On May 14, Israelis will celebrate 70 years since they established a Jewish state in Palestine, the land of my birth. On May 15, we Palestinians will commemorate the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe) — the price we paid for Israelis to have a state of their own in predominantly Arab Palestine.
I was not even 3 when Israeli soldiers came to Ailaboun, our family’s village in northern Palestine, but I remember running in fear to hide in a nearby cave. Exhausted, I stopped to rest, but someone pulled my arm forward warning me that the soldiers were right behind us. That day, there were no soldiers. It was a false alarm, like so many other false alarms in the summer of 1948. Throughout the country, Arabs lived in fear and some fled their homes after hearing news about atrocities committed by victorious Israeli soldiers in Arab towns.
Israeli historians, relying on Israeli archives, have well-documented the fact that the founders of Israel had a plan to create a Jewish majority in Palestine by driving out Arab Palestinians and destroying their villages. Today we would call that ethnic cleansing. When the state of Israel was established, 750,000 Palestinians became refugees. A total of 531 Arab villages were destroyed and 11 urban neighborhoods emptied of their Arab residents. The victorious Israeli army also committed 31 confirmed massacres. One of those massacres was in our village.
The Israeli army finally reached our town of 680 people on Oct. 30, 1948. The frightened people gathered in the Orthodox and Catholic churches hoping for protection, while priests waved white flags from the church roofs. My great-uncle Father Murqus, the Catholic priest, met the soldiers at the door of his church and told them, “We are surrendering.” The people were ordered out of the churches into the village square, where a soldier shot one man dead as he emerged from the church. As the people kept their hands raised, the soldiers selected 12 young men from the crowd, one of them my cousin Fadil. They then took these men to a different location and executed them. No one who was in the square that day and was old enough to understand has ever forgotten the sound of those gun shots.
Leaving 13 bodies to rot in the sun, the soldiers next forced the people — including two of my brothers — to begin a long march to exile. The Israelis feared that the road was mined, so they marched the town’s people ahead of them like human shields. For several days, they forced the thirsty, hungry people to walk, until they reached exile in Lebanon. Along the way they killed another of the men and demanded money and jewelry of the others.
But Father Murqus refused to leave Ailaboun. He meticulously documented the atrocities he saw, including not only the massacre and exile of hundreds of people, but also the looting and damage to the homes of those exiled. He also managed to get a letter about the massacre and a plea for help delivered to the Vatican, which pressed the United Nations to investigate. To the investigators, the Israelis attributed their atrocities to a mistaken belief that some Ailaboun residents had been involved in desecrating the corpses of two Israeli soldiers weeks earlier. The U.N. representatives concluded their fact-finding visit in Ailaboun by demanding that Israel allow the inhabitants of Ailaboun to return from exile in Lebanon immediately.
Six months after they were forced out at gunpoint, the last two of the exiled villagers finally returned. They were my 6-year-old brother, Abdullah, and my Uncle Yousef. (Along with some elderly people, some women and children, I had remained in Ailaboun with my mother, who had just given birth. My father, who had been taken prisoner along with other men of the village, was released months later.)
Our town’s somewhat “happy ending” was the exception, however. Most of the massacres of Arabs, forced expulsions and the destruction of villages were not similarly investigated by the U.N. The destroyed towns were wiped from the map and memory of the new state of Israel. After 1948, only 156,000 Palestinians remained in our native land, and for the first 18 years of Israel’s existence, we lived under martial law, discriminated against and tightly controlled.
Most of the 750,000 Palestinians forced into exile in 1948 were never allowed to return. They are the origin of today’s 5 million Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Among them are the Palestinians in Gaza who in recent weeks have been demonstrating for a return to their villages inside Israel. But for the letter from Father Murqus and a rare investigation by the U.N., I could be one of them.
Most Americans know little about the Palestinian people, nor do they know much about how the Palestinian people’s land was taken from them to create the state of Israel in 1948. As Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary, it is important for Americans and the rest of the world to begin to understand why the Palestinian people will solemnly commemorate our Nakba and renew our calls for justice as well as peace for all the people of Palestine/Israel.
Souheil E. Ailabouni, of Farmington, is a retired family physician. He has lived in the United States since 1968 and became a U.S. citizen in 1976.