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Monday, January 26, 2009

Ghosts of 1948 haunt Gaza crisis

By Paul Moss
BBC News, Israel

You would think, on meeting him, that Sameh Zakout has a contented life - a career in music, occasional trips abroad, the very embodiment of an Israeli Arab who has made the most of his opportunities.

But speaking in his home-town of Ramla, near Tel Aviv, Sameh says he is always "depressed" and indeed "oppressed" as well. This is not a matter of material circumstances, but of family history.

Sameh's grandparents once lived in the Palestinian village of Isdud, just south of Tel Aviv.

But in 1948, they fled their home as refugees during the war that brought about Israel's creation.

Isdud was left in ruins and today its agricultural land is cultivated by Jewish owners. Part of that land is now covered by a new Israeli city, Ashdod.

"My grandpa and grandma used to tell me lots of stories about Isdud, that it was a better life than now," says Sameh.

"My grandpa was a teacher, of history and geography - a peaceful and quiet life that nowadays they don't have."

Renewal of conflict

Sameh's family history is playing on his mind right now, because of the recent fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Sixty years ago, many of his aunts, uncles and cousins ended up fleeing to Gaza, and they and their descendents are still stuck there today.

Sameh is at pains to emphasise he does not support the firing of missiles into Israel by Palestinian militants - there were hundreds during the recent conflict, including frequent strikes on Ashdod. But he does understand the frustration of Gaza's inhabitants.
"They think about their homeland. My family's biggest dream is to return to Isdud. Sixty years after, they're still dreaming of going back."

The events of 1948 remain a controversial subject.

Palestinians argue that Israelis drove them from their homes. Israel insists most Palestinians left of their own accord. Either way, many places like Isdud were emptied of their Arab inhabitants.

Many of their former inhabitants are now left in Gaza with their descendents and Israel will not allow them back.

Confronting history

"It's not an easy thing to know, this knowledge," says Eitan Bronstein. His educational charity, Zochrot, tries to keep alive the memory of now-destroyed Palestinian villages.

"In Israel," he continues, "the national story is that we Jews returned to our homeland, which was more or less vacant. The fact that there were people living here means that we replaced them. People don't really face this."

I tried to see if the people of Ashdod would face, or indeed accept, this version of their town's history.
"So what if there was an Arab village here?" said one woman in a shopping centre.

"There are lots of Arab villages dotted around the country. Does every Arab village belong to them?"

The theme was echoed by another, younger woman, fresh out of doing national service in the Israeli army:

"I don't know if it was an Arab city, but it's now our city. This is our place, and our country."

Never forget

History is mobilised by both sides in the Palestinian refugee question. One man in Ashdod became indignant when I referred to the one-time Palestinian presence in this part of Israel.

"Starting from Abraham, Jacob and Isaac," he said, "this was all Israeli-Jewish territory. They were exiled. That doesn't make it belong to the Arabs."

He also pointed out that Palestinians have not been living in towns like Isdud for more than 60 years, and argued that their descendents therefore no longer retain the right to them.

That was a suggestion I put to Sameh - that he and his cousins in Gaza had never themselves lived in Isdud, and that they should stop dreaming of returning to a place the Israelis would never let them have.

"If we forget the idea of returning back to our homes," he says, "life ends."

"The rockets coming from Gaza - I think it's wrong. But we will never forget what happened to us, and we will never forget the right to return. We will fight for it until death."

Paul Moss is reporting for The World Tonight on BBC Radio 4

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