Memories of Al-Nakba

by Mamdouh Nofal on 03/09/1998

(202-342-3990, extension 15)

The closest I can come to explaining what 1948 means to me, and how it affected the path I took in life and the choices I made, is to tell about growing up in Qalqiliya, on the frontline with Israel.

When the dust of 1948 settled, Qalqiliya itself had not been occupied, falling in what came to be called the West Bank. But it had lost more than 90 percent of its agricultural lands, its main source of livelihood, which were now farmed by the Jewish colonies across the railroad tracks that had once linked Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt and which now formed the border with the newly created State of Israel. The war had also transformed Qalqiliya into a main station for refugees fleeing the massacres and the fighting in Kfar Saba, Abu Kishk, Miska, Byar Adas, Al-Shaykh Muwannes, and Al-Tireh, who increased the town’s population by half. It is difficult, after the passage of fifty years, to sort out my own memories from those of my family, neighbors, friends, and school mates, from the collective memory of my hometown and the collective nostalgia for its lands and fields. But it seems to me that, of the battles for the defense of the town, I have vague memories of the young men organizing night and day guard shifts, and of the Iraqi Army camp and the Palestinian formations near town. I also remember the throngs of refugees in the Qalqilya Mosque next door to our house. The Girls’ School and the Boys’ School were also turned into refugee centers, and there was chaos everywhere as the town didn’t have the means to absorb such a huge influx. Some of the refugees settled in our town and live there to this day, while others moved inward to other towns or on to exile, due to the difficulty of making a living and the scarcity of water resources. So our town, which had been self-sufficient and relatively comfortable, became destitute virtually overnight, cut off from its livelihood of orchards and farmlands on the coastal plain, cattle- breeding and trade with al-Tireh, al-Taybeh, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Lydda, and Ramla. The conditions of the original townspeople abruptly deteriorated to abject poverty, such that there wasn’t much difference between them and the refugees. Hunger spread, and if it hadn’t been for the huge quantities of dates provided by the Iraqi government, many would have died. I remember that we children used to gather the date pits and sell them to bakeries–a full basket for one piastre. We were also set to gathering firewood and dry vegetable stems for cooking fuel, and grasses and wild herbs for the rabbits and sheep.

The dire situation of Qalqiliya’s inhabitants was taken into consideration after UNRWA was set up in 1950, and kurut mu‏an(welfare cards) were distributed along with emergency and fixed rations to everyone, except that the rations for Qalqiliya’s original citizens were only half as much as those given to the refugees. I will always remember the number of my family’s welfare card: 58610405. That same year, the United Nations established a hospital on premises that the Iraqi Army had used as an emergency center and opened schools for refugee children that function to this day. So Qalqiliya became dependent on international aid as its main source of livelihood and provisions for the people. I still remember the long queues in the mornings for the distribution of milk for children, and the little skirmishes that sometimes broke out when provisions were distributed.

A National Guard was set up in Qalqilya, and many of the young men joined, their main job being to keep watch on the Israeli border day and night from the trenches dug on the outskirts of town. We children used to amuse ourselves running back and forth between their positions, and some of the guards would send us on errands to bring them things they needed from their homes or to buy cigarettes or matches they had run out of. We also used to compete in seeing who was boldest in sneaking into the old orchards, and placing rocks or pouring motor oil or pump grease on the railway tracks, hoping the Jewish train would skid on them. But the train kept on moving back and forth relentlessly, every day, blowing its shrill whistle each time it neared our town.

After the establishment of the State of Israel and the departure of the Arab armies, Qalqilya’s inhabitants began to realize that this would be a long story. The educated youth set their minds on going abroad. Some entered the Gulf countries illegally, and some even died of suffocation hidden inside oil tanks. People tried to reclaim the poor mountainous lands that remained on our side of the border, digging out rocks and filling the holes with soil to plant vegetables. They also dug a large number of artesian wells using primitive methods, and we kids used to hang around while the work was going on. Men sold the jewelry of their women, and took part in the well-digging projects. They bought generators and pumps and pipes to irrigate the orchards that were left, and set up what could be described as small agricultural cooperatives, some of which are still functioning.

Throughout the years, the people of Qalqilya and the refugees dreamed of returning to their fields and villages. During the earlier years, their sleep was disturbed by nightmares involving Jews hounding them and chasing them out, and they brooded about how the Arab countries had conspired against them and the whole world shared in the injustice meted out to them.

As time went on, Al-Nakba was transformed into a memory that the people of Qalqilya went on commemorating with school holidays and demonstrations in the streets and near the Israeli border. As children we would roam the streets, happy with our holiday from school, brandishing flags and banners denouncing the Partition and demanding the return of refugees to their homes, and chanting, in imitation of the grown-ups: “Down with Britain! Down with Israel!!”, and “Hajj Amin, the Sword of Islam!”

Some of the town’s imams saw Qalqilya’s tribulations as a sign of Allah’s anger at Palestinians for having gone astray. Many people resorted increasingly to religion, some even joining the Islamic Tahrir Party. A handful reacted by turning their backs on religion, saying He had abandoned them and had not stood up for the holy places in the blessed Land of Palestine (though they refused to join the Communist Party because the Soviet Union had recognized the State of Israel). My father, who was practically illiterate, joined the ranks of the independent non-believers. My illiterate mother, on the other hand, became more devout and urged me and my older brother to pray, to fast, and to learn the Koran by heart. Following her instructions, I prayed five times a day at the mosque next door and often repeated the ayet al-kursi which she said would protect whoever memorized it from the devil and the attacks of the Israelis. For many years, I would race to be the first to reach the mosque after the dawn call to prayer, sometimes arriving before the imam, and I would stand right behind him in the front row of worshippers. This earned me the reward of sweets from a devout relative. Later on, this same relative used to give me schoolbooks, notebooks, and pencils, particularly during the numerous stretches that my father spent in Jordanian prisons for “infiltration” into Israel.

