e-mail us
Visiting the village ereased from all but a family’s memory

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Beit Itab, Israel

On a recent March morning, residents of Dehaisheh refugee camp south of Bethlehem were busily preparing for the arrival of the pope, sweeping narrow alleyways, placing pots of flowering plants on balconies, and painting murals and slogans calling for their “right to return” on dingy concrete walls.

When John Paul II arrived in the camp as part of his six-day whirlwind tour of the Holy Land, he found a people - the Palestinians - still awaiting their return to the homes and villages confiscated or destroyed in 1948 when the State of Israel was created. Their demand for restitution echoes the themes of this Jubilee year, a time in the Old Testament when God calls for a return of land to its original owners. “In this year of jubilee,” proclaims Leviticus, “each of you shall return to your property.”

Just days before the pope’s arrival, three generations of the Hemmash family left behind their cramped second-floor apartment in the camp for a day in their mountain village, Beit Itab. Seventy-two-year-old Abu Kamel, the family patriarch, was born and grew up there. But in 1948, as Zionist forces approached, he and the village’s 800 residents were forced to flee. For five decades, he has dreamed of returning. Every now and then, when his longing gets particularly intense, Abu Kamel gathers his family together and goes to the village for a day or even a few hours.

His hope is shared by the younger generations: his daughter Myassar, her husband, Aziz, and three of their children, Majd, Ziad and Fairouz, who invite me to join them in this family ritual. Honored by the pope’s visit to their camp, the family said they were looking to the Holy Father to call the world’s attention to their plight, so that they and thousands of families like them might reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

Like many Palestinian refugees, the Hemmash family lives within walking distance of their village. Beit Itab is only a few miles from Dehaisheh, but it may as well be on the other end of the earth. The roads leading from the West Bank, where the bulk of the camps are, into Israel are tightly guarded by Israeli checkpoints. Soldiers routinely stop cars and demand to see each passenger’s ID. Most refugees, especially the men, are forbidden to set foot inside Israel without obtaining a permit from the Israeli authorities. Abu Kamel and Aziz have no such papers. If the men are caught, they could face a fine or even imprisonment.

As our van, equipped with the requisite yellow Israeli license plates (as opposed to green West Bank plates), pulls up to the checkpoint, a bespectacled Israeli soldier wearing green army fatigues and a no-nonsense expression sticks his head in the driver’s window and peers into the van’s dark interior. “Does everyone have a permit?” he asks, noting Abu Kamel’s red-and-white checkered headscarf, a symbol of Palestinian peasantry. A deafening silence falls over the van. Aziz pretends to fumble for his papers. Seated in the front seat I quickly thrust two U.S. passports into the soldier’s hand in hopes it will distract him from the fact that we are smuggling “illegals” into the country.

In a moment of hesitation that seems to last an hour, the soldier studies the passports. Then, lifting his head, he waves us through, probably figuring that two Americans and a family with three young children are unlikely candidates for planting bombs. As our driver steps on the gas, cheers erupt from the back of the van, and we fly down the winding mountain roads toward the village.

Beit Itab does not appear on any map. Its name has been erased, along with the names of some 530 other Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948. Overnight, 750,000 villagers became refugees, one-third of whom were scattered to 59 camps in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. Half a century later, the refugees now number nearly 5 million. None of them has received a penny in compensation, nor have they been allowed to return, despite a 1948 United Nations resolution calling for both.

As we turn off the main highway, a sign in Hebrew and English informs us we are approaching the Israeli settlement of Nes Harim. “Take a left,” Abu Kamel calls out. The driver makes a sharp turn down a dirt road past some agricultural land and drops us at the foot of an enormous hill.

The land is enchanting. A carpet of yellow and purple wildflowers stretches out to greet us. Poppies dot the hills, and fig, lemon, pine and olive trees - too many to count - extend their gnarled branches like arms reaching for an embrace. The scent of wild thyme, sage and mint tempt the senses. A butterfly flutters past, and the children, deprived of such natural wonders in the camp, take off after it in delight.

