in Motion

Fida Jiryis:
A Unique Story of Return

After 22 years in exile in Lebanon and Cyprus, Fida Jiryis was remarkably allowed to return to historic Palestine.

The Nakba

My father, Sabri Jiryis, was born in 1938 in Fassouta village in the Galilee, south of the Lebanese border. The Nakba, or Catastrophe, occurred 10 years later, in 1948, with the founding of the state of Israel on 78 percent of historic Palestine, the dispossession of around 85 percent of the Arab Palestinian population in that part of the land, and the ethnic cleansing and destruction of more than 400 Palestinian villages.

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

In October 1948, Fassouta fell to the invading Israeli army as it occupied the last part of the western Galilee. The Arab Liberation Army had collapsed, and people were left to defend themselves or surrender. As nearby Palestinian villages fell, the Israeli army depopulated many of them, including Bassa, Kabri, Mansoura, Tarbeekha, Iqrit, and Biram.

Fassouta, by a stroke of fate, was one of the villages that remained. Dayr al-Qasi and Suhmata, two villages lying next to it, were completely depopulated. Some of Suhmata's people stayed and became internally displaced persons, but the remainder, with the people of Dayr El-Qasi, made their way north into Lebanon. As a child, my father was startled by a large group of refugees at his grandfather's house; the old man had taken pity on them and brought them to Fassouta to give them food for the journey.

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

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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
I saw the Nakba with my own eyes. Dozens of men, women and children, uprooted from their homes, swept in fear and terror into the unknown. A few weeks later, I ventured into Dayr El-Qasi. The village, with its houses, gardens and paths, was completely empty, the wind blowing through it and grass growing everywhere ... A lone chicken scampered about. I've never seen anything more depressing. The image continues to haunt me, when I think of the war. - Sabri Jiryis on the events of 1948

My father did well in primary school in the village and his father sent him to the Terra Sancta boarding school in Nazareth for high school. Few children could continue their education in this way; the village was remote and poor, but my grandfather, Elias, was a shepherd and owned a large number of livestock. He grazed them and traded with the shepherds of the nearby villages and was shocked by his friends' displacement. Times were uncertain; three attempts were made by the Israeli army to evict Fassouta's residents in the following months, but each time, the soldiers stopped short and left under orders from their commanders. The refugee crisis was at its peak in the region, and Israel was under international pressure.

One day, coming home on the bus from Nazareth, my father saw several bulldozers working at the site of Suhmata, tearing down its houses and lifting the stones away. The man sitting in front of him said: "They're taking the stones to use to pave the road."

These events, together with the harsh military rule Israel imposed on all Palestinians in Israel from 1948 until 1966, shaped his consciousness of a horrendous injustice. He went on to study law at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and, in 1959, while still a student, he cofounded "Al-Ard" (The Land), a Palestinian national resistance movement, with Mansour Kardosh, Saleh Baransi and Habib Qahwaji. The movement's name signified the Palestinians' attachment to their land and their right to their country. Al-Ard published a newspaper and urged the Arabs in Israel to organise and handle their own affairs. It aimed to find a just solution to the Palestine problem and called for the return of the refugees and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state, in accordance with the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. The movement's leaders were open in their desire to cooperate with Jewish progressive and democratic groups.

Q:What is the UN Partition Plan?

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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

Al-Ard was targeted by the Israeli authorities and described as a danger to Israel's security; they refused to give it a licence to publish a newspaper, harassed its members, and prohibited them from registering it as a company and a printing press. The members printed their newspaper under a different name each time to be able to circulate it. They also managed to reach out to the UN Secretary General with a 17-page memorandum exposing the plight of Palestinians under Israeli rule. At this, the Israeli government outlawed the movement altogether. When Al-Ard tried to register as a political party list in the 1965 Knesset (Israeli parliament) elections, it was forbidden, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court. The state dissolved the movement, classifying it as an "illegal" organisation, and expelled its founders to separate, remote towns with no Arab populations until the Israeli elections ended.


in Motion

Read Ahmad's story

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

In 1966, my father wrote The Arabs in Israel, one of the first books about the Palestinians who remained inside Israel after the Nakba. From a legal perspective, he revealed, in detail, the harsh fate that befell these Palestinians under Israeli military rule. The book became a landmark document about the Palestinians in Israel, with its thorough treatment of their systematic oppression by the state. Their land was confiscated; their villages were razed to the ground; they were denied freedom of movement, employment and expression; they were treated as suspects and harshly subdued if they engaged in any activity to resist or demand their rights. All of this was clothed in "laws" passed by the new state to give its actions a legal pretense, while, in fact, they contravened all human rights. Israel had erected itself on the remains of another people; nothing could be legal when built on such an atrocity.

