in Motion

Ahmad Al-Haaj:
A People's Story of Al-Nakba

Ahmad al-Haaj comes from a long line of Palestinian peasants, forced from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948.

Ahmad al-Haaj belongs to a generation of Palestinian intellectuals that is quickly dying out.

But the likes of Haaj have always found themselves on the margins.

Despite living through repeated sieges, imprisonment, torture, poverty and dispossession, he remained an unrepentant and principled agitator, a critic of whomever rules over the Palestinian people without a popular mandate, and insists that, as a refugee, his right of return to Palestine is non-negotiable.

Q:What is the right of return?

Read the answer

A:The Right of Return refers to Palestinian refugees' right to return to the homes from which they were displaced in 1948.
Source: American Friends Service Committee

His birth

Ahmad was born in 1933. His father, Khaleel al-Haaj, was a "fellah", a peasant with deep ties to the land. But unlike the other members of the 1,000 al-Sawafir family clans, of which around 1,000 were fellow "fellahin", Khaleel owned about 100 dunums of his own land - roughly 25 acres.

Khaleel raised his family in Al-Sawafir al-Sharqiyya, one of three separate Sawafir villages along the southern coastal plains of historic Palestine, about 30 kilometres north of the Gaza Strip.

Like most peasants, Khaleel had developed an intimate relationship to his rich and fertile land, for it was the family's only form of sustenance - after God, of course. Without land, there could be no food, and all would perish.

With time, Khaleel's relationship to the earth began to symbolise something intangible, just as it became an intrinsic part of the fellahin's unassuming way of life, which centred on "al-ard", "al-'ard" and "al-walad" - the Arabic words for land, honour and offspring.

Q:Who owned more land in Palestine prior to the 1948 war, Palestinian Arabs or Jewish settlers?

Read the answer

A:Land ownership statistics from 1945 show that Arabs owned more land than Jews in every district of Historic Palestine, including Jaffa, which boasted the highest percentage of Jewish-owned land. Across Palestine in its entirety, Arabs owned 85 percent of the land, while Jews owned less than seven percent. This remained the case up until the time of Israel’s creation.
Source: Jeremy R. Hammond. Foreign Policy Journal.

While education was only available up to the fifth grade, school in Al-Sawafir attracted pupils from eight neighbouring villages. It was at the heart of daily life for many youths, including the young Ahmad al-Haaj. At school, he earned the nickname Abu Sandal - the one with the slippers - from his classmates, many of whom were less fortunate and could not afford a luxury like footwear.

To the pride of his parents, Ahmad was a gifted and curious child, and he took easily to most subjects. By the age of five, while he could work his father's land like most anyone, his keen intellect propelled him to the top of his class.

He was the smartest of all Khaleel's children, and some would even say he was the brightest youngster in all three Al-Sawafir villages combined. A few years later, his smarts would earn him a sought-after high school scholarship in Gaza — but that story comes later.

Al-Sawafir was a very poor village, like all the villages in the area. Ninety-five percent of its people were illiterate. But as our home, Al-Sawafir was the most dear and beautiful place in the whole world to our eyes. We would never change it for all the countries or all the wealth in the world. It was our place of birth, as well as our place of burial. Al-Sawafir is my birthplace and that of my ancestors. I would not give it up. This crime (against my people) has never happened before. - Ahmad Al-Haaj

His family

Ahmad was the eldest of his siblings, and his birth was followed by that of three sisters: Maliha, Fatima and Safiya. His brothers, Mohammed and Mahmoud, died from malaria shortly after they were born, and another brother, also named Mahmoud, would succumb to the disease, as well. A healthy Abdul Jawad arrived next and finally came the family's little star, Maysar, the only daughter to receive a proper education, in Beirut, Lebanon.


in Motion

Read Raed's story

Raed al-Sakakini and Ayda Addas made a painstaking decision: leave Lebanon in search of safety for their children.

As the bountiful family grew, so did their home. First, they settled in a humble, mudbrick house with three rooms and a bakhsheh, an open area where chickens could roam freely, and nibble on bits of leftover food thrown their way.