After the Free Officers Revolution in Egypt in 1952, a strong Nasserist current spread among the youth; when I was older, I myself joined their ranks. Those days, whoever did not own a firearm tried to get one, though weapons had to be carefully concealed as the Jordanian police frequently conducted searches and confiscated whatever they found. Many young men carried out a variety of dangerous actions inside Israel, and some established relations with the Egyptian Secret Service. The names of these young men were well-known, and many were imprisoned by Jordan, where infiltration was an act punishable by prison (the sentence was longer if the infiltrator owned a firearm, and could last several years if the firearm had actually been used). Many of Qalqilya’s sons were killed, including fathers and relatives of friends of mine, when they sneaked across to “steal” a cow or horse or some clothes or waterpipes or whatever they could lay their hands on in the Jewish colonies, or harvest whatever crops they could in what had been their orchards and fields. No one in our town could be convinced that the fruits of their lands, still within sight just across the tracks, did not belong to them anymore.

There were countless such “infiltrations.” Our town was often awakened by the sound of gunfire between its young men and Israeli troops or guards from the Jewish colonies. On such nights, people would wait tensely, ready to move to neighborhood mosques better able to withstand shelling: people still believed that “the houses of Allah had a Lord to protect them” and that Allah could deflect artillery if He so desired. And people would pray “May Allah spare us! O Merciful Lord, drive the Israelis blind and be merciful to our men!” Many times, my father was one of those in need of such prayers. When one of the men was martyred, everyone would know because the wails and screams of women and children would tear through the stillness of the night, and all the inhabitants would be at their doors. The children would wake up, all anxious and perturbed, clinging to the skirts of our mothers, and if the town was under shelling we boys would rush out into the alleys once it stopped to be among the men

As kids, I remember how our anxiety would be calmed somewhat as we listened to the men’s talk, eavesdropping on the latest news which we would carry back to our mothers, scared and worried. The town would live through a state of genuine sorrow after the loss of a martyr. To show solidarity, everyone would walk in the funeral procession after prayers over the dead man’s body and then sit with the family throughout the three days of condolence offering. And during these times we children would hear the stories of infiltration into the colonies and skirmishes with the Jews, of courage and cowardice, of life and death, of paradise and hell, of the special status of the martyrs before Allah, and of the behavior of the Jordanian Secret Service. They were exciting and terrifying stories, almost like mystery tales, imprinted in our memories.

The mujahidun and the infiltrators from our town harrassed the neighboring colonies for over five years. Israel stepped up the pressure on Jordan, which it held responsible for the security of the borders, and did not hesitate to use artillery and machine-gun fire against the town or to position snipers to shoot whoever came near the border. A number of men, women, and children (including relatives and schoolmates) were killed that way. In the early 1950s the Israeli troops began to follow a more agressive policy, carrying out numerous punitive raids against houses of alleged infiltrators and the town’s wells. In 1953 Moshe Dayan threatened to raze Qalqilya to the ground.

As Israeli pressures on Jordan increased, so did Jordan’s pressures on Qalqilya. The Jordanian Secret Service, police, and army clamped down on the infiltrators, and Jordanian courts meted out harsher sentences on those who got caught. The better known among the infiltrators were imprisoned for long terms even if they had not been caught red-handed. My father was one of these. The families of the imprisoned men were left without any source of income. My own family lived off the meager sums that other infiltrators paid in order to use my father’s old machine gun. Despite all the measures taken by the Israelis and the Jordanians, frequent skirmishes between the people of our town and the residents of the colonies and Israeli troops continued until 10 October 1956. At 9 p.m. on that date, Israeli forces launched a large-scale offensive against Qalqilya. Ground forces, including tanks, attacked from three directions, and warplanes bombed the town. [[[WHAT DO YOU REMEMBER OF THIS???]]] They targetted the police station which they destroyed completely, killing everyone inside. They also intentionally destroyed the wells the people had dug. The men of the National Guard and the regular Jordanian army unit stationed in town fought bravely, and over twenty were martyred. In return they killed many of the attacking forces, including the commander, who was remembered by some Israeli officers after Qalqilya was occupied in 1967. They built a simple memorial on Soufin Hill where he had been killed, the remains of which are still there. I still have clear memories of some of the martyrs who fell in the trenches and were pulled out of the debris of the police station, and images of their funeral. I remember a schoolmate saying: “Me and my mother and sister are angry at Allah for taking my father away.”

When Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, Moshe Dayan remembered his old threat to raze Qalqilya, and his victory enabled him to carry it out. His troops drove out all the inhabitants and brought in bulldozers to plough the town under and erase it from the map, just as they had done with the villages of Bayt Nuba, Yalu and Imwas. The inhabitants were left without shelter, and it was only thanks to direct American intervention that the town was spared and that the people were allowed to return a month later. By that time, I was gone. I had joined the ranks of the Arab Nationalist Movement in 1961, and a few years after that, when I was twenty, I joined its military wing, Abtal Al-Awdah [Heroes of the Return]. From that time on, I devoted myself to military work within the Palestinian revolution and the Palestine Liberation Organization after the defeat of 1967.