Globe and Mail - Toronto, Canada
Birth of a nation in exile
For Palestinians, May 14 marks the day many were turned out of their homes
May 13, 2008 at 11:45 PM EDT
Special to Globe and Mail
My father, Sami Odeh, is one of hundreds of Palestinian-Canadians who survived the systematic ethnic cleansing carried out by Jewish militias and the Israeli army in Palestine in 1948. Over half the indigenous Palestinian population (800,000 people of Muslim and Christian faith) were forcibly expelled or terrorized into leaving, then prevented from returning to their homes and land. Why? Because they were not Jewish and the mission was to create an exclusively Jewish presence in the part of Palestine claimed by the nascent state of Israel.
And yet the ethnic cleansing, which today would be considered a crime against humanity, is rarely mentioned in the Canadian media nor acknowledged by Canadian politicians. I have made it my personal quest, through a documentary on Palestinian-Canadians who survived the ethnic cleansing, to tell their story so that their suffering will be acknowledged and recognized here in Canada.
My father was 14 in 1948, living contentedly with his parents and 4 siblings in a comfortable middle-class home on the outskirts of Jerusalem; another house they owned was rented out to a consulate in another part of Jerusalem. As documented by Ilan Pappe, an Israeli historian and author of The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, "Jewish troops shelled, attacked and occupied the western Arab neighbourhoods in April, 1948 … the instruction to the Jewish forces was very clear … 'Occupy the neighbourhood and destroy all its houses.'." My father and his family held out in their home for weeks, hiding in the inner rooms to protect themselves against bullets whizzing through their home. When they could no longer withstand the danger to their family, they fled, burying the valuables they could not take with them in their backyard, hoping to unearth them upon their return. Their home was destroyed and in its place is a bus terminal today. Despite a UN resolution (Resolution 194) issued in December 1948, which called for the return of Palestinians refugees to their homes and towns to live at peace within Israel and to receive appropriate compensation, Israel has prevented this for the past 60 years.
The nostalgia Palestinians have for their homes and towns is powerful. Almost all Palestinian-Canadians have visited Israel with their Canadian passports. Inevitably they make their way to their childhood homes to reminisce. Some even ask to go inside their homes that are now inhabited by Israelis.
My grandmother did just that in 1967, the year when Israel militarily occupied the remainder of Palestine. She visited the first home (later rented out) that she and my grandfather had built, as they were starting their young family. Being blue-eyed, fair-skinned and a good English speaker, she knocked on the door and asked if she could use the bathroom, pretending that she was not well.
The Israeli Jewish woman of Austrian origin who let her in was surprised by how my grandmother quickly found the bathroom with no directions.
"This is my home, where my children were born and where I planted the fruit trees whose fruits you now arrange in the bowl on the kitchen table," explained my grandmother.
Defensively, the woman replied, "This is a sad story but the same thing happened to us in Austria. In any case, I bought this house from the Israeli government." My grandmother replied, "Madam, you bought stolen property that should be returned to its rightful owner. And given what you have suffered in Austria at the hands of the Nazis, you should be the last ones to do this to us." My grandmother left her home in tears.
The stories I uncovered about seven Palestinian-Canadians — all children or youth at the time — showed that no matter how they were driven out, their young lives were shattered socially, emotionally, culturally and economically. Salim and his fellow villagers in the Muslim village of Saffuriya, a few kilometres outside Nazareth, were bombarded by air as they were eating dinner, forcing them to flee over the mountains to refugee camps in Lebanon.
Mazen and his family were forced to leave the town of Ramle, near Israel's Ben Gurion Airport today, with only a single suitcase for the entire family, leaving behind beautiful homes and gardens. When Mazen visited a couple of years ago, he managed to get permission to visit his family home and found little had changed, even the piano his mother and aunt used to play was in the same spot. And he tearfully recognized the rubber tree where his swing used to be.
Palestinian-Canadians who survived 1948 are in their twilight years. It would mean so much to them to hear a Member of Parliament rise in the House of Commons to acknowledge their suffering, as is regularly done for Canadians of other origins who suffered inhumanity.
Until that happens, Canada is sending the unsettling message that "never again" doesn't really apply to all.
Rula Odeh is producing a documentary on what happened to seven Palestinian-Canadians who endured the events of 1948 in Palestine.