Nakba: The turning point for all Palestinians

Israeli soldiers stand guard as Palestinians protest in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (Reuters)
Updated 15 May 2018

Nakba: The turning point for all Palestinians

RAMALLAH: As Palestinians worldwide mark the Nakba today, the Palestinian catastrophe of 1948, Sara Al-Hilwa clearly remembers the day that changed her life.

“My father came home with a truck. My parents had heard of the Deir Yassin massacre, and were afraid the Jews would come to us next. We took whatever we could, and drove off,” the 76-year-old said, as she sat at her current home — a simple bedroom in Al-Amari refugee camp, south of Ramallah.

Sara Al_Hilwa’s family was not alone as more than 710,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their villages and cities over the following days. Some fled to Lebanon and Syria, others to Jordan or Gaza. Palestinian society has never been the same since. Now, 70 years later, many still have makeshift lives in refugee camps all over the Middle East.

The uprooting is an open wound still for Palestinians. While doing academic research in the dense refugee camps in Gaza, Norwegian social anthropologist Dag Tuastad  noticed a pattern in how the communities had come to terms with their lost society: “Around two thirds of the refugees chose to marry people from their original village or city. 

“While families or clans are not so large in the refugee camps, decades later they still had a mechanism for maintaining their identity.”

Palestinian leaders promised the refugees the day would come when they would all be able to return home to what is today Israel. In  many Middle Eastern countries, such as Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, refugees endured discrimination, on the grounds that they were temporary residents. But after lifetimes spent in simple housing, devoid of hope, many refugees today feel manipulated by their leaders, and accuse them of selling them illusions.

“It is just empty talk,” said Hajjem Yousef Mahadi, a 74-year old refugee, also in Al-Amari camp, who came originally from the city of Lydda. After decades living as a temporary refugee, she no longer believes that she will ever return home. She, too, remembers the day she was uprooted.

What she did not know at that time is that her fate, alongside that of tens of thousands of others, had been sealed with a simple, dismissive wave of a hand. 

Sara Al-Hilwa, in Al-Amari Camp

After Lydda fell in July 1948, military commander Yigal Allon turned to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, and asked what do to with the local population. Ben-Gurion said nothing, but merely waved his hand in a wordless gesture that everyone seemed to understand. Soon Yitzhak Rabin, who was to win a Nobel prize later, wrote the formal order: “The inhabitants of Lydda must be expelled quickly, without regard to age.”

Sara’s family was among the exodus from the city, embarking on a long march to the West Bank.

“We got on a cart, and a mule pulled us, slowly, with lots of others in front of us and behind us,” she said. The expulsion from Lydda, which is now next to Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, was one of the largest of the 1948 war.

The growing feeling among refugees today of having been sold illusions is understandable: Recent leaks from the official Palestinian negotiation teams confirm that the Palestinian leaders gave up demanding a return to what is today Israel.

According to the so-called Palestine Papers, a collection of 10,000 documents from the Palestinian negotiating team that were leaked to Al Jazeera and the Guardian newspaper in 2011, the Israelis and the Palestinians were negotiating the return of only about 10,000 of the around five million refugees to their homes.

For Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian government minister, the Nakba is not only about the refugees. 

“The Nakba is the turning point for all Palestinians. Commemorating the Nakba is about taking a stand for resistance, and in particular for self-determination and statehood,” he told Arab News.

“For Palestinians, the Nakba is also a continuing affair that only started in 1948, but continued through 1967 and until today, with Jerusalem,” he said.

As Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the US, under President Donald Trump, has moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“You see, it never ended,” Khatib said of the highly contested diplomatic move.

Now, 70 years on, a handful of the refugees are still around to tell their stories. While Palestinians still do not have their own state, museums have sprung up in the self-rule area of the West Bank dedicated to telling the Palestinian story, and keeping memories of the Nakba alive.

Just north of the Birzeit University is the Palestinian Museum, functioning like a national museum. Children are bussed from all over the West Bank to the $24 million complex. Currently the main exhibition shows hand-made embroidered clothes by Palestinians.

“Look, this is from Gaza in 1935, and you can see how the cypress trees are part of the embroidery pattern. You had a lot of cypress trees in Gaza,” said museum guide Hannah Eusheid. “This one here is from Hebron in 1920, with its famous grapes in the pattern,” she said as she showed us around the colorful exhibition hall.

Visitors hear how traditional embroidery was affected by the Nakba. People had less money, so it was harder tot get hold of the necessary fabrics. Today embroidery has become a visual symbol of Palestinian identity, often featuring in Palestinian nationalist posters.

“Through embroidery we see how the Nakba changed our society. There is no doubt, preserving the Nakba is part of the story,” she said.

For the elderly refugees, who once wore the embroidery, there is little chance of ever returning to the homes the patterns celebrate. While the Palestinian struggle for independence continues, this year’s Nakba commemoration has become a moment for introspection.

With a Palestinian state nowhere on the horizon, Palestinian leaders are seen as increasingly corrupt and disconnected.

“We haven’t had elections, we haven’t seen a renewal of our leadership,” Khatib said. The main problem, however, he said, rests with the Israeli side. 

The Palestinian leadership gambled on the peace process, which failed. The failure of the peace process created the gap seen today between the Palestinian leadership and the people.

There is no hope on the horizon. With war and tension in neighbors such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, Arab states seem less supportive of the Palestinians. For the first time since 1948, the Arab-Israeli conflict no longer seems to be the most urgent matter facing the Middle East. 

In the Al-Amari camp outside Ramallah, Sara’s son, Khaled, should have had a bright future. Strong and handsome, but the 40-year old is also jobless, having been shot not twice in the legs by Israeli soldiers.

He spends his days watching Palestinians in Gaza demonstrating by the border near Israel, seeing the young people running towards Israeli bullets.  As Israel has cut the Gazans off from the rest of the world, and Hamas runs an ever more oppressive regime, Khaled said he understands the protesters.

“The world must understand, these people have reached the point where death is better than life,” he said.

‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

Updated 23 May 2018

‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

  • As strife-torn Yemen marks its unity day, thousands of Yemeni refugees in neighboring Djibouti say they have little to cheer about
  • Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen

DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war. 

Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.

Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen. 

Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety. 

“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.

“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.

Ali Thabit family

Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning. 

“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”

His wife said: “We were all seasick. It was the first time we had been on a boat.”

“Now we live on handouts and rations, and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe,” she said.

“The heat is also unbearable. My young child gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.”
From left, Nathair Ali Thabit, Nadi, Goma Salaamy and Malka. 

Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months. 

From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti. 

Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February. 

Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.

“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.” 

In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,695 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.

Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, where they are registered, and given food and water before being sent to Markazi camp. 

Meha Abdul Sala

The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015. 

“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.

“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”

Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.

The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population. 

Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said. 

In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.


The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.

Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said. 

In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.

Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh. 

When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News. 

Ali Ibrahim

The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.

“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.

“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice. 

“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood. 

“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.

Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.

“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.

“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”

The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet. 

However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.

Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.

Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.

Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables. 

“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.

“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said. 

“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”

Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland. 

“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said. 


Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen