Khalid Saifi was only ten years old when the invasion happened. Much of his memories come in bits and pieces, but some moments will stick with him for the rest of his life.
It was the summer of 1967, right at the start of the Six-Day War between Israel, and Egypt, Jordan and Syria. News traveled slowly at the time, and misinformation was plentiful.
Khalid’s father, a refugee who fled from al-Walaja village in 1948, refused to flee yet again and insisted on staying home in the family’s small concrete UN shelter. However, Khalid’s mother was adamant she get her two youngest children, Khalid and his little sister, out of the populated area of the refugee camp.
The three traveled together with Khalid’s two older sisters and his sister’s husbands to a crossroads in the middle of the Jericho desert, where people had gathered in hopes of avoiding being in proximity to airstrikes and ground battles.
However, refuge in the area was only temporary. After spending days camping out in the Jericho heat, there were two decisions to choose from at the crossroads: go back home and hope for the best, or flee to Jordan.
One of Khalid’s older sisters and her husband decided going back west to the refugee camp was their best option, while the other couple chose to go east to Jordan.
“My mother decided to stay longer at the crossroads with me and my little sister, so we stood there in the middle of the intersection and watched my two sisters and their husbands walking away in opposite directions for a long while,” Khalid said. “My mother stood there watching them. I remember that image so clearly — her standing there watching my sisters walk and walk off into the distance.”
Khalid said at the time he did not understand the complexities of the war, it was only until he was older that, through his studies, he was able to quantify the extent of what he had experienced as a child.
“It was war time, there were military planes streaking across the sky, it was all so impressive to me, not because I was brave or something — I was just a curious kid and this was action,” he said. “I wanted to see and know everything. I had heard so much about the Israelis and I wanted to see what they were, what they looked like.”
Near the crossroads was a cave where Khalid’s family stayed with others after nightfall.
“I remember being in that huge cave with at least 30 other families in a mountain for several days. I would play with the other kids, it was break from our routine. The adults always looked like they were in a crisis, making decisions, but I was only a child, so I was in no position to make any decisions,” he said. “During that time of crisis, I just remember seeing these looks of fire in the older people’s eyes, they were all discussing serious decisions about the fate of all of us, and at the same time, they were crazy and nervous, they didn’t know how to act or what to do, they were frenzied to hear any news updates on the radio.”
A couple of days after his sisters left, his mother had finally come to the decision to leave the cave and head back toward the refugee camp with a group of others. During that trek, Khalid, an adventurous child, ventured off and got lost in the mountains of Jericho.
“I remember when I got lost, before the adults found me, I came across a man in the mountains with a pistol,” Khalid recalled. “An Israeli plane flew overhead and he raised his pistol up pointing it at the sky and shot into the air at the plane. At the time, everything was just so fascinating to me, but later I looked back at that moment as a kind of representation of the Palestinian people in 1967. We knew nothing about the Israeli’s weapons, their technology, their allies, and so forth. The adults didn’t know just how unprepared they were for a war with them.”
Mazuna Abu Srour was 25 years old when the war started. While her recollection of the time is fractured and hazy at points, other moments are seared into memory.
Because she had three small children, one of which was a newborn, and Mazuna’s husband Hussan had already fled from his home in historic Palestine two decades earlier, the couple refused to run when word got out that war had sparked.
“We never considered leaving, though many of our neighbors fled to Jordan,” Mazuna explained. “We weren’t sure what would happen really, no one had any real information, so we spent our days in a nearby cave on a Christian family’s land with our children — we thought the Israelis would be less likely to attack the Christian areas — and we waited. At night we would go back home to sleep and hope for the best.”
Mazuna said everyone in the community fashioned white flags out of household fabrics and hung them outside their doors while they waited for the Arab armies to come through and protect them from the Israeli army, but when the tanks finally came, it was not at all as expected.
“Everyone thought it was the Iraqi army when we saw the military arrived,” she recalled. “We went out and celebrated, we screamed and cheered for them. It wasn’t until one of them spoke in broken, accented Arabic, ordering us to “go inside” that we understood — these were the Israelis.”
Mazuna said word spread fast that the Israeli army had invaded far past the land they had taken over in 1948.
“There was no war, the Jordanian weapons were fake, the Arab armies were no match for the Israeli military,” she said. “There were men in the camp with guns but no one dared take on the tanks, they didn’t use their weapons. In my community there were no martyrs, no dead, the Israelis came in with their tanks and planes and took over. It felt like the Arab armies had sold us.”
In Khalid’s opinion, it was not that the Arab armies did not care to help, but that they were not situated to go up against such a prepared enemy.
“We just weren’t ready,” he said. “The Israelis had the international community’s support. They convinced the world that this was a land without people. Between the Ottoman occupation, and then the British Empire, people here lacked education, and the Arab armies did not have the technology or strategies to go up against Israel’s modern army. We would listen to the Arab Voice radio show from Egypt and it was all positive commentary, the host always said ‘the fish are hungry and we will feed them Israeli meat,’ everyone was very optimistic that the Israelis would be defeated, we in Palestine thought the Arab armies were so strong, that they would have no problem defeating the Israelis and helping us take back our land, but it was just empty boasting. In the end no one had a chance at winning against the Israeli army, Palestine was fertile for a new occupation, and here we are today, 50 years later and we are still occupied.”