Homeless since 1948: 70 years since the creation of Israel

Ruqayeh (75) was five when shelling forced her from her village. She has not been back

Ruqayeh al-Araj was five years old in 1948, when the war came to Walaja. She hopes one day she will be able to return to her old village

Ruqayeh al-Araj was five years old in 1948, when the war came to Walaja. She hopes one day she will be able to return to her old village

 

Ruqayeh al-Araj sits in the shade of the mulberry and pomegranate trees, overlooking the lush valley she has known since she was a child, and points into the distance. “That’s where our house was,” she says, gesturing across the valley to Israel.

Ruqayeh was five years old in 1948, when the war came to Walaja. “My mother was panic-stricken when they started shelling the village,” she recalls. “She and my father carried me, my brother and sister and they escaped with us. They didn’t bring anything else.”

Her father was one of the wealthiest farmers in the village, and the family lived well off Walaja’s fertile land, south of Jerusalem.

When the Arab-Israeli war forced them to flee, the al-Araj family, like the rest of Walaja’s 1,600 residents, suddenly found themselves “homeless and penniless”, says Ruqayeh, who is now 75.

Some of the displaced ended up in refugee camps in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Others moved to Jordan and Lebanon. About 100, including Ruqayeh and her family, crossed the valley – what would become the armistice demarcation line, or “Green Line”, that separates Israel and the West Bank – and settled on the dry, arid land on the other side.

At first, convinced they would soon be able to return home, they lived in caves, but as the years passed, new homes – first made of mud, then brick – began to appear. “New Walaja” was born just two kilometres from where the old village once stood.

“We managed, but suddenly we were extremely poor,” she recalls.

Between November 1947, when the United Nations voted to partition British-ruled Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states, and mid-1949, when Israel won the war against a coalition of Arab states, between 400 and 500 Arab villages and towns were destroyed, occupied and renamed. Like Walaja, most of them were left in ruins.

In all, 750,000 Palestinians either left or were forcibly evicted and became refugees – a mass displacement remembered by Palestinians as the nakba, or catastrophe.

Palestinian refugees during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images
Palestinian refugees during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948. Photograph: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Its 70th anniversary will be marked next Tuesday, May 15th – a day after the anniversary of Israel’s establishment as a state. (Israelis celebrate independence day on its Hebrew calendar date, which fell last month).

Walaja is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For 70 years, on this small patch of land straddling the Refaim valley, the tensions that have inflamed the wider regional standoff have played out at local level.

As Ruqayeh describes it, 1948 was only the beginning of the villagers’ problems. Walaja lost 70 per cent of its land in the war of that year. In the following decade, Ruqayeh’s family and the rest of the village looked on as two new Israeli towns, Ora and Aminadav, sprang up where their homes once stood.

They never developed it. They never studied like us. Palestine was never Palestine. It was Jordan. It was British. Never Palestine.

Following the 1967 war, when Israel routed the Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian militaries, nearly half of Walaja’s remaining land was annexed by the Israelis and placed under the Jerusalem municipality. Then, in the 1970s, a further 30 acres of the new village lands were confiscated for the construction of two sprawling Israeli settlements, Gilo and Har Gilo, which – like all Israeli settlements in the West Bank – are illegal under international law.

The contrast between dusty Walaja, with its crumbling infrastructure and intermittent water supply, and the two settlements, filled with luxury modernist-style houses and immaculate gardens, all surrounded by high walls, is made all the more glaring by their close proximity.

Demolished

Today, Ruqayeh lives with her son Haitham, his wife and their five children. Haitham built a second house in the garden in 2005, but the Israeli authorities demolished it, as they have at least 45 homes in the village, on the grounds that he did not have a permit.

And then there’s the wall. At the bottom of their garden, less than 10 metres from the front door, are the six-metre concrete slabs of Israel’s separation wall, which at this point runs not along the “Green Line” but deep inside the West Bank, almost encircling Walaja and cutting it off from part of its remaining agricultural lands.

The small patch of land where the al-Araj family grows grapes and olives is a stone’s throw from their front door, but getting there now requires them to take a circuitous route and seek advance authorisation from the Israelis.

“The military decides which days you are allowed to go and tend to your land. They decide who can do the farming,” says Haitham.

Fear of terrorism

A 15-minute drive from Walaja is Ora, an Israeli village of about 1,500 people on the other side of the valley. A moshav, or co-operative agricultural community, Ora was established in the early 1950s by Jews from Yemen after the eviction of Palestinians from old Walaja and other villages nearby.

Today it’s a quiet, well-kept town, full of public parks, playgrounds and other amenities, that offers suburban respite to Israeli Jerusalemites. There are no monuments or plaques to mark the villages that once stood here.

The West Bank city of Beit Jala and the Israeli settlement of Gilo (top) in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images
The West Bank city of Beit Jala and the Israeli settlement of Gilo (top) in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem. Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

For Ronen Rouchama, a recently-retired nurse who lives in the town, Israel’s 70th anniversary has special resonance; 1948 was also the year of her birth. “Everywhere I go I see Israel blossom and grow,” she says proudly, standing beside the national flag that sticks out from her car window. “Just look at how this country has developed in 70 years.”

Rouchama is aware that, before 1948, this was a Palestinian village. She points out that she worked with many Arab colleagues during her years in the hospital emergency room, and regarded them as friends. But she also lives in fear of terrorism, she says, and feels no unease about Ora’s origins.

“Look. God decided that this is our land. When we were not here, everything was like a desert. Nobody created anything,” she says.

“They never developed it. They never studied like us. Palestine was never Palestine. It was Jordan. It was British. Never Palestine.”

