Salwa Salem-Copty hopes to someday return to live in her family’s village in the north of Israel, but at 70 years old, she thinks it is unlikely. Instead she has one request — she would like to be allowed to visit the grave of her father, who was killed when a bus full of workers traveling to Haifa was attacked in April 1948.
Salwa’s mother was pregnant with her at the time, living as an internally displaced person in nearby Nazareth with three young children. She had prepared Easter dinner for her family, as they waited on her husband to return. Instead Salwa’s uncle showed up with the news — Salwa’s father was not coming home.
While the residents of Ma’alul had been kicked out of their village several months previously, when Israeli forces took over the area, demolishing every Palestinian home in the village, residents were still able to bury their dead in the village’s cemeteries.
A year later, in 1949, even that changed. Israel built a military base in the empty village, fencing off a good chunk of the land, and while the Muslim cemetery is still accessible to visitors, the Christian cemetery lies within the fenced-off military base.
Salwa was never able to visit her father’s grave. Today, now a grandmother, she is still fighting for that right.
“I have tried everything I possible could,” Salwa told Mondoweiss. “I even went to the Knesset, I met with both Mohammed Barakeh and Ayman Odeh from the Arab Joint List and begged them to help me visit my father’s grave — It’s the only thing in the world I want.”
Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, got involved in the issue, sending a letter in September to senior Israeli political and military officials demanding that Salwa and other internally-displaced Palestinian residents and their descendants be allowed to visit the graves of family members in Ma’alul.
“Preventing Ms. Salem-Copty and other displaced residents from maintaining the cemetery and from visiting the graves of relatives – including those of grandfathers and grandmothers, parents, uncles, aunts – constitutes a gross violation of the right to dignity of the deceased,” Adalah Attorney Muna Haddad wrote in the letter.
Salwa told Mondoweiss that it is her dream to visit her father’s grave site, where she feels she will for the first time in her life have a connection to the man she never got to meet.
“I understood at a very young age that something wasn’t right, I understood that I had a father but he was taken from me. Life was very hard for my family and for my mother after my father was killed,” Salwa said.
She explained that as a widow who had left her village with nothing but the clothes on her back, and no relatives who were stable enough to help support her, Salwa’s mother had to give her oldest three children to an orphanage, where they were only able to visit during holidays.
Salwa grew up with her mother, but her childhood was hard and they were very poor. She dreamed of moving up in life and helping children living in situations like her own, so she became a social worker.
Throughout the years, she never forgot about Ma’alul, and never gave up the hope that one day she could return to live there and visit her father’s grave at her leisure.
“Eight years ago things got a little better. We won the right to pray at our churches during holidays,” she explained. “Before, the two churches that are still standing were not taken care of or protected, sheep and cows were going inside the church and living there, but now we are able to take care of the churches and pray there — there are no houses, they were all destroyed — but at least we have our churches.”
Salwa said now the churches are meeting places for both Christians and Muslims who had lived, or are the descendants of those who lived in Ma’alul. The mosque in the village is too damaged for Muslim residents to enter, but Muslim villagers still come during the Christian celebrations to meet up and exchange stories with their family neighbors.
“We get together and celebrate together and I am filled with joy because the people at those celebrations knew my father,” she said. “He was 25 or 26 when he was killed and the people from Ma’alul tell me about who he was and what they remember of him and of our home and I cannot explain what a feeling that is.”
Salwa visits the village several times a year, always bringing followers. She has never been able to lay the flowers on her father’s grave, instead she throws them over the military fence, in the general direction of where family members said her father was buried, and calls out to him.
“I tell him I miss him and I know him and I have never forgotten him. I hope my message and my fight reaches out to him in Heaven,” she said.
There is not much left of what the village of Ma’alul once was, but Salwa can picture it all in her head.
“My grandfather and grandmother told me everything,” Salwa said, emotion layering her voice. “I know every centimeter of Ma’alul, I know who each plot of land belongs to, I know where the houses once were. They taught me so that I would never forget. I have never forgiven Israel for what they did to our village and our people and our families. They widowed my mother and destroyed our family.”
If Salwa does not get the chance to visit her father in her lifetime, she has one final request.
“I have had a hard life. I am 70 years old, I’m an old woman, and I still have never been able to visit my father’s grave or return to live in my village,” she said. “Ma’alul is my love, it’s my heart, my life, it is everything. At the very very least, I hope I can be buried in Ma’alul next to my father after I die. In the end, that is all I ask.”