all these years under siege, successive wars and endless strife, their Nakba has never truly ended. One cannot forget the pain if the wound never truly heals.
As a child, I learned to be proud from my paternal grandfather, also Mohammed. A handsome, elegant, strong peasant with unshakable faith, he managed to hide his deep sadness well after he was expelled from his home in Palestine along with his entire family. As he aged, he would sit for hours, between prayers, searching within his soul for the beautiful memories of his past. Occasionally, he would let out a mournful sigh, a few tears; yet he never accepted his defeat or the idea that Beit Daras was gone forever.
“Why bother to haul the good blankets on the back of a donkey, exposing them to the dust of the journey, while we know that it’s a matter of a week or so before we return to Beit Daras?” he told his bewildered wife, Zeinab as they embarked with their children on an endless exile.
I cannot pinpoint the moment when my grandfather discovered that his “good blankets” were gone forever, that all that remained of his village were two giant concrete pillars and a bunch of cactuses.
It isn’t easy to reconstruct a history that, only several decades ago, was, along with every standing building of that village, blown to smithereens with the very intent of erasing it from existence. Most historical references written about Beit Daras, whether by Israeli or Palestinian historians, were brief, and ultimately resulted in delineating the fall of Beit Daras as just one of nearly 600 Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed and then completely flattened during the war years. It was another episode in a more compounded tragedy that has seen the expulsion and dispossession of nearly 800,000 Palestinians.
But for my family, it was much more than that. Beit Daras was our very dignity. My grandfather’s calloused hands and leathery, weathered skin attested to the decades of hard labour tending the rocky soil in the fields of Palestine. It was a popular pastime for my brothers and I to point to a scar on his body and then to hear a gut-busting tale about the rigours of farm life.
Later in life, someone would give him a small hand-held radio to glean the latest news, and he would, from that moment, never be seen without it. I recall him listening to the Arab Voice news on that battered radio. It once had been blue but now had faded to white with age. Its bulging batteries were duct-taped to the back. Sitting with the radio up to his ear and fighting to hear the reporter amid the static, grandpa listened and waited for the announcer to issue that long-awaiting call: “To the people of Beit Daras: your lands have been liberated, go back to your village.”
This article has been excerpted from: ‘My Palestinian right of return is sacred’.