Sixty years ago in Battir
Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 07.05.2008:
Reprinted from The Electronic Intifada website:
Sixty years ago in Battir, my small hillside village near Jerusalem, I witnessed the chaotic collapse of the British Mandate administration in Palestine and the beginning of the Nakba.
The previous months had been decisive ones for the fate of Palestine, although we did not yet know it. The Jews, fed up with British procrastination in fulfilling Balfour’s promise of letting them transform our homeland into their “national home,” launched a bloody campaign of terror both against the British and the Arabs. The Jewish militias targeted the British to speed up their departure from Palestine, and hit the Arabs to quell the rising resistance to Zionist colonization. Violence broke out in early 1947, after the British announced that they would leave Palestine by 15 May 1948. When the United Nations passed its partition resolution on 29 November 1947, the violence began to lurch into full-scale war.
Battir’s 1,200 inhabitants were wracked by uncertainty. There were hopes that things would turn out all right, but fear dominated as the atmosphere became bleaker by the day.
I vividly remember the stories of horror which haunted the people of Battir, such as the attack on the railway station in Jerusalem on 21 October 1946. The train was their lifeline to the city where they marketed their produce and bought their supplies. People also walked to Jerusalem and often traveled by car on the unpaved road that ran parallel to the railway line, though that was much harder. A few months earlier a Jewish bomb attack on Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, which served as the British headquarters, killed 91 people and injured dozens. Later, after the partition vote, when the Zionist forces began their armed campaign to seize Palestine, fighting erupted between Arabs and Jews in the land they both claimed.
The gunfire and chaos edged ever closer to Battir, a village that traces its roots to the second century, and which now found its peace and tranquility under threat.
Apart from home just up the hill, the center of my life was at the elementary school for boys, that I attended, and that lay at bottom of the valley that Battir overlooks. Just next to the school was the railway station which was the first stop on the railway line from Jerusalem to Jaffa. The station and the school with its small football field formed a sort of campus at the edge of the village, surrounded by tall pine and citrus trees providing ample greenery and shade on hot summer days. For us children it was the perfect place to play and loiter in and out of school hours.
I remember these as the lively, busy places they once were with schoolchildren, the station staff, and at one point a British military garrison. Families would take the train down from Jerusalem to enjoy weekly picnics in the romantic rural atmosphere of our village and they would be joined by local people doing the same. At school we experimented with practical agriculture which was part of the curriculum; this included keeping beehives for honey and breeding chickens.
Villagers, adults and children alike, never tired of the spectacle of the steam engines stopping to fill their huge tanks with water, and bringing with them all kinds of people to spark local curiosity. Villagers would sell fruit and vegetables to passengers through the carriage windows — a small but steady source of badly needed income.
The nearest village to Battir was al-Walajah, just less than two miles north, and across the railway line to the west. People from the neighboring villages mixed and intermarried freely.
During the last days of the Mandate all this began to change. Cargo trains became the targets of robbers who forced them to stop along the line and emptied them of all their valuables. British soldiers on board the trains, supposedly to guard them, hardly offered any resistance; they often dropped their arms and left the scene peacefully. Soon the trains stopped coming completely, and when the trains stopped everything else fell apart too. The station offices and the station manager’s house were ransacked, and so was our school. There was no law or authority to protect people’s lives and property. We had to look after ourselves.
By this time the well-documented and carefully organized campaign of ethnic cleansing by the Haganah and other Jewish militias had begun, with the goal of conquering as much land as possible from the Palestinians so that the state of Israel could be established. One wave after another of people from Jerusalem-area villages, fleeing Jewish attacks, started to arrive in Battir, seeking shelter and safety. People received them hospitably, believing it was only a temporary crisis. But as one village after another fell to the Jewish forces, and the front line approached us, we too had to leave for safety.
That was soon after news of the April 1948 massacre in the village of Deir Yassin reached us. As Deir Yassin was not far away, some of the survivors arrived in Battir. They told of the horror they witnessed and the futile attempts to resist the onslaught. As the Jewish attackers intended, their deeds instilled terror in the hearts of Palestinians.
One afternoon in May 1948, Battir fell under heavy fire from the opposite slopes, across the railway line to the west, which had fallen to the Jewish fighters. We carried whatever belongings we could and headed east a few miles where there were vineyards and a small spring. I was only with my mother and my younger sisters; all the other members of my family had left separately. We too thought it would be a short escape, but we camped in that vineyard with many other people from the village all summer, our hopes dimming as the heat rose.
