Ghatheyya Mifleh al-Khawalda (80) was 15
years old when she fled her home during the Nakba of 1948


Today is Nakba Day, the day on which Palestinians mourn the loss of
their homeland in 1948.  65 years ago, in
May of 1948, Ghatheyya Mifleh al-Khawalda was a carefree 15-year-old girl who
lived with her mother and sister in the village of al-Qastina in Mandatory
Palestine, when they were forced, along with the rest of their village, to flee
in the face of imminent threat from Jewish militias. For some time, the people
of al-Qastina had received word of terrible attacks against other villages
nearby, in which many had died. Fearing a similar fate, they left their home,
and would never return to live there again. They became victims of what is
referred to as the Nakba, meaning ‘catastrophe’, the mass forced displacement
of Palestinians from their homes in order to make way for citizens of the
Jewish State of Israel which would be established soon afterwards.


Though Ghatheyya remembers her childhood with joy, her life has been
marked by suffering since the day she was born: “While my mother was giving
birth to me, my grandmother died. The following morning, it was Eid al-Adha. My
father went out for his morning prayers, but he never returned. They found him
dead where he had been praying. Still, I had a very happy childhood in
al-Qastina. We had a very nice house, a big house with marble floors in the
hallway. My father had been a farmer, and we had farmlands with orange trees, apple
trees, grapefruit trees and others. I used to spend my days playing with my
sister and the other girls in the village. We were very happy.”


This changed dramatically in 1948, with the arrival of Jewish militias,
who were attacking Palestinian villages and clearing them of their inhabitants:
“We had heard stories about attacks on other villages. Still, the attack on
al-Qastina came without warning. Before that, there had been a British military
camp nearby, but that year the British left and allowed the Jewish groups to
take over. We were terrified of what they might do to us. They arrived, some of
them in uniform and some in civilian clothes, and began shooting at people.
Three people were killed. They were all civilians. We ran away, afraid for our
safety, and went to Tal es-Safi, a nearby village on a hill. It was within
walking distance, and we were in a hurry to leave, so we didn’t take anything
with us. It was like Doomsday. It was utter terror. People’s minds were
imprisoned by fear. We couldn’t think of anything except leaving, not even
simple things like bringing food with us. In the chaos, some families couldn’t
find some of their children and had to leave without them. Many were too afraid
to return to find them, while others snuck down the hill at night-time to try
to rescue them. We stayed in Tal es-Safi for a few days, sleeping at night-time
in the open air with no blankets, mattresses, food, or water.”


The people of al-Qastina were not able to stay long in Tal es-Safi: “We
stayed there for a few nights, maybe a week, but then the settlers came and we
had to run again. The choice was simple. If you wanted to die, you stayed. If
you wanted to live, you left. We managed to spend one night in Beit Jibrin
before the settlers caught up with us. Anywhere we went, they chased us to the
next place. Their main aim was not to kill us, but to get rid of us. If they had
wanted us all dead, not one of us would have survived. They used fear to force
us to leave our land. If a person died, we had to leave the body behind. We
couldn’t go back for someone who was dead. We had to focus on surviving. We
were joined by people from other villages, from Isdod and al-Majdal Asqalan.[1]
We walked along the coast until we reached Gaza.”


The Jewish groups did not follow the fleeing Palestinians to Gaza, where
Ghatheyya and her family were forced to make a new life: “Finally, we could
stop running. There were many thousands of us. We slept in mosques, on the
streets, in the dirt. There were so many people everywhere. Some people stayed
with families from Gaza. Others had nowhere to go. The United Nations Relief
Works Agency (UNRWA) began to build tents for families. They gathered the
people from my village together in one compound and called us refugees. The
size of your tent depended on how big your family was. You weren’t allowed to
take in other families to live with you.”



Ghatheyya and Ahmed live with their son,
Nehad, his wife, and their three children


Though she was grateful to have survived and found refuge, for Ghatheyya,
the Gaza Strip would never replace her hometown of al-Qastina: “Everyone in
Gaza knew I was a refugee. It wasn’t a big deal. But Gaza never felt like home
to me. I used to see my aunt sitting in front of her tent every day, crying.
When I asked her what was wrong, she said: “Look at us. Instead of a house, we
now have a tent. I wish we could have carried our houses with us on our heads.”
We lived a fairly primitive life there. There was no work available for the
men. We expected the situation to be temporary so we just tried to get by and
live through it until we figured out what would happen next. UNRWA gave us cans
of food and bags of rice. We used a makeshift stove to heat our food, but it
did not work very well. We had to keep blowing on it to keep the flames alive.
After a time, UNRWA bought pieces of land from people from Gaza for the
refugees. They gave the families the construction materials and we built the
houses ourselves. We built our home in Maghazi in the Middle Area.”


Two years after fleeing her home, Ghatheyya received a proposal of
marriage from a young man who also came from al-Qastina, Ahmed Sa’id
al-Khawalda. She accepted and they were married soon afterwards: “Ahmed’s
family were still living in a tent, so I went from living in my family’s new
home back to living in a tent with him and his family. When I became pregnant
with our first child, he began building our first house in Khan Younis. I gave
birth to our daughter in our new home. Altogether, we had four sons and two
daughters. There was no work for Ahmed so his father provided for us. He had a
job distributing food for UNRWA. Ahmed and I did our best to look after our


Ghatheyya and Ahmed now have 32 grandchildren. All of the family still
live in the Gaza Strip, though Ghatheyya becomes emotional when she speaks of
how her eldest daughter died of cancer several years ago. The elderly couple
live with their son, Nehad (40), his wife, and their three children. Another of
their sons lives in the apartment above them.


Ghatheyya dotes on her 15-month-old
grandson, Saleh


Yet, Ghatheyya still dreams of her home in al-Qastina. She has had the
chance to see her old village several times since 1948, passing through the
town in taxis in the 1980s and early 1990s, when accompanying her daughter to
Jordan for medical treatment. “The first time I asked the taxi driver to bring
me there, he refused, saying it was too far out of the way. After that, I would
pretend I was only going to al-Qastina, to make sure that the driver would bring
me there and I could see my home. I didn’t have time to try to find my old
house, as we would just pass down the main street in the car. Sometimes, the
driver would only drive on the highway nearby, so I just saw the outline of the
village. Of course, I recognised my home, although the only place that was
still the same was an old car garage. I am not allowed to go there anymore, but
I still think about my village after all these years. Al-Qastina crosses my
mind very often. It doesn’t make sense that I cannot be in my home, on my land,
in the place where I grew up. I still dream of the days of the land.”


It is estimated that some 725,000 Palestinians were forcibly displaced
from their homes during the Nakba of I948. Under the operational
definition of the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), Palestinian
refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June
1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a
result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict. The descendants of the original
Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration. As of 1 January 2013,
there were 4,919,917 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA. 1,203,135 of
them live in the Gaza Strip.


Under international law, all individuals have a fundamental right to
return to their homes whenever they have become displaced due to reasons out of
their control. The obligation of states to respect the individual’s right of
return is a customary norm of international law. The right of return for Palestinian
refugees specifically is affirmed in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of
1948, which “[r]esolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and
live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the
earliest practicable date.” The resolution also provides that the responsible
authorities should compensate refugees who choose not to return, or who
suffered damage or loss to their property.



[1] Isdod is now within the State of Israel and known as Ashdod. Al-Majdal
Asqalan is now within the State of Israel and known as Ashkelon.