At the same time, my father met my mother, Hanneh, at his friend's wedding in Fassouta. A few months later, his marriage proposal met initial rejection from her family, who were worried about his political activities. Hanneh had been orphaned at an early age when a stray bullet, fired in celebration, killed her father at his cousin's wedding. Her mother had struggled to raise her six children; Hanneh was bright at school and her maternal uncle took her with him to Nazareth, where he worked as a teacher, and enrolled her in school there. She went on to study economics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was also politically aware; when my father proposed, she countered her family's objections and insisted on accepting him. In 1968, they were married and moved into a small apartment in Haifa.

Q:What kind of citizenships do Palestinians have?

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A: Palestinians live under various legal regimes depending on where they reside. In the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian Authority (PA) provides Palestinians with passports or travel documents.
PA passports are not issued to Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents. Many travel on Jordanian passports, which are travel documents since they do not have Jordanian “national numbers”.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

But the harassment my father faced was constant. My mother, a new bride, was "running after him between police stations and prisons", my grandmother later reminisced. Escalating pressure against him and repeated periods of detention and house arrest came to a head when his brother, Jiryis Jiryis, was involved in an arms-smuggling attempt from Lebanon to the West Bank in February 1970. The attempt failed and Jiryis was shot in the leg as he escaped across the hills into Lebanon. A few months later, my parents also left and joined him.


In Beirut, my father joined Fatah (the Palestinian political faction) and worked at the Institute of Palestine Studies, then as director of the Palestine Research Center of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and Yasser Arafat's adviser on Israeli affairs. My mother worked alongside him in the Center as a writer and researcher of economic affairs. I was born in 1973, and my brother, Mousa, in 1977. My mother was devoted to us, doting on us incessantly with deep love and caring for our every need; perhaps, sadly, she had a premonition of what was to come.

Q:Who is Yasser Arafat?

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A: Yasser Arafat was a founding member of the PLO in 1964 and served as the group’s chairman from 1969 until his death in 2004. He was also a founder of the Palestine National Liberation Movement (Fatah) in the late 1950s.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO


in Motion

Read Samaa's story

In 1981, after her father's death in Rome, Samaa Abu Sharar began a long journey from anger to reconciliation.

We lived in Corniche al-Mazraa in west Beirut. My mother was very lively and sociable and our apartment frequently filled up with guests. She also imparted a deep sense of our extended family to us, always telling us about "teta" (our grandmother) and our uncles, and sitting by me to help me compose letters in my childlike script to them. The letters and photographs were delivered by a kind priest from Fassouta who traveled back and forth to Lebanon and had immunity due to his religious status. There was no telephone communication between Lebanon and Israel; this was my parents' only connection to their families, together with verbal news that the priest would relay to each anxious party about the other. As an adult, I came to realise what my mother must have felt, cut off from her family for such a long time. She wanted her children to know their roots.

My childhood memories were happy until the early 1980s, when I began to be conscious of the effects of the ongoing Lebanese civil war on our life. We had constant electricity and water outages; we missed school; the letters and homework had to be done by candlelight; my parents were stressed and we often had to leave our home to find shelter in safer neighbourhoods with friends.

Q:Where do the Palestinian refugees live?

Read the answer

A: Palestinian refugees can be found on every continent.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon and, in September, its allies carried out the Sabra and Shatila massacres in the Palestinian refugee camps. In the ensuing months, the world went insane. I have a flashback to my mother holding me and Mousa by a hand and running with us down a street as shelling raged overhead. We were frightened and found ourselves frequently dragged down to the underground basement of our building, which served as a shelter for dozens of families. But she could not protect us forever.

A few months later, in February 1983, she was killed in a bomb attack on the PLO Research Center, which took the lives of eight of the Center's employees, two guards and many passersby, and injured hundreds. My mother was 37; her friend, Sabah Kurdieh, was 28 and left behind three sons. Her other friend, Suad Hayek, a Palestinian from Nazareth who lived in our building, lost both legs in the explosion, screaming pitifully in the midst of the scene. I still wonder at the survivors' ability to stay sane.

A funeral was held for my mother in Beirut, another in Fassouta. I was 10 years old; my brother was six. Her loss had a lasting, profound impact on our lives; until today, my heart breaks the most for children who have lost their mothers in wars.


Devastated and traumatised, we moved to Cyprus, one of the few countries that opened its doors to Palestinians at the time. The PLO Research Center was reopened in Nicosia on a smaller scale, as were several Palestinian publications.

