"The Zionist battle for Safad was bloody and horrific. By the time the battle started, most women and children had fled the village, having witnessed the destruction and massacre of Ein Al Zaytoun village just across the valley to the north. This was a tactic employed by the Zionist Haganah and Palmach terror groups to signal to the residents of Safad what to expect. At the end of the battle any remaining muslim Palestinians of Safad were expelled to Lebanon, the Christians trucked to Haifa."
Omar Shamma from Aberfeldy on his Safad roots in Palestine, Zionist terror and Britain's cruel poliicies towards refugees.
I sometimes think we Palestinians are like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”… “And till my ghastly tale is told, this heart within me burns.” We are compelled to tell the world of our fate, how we became victims of dispossession, colonial occupation and oppression. And like the ancient mariner, we repeatedly tell our tale as a warning to all that what has happened to us can happen again to anyone and any people.
That said, I do consider myself a fortunate Palestinian, if any Palestinian can be considered fortunate. For I am not a refugee but an exile.
I was born in August 1959 in England; Carshalton, Surrey. My parents met, and eventually married, in the UK. Having UK citizenship affords me many rights and protections, such as the right to property, education, healthcare, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, the rule of law and more. Unfortunately, some 6 million Palestinians, around half of all Palestinians, are refugees, displaced, stateless and exiled. They are effectively destitute and vulnerable, at the mercy of either the brutal, illegal Israeli occupation or the authorities of whichever country they find themselves expelled to. They have lost not only their
ancestral homes and land, but all the rights and protections afforded to those that are citizens of modern sovereign democratic states. Israel continues to deny citizenship and/or statehood to the Palestinians in an effort to marginalise and ease us from human history. I am amazed that they think they can succeed. The Palestinian struggle for freedom and justice has been ongoing for 74
years, the longest refugee crisis in modern history. It will probably continue for a good many years, but I, as all Palestinians, know we will be free!
My father, Munir Saleem Shamma was born in the northern Palestinian town of Safad in 1919. It lies 206 km north of Jerusalem and only 29 km south of Palestine’s northeastern border. This town, once the capital of Galilee, rests 835 meters above sea level. Its mountainous topography allows uncommon vegetation to grow in its climate of generous rainfall and cold winters, and the
heavy, thick trees such as pine and oak keep it cool all summer. As the main town on the northeastern edge of Palestine, it played an active role with the external world, as a gate to Damascus or a defensive point against attackers in different eras. Crusaders, Ayyubids, and Mamelukes have all had their share of history on its grounds. Architectural monuments remain witness to those eras, such as the famous Safad Castle, built by Fulk of Anjou in 1140. Safad, that is where I am from, that is from where I am exiled.
My father had eight siblings, although by the time I was born, only three remained, the Nakba, either directly or subsequently, reducing the number. After, being provided a good education in an English school, my father held various jobs, firstly in Safad then Jerusalem. In 1945, and few months before the end of the war, he grasped an opportunity to work as a broadcaster for the
BBC Arabic Service in London. In early 1948, my father was thinking about returning to Safad, to defend the town against the encroachment of Zionism, but his father advised him to stay in London for his safety. That was good advice, since the Zionist battle for Safad was bloody and horrific. By the time the battle started, most women and children had fled the village, having witnessed the destruction and massacre of Ein Al Zaytoun village just across the valley to the north. This was a tactic employed by the Zionist Haganah and Palmach terror groups to signal to the residents of Safad what to expect. At the end of the battle any remaining muslim Palestinians of Safad were expelled to Lebanon, the Christians trucked to Haifa.
You can take the Palestinian out of Palestine, but you can never take Palestine out of the Palestinian” I remember my father telling me. I recall many of his stories about Safad, its beautiful green hills, stone houses, clear waters and fresh air. In 1989, I visited Safad. Prior to my trip my father drew me a rather poor map of the area around our house and asked me to take some picture of it for him. I tried as best I could, but alas I could not find it. I took dozens of pictures of all the old houses there, but my father could not see our house in any of them, or maybe over time he could not remember how it looked from the street?
Some time after my visit my mother gifted me a book for my birthday entitled “Memoirs Engraved in Stone: Palestinian Urban Mansions”. The last house listed in it is “Safad: The Shamma House”. This book is my most prized possession and the best thing my mother ever gifted to me. In the book the house is described by the wife of my father’s uncle. My great great grandmother, lived in the house to the royal age of 120 years old. From her room overlooking the central courtyard of the house, she ruled the household. She saw who came in and out and when. She would not allow anyone to come home later than sunset. Her brother was the head of Safad Municipality. As each of the male family members got married, he would move with his wife and future family to two rooms called a Beit (home), one for sleeping the other a living room, hence the clustered shape of the general house, around the central courtyard, with it’s freshwater spring. The whole household cooked and ate communally and shared the more public rooms and the courtyard.