Adjacent to the 45 dunums of land he owned in northern Al-Sawafir, Khaleel used his largest plot to build a new brick house with a tiled roof. The home was originally intended as a guard post from which to oversee the area, but with time, it became the family's favourite place to stay.

For Ahmad, this was where he spent most of his childhood, devouring whatever school books he could get his hands on, or salvaging the books that British soldiers discarded in the nearby garbage dump.

The Colony

It must be said that Al-Sawafir's geography played a critical role in forming how Ahmad al-Haaj saw his surroundings and the larger world.

For as long as he could remember, a British military compound sat to the east of Al-Sawafir. It was built largely on privately owned land that belonged to the nearby Palestinian village of Joulis. To the west, a Jewish settlement, Be'er Toviya, expanded slowly but steadily, also on privately owned Palestinian land, this time belonging to the village of Beit Daras.

Q:How many Jews lived in Mandate Palestine by 1948?

Read the answer

A:By the 1948 war and the expulsion of most of the Palestinian Arab population from Palestine, Jews made up about one-third of the population in Mandate Palestine. This was largely due to massive immigration of Jews from Europe. By comparison, in 1922, a British census showed that Jews represented only about 11 percent of the population.
Source: Jeremy R. Hammond. Foreign Policy Journal.

The fellahin had historically been uninterested in politics, too busy with their work on the land, and instead, political debates and discussions were left to the educated elite living in Palestinian cities.

But the kinship between the British army and Jewish settlers was growing, and their near-constant theft of fellahin land was happening at an alarming rate across many parts of Palestine. This stark political reality was hard to ignore - even for the politically uninterested villagers.

The road that connected the British military camp and the Jewish settlementnear Al-Sawafir was gaining in traffic. The settlers crossed the outskirts of the village regularly, providing food to British soldiers, who in return trained Be'er Toviya residents to use British-made weapons.

So while Khaleel and his children continued to work the land as they always had, a political transition was underway under their very eyes.

Forces outside the village sought to claim ownership of Khaleel's property, and lands owned by other fellahin and larger clans, as well. It was clear that Al-Sawafir - as Khaleel, his family, and their Palestinian neighbours had known it, and which had withstood famine and war for centuries - was at risk of being erased from the landscape altogether.

The Balfour Declaration on behalf of the British government was explicit in highlighting the strong bond between the invading and occupying state - Britain - on the one hand, and the Zionist movement on the other. That was how the sinister relationship began and all signs pointed to the fact that Palestine was about to be lost. Even before the ethnic cleansing began, official paper forms, including the currency notes, began referring to our Arab homeland as the land of Israel. - Ahmad Al-Haaj

Q:What is the Balfour Declaration?

Read the answer

A: Dated November 2, 1917, the Balfour Declaration was a brief letter written by Lord Arthur Balfour, then British foreign secretary, to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, a British-Zionist peer, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. To Zionists, the Balfour Declaration laid the foundation for the formation of the State of Israel. To the Palestinians, it was a dishonest act of betrayal.
Source: Middle East Monitor

The Fellahin

The Jewish Agency operated in a quasi-governmental role in Mandate Palestine.

During the Mandate period, it served as the central and only form of official contact between Jewish settlers and the British administration. It operated as a middleman, even a government-in-waiting. For instance, Jews in the area that wanted to obtain a driver's license from the British authorities had to first apply to the agency.

The fellahin, in contrast, were subjected to several control mechanisms operated by the British and Jewish institutions. Large Palestinian families, many of which owned large tracts of land, also subjugated the peasants to slave-like work conditions.

It was an intricate and well-planned system of control, Ahmad quickly realised, and as he travelled between Al-Sawafir and Gaza to study, he began to unravel the many threads that constrained his life.

In 1936, after Palestinian political parties declared a general strike aimed at sending a message to the British rulers of the area, the peasants finally rebelled.

The fellahin quickly and instinctively escalating the strike to an armed rebellion. Some sold their harvests, some leased whatever small plots of land they had acquired, while others sold their family's precious gold - and they went to war.