My father married my mother's younger sister, Najwa, who became a kind stepmother to us. We lived in Cyprus until my early twenties, with no possibility of returning to our country. Yet Palestine was always in our home; my brother and I grew up with an acute awareness of our identity. I went to demonstrations organised by Palestinians and Cypriots, protesting Israel's repeated wars on the Palestinians. I wore the checkered "keffiyeh" - the black and white scarf of Palestine, attended performances given by visiting Palestinian artists, listened to our music, drew our flag on my school books, and, in ninth grade, I proudly wore a traditional Palestinian dress to a multicultural event at my school in Nicosia.

At home, my brother and I were raised on our culture, food and language. My father insisted on Arabic lessons for us. Many of our relatives in the Galilee came to visit. And all the while, a picture was strong in our mind of us belonging elsewhere, of our life abroad being temporary until we could go home. Yet our return was never possible.

Until the Oslo Accords were signed on September 13, 1993.

The Oslo Accords

I was 20 years old and a student of computer science at Lancaster University in England. Back home in Cyprus for a visit, I found myself sitting with my family, watching the accords signing ceremony in shock. The historic handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin was seen to be the start of a new era of peace and reconciliation. My family, like many others, was overjoyed, thinking that this was it: peace would prevail and we would go home!

Q:Why did the Oslo accords fail?

Read the answer

A: The accords failed because Israel sought to maintain control of Palestinian life and land. Both parties also had different understandings and approaches to the accords.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

In November 1994, a year after the Accords were signed, and in a turn of events we had never imagined, my father boarded a plane and went home, after 24 years of exile. Two weeks later, we joined him for our first Christmas in the Galilee.

The Galilee

Our homecoming was painful, bittersweet, and overwhelming. My father was welcomed into Fassouta with a "sahjeh", a Palestinian folk dance, and spent three days receiving an unending tide of visitors from the village and outside it. When we arrived, we were welcomed with tears and intense emotions; our return had been nothing short of a miracle, yet our mother was missing. She had left 25 years prior and had never returned.

Q:Who are the Palestinian Bedouins?

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A: The Palestinian Bedouin are a sub-minority group within Palestinians in Israel, predominantly residing in the Negev desert in southern Israel. The Arab Bedouin population stands at approximately 170,000, which is 14 percent of the total Negev population. Of these, between 75,000 and 90,000 live in unrecognised “illegal clusters”, many of which have been in existence before the establishment of the state of Israel.
Source: Adala

Walking around the village, I felt I was retracing her footsteps. Here was the home where she had lived, here was the same, wooden cupboard in which she had hung her clothes. That was her family, the people she had grown up with. I found her letters to my grandmother, in which she proudly wrote about us and our excellent grades at school and urged her to obtain a passport so that they could arrange to meet in Cyprus. It had then been 13 years since their separation. "I fear I may never see you again," my mother had written.

I resolved to return as soon as I could, to be in the same place she had been. In any event, the PLO was moving all its institutions, and, in June 1995, we made our final return from Cyprus to Fassouta. Ours was a tiny, special case. Although the accords allowed the return of about 4,000 PLO personnel to the Palestinian territory in the West Bank and Gaza, only a very small number of exiled Palestinians were allowed back into their towns or villages inside Israel. The maximum is estimated at less than 10, a number so small that I do not know anyone who returned like we did.

But, for me, the return couldn't have been more bizarre. Born and raised Palestinian, carrying the baggage of my parents' exile, the horrors of the war on Lebanon, and my mother's loss, I became, overnight, an Israeli citizen, one of 1.7 million Palestinians living inside Israel, trying to live in the very society that had inflicted all this upon me.

Q:What is the difference between the terms ‘Palestinian in Israel’ and ‘Israeli Arab’?

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A: The Israeli government uses the term “Israeli Arab” to refer to Palestinians in Israel. It is seen by Palestinians in Israel as an attempt to erase their Palestinian identity and history by designating them “Israelis”. Generally, Palestinians in Israel refer to themselves as “Palestinians of the inside”, or as “48 Arabs”, referring to the Palestinians that remained on their lands during the Nakba of 1948.

As the dust settled on my initial homecoming euphoria, I fell into a long struggle and turmoil, a social schizophrenia such as I had never experienced. My integration into my own, "Arab Israeli" culture was also fraught with difficulty. I could not find anyone who could understand and relate to me; people my age had grown up in this reality and knew nothing else. It took me many years to form the true picture of our plight.


in Motion

Read Hatim's story

Hatim Kanaaneh was the only Palestinian physician in his ancestral home village of Arrabeh in the Galilee.

