The disappearance of Saffuriya

By EA Keith.

The water in the pool just down the hill from Nazareth, a town in the north of Israel, is filthy, grey-brown, ringed with plastic bottles and bags. Despite that a group of Israeli-Palestinian children splash happily in this natural spring in this near desert landscape. It feeds a fertile little valley which accounts for the villages we have come to see this afternoon.

One of those villages is easily spotted. Tzippori is a meandering, sometimes scruffy, sometimes smart Jewish-Israeli village, about 60 odd years old now, with few of the socialist ideals which drove its founders now left on show. Instead there are various small businesses advertising their offers: camel rides to be had;  rooms to rent for holidays;  buggy rides to enjoy. Driving through we see no pedestrians, few cars, certainly no camels. Houses are hidden behind trees and shrubs.

The second village, Saffuriya, is not so easily found. Our guide takes us up a quiet side road just beyond Tzippori and pulls up. We clamber out and look through a wire fence at scrubby pine trees growing up densely in a rocky landscape. But as we look longer, helped by our guide’s knowledge, we begin to see that this is not a natural landscape. Slowly we become able to trace the outlines of individual buildings, a grouping of houses along the line of the hillside, all with trees growing out of them – this is Saffuriya.

What caused its disappearance? In 1948, as the state of Israel was coming into existence, according to the International Institute for the Environment and Development the village was bombarded from the air by Israeli forces and most of the original Palestinian residents had to leave for nearby villages or Nazareth in January of 1949. Now the Israeli government regards them as absentees, as people who have abandoned their homes, and will not allow them to return, or to rebuild their homes from the rubble they have become. In the same way, Palestinian Christians and Muslims who left the territory of Israel because of the fighting in 1948 are not, unlike Jews of any nationality, allowed to return to the country, no matter how long a connection with it they can demonstrate from before that time. The area occupied by the Palestinian village was designated a national park in 1992.

Remains of Saffuriya

The remains of the Palestinian village of Saffuriya in northern Israel [Photo: EAPPI]

Just one Palestinian dwelling from the old days remains though it is much altered from its original state. You may go and stay there, for it is now one of those small businesses of Tzippori and offers bed and breakfast accommodation. Our guide, Jonathan Cook, who has written extensively on the experience of Palestinians in Israel, points out the irony to us. Anyone can stay there but, like all the property in the village of Tzippori, it can only be leased or owned by a Jewish-Israeli.

But although no Israeli-Palestinians can own or lease property here there are some still living in the area. At the edge of the villages there are two church-owned buildings: an orphanage where young Israeli-Palestinians are cared for and a church said by some to mark the birthplace of Mary, mother of Jesus – though there is another of those in Jerusalem. And on the side of the track leading to them, on a stone wall belonging to them, someone has painted a little shrine to Tuha Muhammed Ali. He was just a child in 1949 when he was driven out of here with his family but he later became a fine poet. His faded face stares out of the stones and our guide reads some lines from one of his poems, There Was No Farewell:

We did not weep when we were leaving – for we had neither time nor tears, and there was no farewell.

We did not know at the moment of parting that it was a parting, so where would our weeping have come from?

We did not stay awake all night (and did not doze) the night of our leaving.

That night we had neither night nor light, and no moon rose.

That night we lost our star, our lamp misled us; we didn’t receive our share of sleeplessness – so where would wakefulness have come from?

Some 400 Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated in this way in 1948-49.

Take action box 2

Visit the website of Zochrot, an Israeli human rights organisation, to find out more about the events of 1948-49 which led to over 700,000 Palestinians fleeing or being expelled from their homes.