At first we slept in the open, under the trees. Then we built small shelters out of branches in an attempt to gain some privacy. We cooked and baked bread on an open fire. The one great relief is that the spring gave us a reliable supply of fresh water, but otherwise life was very difficult and dreadfully uncertain. When people started to fear that our departure might not be temporary, some of them risked their lives to return to the village to recover whatever belongings they could.
By the end of the summer, with life under the trees becoming unbearable, people started to disperse in every direction. Many joined refugee camps in the Jordan Valley. My mother, my younger sister and I went to Bethlehem where we joined my older brother who had previously been an officer in the Palestine police and had now joined the Jordanian army. In his tiny officer’s apartment, as well as us, he ended up sheltering my eldest sister and her large family as well as his own. It was hard, but we were grateful. We stayed in Bethlehem until the summer of 1949 when the war was ended by the armistice agreement.
Battir lay right on the ceasefire line, and it was now physically divided by barbed wire. Unlike hundreds of thousands of other Palestinians forced out of their villages, we did return home. But there we faced a totally new situation.
For a long time any discussion of the “Arab-Israeli conflict” has skipped one basic fact: Israel, whether one loves or hates it, was created at the expense of the Palestinians. An entire people and hundreds of communities that had lived for centuries in tranquility had to be ruthlessly and unjustly shattered to make room for the Zionist state. The story of my village, Battir, southwest of Jerusalem, is only one of hundreds.
When I was growing up, hardly anyone in the village was aware, or needed to be aware, that our village traced its roots back to the second century. Generation after generation tilled the land, lived off its gifts and engaged in small trade. They adapted to the often harsh environment, brought up their children, interacted with their neighbors from villages near and far and lived their lives relatively happily and peacefully.
Although Palestine had a large Christian population, the 1,200 people in our village were all Muslim — though there was one German wife who was very popular and known for her kindness, and I believe she was Jewish, by the name of Lina Shaffer — and lived in effect like a large extended family. Everyone in the village knew everyone else, and everyone shared happy and sad moments. The whole village knew if someone was getting married, got a job in the city, was caught up in a problem, was expecting guests, or even bought a new garment.
Life was simple, indeed you could say primitive. There was no electricity, running water or other services, no paved roads, no cars or any kind of machines. Most houses had one or two rooms, which people often shared with their animals. Unless cold weather dictated otherwise, women cooked on open fires in front of their houses using home-made pottery. So in addition to everything else, the neighbors always knew what you were cooking.
People never locked their doors, even when they were not home. But that does not mean that there were no disputes, rivalries and even fights. Indeed, in such close quarters these were unavoidable. But these were mostly settled through the wisdom and compromise of family chieftains as there was no police station in the village. Only serious cases, involving injuries, were reported to the Mandate authorities in Jerusalem who would come down by car if there was a matter they had to address.
The village elementary school which I attended taught boys Arabic, arithmetic and Qur’an until the fourth grade. By that time they were expected to have learned the Qur’an by heart. The school was gradually extended up to seventh grade by just the time the winds of danger began to gather over the country. Girls did not attend school until UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, established a school for them in the early 1950s after the first war was over and the village people returned home.
The village was much like a voluntary cooperative. If someone wanted to build a house people would offer free labor and contribute small amounts of cash to buy materials, a practice that was strictly and evenly reciprocated village-wide. This system also applied to gathering the harvest and preparing the land for the next planting season. People also made small donations for weddings and attended to the needs of the sick and the poor.
Apart from agriculture, many young men worked for the Mandate government, mainly the railways, the Palestine Police, the post office or other clerical jobs. A few managed to finish high school in Jerusalem to become school teachers.
Battir had a simple mosque with one large room and no minaret. The call to prayer was made from just in front of the mosque and could be heard throughout the village. There were also a few public places for men to meet in the evenings for coffee and conversations. Each family took turns to supply coffee and firewood for these gatherings. Visitors from outside the village were received, entertained and sometimes offered accommodation in those public houses, which were also used for other community occasions such as weddings or mourning.
When the Mandate administration started to crumble, most village men, including those who lost their jobs, started to join militias to defend the country. Though they did not match the Jewish militias in organization, training or arms, they fought as best as they could. Mainly armed with second hand rifles they rushed to help defend neighboring villages as they fell under attack.
