The suffering of Sderot: how its true inhabitants were wiped from Israel’s maps and memories -Robert
I think I found the village of Huj this weekend – but the road sign said “Sederot”. The world knows it as Sderot, the Israeli city where the Hamas rockets fall. Even Barack Obama has been there. But Huj has a lot to do with this little story.
By my map calculations, it lies, long destroyed, across the fields from a scruffy recreation centre near the entrance to Sderot, a series of shabby villas on a little ring road where Israeli children were playing on the Shabat afternoon.
The inhabitants of Huj were all Palestinian Arab Muslims and, irony of ironies, they got on well with the Jews of Palestine. We have to thank the Israeli historian Benny Morris for uncovering their story, which is as grim as it is filled with sorrow.
Huj’s day of destiny came on 31 May 1948, when the Israeli Negev Brigade’s 7th Battalion, facing an advancing Egyptian army, arrived in the village. In Morris’s words, “the brigade expelled the villagers of Huj … to the Gaza Strip”.
Morris elaborates: “Huj had traditionally been friendly; in 1946, its inhabitants had hidden Haganah men from a British dragnet. In mid-December 1947, while on a visit to Gaza, the mukhtar (mayor) and his brother were shot dead by a mob that accused them of ‘collaboration’. But at the end of May, given the proximity of the advancing Egyptian column, the Negev Brigade decided to expel the inhabitants – and then looted and blew up their houses.”
So the people of Huj had helped the Jewish Haganah army escape the British – and the thanks they got was to be sent into Gaza as refugees. According to Morris, three months later the three headmen from the nearest Jewish kibbutzim even complained about the treatment of their former neighbours to David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister. He wrote back: “I hope that the HQ will pay attention to what you say, and will avoid such unjust and unjustified actions in the future, and will set right these things in so far as possible with respect to the past.” But Ben Gurion did not instruct the new Israeli army to allow the villagers of Huj to return.
The following month, they pleaded to go back. The Israeli Department of Minority Affairs noted that they deserved special treatment since they had been “loyal”, but the Israeli army decided they should not go back. So the Palestinians of Huj festered on in the Gaza strip where their descendants still live as refugees.
But the present day Sderot, writes the Palestinian historian Walid Khalidi, was built on farmland belonging to another Palestinian Arab village called Najd, its 422 Muslim inhabitants living in 82 homes, growing citrus, bananas and cereals. They shared the same fate as the people of Huj. On 12 and 13 May 1948, the Negev Brigade of the Israeli army – again, according to Morris – drove them out. They, too, were sent into exile in Gaza. Thus did the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, as another Israeli historian, Illan Pappé, calls it bluntly, wipe from history the people who farmed the land on which Sderot would be built.
You can see Huj and Najd on Munther Khaled Abu Khader’s reproduced map of Mandate Palestine. Sderot was founded in 1951 but Asraf Simi, who arrived there in 1962 and later worked in the local library, knows nothing of this. She shrugged her shoulders when I asked about them. “We didn’t hear anything about Arabs around here. My uncle came near the beginning, around 1955, and was living in a tent here – and we all thought this would be one of the most modern cities in Israel! I’m not frightened – but I’m not happy about the ceasefire. I think we should have gone in there to finish it all forever.”
Another irony. Asraf Simi was born in Morocco and learned Moroccan-accented Arabic before she left for Israel at the age of 17. And she does not know that today, in the squalor of Gaza, live well over 6,000 descendants of the people of Huj. Thus does the tragedy of the Palestinian Nakba – the “catastrophe” – connect directly with the Israelis of Sderot.
That is why they cannot “finish it all forever”. Because the thousands of rockets that have fallen around them over the past 12 years come from the very place where now live the families that lived on this land. Thus does Sderot have an intimate connection with a date that President Obama may have forgotten about when he came visiting: 1948, the year that will never go away.
The death of civilians on either side in the Israel-Gaza conflict is tragic – especially when children are among the casualties. The BBC correspondent in Gaza, Jon Donnison, witnessed just such a tragedy at close quarters.
My friend and colleague Jehad Mashhrawi is usually the last to leave our Gaza bureau. Hard-working but softly spoken, he often stays late, beavering away on a laptop that is rarely out of arm’s reach.
