The Ongoing Nakba: Mohammad Saleh Abu Habsa-Patience is a virtue!

From my journal, interviews, letters, and other writing about internally expelled Palestinian refugees in the West Bank and Gaza (once I can enter Gaza), plus their ancestral homelands. These dispatches are based on my latest work in Palestine-Israel from mid-May to mid-July 2019 and more recent writing. Currently, the Covid-19 pandemic prevents me from returning. (With major assistance from Fareed Taamallah, my colleague in Ramallah, West Bank, Occupied Palestine)


Yigal Allon [former Foreign Minister, then General Rabin’s boss] asked Ben-Gurion [Israel’s former Prime Minister] what was to be done with the civilian population. Ben-Gurion waved his hand in a gesture of “drive them out.’ `Driving out’ is a term with a harsh ring. Psychologically, this was one of the most difficult actions we undertook.

—Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, quoted in the New York Times (this quote has later been disputed by Allon)

Born in 1948 during the exile, 70 years old. From Sarees/Saris village west of Jerusalem. The family lived in tents; now lives in Kalandia refugee camp near Ramallah. He has a history with Palestinian revolutionary movements, suffering many years imprisoned. After his 21-year-old son stabbed settlers at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, the police slashed, beat, and killed the young man. Three prior incidents of violence by Israelis against relatives and friends might have motivated the young man who never told his father or mother about his decision to violently retaliate against Israeli oppression. The Israeli army then destroyed the new addition intended for the son on top of their house. Mohammad preserved part of that destroyed addition as a memorial and museum. His wife still cries over the loss of their son. He brought us to the cemetery and explained that many martyrs—shaheed—are buried there. Later, he accompanied us as we interviewed 3 women in Kalandia refugee camp, at least one from his own village of Saris. One cried, asking him to visit her more frequently. (my notes, repeated from my photo set)

Adapted from Fareed Taamallah’s Facebook page, August 20, 2019:

Israel expelled Mohammad Saleh Abu Habsa from his village, put him in jail 14 years, murdered his son, demolished his house several times, but he still hopes for Palestinian liberation and to return to his village.

Mohammed was born during his family’s forced exodus from their village of Saris, about 10 miles west of Jerusalem, to his family’s home in the Kalandia refugee camp, a result of the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe). Inhabited by approximately 1000 Palestinians, the villagers had planted olive and fruit trees. Zionist gangs confiscated 11,000 dunums (equivalent to 4.2 square miles) belonging to the village which had been built on the ruins of two Jewish sites, Shoresh and Maaleh Hemisha.

Saris, 1948

On April 16, 1948, using heavy weaponry, 600 Zionist fighters attacked the village, defended by only 12 Palestinian fighters with rifles, many of them old and with limited ammunition. The Zionists killed 4 and wounded 2. The inhabitants fled to the nearby village of Beit Mahsir; 3 elderly blind women remained in the village. The Zionists demolished the house of one, opened fire on the eyes of the others, and killed them and uncovered their loins. They then threw them in the village square. Jewish gangs completely destroyed the village including Abu Habsa’s house. Then the Zionists continued their attack and destroyed Beit Mahsir where the Saris villagers had taken refuge, later building the Israeli colony of Beit Meir on the rubble. The two groups, inhabitants of Beit Mahsir, and the expelled residents from Siris, fled to the neighboring village of Beit Susin.

Members of Harel Brigade demolishing houses in Saris, 1948

The family remained in Beit Susin until May 30, 1948, when Zionist gangs attacked them again and destroyed the entire village (they later built the settlement of Taoz, “Oasis of Peace” on the rubble). Displaced people went through several villages before reaching their final homes, often refugee camps. He was born during this period, somewhere under a tree in the village of Beit Duqqu, west of Jerusalem. The family fled to Bethlehem and then to Abu Dis (adjacent to Jerusalem), where they stayed for a year and lived in the caves during the winter of 1949. They finally moved to Kalandia camp in 1950, where the Red Cross provided tents near Ramallah, known as the Dahiyyat Albareed neighborhood, before the camp was established.

In summary, Abu Habsa an infant, the perilous flight from Saris, to Beit Mahsir, Beit Duqqu, Beit Susin, Bethlehem, Abu Dis, and finally to the Kalandia refugee camp. With the Israeli colonies of Beit Meir and Taoz, build on the rubble of several villages. Thru expulsion and erasure Israel builds its state.

Muhammad’s father worked in stone quarries to earn his family’s livelihood. The United Nations established the UN Refugee and Works Administration, UNRWA, in December 1949, began operations in May 1950, and ran the camp—all the camps in the West Bank, to this day, with funding limited by Trump administration fiats. Mohammed and his family lived in a tent for three years in the refugee camp—no streets and minimal public facilities. UNRWA built separate public toilets for men and women (long lines early and late); a shower was allowed only once per week. Disease and insects infected the camp. Kalandia airport (now closed) was near the camp, and the main street was closed when any aircraft took off or landed.

With Fareed Taamallah

In June 1967, Muhammad Abu Habsa was about to finish his general secondary school when Israel occupied the West Bank during the Six Day War. He joined the revolution against Israel and went to the Fedayeen camps in Jordan until the massacre of Jerash in 1971, known as Black September when Jordan expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO. He then returned to the refugee camp. He was imprisoned in Israeli jails three times for six months at a time. Arrested in 1975, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1985, he was freed during a prisoner exchange between the PLO and Israel. He married and lived in the camp and had three sons and a daughter. He was imprisoned again in 1995 for two and a half years.

Mother with her dead son, 2015

In 2015, his son Annan was killed by Israeli police and military in the Old City of Jerusalem after being tortured and wounded. His body was held by the occupation authorities, then released under the condition of burial at night despite the heavy rain. In retaliation for his son’s attack in the Old City, the Israeli army demolished the part of Abu Habsa’s house built for his son. Following our interview, he brought us to the cemetery in Kalandia and showed us his son’s grave.

Demolished residence of his son, kept as a memorial and museum

Despite his years of displacement, the martyrdom of his son Anan, spending more than 14 years in Israeli prisons, and the demolition of his home, Abu Habsa still advocated for the right of return and liberation. He, like many Palestinians of the Nakba and the Naksa (displaced in 1967), believes that liberation and return to home villages are inevitable—for himself and for his grandchildren. Patience is a virtue!

In the graveyard


Searching for Saris (video) by Jinan Coulter, 2013)

Quick Facts: The Palestinian Nakba

The Palestinian Exodus in 1948, by Steven Glazer (1979, Institute for Palestine Studies)

Palestinian Exodus

The Nakba, exhibition catalog by Zochrot (“remember”)

… such a painful journey into the past is the only way forward if we want to create a better future for us all, Palestinians and Israelis alike.
—Ilan Pappe, Israeli historian


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