Impressions of Palestine — 1948 and Today

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I returned to Toronto on September 14, 2005 after spending 10 memorable days in my homeland, Palestine.

I traveled all over the northern part of the country during that period. What struck me most was the beauty of the country with its hills, plains and mountains, and its close resemblance to the topography of Southern Lebanon.

My plane landed in Tel Aviv and my destination was my hometown, Nazareth, 125 kilometres away. We drove north and passed many Jewish colonies that were built after 1948 along the Mediterranean coast. Many of their buildings looked alike and were strung in rows mirroring soviet-style architecture, and hence painful to look at because they were out of place.

We then veered inland towards the northeast and the scenery and architecture changed dramatically. My son-in-law told me that we were now in the Triangle region (Al-Muthalath) whose population is 78 percent Arab. We passed many Arab towns with beautiful homes nestled against the hills and in harmony with their surroundings.

The largest Arab town in the Triangle region is Um El-Fahm. It played a central role at the start of the Second Uprising [Intifada] which began in September 2000. When the inhabitants of this town rose up in defense of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosques in Jerusalem after Ariel Sharon desecrated them in October 2000, Israeli police killed three of its residents. More recently, on September 15 2005, a rally attended by 70,000 people was held in the town to defend the Al-Aqsa mosque from Zionist plans to destroy it.

Finally, we approached Nazareth which is located in the Lower Galilee region. The Galilee region spreads from Nazareth to the Lebanese borders and its population is 51 percent Arab. Nazareth is situated among the southern ridges of the Lebanon Mountains on the steep slope of a hill, about 30 kms from the Mediterranean sea, and 22 kms from the Sea of Galileee (Bouhayrat Tabaria) and about 8 kms west of Mount Tabor (Jabal El- Tabar), at an elevation of 400 metres. It is the largest Arab city in the region and has a population of 70,000, 40% of whom are Christian and 60% Muslim.

The twin pillars of Jewish immigration and Jewish settlement are what underpin the Zionist national project. The strategy of building Jewish colonies on high ground, next to Palestinian towns and cities that existed in 1967, has its antecedents in 1948 Palestine and is exemplified in Nazareth. Perched on a hilltop overlooking Nazareth, is the colony of Natzrat Illit (Upper Nazareth) which Israel built in 1957 and populated it with a Jewish majority. It began as a settlement of 300 people and now totals 35,000 — largely Jewish immigrants from Europe, America, and North Africa.

Natzrat Illit has prevented Nazareth from expanding to accommodate the natural growth of its population. Natzrat Illit, with half the population of Nazareth, owns three times the lands allotted to Nazareth and this is reflected in its wide streets and spacious parks. Like other cities in the Occupied West Bank, Nazareth is ringed by a highway that prevents it from expanding beyond its current borders. Nazareth’s development has also been impeded through municipal underfunding — Arab municipalities receive one quarter of the funding of Jewish ones.

All of the government offices, including courts, are located in Natzrat Illit. And there are no cinemas, clubs, or shopping malls in Nazareth, which forces people to spend their money in Natzrat Illit or Haifa, which is 40 kms away. These government policies and practices have stunted the economic growth of Nazareth. It is no wonder then that municipal politicians in Nazareth frequently complain about how their town is treated by the Israeli government; this is a result of institutionlaized racial discrimination by the Israeli government against its Arab population.

Notwithstanding all these obstacles, Nazareth is a lively Arab city and Nazarenes are proud of their Arab tradition and culture; you seldom hear Hebrew spoken here. This is a city where churches and mosques stand side by side and the sounds of the Mu’azzin and church bells produce a harmonious melody. The Basilica of the Annunciation, where it is believed that the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce the coming of Christ, stands next to the Shihab El-Deen mosque which contains the tomb of the nephew of Salah El-Deen El-Ayyoubi who liberated Palestine from the Crusaders.

Six kilometres away from Nazareth lie the ruins of the Arab town of Saffouree [or Sepphoris] which was the biggest centre in pre-1948 Palestine. The town was destroyed in 1948, its lands confiscated by the State of Israel, and the Jewish colony of Zippori erected in its place. The inhabitants of Saffouree fled to Nazareth and now inhabit that city’s Safafera neighbourhood, overlooking their fields below. You can only imagine the anger and frustration these people feel when they look every day at their lands and are unable to return there, simply because they are Christians and Muslims.

The second largest Arab town in the Galilee region is Shafa’amr, with a population of 30,000 made up of Muslims, Druze and Christians. It was here, in September 2005, that an Israeli soldier shot and killed 4 Arabs (2 Muslims and two Christians) and wounded 25 others on a bus. The soldier emptied his Uzi gun and was attacked and killed by the citizens of Shafa’amr before he was able to reload it. Ironically, the State of Israel now intends to prosecute the people who killed the terrorist soldier. The government also refuses to pay compensation to the families of those killed, because Israeli law only allows compensation for Jewish victims of terror.