He has a cool head – unflappable, when others like me are flapping around him. He is a video editor and just one of our local BBC Arabic Service staff who make the office tick.
But on the Wednesday before last – only an hour or so after Gaza’s latest war erupted with Israel‘s killing of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari – Jehad burst out of the editing suite screaming.
He sprinted down the stairs, his head in his hands, his face ripped with anguish.
Most fathers will tell you their children are beautiful.
Omar was a picture-book baby.
Standing in what is left of his burnt-out home this week, Jehad showed me a photo on his mobile phone.
It was of a cheeky, chunky, round-faced little boy in denim dungarees, chuckling in a pushchair, dark-eyed with a fringe of fine brown hair pushed across his brow.
“He only knew how to smile,” Jehad told me, as we both struggled to hold back the tears.
“He could say just two words – Baba and Mama,” his father went on.
Also on Jehad’s phone is another photo. A hideous tiny corpse. Omar’s smiling face virtually burnt off, that fine hair appearing to be melted on to his scalp.
Jehad’s sister-in-law Heba was also killed.
“We still haven’t found her head,” Jehad said.
And his brother is critically ill in hospital with massive burns. His chances are not good.
Jehad has another son Ali, four years old, who was slightly injured. He keeps asking where his baby brother has gone.
Of course every civilian death on either side – not just Omar’s – is tragic ”
Eleven members of the Mashhrawi family lived in the tiny breezeblock house in the Sabra district of Gaza City. Five people slept in one room.
The beds are now only good for charcoal. The cupboards are full of heaps of burnt children’s clothes.
On the kitchen shelves, there are rows of melted plastic jars full of Palestinian herbs and spices, their shapes distorted as if reflected from a fairground mirror.
And in the entrance hall, a two-foot-wide hole in the flimsy metal ceiling where the missile ripped through.
Despite the evidence pointing towards an Israeli air strike, some bloggers have suggested it might have been a misfired Hamas rocket.
But at that time, so soon after the launch of Israel’s operation, the Israeli military says mortars had been launched from Gaza but very few rockets.
Mortar fire would not cause the fireball that appears to have engulfed Jehad’s house.
Other bloggers have said that the damage to Jehad’s home was not consistent with powerful Israeli attacks but the BBC visited other bombsites this week with very similar fire damage, where Israel acknowledged carrying out what it called “surgical strikes”.
As at Jehad’s home, there was very little structural damage but the victims were brought out with massive and fatal burns. Most likely is that Omar died in the one of the more than 20 bombings across Gaza that the Israeli military says made up its initial wave of attacks.
Omar was not a terrorist.
Of course every civilian death on either side – not just Omar’s – is tragic. The United Nations says its preliminary investigation shows that 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians.
Of those, 30 were children – 12 of whom were under the age of 10. More than 1,000 people were injured.
The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said every non-combatant death or injury was tragic and an “operational failure”.
In Israel, too, there were fatalities: four civilians and two soldiers. There were also many injuries. But the fact the Israeli Ambulance Service was also reporting those suffering from anxiety and bruises is an indication of the asymmetric nature of the conflict.
Jehad’s baby Omar was probably the first child to die in this latest round of violence.
Among the last was a six-year-old boy, Abdul Rahman Naeem, who was killed by an Israeli attack just hours before the ceasefire was announced.
Abdul Rahman’s father, Dr Majdi, is one of the leading specialist doctors at Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital.
The first he knew of his son’s death was when he went to treat a patient, only to find it was his own boy.
Apparently, Dr Majdi had not seen Abdul Rahman for days. He had been too busy dealing with the wounded.
Before I left Jehad’s house, leaving him sitting round a camp fire with other mourners, I asked him – perhaps stupidly – if he was angry over Omar’s death.
“Very, very angry,” he said, his jaw tensing as he glanced at the photos on his phone.
This from a man who I cannot ever remember raising his voice in anger.
My thoughts, after a week where I have had little time to think, are with Jehad and his family.
Remarkably and unnecessarily, he told me his thoughts were with me and the rest of our BBC team.
“I’m just sorry, Jon, that I had to go and wasn’t there to help you with your work,” he said, before we hugged and said goodbye.