Approaching the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding/Palestine’s destruction—for they are two sides of the same coin—I have been reviewing letters from that fateful era by my Palestinian grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat, or “Papa” to us. It is poignant reading.
The Nakba (“Catastrophe”) impacted virtually all Palestinians. Roughly 750,000 were driven from their homes or fled in terror following massacres of Palestinian civilians by Jewish militias. By their numbers and overwhelming ownership of land, Palestinian Muslims and Christians impeded the foundation of a Jewish state. Israel expelled them, seized or destroyed their homes and villages, and has violently barred their return to this day—most recently from the Gaza gulag.
The forced displacement of Palestinians never truly ended. It continues inside Israel in Umm al-Hiran, a Palestinian Bedouin village soon to be razed and replaced by a new, exclusively Jewish community. The pace of settlement in Jerusalem and across the West Bank has hastened under the Netanyahu government, emboldened further by Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Because the colonized always resist, the injustices of this continuing Nakba compounded: torture, assassination, imprisonment without trial, banishment, home demolitions, jailing of Palestinian children, and more. In the laboratory of military occupation, Israel has perfected technologies of surveillance and repression that it now exports globally.
Back in 1948, my family never fled at gunpoint into the night, nor trudged along traffic-choked roads in sweltering heat without adequate shelter, food, or water, as did many Palestinian refugees. My father, after graduating from the American University of Beirut and practicing eye surgery in Gaza, had come to the United States seeking advanced ophthalmic training, soon meeting and marrying my American mother. My aunt was in boarding school in Cairo. My Uncle George, following my father’s footsteps, was studying medicine in Beirut. Papa was conducting business in Amman.
But the Nakba ruined my grandfather financially. The Haganah (a Jewish militia that became the Israeli army) seized Villa Harun ar-Rashid, the stately family home Papa built in 1926 in the Talbiyeh quarter of Jerusalem, then later rented out. Eventually Villa Harun ar-Rashid was expropriated under Israel’s Absentee Property Law. Golda Meir and a Supreme Court justice who authorized further seizures of Palestinian lands later lived there.
Papa was a serial entrepreneur. Trained in Switzerland in agricultural engineering and fluent in five languages, he pioneered mechanized farming in the region. With his brothers, he helped the British government build the Haifa-Baghdad Road. Following World War II, at huge expense, he had purchased an entire decommissioned US Army base, and had shipped its contents from Libya to Palestine.