The Galilee region is dotted with beautiful Arab towns nestled against its hills and amid numerous square miles of planted olive trees. In the Middle Galilee we came across the towns of Arrabe and Sakhnin, which were the birthplace of Land Day. It is held annually on March 30 in commemoration of six Arabs killed by Israeli security forces in 1976 during mass protests against farm confiscations in the Galilee.

Some 5,000 acres of Arab-owned land between the Arab villages of Sakhnin and Arrabe were confiscated. These areas were classified by the Israeli Government as "closed military zones" and were later heavily developed for Jewish Israeli housing. Local leaders called for a general strike and protests; at the end of the day, six people were dead and 100 injured. An imposing solemn monument stands in Sakhnin for those 6 martyrs.

I was struck by the majesty, beauty and expanse of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights (Mortafaat Al-Joulan), an area nearly as large as the occupied West Bank. Of the 100 villages that existed prior to 1967, only five remain standing. The rest were obliterated from the face of the earth by Israel as if an atomic bomb had been detonated on them. Only 10,000 Druze Syrians — compared to the original population of 200,000 — remain in the occupied Golan Heights.

The largest town in the occupied Golan Heights is Majdal Shams, which in Aramaic means "tower of the sun." It sits 1400 metres above sea level and its inhabitants are proud Syrian Arabs. A large statue of Sultan Basha El- Atrash (a Syrian resistance hero who fought French colonialism) stands with outstretched hand on a pedestal in the town’s central plaza. A Syrian flag placed in the hand of the statue flutters defiantly. Engraved on the pedestal are two lines in Arabic by the Tunisian poet Abu El-Qassem El- Shabi that translate as:

"If one day the people desire freedom and life, then inevitably destiny will comply — And inevitably darkness will melt away, and inevitably the chains will be broken."

The Arab citizens of the occupied Golan Heights are proud Syrians and they have refused to acquire Israeli citizenship or serve in the Israeli army. Residents of Majdal Shams gather every weekend at the outskirts of the town and through megaphones exchange greetings and news with their relatives across the valley on the Syrian side.

Haifa, whose population is 15 percent Arab, is the jewel city of 1948 Palestine. It lies by the Mediterranean sea and hugs Mount Carmel which rises to 200 metres in height. The Arab population is located mainly in the old section of the city in the Wadi Nisnas and Wadi El-Saleeb (Valley of the Cross) neighbourhoods.

Akka (Acre) is the most charming city in 1948 Palestine. It was long regarded as the "Key of Palestine," on account of its commanding position on the shore of the broad coastal plain that joins the inland plain of Akka, and so affords the easiest entrance to the interior of the country. One third of its population of 50,000 is Arab and they live mainly in the Old City.

The Old City of Akka has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In 1750, Daher El-Omar, the ruler off Akka, utilized the remnants of Crusader walls that were built in the 11th century as a foundation for his walls. They were reinforced between 1775 and 1799 by Al-Jazzar Basha and survived a two-month siege by Napolean’s army in 1799. Most of these Old City walls still stand and many buildings dating back to the Ottoman period can be found within them. The Old City, with its ancient market, mosques, and beautiful restaurants by the sea is a favourite destination for many visitors and makes one’s visit here truly memorable.

The Arab minority of 1.4 million in Israel comprises 20 percent of the total population. Notwithstanding their isolation from the surrounding Arab countries and their neglect by most Arabs, they were able to maintain their cultural identity and consider themselves part of the Arab Nation. Their attachment to the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza was strengthened after 1967 and they began identifying themselves as Palestinians. I believe this was one of the main reasons Israel built the Apartheid Wall — to prevent the emergence of a unified Palestinian national consciousness.

My trip to memorable sites of 1948 Palestine was a very moving experience. During my visit I kept wondering how different things would have been today if the Zionist aggression and colonialism of my country had never happened. Palestine is a unique country; it lies in the heart of the Arab world and combines some of the natural beauty with the holy places of all three monotheistic religions. This is why it has always been coveted by foreign powers.

I left Palestine convinced that one day the nightmare brought about by Zionism and colonialism will come to an end. The Arabs of 1948 Palestine are clinging to their identity and land — especially in the hinterlands, and in the centre and north of the country — and their numbers are increasing. They more than ever identify strongly with Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those of the global Diaspora. The Jewish colonists, for all their bombastic claims to love the land, mainly live along the Mediterranean coast and many of them hold dual citizenship.

The Palestinian quest for justice is unshakeable. A greater number of people are realizing that peace in the Middle East — and ultimately in the rest of the world — cannot be achieved until the racist ideology that guides the Apartheid State of Israel is replaced with an inclusive ideology where Muslims, Christians and Jews have equal rights and responsibilities and where the 5 million Palestinian refugees around the world can return to their homes and property.

No force on earth can prevent a people so determined to seek and to reclaim their justice and freedom.

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