Unsurprisingly, the confrontation was a clearly unbalanced exercise: a barefoot fellah wielding a machete, or brandishing an outdated, Turkish rifle, stood little chance to withstand the military might of Her Majesty, the Queen.

The war

Jewish settlement in Palestine began in earnest in 1881 when the leaders of the Zionist Movement in Europe eyed Arab Palestine as an exclusive home for the Jewish people. Zionist political thinkers paid little heed to the indigenous inhabitants of the land, a reality that resulted in a bloody and well-orchestrated takeover on May 15, 1948.

Q:What is the Nakba?

Read the answer

A: The Palestinian Nakba (“catastrophe”, in Arabic) refers to the mass expulsion of Palestinian Arabs from British Mandate Palestine in the period in which the modern state of Israel was created (1947-49).
Source: Institute for Middle East Understanding

Ahmad al-Haaj was in his second year at his Gaza high school on the eve of the war.

Much of the fighting up until that point had taken place near Jewish settlements and towns, and in areas where Jewish fighters held a strong military advantage over the largely disorganised and untrained Palestinian fighters.


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A Nakba survivor and mother of a martyr, Tamam Nassar led a women's movement in Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp.

When Ahmad arrived in Al-Sawafir on April 8, 1948, he learned that Arab fighters under the command of Abdul Qader al-Husseini had lost Qastal, a Palestinian village west of Al-Quds (Jerusalem, in Arabic), and that Zionist militias had attacked the village of Deir Yassin, slaughtering most of its inhabitants.

Q:Is Israel as a state for the Jews a modern idea?

Read the answer

A: Yes. Although the Zionist narrative insists that Palestine is the historic homeland for the Jewish people, it is argued that the idea of Israel as “the national home of the Jewish people” was at the centre of modern Zionism, which emerged in the late 19th century.

All the roads that led to Al-Sawafir were blocked, and no one could move near the villages of Masmiyeh and Qastina, the Jewish settlement of Be'er Toviya, or along the road that led to Al-Quds.

Even Al-Quds was almost completely closed off, and reports of similar massacres in the villages surrounding, and neighbourhoods that make up, the city slowly trickled out over the following days.

A string of Al-Quds neighbourhoods were falling under the control of Zionist militias in rapid succession, starting with Sheikh Jarrah, a leafy, Palestinian neighbourhood a few kilometres north of the walled Old City.

Q:Why is the Al-Aqsa mosque important to Palestinian Muslims?

Read the answer

A: Al-Aqsa Mosque is important to Muslims because it represented the first Muslim “qibla”, the direction to which prayers must be made. This was later changed to Mecca during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Today, the mosque is the third holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Yafa, a longtime centre of Palestinian intellectual and cultural life, fell later that April, followed by Haifa, an important port city on the northern coast of the Mediterranean. Many of the cities' terrified residents fled with only the clothes on their backs, jumping into dinghies or fishing boats at the Yafa port and setting sail towards Gaza, or running on foot towards the northern border with Lebanon.

Many others, however, never reached safety: they were executed in a hail of gunfire, ripped apart by grenades, or drowned in the open sea after they jumped onto unreliable vessels as they fled for their lives.

The Arab League had promised to send its armies to liberate Palestine.

But Ahmad, who by now adhered to communist ideologies, soon realised that the rag-tag Arab armies, many of which operated under the British powers that handed Palestine to Zionist leaders in the first place, were not capable of fighting a war of liberation.

When the Arabs did not immediately arrive, the other fellahin quickly understood the depth of their crisis. Many rushed to obtain rifles in any way they could.

Back in Al-Sawafir, it cost Khaleel al-Haaj a cow and four dunums of land to buy a German rifle and 125 bullets.

At the same time, Egyptian units were moving through the Sinai Peninsula to reach the Gaza district, and then quickly continuing on towards Iraq Suwaydan, a village about 30 kilometres north of the Gaza Strip.

They hoped to reach Bir al-Sabi', modern-day Beersheba, on the northern tip of the Naqab desert region, and as far north as al-Khalil, modern-day Hebron, Beit Jibrin and Bethlehem.

