‘This is how they drove us out’–Tiberias’s exiles recall the Nakba

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Tiberias mosque
Mosque in Tiberias with “Death to Arabs” graffiti. (Photo: Sam Kestenbaum)

Zochrot is a Hebrew word which means “remembering.” It’s also the name of an Israeli NGO founded in 2002–during the Second Intifada–to collect stories and personal narrativesof the Palestinian Nakba, Arabic for “catastrophe,” referring to the displacement and exodus of Historical Palestine’s Arab population in 1948.

What Zochrot sought to do then was to preserve the Palestinian history of Israel, a history that for decades has been obscured and ignored. This is what they’ve been doing for the past nine years. The Nakba is ongoing, the group’s website reads, it wasn’t just the exodus and persecution of the Palestinian people following the creation of the state of Israel – the “catastrophe” is able to continue because most Jewish Israelis don’t know the pre-state, Palestinian, history of their land.

On a sunny November day, a group of Israelis–both Jewish and Palestinian–walk through the streets of Tiberias. They are here to learn about what this northern city was like, before the founding of Israel.

Touring Tiberias with the pre-Nakba generation

Two elderly Palestinian-Israelis lead the group. Both of them grew up here and lived through the Nakba, when all of Tiberias’ Palestinians were driven away.

The city of Tiberias slopes towards the Sea of Galilee. Today it’s a cluster of modern, Israeli buildings. All municipal signs are written in Hebrew and English. At the center of Tiberias — on the shore of the lake — there are ruins: old foundations, synagogues, two boarded-up mosques and crumbling stone walls of the old city.

The tour is conducted in Hebrew and Arabic. The speakers carry one small, hand-held microphone and amplifier and take turns addressing the group.

Nuwal Saleh is 75 and she wears a black dress and a white hijab. She remembers her old home, which was on Fish Street, in the center of the old city. When she was eleven, the British Mandate ended. The day after the British pulled out of the city, the Haganah, the paramilitary Zionist forces, entered.

After the British left, she says, the Haganah started shooting.

They came carrying guns, Saleh says, near her home. She points down the street as she remembers, “They came from there,” she says, “over the hill.”

Saleh and her family fled, fearing they may be killed. They had heard stories of whole Palestinian villages being massacred. They didn’t want to be one of them. Saleh remembers she returned to her home years later, knocked on the door and was met by an Algerian Jewish family. She told them, “this used to be my home,” and cried.

Remembering Tiberias, then and now

What used to be the center of the old city of Tiberias is now a parking lot. There are hotels and shopping centers. Some Palestinian neighborhoods in the city were completely flattened; others are still standing, but owned by Israeli Jews.

Ali Abu Hosni is in his 80s and was also born in Tiberias. His family–like Saleh’s–now lives in Nazareth. He wears a neat gray suit and thick glasses. Most of the Palestinians living in Tiberias fled to Nazareth, he says. Others went to Syria and Jordan. When the Haganah invaded, he explains, they set blockades on all but one side of the city. “This is how they drove us out.”

Abu Hosni shifts between Hebrew and Arabic as he speaks. He does not speak English. When he was growing up, he says, Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together here side by side. In what used to be the market of the old city, Muslims, Jews and Christians did commerce together. He paints an almost idyllic picture. They had a very good relationship, he says. This was before the Zionists came.

The Jews who live here now? Abu Hosni shrugs. He doesn’t have too much to say about them. The character of the city has changed. Some of the street names have changed. Everything is in Hebrew.

Tiberias road
Road in Tiberias. (Photo: Sam Kestenbaum)

An Israeli Nakba

The Nakba isn’t spoken about often in Hebrew. This past spring, a bill was passed in the Knesset which legislated the withdrawal of state funding from any Israeli institution that commemorates the Palestinian day of mourning. Tours like this–Israelis learning about Palestinian history–are not common.

On the tour are five middle-aged Jewish Israelis from Tel Aviv. One woman, with short, cropped hair wears a Zochrot T-shirt and listens intently. She is a regular.

There is a family of Palestinian-Israelis who takes pictures with their cell phones and cameras. A red-haired Jewish Israeli says that this is her first time on a tour with Zochrot. Her friend had come before, and recommended it.

Norma Musih, the co-founder of Zochrot, writes about the importance and immediacy of Nakba remembrance, for Israeli Jews, like herself, specifically.

“The Nakba is not the story of another people that took place somewhere else. It is a story that we, as Israeli Jews, are responsible for,” she writes. The next step after remembering, Musih continues, is honoring the Palestinians’ right of return.

She knows that this would change Israel’s demographics. “The Israeli state would not continue to exist in its current form,” she writes, but believes “that in this new state life would be better, for both Palestinians and Israelis.”

Abu Hosni takes us to what used to be the central mosque of Tiberias. It’s boarded up now. Iron bars block the entrance. Trash has been thrown inside and someone has written in Hebrew, “Death to Arabs” across the door.

This mosque was called the “Upper Mosque,” because it’s further up on the hill. Synagogues were on the other side of the line of shops.

On Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, he remembers that they would fire a blank shot from the town’s cannon. This is how they would begin the celebrations.

This was a bustling market, Abu Hosni says, and points at nearby shops. He remembers coming here as a kid. On market days you wouldn’t be able to tell the Jews, Muslims and Christians apart.

Sam Kestenbaum is an American writer and editor based in the West Bank. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Report and The World of Chinese. He is a regular contributor to The Palestine Monitor and Tikkun Daily.

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