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Helwieh, from Al-Mujaydil

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.01.2009:

Present Always

By Diana Buttu

For the past several decades, Helwieh (age 97), her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have staged an important annual ritual. They make the six-kilometre journey from Nazareth to al-Mujaydil (now Migdal Ha’emek) for the olive harvest. Dodging Israeli vigilantes who attempt to bar them from their ancestral lands, the family goes about harvesting olives from the trees planted by Helwieh. Now too frail to aid in the olive harvest, Helwieh watches from the car and offers her grandchildren stories about the history of her now depopulated village. “We had so much land … dunums and dunums of it. We planted so many fruit and olive trees … and now we are told that we need ‘permission’ to pick the fruit from the trees I planted!”

Helwieh is one of an estimated 400,000 internally displaced Palestinians – citizens of Israel yet internally displaced from their original towns and villages. Between 1947 and 1949, an estimated 750,000 Palestinians fled from Palestine to Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan; an additional 40,000 Palestinians also fled from their homes but remained in what would later become Israel. After the depopulation of al-Mujaydil’s residents in July 1948, Israeli forces declared the area a “closed military area,” off-limits to Palestinians. (Israeli legislation barred all Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes.) Helwieh’s property was transferred to the Custodian of Absentee Property, and Helwieh became paradoxically referred to as a “present absentee” by Israel: someone who was present within the area that would later become Israel but absent from her very house (by a mere six kilometres), thus triggering the application of the Israeli Absentee Property Law. Helwieh scoffs, “When the 2006 war against Lebanon took place, no one rushed to take over the properties of Haifa’s residents when they fled south!”

Although granted citizenship in 1952, Helwieh, like other Palestinian citizens of Israel, lived under Israeli military rule and was required to ask for a permit to leave Nazareth to visit her hometown. Military rule was finally lifted in 1966, and Helwieh travelled to al-Mujaydil to confront its fate. “I was devastated,” she relates. “Everything we had was gone. My house was demolished along with those of all al-Mujaydil’s residents. They even destroyed the mosque and schools. The only reminders of our past are the Roman Catholic church … and our olive trees.” In their place, homes for newly arrived Jewish immigrants were constructed. Today construction continues. A new Israeli mall has been built in place of the town’s mosque, and more offices are being constructed nearby.

During the first few years following their expulsion, many individual groups of internally displaced Palestinians attempted to reclaim their confiscated village lands through Israeli courts – which, they hoped, would take their claims seriously because of their Israeli citizenship. By the mid-1950s, however, most cases had been dismissed, or court orders blatantly disregarded by Israeli military authorities (as in Iqrit and Bir’im). As a result, interest in pursuing justice through the legal route waned. But for the town of al-Lajjoun – 80 percent of whose residents fled to nearby Umm al-Fahm – legal challenges continue to be levelled with the hope that a victory will pave the way for further legal action by other internally displaced Palestinians.

With the support of Adalah: The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a group of 200 villagers is attempting to challenge the official confiscation in 1953 of thousands of dunums of al-Lajjoun’s land. The lands in question were confiscated by order of then-minister of finance (and later prime minister) Levi Eshkol, who invoked Article 2 of the Land Acquisition Law, which facilitates confiscation for “essential settlement and development needs.” Today the lands are covered by a planted forest (planted after 1953), along with an industrial facility owned by the Israeli water company Mekorot. After years of litigation, in March 2007 the Nazareth District Court rejected the villagers’ lawsuit, accepting the Israeli Development Agency’s argument that the forest and water facility constitute “essential settlement and development,” thereby granting the Development Agency wide latitude in what is considered “development.” Adalah filed an appeal to the Supreme Court on 9 May, and the case is still pending before the Supreme Court. This past April, thousands gathered at al-Lajjoun – the chosen site for the annual Nakba march commemorating 60 years of Palestinian dispossession.

Like the residents of al-Lajjoun, al-Mujaydil’s residents are working to ensure that the memory of the town, along with the memory of the other 513 towns razed by Israel, will not simply fade away. Several years ago, they formed the Association of al-Mujaydil. Members have compiled their own historical records of ownership and have put together a booklet documenting the town’s history and residents; they have also published a map of the area that marks all the homes and old names of wells, springs, and fields that have long since been wiped from Israeli cartography. The town’s church is sometimes opened, and the marriages of some of the children of al-Mujaydil’s original residents take place in the church.

Back at home, Helwieh begins each day by consuming a hearty helping of al-Mujaydil’s olive oil. “This is the best olive oil in the world,” Helwieh brags. Next year, God willing, Helwieh will once again make the trip to al-Mujaydil for the olive harvest. And I, her granddaughter, will be there with her.

Diana Buttu is a Canadian-Palestinian lawyer based in Ramallah. She can be reached at

This Week in Palestine

Jan 2009

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