Meanwhile, the Arab Salvation Army, led by a French-trained Lebanese officer, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, entered Palestine through the northern Galilee in an effort to theoretically reach Yafa, Haifa and Nazareth.

The latter paramilitary units were quickly routed and forced to regroup back in the Galilee once the main cities fell - their inhabitants killed, expelled or fled.

Zionist militants moved in droves, in fortified military vehicles, some of which were gifted or abandoned by the British. Others were purchased specifically for this war. Each military convoy consisted of anywhere between 40 to 50 cars, with military operations aimed at isolating large areas before emptying the besieged villages of their inhabitants, by whatever means or cost of human life was necessary.

After an earlier defeat in Beit Daras, a village just northwest of the Al-Sawafir villages, the Zionist militias redirected their focus away from the Al-Sawafir area and its relatively few fighters, instead focusing on battles against the Egyptian army, which officially entered the war on April 15, 1948.

Q:Where were the Israeli people before Israel was created?

Read the answer

A: No people identified themselves as Israelis. But starting in the late 19th century, the Zionist movement infused a sense of modern nationalism into various Jewish communities, starting in Europe and then spreading to the rest of the world. It is around these nationalistic sentiments that the idea of Israel was created.
Source: Eugene Rogan: The Arabs, A History

This was the same day British forces officially abandoned their positions and relinquished control of Palestinian cities to Zionist militias.

The first full-scale battle fought by the Egyptian army was a success. On May 17, Egyptian soldiers surrounded the fortified Yad Mordechai kibbutz, a communal Jewish agricultural settlement, a few kilometres south of the coastal city of Asqalan, for four days.

The army finally conquered it with the help of local Gazan fighters, who were later awarded fixed salaries as a reward for their bravery.

On May 19, the Egyptian army reached the town of Al-Majdal, where they were joined by various Palestinian volunteer forces, many of whom later enlisted into the Egyptian army. Under the command of Mostafa Hafez, these fighters would later become the core of what was known as the Palestinian fedayeen, or freedom fighters.

The Egyptians continued their drive north to Iraq Suwaydan, a Palestinian village about 30km north of Gaza, taking a route that curved slightly towards Al-Faluja in the east, and towards Beit Jibrin and Al-Khalil in the northeast. Throughout their journey, they sought to stay within the borders of a proposed Arab state, which extended along the Mediterranean coast between Rafah in the south, and Isdud, modern-day Ashdod, in the north.

That state, set aside for Palestinians by the United Nations partition plan of 1947, constituted less than half of the original territory known as Palestine. And at the time, Palestinians constituted a majority of the area's population.

Q:What is the UN Partition Plan?

Read the answer

A: On Nov. 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, which recommended the partition of Palestine by a vote of 33 in favour, 13 against, and 10 abstentions. It gave 57 percent of Palestine to Jews, who were only 33 percent of the population and owned just six percent of the land. The Arabs were given 43 percent of the area for a state.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

On the War Following the adoption of the partition plan on November 29, 1947, by the UN, and just before the start of the war, I was as misguided as most of my compatriots. We thought that Arabs will easily prevail in the upcoming battle. But [Zionist militias] aggressiveness on the battlefields proved that they had already been preparing militarily to beat us and drive us away from our homes through carefully planned massacres. When I saw how [the poorly armed Arab armies] that came to support us against the Zionists suffered one defeat after another, I began to realise that we were the victims of a premeditated conspiracy and crime by the great powers of that era, namely the UK and US. The British designed and laid the foundations for what became Israel. The Americans took over when the British withdrew and became the enablers of the Zionist movement until this day. - Ahmad Al-Haaj

The Massacre

A few weeks later, convoys of Zionist militias returned to the Al-Sawafir area, more vengeful than before.

They attacked Beit Daras from dawn until the early afternoon, knowing full-well that if they could placate this particular village - which was viewed as a bastion of Palestinian resistance - the larger Palestinian resistance movement in the area would fragment and eventually collapse.