The Palestine war of 1948 was disastrous. Neither the volunteers who came to the country from the Arab world, nor the Arab states’ armies that intervened in May 1948, well after much of the Zionist ethnic cleansing plan had been put into action, managed to save much.
Once the fighting stopped 78 percent of Palestine had fallen to the Zionists, and became the “State of Israel.” After fierce fighting around Jerusalem, the Jordanian army held on to the West Bank, and Egypt held the Gaza Strip, which together formed the remaining 22 percent of Palestine.
Battir itself was not occupied, although all the villagers fled under heavy fire from Zionist forces on the opposite slopes. The village ended up right on the front line when the armistice lines were drawn. Israel wanted to control the entire Jerusalem-Jaffa railway, which it mainly did, except for the small sector which runs through Battir’s valley.
A special proviso in the armistice agreement drew the line two hundred yards east of the railway, thus cutting the village almost in half. This was meant to allow Israel to use the railway and to provide a corridor for its protection, but at the same time it allowed the village inhabitants to reach their lands beyond the demarcation line on the Israeli side. This was an unusual overlap which caused serious problems. About 15 village houses and the school ended up on the Israeli side, but two gates in the barbed wire allowed people to cross either way and to reopen the school under the Jordanian administration following the unification of the West Bank with East Jordan in 1950. Nevertheless, several villagers crossing the barbed wire to reach their property were shot dead by Israeli patrols.
For the villagers who had spent months sleeping in fields as refugees, or dispersed further away, returning to the village after the armistice was a great relief. But nothing was the same. Now we were cut off from Jerusalem, the city which had been our lifeline to any services not available in the village, as well as the main market for our produce.
The armistice line became like a wall concealing an alien, hostile and inaccessible world, where before there had been an environment of gracious Arab villages enjoying ties of kith and kin that we had taken for granted and whose end we could not have imagined.
The village of al-Walaja had lain across the valley on the other side of the railway line, close enough that Battir’s people could watch al-Walajah’s coming and goings, hear people calling to each other, and even hear their wedding celebrations. Similarly, al-Qabu lay just to the south and tens of other villages to which we were linked lay beyond our line of sight. Many ended up deserted and in enemy territory.
Instead of hearing the ordinary sounds of al-Walaja, after the war, we watched with dismay as the Israeli army blew up the deserted houses, as it rushed to eliminate any trace of Palestinian existence. One after another, we would see a house disappear in a cloud of dust and seconds later we would hear the loud explosion. This went on until the entire village was destroyed. (Some of the destroyed town’s inhabitants built a new village across the valley from the original site and this new village bears the name “al-Walaja” today).
Nor did the armistice provide much safety. Beyond the barbed wire, people had to move with extreme caution. Israeli patrols repeatedly arrested farmers, led them deeper into the occupied territory and then executed them. Villagers took great risks searching night after night in dangerous terrain until they recovered the bodies. The Israelis also made incursions deep into Arab-held territory with terrible tolls in death and destruction. Husan village a few miles south of Battir, and Nahalin experienced such attacks as did neighboring Beit Jala.
Villagers traveling early to market were also ambushed; one night I woke up to shrieks and wails to find that my sister Zahiyya had been brought home soaked in blood. Caught in one of these ambushes, she had been shot in her upper leg. She survived despite heavy loss of blood and no proper medical care.
When we returned to the village after the armistice, every house had been ransacked and emptied of its contents. Even doors and windows had been removed. Slowly we managed to replace and rebuild many of these things but there was much that was irreparable; we could not rebuild the same community atmosphere. That was lost forever.
But we are thankful that Battir, unlike hundreds of other Palestinian villages, did survive the Nakba — the catastrophe. That was only a respite. In 1967, it fell under Israeli occupation along with the rest of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Forty-one years later, Battir is drowning in a sea of Israeli settlements and lies virtually cut off from what is left of its Palestinian environment by Israel’s relentless construction of settler roads and apartheid walls.
I was there last in the summer of 1966 spending my usual summer leave with my family. The 1967 occupation shut me out until I managed a brief visit in 1997, 36 years later. There was little that I could recognize and I have not been back again.
Hasan Abu Nimah is the former permanent representative of Jordan at the United Nations. This article first appeared in The Jordan Times and is reprinted with the author’s permission.