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SPECIAL REPORT / ISRAEL at 50 | TALE OF A NATION: Israel
through the eyes of a Palestinian family

Palestinians Revisit 'Catastrophe'

Many lost their land to Israelis in 1948 upheaval and became refugees. One family recounts the division, violence, achievement and peacemaking that ensued.

April 12, 1998|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ZEKHARYA, Israel — Early on a Saturday morning, Saleh abu Laban steps onto the land his Palestinian grandparents once owned in this hillside village and picks up a shriveled pomegranate. But his presence soon rousts the Israeli who owns it all now.

In fluent Hebrew, Abu Laban tells the pajama-clad Israeli that his family lived in Zekharya half a century ago. His mother planted the tree whose fruit he holds; his grandparents' home was the empty, one-room house that stands nearby. He has come to visit his roots.

The Israeli is hesitant, then friendly. Nahum Sadok, 42, says he was born here after his family of Kurdish Jews came to Israel in the 1950s. He shakes hands with Abu Laban, 45, and his brother Amjed. And he tells them that he has no plans to demolish their grandparents' tiny home.

Saleh abu Laban gazes after the man as he walks away. "He has my life," the Palestinian says without apparent bitterness. "And he is here instead of me."

As Israelis reflect with pride on the 50th anniversary of their state, Palestinians such as Saleh abu Laban and his family are remembering what they call the nakba, or "catastrophe," the 1948 loss of land that is the Palestinians' defining historical moment.

The Abu Labans, a clan of farmers and religious leaders that once owned 75 acres in Zekharya, became refugees in the war that followed Israel's declaration of independence. That facet of their history still scars each of them--from family patriarch Abu Ibrahim, 85, to his son Saleh, to Saleh's ponytailed daughter, Tamara.

In October 1948, Abu Ibrahim and his wife frantically bundled their children into a donkey's saddlebags and fled Zekharya under Israeli bombardment. In the years since, the family's story--one of loss, division, violence, achievement and peacemaking--has, like the story of all Palestinians, been intertwined with that of Israel.

It is punctuated by seminal events in the history of the two peoples: the 1948 creation of the Jewish state, which led to the Palestinian uprooting; the 1967 war and Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem; the bloody, seven-year Palestinian intifada, or uprising, that ended earlier this decade; and the arduous, often frustrating path toward peace.

Along the way, members of the Abu Laban family have served time in Israeli prisons and been deported for violent or political resistance; others outside the country when war broke out were forced to remain abroad. Teenage cousins were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in demonstrations during the intifada.

Today, the Abu Labans say their days of violent opposition to Israel are over. Saleh, who spent 15 years in prison for an attack on Israeli troops when he was 16, actively works to promote dialogue with Israel. The family of angry young protesters has become one that includes teachers, agricultural engineers, aid workers and officials of the Palestinian Authority, headed by Yasser Arafat.

Like most Palestinians, the Abu Labans support the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements and strongly believe in the compromise--two states, side by side--that their forebears and other Palestinians rejected more than 50 years ago.

And while some among them dream of a return to Zekharya, this quiet village of olive and fig trees that all Abu Labans consider their "real" home, they know that this will not occur. All but a few of the Arab homes here were demolished long ago, and it is now an Israeli farming community populated by Jewish immigrants who have sunk their own roots into its fertile soil. It will not be part of any eventual Palestinian state, the Abu Labans acknowledge.

"We have the dream, and we have reality," said Abdel Nasser, Saleh's first cousin and neighbor in the Dahaisha refugee camp. "We know they are not the same."

The Past Dies Hard

For now, reality for Saleh and most of his family is Dahaisha, a dusty jumble of cinder-block structures and narrow alleyways that houses about 10,000 people on the southern edge of Bethlehem. Its residents are members of families that became refugees in 1948, most from 40 villages southwest of Jerusalem, including Zekharya.

Inside the cramped confines of the camp, the past dies hard. Residents refer to one another and to sections of Dahaisha by the names of the villages that they lost 50 years ago: Jerashia after the community of Jerash, Ajajra after Ajar, Zekharawa for Zekharya.

It is conversational shorthand, a way to place themselves and one another in context, but it is also a means of keeping alive the increasingly distant memory of their loss and displacement. Many choose to stay on in the camp for a similar reason, to show the world that the refugee problem is not yet resolved.

Abu Ibrahim abu Laban needs no such reminders. He has instilled in his nine children an understanding of Palestine's tragedy, telling them repeatedly that they must never forget. He makes sure that his 33 grandchildren are exposed to the family history too.

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