Zionist fighters encircled the village, cutting off all its access roads, and preventing any fellahin fighters from mounting a successful defence. While the Palestinian fighters in Beit Daras had acquired as many as 90 rifles, the invading militias had amassed an arsenal of modern weapons that included mortars, machine guns mounted on armoured vehicles, and several hundred fully armed troops.

The fellahin were powerless, and within the first hour of fighting, Beit Daras was ablaze from all the shelling.

Q:How many Palestinian villages have been destroyed since 1948?

Read the answer

A: For the state of Israel to become a reality in 1948, Zionist militias attacked major Palestinian cities and destroyed about 530 villages. Approximately 13,000 Palestinians were killed in 1948. More than 750,000 were expelled from their homes and became refugees - the climax of the Zionist movement’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Source: Palestine Remix

Interactive: Destroyed Palestinian Villages

Villagers who could not join the battle attempted to quell the flames of betrayal, but to no avail.

Desperate locals who escaped the carnage ran to an Egyptian army post only three miles north of the village, but their frenzied calls for help were met by indifferent Egyptian commanders who said they lacked a military order to intervene.

But it was already too late: Zionist militias were advancing into the village, and Palestinian survivors - men, women and children, it did not matter - were executed.

The few who survived did so after zig-zagging through burning fields, tripping over one another as they dodged sniper bullets. They eventually sought refuge in the nearby villages of Joura, Al-Majdal, and Hamameh, among others.

The Zionist militias' razing of Beit Daras had its intended effect: it crushed the spirit of smaller and less defensible villages, and instilled fear and horror into the local Palestinian population, as news of a 300-person death toll - in a village of almost 2,000 residents - reached their ears.

Q:Were the Palestinians expelled or did they flee?

Read the answer

A: The question of how or why Palestinians left historical Palestine is inconsequential under international law. What is important is that they are allowed to exercise the right of return, as stipulated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Terrified and without a clear plan that guaranteed their safety, hundreds of families walked under cover of night to nowhere in particular, hauling whatever food they could salvage on their backs, prodding cattle and donkeys along with them. They slept under the stars, intending to return in the morning to salvage whatever else they could carry: chickens, flour, canisters of olive oil, small stacks of corn, and lentils.

Now a resistance fighter, Ahmad's father, Khaleel, went missing near Jsir during the battle to defend the village, which had also been attacked and completely destroyed by Zionist fighters. When Khaleel's wife, who was pregnant with the couple's youngest child, Maysar, at the time, learned of her husband's fate, she let out a sharp wail, slapped her face, and poured dirt over herself in a show of anguish.

The battle in Jsir proved to be a turning point not just for Ahmad's family, but for many displaced villagers across the area who now slept in open fields. After witnessing so much death and destruction, families no longer felt safe anywhere and were desperate for protection.

The mukhtars - village elders - instructed the most vulnerable and traumatised residents to walk north towards an Egyptian army post. Despite having seen how the army had watched the fighting from afar and did not intervene, they prayed to God for any respite.

The Siege

After an arduous journey ripe with threats of death and other dangers, Ahmad and his family finally reached Al-Faluja. But what was meant to provide them with some much-needed respite, quickly turned into another risky situation: they were trapped under siege in the village for months.


in Motion

Read Samah's story

Theatre provided a valuable outlet for Samah Sabawi, who lived most of her life in various forms of exile after the 1967 war.

The small town had tripled in size due to an influx of internally displaced Palestinians from neighbouring villages, and it was cut off from the coastal road to the Mediterranean after the newly formed Israeli army broke a second truce that had been established in the area.

The only constant in the town over many days and nights were the Israeli warplanes that cut through the air overhead, dropping barrel bombs and other projectiles on the village, and leaving carnage in their wake.

Unsure of what to do, the Haaj family decided to stay put. But one day, with her emotions bubbling over, Ahmad's mother pleaded with him: "Ahmad, my son. I had my heart broken too many times in only a few weeks. We have lost everything, and I cannot afford to lose all of my children. Escape, son. You are the only one educated amongst us. If you live, and we all die, at least I would die knowing that my first born was saved, and I would have a smile on my face as I depart this earth."

Q:How many refugees are there?