Additionally, there was a basement space (qabu) cool in the summer and with a fireplace that burnt all winter, warming up the big room where carpets covered the floors. The house was built of rough stone, upon which rested various domed structures. There were double arched windows, wooden shutters, arched alcoves that served as cool storage spaces, and attractive iron works of
the stone stair railing and window bars.
The house tells of rich and happy times. That was until 1948 when due to the Nakba and the imminent attack by the Zionist terror groups, the family was forced to flee, first to the village of Bateeha, then later in 1967, when that village was occupied by Zionist forces, the family was expelled to Jordan and Syria, where they settled in refugee camps around Amman and Damascus. That was the end of the Shamma family in Safad. They had fled, as did most Palestinians, without taking any belongings with them, in the mistaken belief that they would be able to return to their homes once the fighting stopped. That is why we now say in Arabic “Akhadouha Mafrooshe”, meaning they stole our homes fully furnished! Not a single Palestinian Arab lives in Safad today, not one! My whole family exiled and refugees in camps in Syria and Jordan. There, most still remain. Generations, living hand to mouth, struggling to survive, parents trying their best to provide protection and education for their children.
The illusion of some stability was again shattered by war in Syria in 2011, with many of my wider family now once more fleeing. Several of them managed to enter Turkey… another refugee camp in another country. I have a father from my family contacting me from Turkey asking for help, not for himself but his children. Please, help us get asylum in the UK, he begs me. I tried to help him, but was confronted by a system clearly rigged against the refugee! When I last contacted him, telling them that he needs to start the application from Turkey and about all the documents information he will be required to produce he replied “Are we expected to flee from war with documents and filing cabinets on our backs!???” Do these people not have children? Can they not understand our situation?”
The current asylum process is the UK and Europe is broken, and devoid of all humanity. And its only getting worse! In 1966, my father took us to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank. I distinctly recall him telling me to remember all that I see, to sear it into my memory, as it will soon be gone. How right he was! I remember, the bare cement-block shelters my relatives were living in, with leaky tin roofs. I recall playing with children my age, in a water trough, next to the well that supplied the water. I remember the women sitting on the floor in the partially walled kitchen of the dwelling preparing food. This was so alien to me in comparison with my comfortable home back in the UK.
Today the world is witness to the latest refugee crisis, from the Ukraine. The UK and Europe have opened their doors to Ukranian refugees and rightly so. The wheels of the bureaucratic asylum process have been greased and Ukranian refugees are entering Europe, been given shelter, food, healthcare and education. So, can you imagine how I and others like me feel, when we know we
have family who are homeless, destitute, insecure and vulnerable, and are unable to provide them with the help they need? Can you understand why many Palestinians, Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Yemenis and others feel hurt, disappointed, disillusioned, and YES ANGRY when they see the outpouring of support and care for Ukrainians fleeing the war in their country?
No one can accuse us of being unsympathetic to the plight of Ukranians. As Palestinians we know very well what fleeing war is about and so we understand first hand the horrors they are going through. No, our anger and disappointment is with Western governments, at their hypocrisy, motivated solely by geopolitical interests.
I can’t even send money to Syria to help my family. If you can find a financial institution that will transfer money to Syria, you will be faced with a barrage of questions and the requirement for “COMPLIANCE”… to whom, what for, how much and asked to provide proof and documentation that you know cannot be easily provided. Forget any hope of transferring any money to Gaza!
So what is the solution to the Palestinian refugee crisis? A “Bantustan style” patchwork state, ruled over by a puppet president doing Israel’s bidding as envisioned by the likes of Trump and his deal of the century, with bribes of economic support? No, we Palestinians will not suffer the fate of the indigenous Americans under colonial occupation. The struggle will be long but it will be won. We don’t care about endless “peace negotiations”, between parties that even exclude the Palestinians in the negotiations, as if we have no right to chart our own course. Negotiations that are founded on injustice. We don’t care about State solutions, be it one state or two state. What we want is to return to our villages and homes, with the freedoms, justice and dignity that is the right of any human being. To be able to travel freely, with access to all the things we here take for granted… education, healthcare, security and equality and the rule of law.
Finally, the struggle of Palestinian refugees is the struggle of all refugees, whether they be politically, economically or climate induced. It is based on the premise that every human being deserves freedom, dignity and justice. Remember, before we label ourselves European, American, African or Asian. Before we say we are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Hindu, its time to call ourselves Human!