Today, 70 years after the establishment of Israel, we are citizens of this state, but our citizenship is far from equal. We can vote; we have access to education, employment, healthcare and social benefits; we are free from Israeli occupation, military checkpoints, army incursions and Jewish settler violence endured by our brethren in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet, underneath this facade is a complex system of discrimination in every aspect of our lives. In Israel, Palestinians are viewed and treated as an inferior, unwanted segment; their rights are abused; the number of racist policies and laws against them continues to rise. They can work, but are largely in lower-paying jobs than Israeli Jews. They are not welcome in Jewish neighbourhoods and are forbidden from living or working in many Jewish communities.

Q:How are Palestinians in Israel treated?

Read the answer

A: Palestinians in Israel are treated as second-class citizens. They do not have the same opportunities as their Jewish counterparts. Israel defines itself as a “Jewish state”, making inequality institutionalised for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Source: Adala

They cannot get the same kind of loans for education and housing. Legally, they may still be subject to random administrative detention that can drag on for years without trial. And, perhaps most tellingly, Israelis and Palestinians live segregated lives, with interaction between them at a bare minimum.

The Palestinians' frustration has an added layer, that of Israel's violence and aggression against their brethren in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighbouring countries. This, together with the challenges of daily life in the state, has, through the decades, caused Palestinian citizens to erupt in clashes with the Israeli establishment, making it even clearer that the country is far from being an equal home for all its citizens. Things have not changed much since my father wrote his disturbing book 50 years ago.

Q:What is the separation wall and how long is it? How high is it?

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A: The separation wall is a concrete wall built deep inside the Palestinian territories, and encircling a number of Jewish settlements. It is eight feet tall in most places.
Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

I felt all this in interactions with Israeli Jews in the workplace, on the streets, in malls, and in government offices. In the eight years that I lived in Fassouta and worked in nearby Israeli technology companies, I do not recall ever being happy or feeling free. Israel has a pervasive, heavy feeling of oppression and racism for its Arab population; we are the enemy, a "fifth column," a "demographic threat" to the "purity of the Jewish state".

I could not cope with these racist notions, nor with daily life in the country. In 2001, I spent some months in Scotland finishing my MBA, then I returned to Israel, worked for one more year, and, in 2003, I left it all and emigrated to Canada.


Once again, I was far from my homeland, though this time by choice.

I settled in Kitchener, Ontario, but it took me little time to realise that I would not be at peace in Canada; I carried my home inside my heart. I battled internally with my unhappiness in both places, until, in 2009, six years after moving, I was on a visit back home and finally chose what seemed to be a saner option: to relocate to Ramallah in the West Bank. I had friends there and I had felt relieved and happy during my visits; the city had a semblance of Palestine and Palestinian sovereignty, and, along with hundreds of other Palestinians with Israeli citizenship who moved there, I felt that I could be in my homeland, but far enough from the oppression of life in Israel.

Q:How many Palestinians are in the diaspora?

Read the answer

A: There are 6.2 million Palestinians in the diaspora, according to the Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

The West Bank

Quickly, I realised that life in the West Bank is a side of the same coin: that of Israeli aggression and control over Palestinian lives. Here was a much starker reality, one that few Palestinians in Israel really knew: the separation barrier, severe restrictions on people's movement, checkpoints between all Palestinian towns, Israeli army and Jewish settler violence, Israeli theft of Palestinian resources such as land and water, forced displacement of Palestinians from their homes, and an endless cycle of violence, arrests, and the incarceration of large numbers of the population.


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.

The Oslo process has, 20 years later, resulted in Palestinians living in Bantustan-like arrangements on their land, shredded by illegal Israeli settlements and more than half a million Jewish settlers and making the realisation of a viable Palestinian state impossible. Our economy is severely curtailed by movement and trade restrictions; we survive mostly on donor funding from Arab and western countries.

Q:Why doesn't the Palestinian Authority nullify the Oslo peace accords?

Read the answer

A: There are several reasons why the PLO has not nullified the accords, but politically, it has chosen negotiations as a strategic means to realising its objectives. The PLO views the agreement as a legally binding treaty obligation, and hence it is morally bound to honour it. Without adherence to the Oslo Accords, the PA would forfeit its international diplomatic and financial support
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Today, I feel as most other Palestinians do: cornered by Israel at every turn. My experience of living in both the Galilee and in Ramallah has given me the larger picture, a bleak one of racism and violence, with little hope of living at peace anywhere in our homeland. My mother's loss, my family's suffering and my constant moving and insecurity are a direct result of Israel's establishment and the dismal reality of life for Palestinians within it.


in Motion

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?