Early one morning, nearly two weeks after the first work about the soldiers, Biram was still resting, quiet in the mists and growing dawn. And then the hillside was flooded with the unfamiliar rumbling of trucks and jeeps. Men im drab-colored uniforms with packs slung across their shoulders filled the narrow streets. My brothers and I watched from a corner of our yard, whispering among ourselves as four or five soldiers strode up to our door. They spoke with Father, who welcomed them, and they lugged their gear sleep in the large room beneath the loft where Mother and Father usually slept. My parents would join us onthe roof.
Two details I recall most vividly. Father had prepared us for house guest-but these Zionist soldiers were not at all like our Jewish neighbors who chatted inthe yard with Father over coffee. Not that they were unkind or rude. When Father killed and roasted the lamband vegetables and bread which they ate heartily. But they remained aloof, almost brusque. To my disappointment, the feast turned out to be much less of a happy celebrationthan Ihad expected. I sidled up to Mother, feeling shy and uneasy in their presence.
And the second thing I recall was the guns. All the while, my eyes were drawn by their cold glint. They were always present, evenwhen we ate. I noticed the small, carved trigger where the finger would rest, squeezing . . . squeezing . . . the long, sleek barrel . . .the tiny, death-spitting mouth . . . an explosion shook my imagination. I shudderd abd kiijed away.
The guns set us apart entirely, no matter how polite the atmosphere. I understood even then that guns were might -power- and that my family and the villagers of Biram had no might. In the coming days the guns were eveywhere while our life went on as usual. We went off to school and the barrels glinted at every corner. At night we lay down on the roof under the cold, clear-shining spring stars, and the guns were propped beneath us.
After a week, word passed through Biram that the militaary commander had some urgent business with the men of the village. Father went along to the square, expecting to hear that the troops would soon be moving on. Instead, the commander, a short, bull of a man, had delivered some alarming "confidential news."
"Our intelligence sources say that Biram is in serious danger," he announced tersely. "Fortunately, my men can protect you. But it would risk your safety to stay in your homes. You're going to have to move out into the hills for a few days. Lock everything. Leave the keys with us. I promise nothing will be disturbed. When Father told us about the order, he reported that most of the village men were disturbed. They remembered the turmoil of the 1930'swith the occupying British forces. And there had been word of new bombing in Jerusalem, of trouble between the British and the Zionists. If there was to be any confrontation these forces, the men of Biram decided it would be best to keep their families safely out of the way. The commander urged them on, saying, "Travel light. Take nothing with you. You must leave to-day - as soon as possible."
To any other people, sudden evacuation - leaving home and all the convieniences to live outdoors with large family - would be threatening if not entirely miserable. For us, it did not seem so difficult. We were accustomed to spending entire days outside, and often slept on the ground when travel or work among the flocks and fields took us away from shelter. Then we would simply huddle together beneath a tree or beside some rocks and be content. Often, as in times of mourning for the deceased relative when no one cooked, we relied solely on our hand, eating nothing but figs and olives for several days at a time. Since we children had already been sleeping on the roof, we accepted it as another part of the adventure.
Quickly, Mother and Father set the house in order, urging us to hurry and leave behind everything but the heavy clothes we were wearing. I was the only one permitted to carry a balnket with me. Having just been in a scrap with my cousin Asad, I was allowed to rap this covering over my face to hide a blak eye which was somewhat painful and embarassing. Then we were hurried outside.
Father locked the door behind us. Then he handed the key to one of our soldier-guests who was leaning against the front wall, his gun hanging casualy from a strap over his shoulder.
"I know that God will protect our house,' Father said sincerily. "And you'll be safe, too."
"Yes," the soldier replied with a smile. That was all.