Read the answer

A: The total Palestinian population is about 12.4 million people, according to Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2015. Of that, about half - 6.2 million people - live in historic Palestine (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea). Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

After selling the family's remaining calf and meagre harvests, Ahmad stuffed 180 Palestinian pounds into his pockets (roughly equivalent to 180 British pounds), along with some coins given to him by kind-hearted fellahin who had stashed them away for a rainy day, or in preparation for the farming season that never came.

As dawn's light broke across the sky, Ahmad joined a dozen other men and fled as fast as their feet could take them towards Gaza, which was under Egyptian control and provided some safety to Palestinians fleeing the Zionist militias.

They raced the sun, the cover of darkness their best way to avoid being seen, and possibly killed, by Israeli army units patrolling nearby. Ahmad sprinted through the muddy terrain, his once-polished shoes a final reminder of a life he knew he would never see again.

Finally able to catch his breath as he crossed the border into Gaza undetected, Ahmad stood on his own, his gaze focused on nothing in particular as he tried to process all that he had seen and done.

He needed to muster a final burst of energy to reach his school, but he soon collapsed. He was exhausted, and fell into a deep, and ill-timed, sleep.

Q:What is resolution 194?

Read the answer

A: UNGA Resolution 194 laid a central pillar of protection for the Palestinian right of return. It embodies the principles outlined in the Progress Report, which the first UN Mediator in Palestine, Count Folke Bernadotte, submitted to the GA in September 1948. He insisted that it was an “unconditional right” of the refugees “to make a free choice [which] should be fully respected.” Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

On February 27, Ahmad family's joined him in Gaza, only a few days after the siege of Al-Faluja was lifted, and Palestinians that had remained in the village - both the dead and those alive - were diligently counted by United Nations observers.

The Arab defeat was official: the Egyptian army evacuated its positions and, for reasons unbeknownst and still inexplicable to Ahmad, the Arabs celebrated what they fashioned to be a victory.

I feared that l would never see my family again. But we were fortunate since the majority of those who stayed in the besieged village survived despite the excessive air raids [and] heavy machine-gun and cannon bombardment. They speedily learned how to take safe shelter and extinguish fires. A wise Arab proverb states: "calamities bring people together". So, the besieged people, including the [Arab] military, all shared food and all other usable things like one big family. - Ahmad Al-Haaj

The prison

After graduating high school, Ahmad went on to study science in Egypt. He dreamed of being a physicist, but he became a teacher instead.

Eventually, he was relieved of his teaching duties in Gaza due to his political activism, and his ideas about socialism and why the Arabs lost Palestine that angered the local powers.

In Egypt, he was jailed twice, each time staying behind bars for three, lonely years. Israel incarcerated him, too, when the Gaza Strip fell under Israeli military occupation 20 years later following the Naksa of 1967, also known as the war of June 1967.

Q:How did Israel win the 1967 war?

Read the answer

A: Israel used its superior air power, planning, and the lack of any serious defence to win the war. The Palestinian population in West Bank and Gaza was also totally unarmed, so when the Jordanian and Egyptian armies withdrew, Israel took over Palestinian areas in record time. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

There is so much difference between the torture inflicted by Arab and Israeli jailers," he said, his pain thinly veiled by a dark sense of humour. "The Israelis torture based on tried and proven scientific formulas; the Arabs beat you up with batons and release hungry dogs to maul your naked body.Ahmad Al-Haaj

When Ahmad was finally forced out of the teaching profession by the Israeli military administration that ruled over the Gaza Strip, he drove a truck for a living.

But the communist thinker, once the top student in all of Al-Sawafir and its surrounding villages, never forgot where he came from.

And as the years dragged on, he took every chance he could to speak about his hometown and to ensure its barefoot, fellahin heroes are never forgotten.

1948 was the start of my political career and I was educated enough to understand what was going on around me. I was able to discern its profound implications on us, the victim of this crime and ongoing conspiracy. I became politically aware of the plot and the fate that had awaited all of us. We are still suffering its terrible consequences until this day. - Ahmad Al-Haaj


in Motion

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?