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75 years ago: Israel's triumph became a catastrophe for Palestinians

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One nation's triumph became another people's catastrophe 75 years ago today. Israel was established as a homeland for Jews, and most of the Palestinians there were displaced. As NPR's Daniel Estrin reports, this is not just history for Palestinians today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: A Palestinian family turns on some music, spreads open a blanket and barbecues next to the ruins of their village that Israel destroyed many years ago. Several Palestinian families are here doing the same. Up a hill, 35-year-old Nael Abdel Rahman picks a wild herb for tea.

NAEL ABDEL RAHMAN: This is my home, actually.

ESTRIN: Why do you come here?

N ABDEL RAHMAN: To remember our village, to remember our home.

ESTRIN: This longing is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1947, the U.N. voted to partition Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state. That sparked fighting between Arab and Jewish militias. Israel declared independence on May 15, 1948. Regional Arab armies invaded. Israel won the war the next year. By then, the vast majority of the Arabs there had fled or were expelled. Their homes were given to Jewish immigrants or were destroyed. Palestinians call it the Nakba - the catastrophe. And many of them call it an ongoing catastrophe. This family's village, Yalo, was destroyed by Israel not in 1948, but in the 1967 war - one of the last Palestinian villages entirely depopulated and destroyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS ON ROCK)

ESTRIN: Forty-five-year-old Reem Rub walks me down the nature trail that was her father's old village road.

REEM RUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Wow. This is where your grandfather's house was?

RUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: There's a berry tree. There's a pomegranate tree next to her grandfather's old house.

What's no longer here today is mapped out in her mind.

RUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: She points. Here's the Abu Rub family home, the Abdel Rahman family. Here's the mosque. Here's the village graveyard. Today, her extended family lives in a West Bank refugee camp. Many of them need a special Israeli permit to make this kind of visit to their old village. Today, it's a popular park with a forest planted over the ruins.

RUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: She says her father's generation was scared after being expelled and had no confidence to fight for their rights. "Today," she says, "the younger generation asks, why do I live in a crowded place in the West Bank when I have this land?"

RUB: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: She says, "today Israel is stronger than us. They have weapons. They have relations with countries around the world, but we have belief in God." She believes Palestinians will return to their destroyed villages and rebuild them. I asked Nael Abdel Rahman.

Do you actually think one day you will come back here?

N ABDEL RAHMAN: We hope that.

MOHAMAD ABDEL RAHMAN: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: His brother Mohamad says, "the truth as we see it - it's hard or impossible to come back, but with God's help, we will."

Israel says this is a red line. The return of Palestinian refugees would spell the end of the Jewish state. Israel even has a law that allows the government to penalize any organization that commemorates Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning. As the displacement feels continuous for Palestinians, Israelis continue to wrestle with the history of the Nakba in new ways.

SHAY HAZKANI: These are called village files, quite astonishing.

ESTRIN: Israeli historian Shay Hazkani wrote "Dear Palestine," a book about the 1948 war. He took me to an Israeli archive and showed me a recently discovered trove of intelligence documents that Zionist forces compiled in the years leading up to Israel's founding. Hundreds of Palestinian villages documented in meticulous detail, villages Israel later destroyed. There's been controversy recently about how to handle these kinds of documents. Israeli media have covered cases of defense officials removing documents from archives and classifying them, reportedly saying they could stir up unrest.

HAZKANI: I would say that what they're mostly concerned of is the actual remnants and story of Arab Palestine that is contained in these files - right? - you know, that people would read them, that scholars would write histories that resurrect a civilization that once existed here and was essentially almost entirely destroyed. The heritage of that place is gone.

ESTRIN: Today, millions of Palestinians live stateless with the violence of an entrenched Israeli military occupation. Israel has had its most ultranationalist government in history with far-right ministers who have called to erase a Palestinian village and campaigned to encourage Palestinians to leave. Some Palestinians say they fear a second Nakba and say their role is simply to stay put and prevent another historic displacement.

MAHMOUD MUNA: It's haunting, this book - haunting to read.

ESTRIN: Another way the history of the Nakba stays alive is in books. Forty-year-old Mahmoud Muna runs the Educational Bookshop in Jerusalem. His father-in-law lost his home when Israel was founded in 1948. On his bookshelves, Muna sees a new trend in what Palestinians are writing about today.

MUNA: Writings that's not necessarily about memory, but about political solutions.

ESTRIN: He says Palestinian thinkers are not exploring the two-state solution like they did 30 years ago. That's the compromise that the U.S. still supports, where Israelis keep the land they captured in 1948, and Palestinians get their own state in the territories Israel occupied in 1967. In the absence of that outcome, many Palestinian writers today are imagining a one-state future together with Israelis. Muna says this will take mutual recognition of each other's histories.

MUNA: The Israelis need to acknowledge that they have responsibilities for the displacement of the Palestinian people and the killing and their creating of the Palestinian refugee issue, and for the Palestinians that we need to also acknowledge that the Jewish people have roots in this place and have reasons of belonging to this place. It's a very huge step from both sides, but I think it is essential to be taken.

ESTRIN: That's the future he imagines. The present, he describes as injustice for Palestinians and what many Palestinians call a continuing catastrophe. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
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