The members of a large Palestinian clan dream of escaping Gaza and going back to their homeland, the village of Ni’ilya. For 70 years, they’ve been imagining this return to a place that no longer exists, except in their collective memories.
By Alexander Osang
Photo Gallery: A Palestinian Village Chases Paradise Photos
Jonas Opperskalski / laif / DER SPIEGEL
May 15, 2018 11:30 AM
It acts like a magical word. It lights up rooms. It gives everything a purpose. It is the goal. The direction. The solution. When Yahia Khalout utters the word on this afternoon, a light seems to go on inside him. The word is “Ni’ilya.”
Khalout is 55 years old, he has a gray moustache and black eyes that usually appear to be peering into a bottomless abyss. He is sitting with a dozen men in the shell of a house in Jabalia, the biggest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. It’s raining outside. The men, who are wearing tracksuits, have assembled around a bed as if it is a sacrificial altar. Yahia Khalout’s seriously injured son is lying there. His name is Abdullah and he is 23 years old. He’s pale and wrapped in a fuzzy, colorful blanket. He was hit by a bullet while protesting at the border fence with Israel and is still too weak to tell the story of his survival, so his dad recounts it instead. It sounds like a ballad. A partisan song.
It goes like this: On the morning of the first “March of Return,” three friends set off for the fence. The sun has just risen. They have a Palestinian flag. All three are in their early twenties. They’re going home. To their homeland, which they know is wonderful. Every Friday, Palestinians want to raise awareness about their situation in Gaza, where there are countless shortages, with a peaceful protest. They don’t have enough food, water, work or freedom. The Friday marches are meant to bring them closer and closer to the border fence with Israel and, on May 15, Nakba Day, the dark day of the Palestinian people, they will reach the border. Nobody knows what will happen after that, but the three men get going.
The first shot is fired when they are 200 meters (700 feet) from the fence. It hits the flag-bearer in the leg. The next man gets up, lifts the flag, walks a bit and then is also struck in the leg. Then the third man takes the Palestinian flag and carries it further. The man is Abdullah Khalout. The Israeli sniper’s bullet hits him in the chest. They take him to the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza where his father works as a nurse. Yahia Khalout was treating a boy when he saw his bleeding son being carried into the emergency room. Abdullah had serious internal bleeding. He was in shock. They give him several transfusions and bring him to the Al-Shifa Hospital, the biggest in Gaza. The father accompanies his son. “Forgive me, father,” the young man says before losing consciousness. They operate for five hours, at which point a doctor appears in the waiting room and says, “There’s little hope, Yahia.” After another five hours, Abdullah wakes up to say, “Tell mother she should forgive me.” Then, during the afternoon of the next day, a surgeon appears in the waiting room, takes the father by the shoulders and says, “God has saved your son!”
And that’s how it was. The prayer beads click in Khalout’s hand. His son nods weakly. “We have been fighting for 70 years against the injustice of the Israeli occupation,” Yahia says. “My family has provided 60 martyrs. Sixty. I sat in an Israeli jail for five years, in the Negev Desert, for this struggle for the rights of my people. My son has now continued this fight. We are almost there.”
“In our homeland,” says Yahia Khalout. “In Ni’ilya.”
The light inside him turns on. He smiles, even his eyes smile. The word has turned an angry man into a happy one. All the men are now smiling, including the one sent by Hamas to monitor and make sure the international public was being appropriately informed. Ni’ilya is the name of the village the family comes from. It’s located about 20 kilometers away, on the other side of the border. A small village south of Ashkelon, which they call Majdal. None of the men in the room have ever seen Ni’ilya. But all can describe it. The houses, the fields, the trees.
“We had oranges and grapes,” says Yahia.
“Almonds,” says another man.
“And grain,” says Yahia. “We brought it to the market in Majdal and sold it there. My grandfather had 150 dunum of land.” That translates to about 15 hectares.
A Huge, Intertwining Clan
They all know the size of their ancestors’ land, but aren’t as familiar with the circumstances under which they were driven out of that paradise. In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, the inhabitants of many Palestinian villages fled to Gaza. The cause of this flight — a war in which the Arab neighboring states intervened because they didn’t like the idea of an independent Jewish state in their midst, or because they didn’t accept the UN’s plans for dividing Palestine — have either been forgotten or repressed by them, or smothered by the other terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people. The wars, the blockades, a society in neverending transition, living in refugee camps whose tents became first huts and then houses. The only constant has been the feeling of great injustice that began 70 years ago, on Nakba Day.
“Ni’ilya: Ethnically cleansed 25,280 days ago,” says a Palestinian website that translates the displacement into numbers.
In November 1948, Ni’ilya was cleared. Back then, the village had 297 houses, and all except one were destroyed. But the families from Ni’ilya still exist. Indeed, they have grown with time. The 1,520 Palestinians who left Ni’ilya in 1948 have turned into around 60,000. They live across the world, in the United States, Germany and Saudi Arabia. But most are in Gaza. Yahia’s family alone now has over 1,000 members and is related to another family from Ni’ilya, the Yassins, a huge clan with intertwining relations that are hard to decipher. There are 10-year-olds who are uncles of 40-year-olds and siblings whose birthdays are 30 years apart. But all of them ultimately come from this village of dreams. From Ni’ilya.
It’s a place that holds together all these people with different names and faces, like a path leading through this enormous family.
If there is a kind of central square on this path, it might be Sad Aladin Yassin, a distant brother-in-law of Yahia Khalout. Yassin is 68 years old and was born in a tent in Gaza one year after his family left Ni’ilya. His father was a farmer and owned 150 dunum of land, Aladin Yassin says right from the start. Then come the orange trees, the shade, the peace. And the smile.