By EA Dave.
Sister Maria Esther welcomed us to the Stella Maris (Star of the Sea) hotel run by the Carmel Monastery and built over Elija’s cave high above Haifa. Haifa has a strong Christian community and Sister Maria Esther was keen to take us to the village of her father’s family, who were forced to abandon it when Israel was founded in 1948. The village is called Maalul and her father was just four years old at the time, but all the original families still feel their roots are in Maalul.
The village was a strong community of eight-hundred mixed Muslim and Christian families. Jewish families lived nearby and everyone shared the springs and wells. Families used cattle to plough and grew everything they needed; wheat, corn, vegetables and lots of fruit trees such as apple and pomegranate.
Sister took us to meet ninety-five year old Jad Saba Yosef Salem who had been a young man at the time. He described how, at first, Israel expanded little by little and everyone felt safe. Later tensions began to increase and his cousin was killed on a bus. When a local woman was shot dead in the door of her village home, everyone felt it was too dangerous to stay. Some were left to guard properties but the rest fled in different directions. His parents moved about five kilometeres away and wanted him to go to Lebanon but he stayed with them. Others sought refuge in a nearby convent or went to Jordan, Kuwait, the USA and even Chile.
Many had seen Polish children during the WW2 return home when peace was declared and thought they also would soon return. However, the Israeli settlers cut down their fruit trees and demolished their homes.
After intense Israeli shelling, when the families returned a few months on, the only recognisable ruins were the mosque, the orthodox church and the catholic church in which we were meeting. The catholic church had been used as a barn until the community renovated it.
We could see the orthodox christian church in the pine trees above the catholic church. The settlers had cut down the village fruit trees and replaced them with these pine trees to demonstrate to the original families that their return was unwelcome.
The villagers lost their citizenship as well as their homes. They were promised compensation but never received any.
Five-hundred and thirty villages suffered a similar fate and this event is called the Nakba, which means catastrophe. Over 700,000 Palestinians became refugees and there are still fifty-nine refugee camps in Palestine and surrounding countries. 15th May commemorates Nakba Day and every year Maalul villagers used to return to their village on that day but this was stopped by Israel in 2005. However, they can get permission to return to celebrate Easter here and they still maintain a strong community bond. Families still visit their relatives’ graves in the cemetery.
Jad Saba Yosef Salem said there was still deep sorrow that Palestinian Christians and Muslims had been cheated of their homes. He thanked us for coming and said he wished he was able to welcome us into his original home.