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My Palestinian mother-in-law and the generation of survivors
By MARION KAWAS
Published September 3, 2023
My mother-in-law recently passed away at age 97. Her generation, the Nakba survivors, are quickly leaving us, along with their important historical legacy.
FAMILY PHOTO, BETHLEHEM, CIRCA 1960
My mother-in-law recently passed away at age 97 surrounded by her extended family. Her generation, and their important historical legacy, is quickly leaving us. Any efforts we can make at recording their stories, in whatever format, will contribute to keeping this part of Palestinian history alive. In that spirit, here are glimpses into the story of Jamileh.
She was the one who introduced me to Palestinian family life and culture. I first met her in Beirut in 1974 when she came to visit her two sons, one of whom I was about to marry. She brought homemade date and walnut maamoul cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar, and that was the beginning of a long relationship.
She typified most Palestinians of her generation and was twice displaced by the Zionist forces, first during the Nakba from Jaffa and then economically forced to leave the West Bank after the Naksa in 1967. She had eight kids, multiple grandchildren, and great-grandchildren scattered throughout many countries, and although she herself never received much formal education, she was adamant that her children all be properly educated.
The greatest tragedy for all Palestinians in exile is that they are denied the right to be buried in the soil of Palestine, and not allowed to die with dignity in their own homeland.
Born in 1926, her first horrific experience with the Zionist colonizers was during the ethnic cleansing in Jaffa in 1948, prior to the establishment of the Israeli state (while Palestinians were supposedly still under British Mandate “protection”). She was there with my father-in-law due to his work schedule; when the Zionist militias attacked, she was heavily pregnant at the time and remembered fleeing with bullets flying over their heads.
According to Salman Abu Sitta, the renowned Palestinian historian, in his article, “Massacres as a weapon of ethnic cleansing during the Nakba,”
“From the 1st of April to May 14, 1948, before the settlers’ state was declared and before the British left and before any Arab soldier entered Palestine to save it, the Zionist Invasion essentially conquered Palestine. Its declaration on May 14 was the crowning conclusion of this invasion.”
“In Jaffa area (Region 4), there was a heavy concentration of atrocities in Jaffa city (8) and around Jaffa (6) in Beit Dajan…Jaffa city, which was designated to be in the ‘Arab State’, was depopulated in addition to twenty two villages in the district.”
The young couple then settled into life in Bethlehem, in the ancestral home. They raised their eight children and, like all Palestinians, did their best to build some semblance of a normal family environment.
But Zionism had other plans.
With the 1967 military aggression and the subsequent Israeli military and economic pressure, the family joined the line of refugees crossing the bridge into Jordan. Those pictures you may have seen of young and old on the “Allenby” bridge, carrying young kids and clutching belongings…that was their lived experience.
Jordan brought different stresses for the Palestinian refugee population, as happened throughout the diaspora. Although many Palestinians in Jordan did receive citizenship and constitute a significant portion of the country’s population, this did not necessarily translate into effective support for the Palestinian struggle. Arab regimes had little interest in promoting a progressive liberation struggle, that inherently carried threats to their own dictatorial powers; in fact, many of these regimes historically aided the Zionist cause.
The Black September assault by Jordanian forces on the Palestinian resistance in 1970-71 was just one example, an aggression that again touched my mother-in-law. She was wounded in the neck during that period, while travelling with her 7-year-old daughter trying to visit relatives.
Her generation faced incredible trauma and dispossession. With little to no support, abandoned by Arab regimes and the international community, they nonetheless persevered. They succeeded in raising successive generations of Palestinians that remain attached to their land, to their culture, to their national identity. This is the real legacy of the Nakba survivors — the fact that their great-grandchildren are still fighting for and dreaming of a free Palestine.
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