With Abu Kamel as our guide, we begin what will be an hour-long ascent to the village. Suddenly transformed into a boy, the old man charges ahead of the group, cinching up his long robe and maneuvering the steep overgrown paths with the ease of a gazelle. He stops only to pick a few fresh mint sprigs and pop them in his mouth. Everyone rushes to keep up, as he prods us along with “Yallah! Yallah! Let’s go!” On our way up the winding path, we can see the terra cotta rooftops of Nes Harim poking through the trees across the valley. For some reason, the settlers never built directly on top of Beit Itab, but beside it. The village, in ruins, instead serves as a nature area and hiking path for Israeli backpackers.

A small strip of the land is used for farming. We pass a few Palestinian workers toiling in the fields, and Aziz greets them. “Good day!” he says. “Don’t plant anything. We are coming back here!” Indeed, the land is empty, and returning to it appears entirely conceivable. Eighty percent of destroyed Palestinian villages are empty and able to accommodate their original inhabitants, according to the Badil Resource Center, a refugee rights organization in Bethlehem.

Before long, we arrive - winded - at a vast clearing, a ghost town of imaginary structures. The homes, town meeting hall, schoolhouse and olive groves are all long gone. Rocks and a wild, thorny brush cover the area. But Abu Kamel continues his tour as if everything remained. “This was the home of Muhammad Farraj,” he declares, gesturing into the air at a bare plot of land. “And over here lived Ahmed Mousa Abedallah.” Prickly cactus plants demarcate borders where homes once stood. A newcomer is obliged to imagine the former structures.

We push on, climbing further until we reach a spring. “I remember how the girls would come down from the mountains with clay jugs on their heads and take their water from here,” he says. “We didn’t have pipes and plumbing back then.” Thirteen-year-old Majd could have been one of those women. She takes out a plastic Coke bottle and fills it with spring water, ignoring the fact that the stone well has been converted into a makeshift dump full of hikers’ trash.

Typical of Arab hospitality, the family insists I come to their house. This requires more climbing. We climb and climb until we reach the top of the mountain. In another clearing, we find yet another pile of rubble and something resembling a cornerstone. Tip-toeing through the uneven terrain and underbrush, green and healthy from much spring rain, the Hemmash family is soon gathered on the remains of the family home.

“This is your house,” Abu Kamel tells his granddaughter, 8-year-old Fairouz. “Feel the breeze. You can smell the ocean from here.” One can imagine the windows that gave out on the spectacular view of the surrounding hills, the cold winters the people here endured and the clear spring days like this one that greeted their mornings.

Of course there are skeptics who will refuse to believe that Beit Itab or any other destroyed Palestinian village was inhabited prior to 1948, that the Palestinians have a claim to this land. For a glimpse of the past, skeptics need do little more than visit the village cemetery.

Before we begin our descent back to the van, we come upon a burial mound, blanketed with tiny yellow blossoms. “My mother is buried here,” says Abu Kamel. “Her name was Zahra.”

I join Zahra’s three great-grandchildren as we peer at her remains through a small opening in the earth. The burial shroud long disintegrated, Zahra’s bones form a zigzag pattern against the red earth where she lies resting. All six family members extend their hands over the grave. In whispered tones, they begin to pray. “In the name of God the merciful Lord of mercy … ”

Just then, three Israeli hikers from the neighboring settlement accompanied by two huge, furry dogs, slow their pace to watch. I feel Fairouz slip her small hand into mine. Abu Kamel finishes the prayer. Then, seeing the hikers walk away, he follows them with arms outstretched. In a loud voice, almost wailing, he recites a verse from the Quran: “This land belongs to God!” The hikers look back at him quizzically, then move on.

“They don’t understand what that means,” he says softly.

National Catholic Reporter, March 31, 2000