Asked if she would be happy for Palestinians to live alongside her in Ora, she responds without hesitation. “No. That would not be good. This is good for them and good for us.”

Grievances

There is little common ground among Israelis and Palestinians along the Refaim valley. But on one issue at least – the prospects for peace – pessimism cuts across national and religious lines. Israelis and Palestinians have lived through periods when the threat of violence was greater. Compared with the bloody days of the intifadas, towns and cities in the occupied territories are relatively quiet.

But 70 years after Israel’s creation, 70 years after the nakba, hopelessness is perhaps more pervasive than at any point in a generation. In the background, the grievances that simmer across the territories could spill over at any moment, while the humanitarian crisis in Gaza grows more intolerable by the day.

Palestinian Jews celebrate the passage of the UN partition plan in April 1947. Photograph: Lasar Dunner
Palestinian Jews celebrate the passage of the UN partition plan in April 1947. Photograph: Lasar Dunner

Despondency about the moribund peace process predates Donald Trump’s presidency, but the events of the past year have added to the gloom. Having come to power vowing to pursue “the ultimate deal”, Trump first broke with long-standing US diplomatic practice by refusing to say he was in favour of a two-state solution.

Senior Palestinian figures say they were willing to wait with an open mind for proposals being prepared by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and policy adviser, but leaks that suggest the document will lean heavily towards Israeli positions have been causing unease in Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority is based, since last summer.

Trump’s unilateral decision last December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a decision that delighted the Israeli government and horrified Palestinians – “brought the whole thing to a crashing halt,” says one foreign diplomat.

Just as in the Northern Ireland in the 1990s, a sacred principle of every round of Israeli-Palestinian talks has been that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That applies in particular to four so-called “final status” questions: what happens to those expelled from their homes in 1948; where do the borders lie; what happens to Jerusalem; and what security arrangements follow a deal.

Many Palestinians have realised that military action is playing into Israel’s hands

Of these, the most difficult is Jerusalem. There, the old city, which includes religious sites of great significance for both Muslims and Jews, is occupied Palestinian territory, but sovereignty is fiercely contested between both sides. Now, with that unilateral decision in December, Trump has taken the most difficult final status question and removed it from the table for the exclusive benefit of one side.

“He is killing topics of negotiation before the negotiations even begin,” says Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian rights activist and former cabinet minister. In the wake of the Jerusalem announcement, the Palestinian leadership broke off contact with the US government, which it says cannot now claim to be an honest broker.

Ron Shatzberg, a security expert at the Economic Co-operation Foundation think-tank and a reservist in the Israeli military, believes Trump’s Jerusalem decision was largely symbolic and accepts there is “no way there will be peace unless Jerusalem is two capitals for two states”.

But he agrees that, on the key question of who has sovereignty over the 2.4km of land in old Jerusalem, “both sides are radicalising all the time” and a settlement becomes harder to achieve with every passing day. “All the trends are working against a solution,” he says.

The White House continues to work on its plan, and to seek backing for it from the Saudis, Egyptians and Emiratis, but the Jerusalem decision – the new US embassy in the city is expected to open next week – and the Palestinian reaction to it, may well ensure any US proposals are dead on arrival.

By making it more difficult for the US to mediate, at least in the eyes of Palestinians, moreover, Trump has compounded pre-existing trends that already made peace difficult to achieve: the presence of right-wing extremists in the Israeli government, internal Palestinian divisions, the continuing expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and their appropriation of Palestinian resources, Hamas’s refusal to renounce violence and the wider focus on Syria and the Iran-Saudi standoff.

The upshot is that the prospect of a two-state solution – now openly dismissed by senior Israeli leaders and questioned also by many Palestinians – seems increasingly remote.

Snipers

Under the slogan “Great March for Return”, demonstrators in Gaza have for the past six weeks taken part in weekly protests near the Israeli border to demand that Palestinian refugees and their descendants be allowed to return to the homes they fled during the 1948 war.

Israeli snipers have killed more than 40 people during the demonstrations and injured hundreds more, including children. Israel says the protests, which are expected to peak next week with the nakba anniversary, are used by Hamas as a cover to damage the border fence and carry out terrorist attacks in Israel.

Barghouti, for his part, sees in the protests a shift in Hamas strategy towards the non-violent resistance he and others have long championed. “Many Palestinians have realised that military action is playing into Israel’s hands,” he says.

Barghouti refuses to accept that peace talks are off the agenda. He believes that if there is to be any progress, however, it will require an “international” – read not exclusively American – push. The problem is that the absence of US leadership creates a vacuum that cannot easily be filled.

The European Union wields soft power in the region – notably thanks to heavy aid spending in Palestine, investment that is designed to ensure the structures of a future state are in place if and when a deal is done – but the bloc’s internal divisions and its lack of influence over the Israeli leadership mean it cannot shoulder the responsibility itself.

Even agreeing an EU statement expressing concern over Trump’s Jerusalem move was frustrated by internal dissent among member states.

What the EU can do is to “defend the normative and physical space for a two-state solution”, as Hugh Lovatt of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it recently. That means using money, trade and whatever leverage it can muster, to make sure that by the time a new peace process begins – most likely in the post-Trump era – the conditions on the ground still allow for two viable states.

Back in Walaja, meanwhile, 75-year-old Ruqayeh al-Araj has little faith that politicians will resolve her community’s problems. But she clings nonetheless to the hope that one day she will return to her old village. She keeps the family’s title deeds safe – just like her uncle, who knew his home had been demolished but kept his house key on him until the day he died.

“If I live long enough, maybe [I’ll get back there]. But if we do not return, then I hope that some day our sons and daughters will.”

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