When we left our yard, I was amazed to see dozens of people moving through the streets, joining other families and streaming out of Biram. Father led us down the steep hill-sides, toward a grove of olive trees, with Rudah and Chacour walking manfully beside him. Mother held my hand as I stumbled along, the blanket held protectively over my bruised eye. A woman who had been struggeling along ahead of us with a child balanced on each hip had to stop and rest. Now I saw that she was an aunt, one of Father's sisters. At the edge of the grove, I caught a glimpse of my cousin Asad and his family. Our eyes met, and he ducked his head with a guilty look. Then he disappeared amid the hundreds of other villagers who were trekking out of Biram.
Every family seemed to have the same idea: The olive grove would be the perfect place of refuge during our vigil. The crowd spread out beneath the old and twisted boughs that spread for acres and acres down toward the valley. It was said that the trees had grown here since the time of Christ or before. Perhaps He and the disciples had eaten olives from these very branches. Now the trunks were cratered and dark with age, but the fruit was still plentiful and delicious.The silver- shading leaves would protect us from sun and rain. And from here, the men ciuld best watch the comings and goings in Biram on the hilltop far above us.
Living as a nomad would be a great adventure--at least I thought so.
In a day or two, when the pain and swelling left my eye and I was ready for fun, the novelty of camping had worn off for everyone else. My brothers were simply sullen.The men, I could tell, were beginning to feel nervous that they had left their homes and lands under the protection of strangers. The okder people were starting to suffer from sleeping on the damp, stoney ground. Though the days were sunny, the temperature dropped rapidly at sunset, plunging us from a hot afternoon into a shivering night. Everyone was thankful that I had brought my blanket. All six of us children would try to squeeze under it while Mother and Father huddled together uncomfortably on the ground.
The cold was somehow bearable. The rain was not. A heavy, gray bank of clouds covered the hills on the fourth day. A chilling drizzle spattered through the olive leaves, soaking the grass, mixing the gravel and dirt into mud beneath our feet.
Father led us through the trees to the grotto at the edge of our land. The inside walls were layered with gray and green moss, and a faint smell of damp humus and of goats hung in the air. It was small, but all of us could fit inside, protected from the night drafts and sudden rains.
For nearly two weeks, the men kept up their vigil, watching for threatening activity in the village. Occasionally, a fleet of trucks would arrive in a cloud of dust, and shortly they would drive out again. Mostly, things remained quiet. The people of Biram continued to camp ;under the olive trees, foraging for food, drinking from artesian springs and getting stiffer each night from sleeping on the ground. Still there was no word from the soldiers.
At last the elders decided not to wait for the military commander's signal to return. A delegation of men collected in the olive grove and climbed the hill if Biram.
Before long, they came running back, their faces a confusion of anguish and fear. The horror of their report spread through the grove.
Upon entering Biram and passing the first house, they had seen that the door was broken in. Most of the furniture and belongings were gone. What was left lay smashed and scattered on the floor. At the next house, it was the same, and at the house across the street. Chairs were smashed, curtains shredded, dishes shattered against the walls.
Then they were stopped by armed soldiers. the one who appeared to be in charge waved his gun menacingly and barked, What are you doing here Get out!"
Angry, and certain that these impudent soldiers needed a reprimand from their superior, the men stood their ground.
"Where is your commanding officer? We are the people of Biram, and we want to bring our wives and children home!"
The one in charge approached them, his gun held squarely across his chest. "The commander is gone," he said coolly. "He left us to protect the village. You have no business here anymore."
At once, all the men raised their voices.
"Protect our village? You're destroying it!"
"Get out--leave us in peace!"
The soldiers leveled their guns at them, flicking off the safety switches. Angrily, one of them growled, "The land is ours. "Get out now. Move!"
The betrayal cut like a knife. A few of the men were bitterly angry, seething with the thought that we had been tricked out of our village by these European men we had trusted. Others were simply bewildered. Pain etched every face.
Father and Mother seemed as bewildered as children by such a callous betrayal. I think it was simply beyond their understanding.
The poor mukhtars were mobbed with questions: "How can we get Biram back?" "What's going to happen to our homes?" "Can't you make the soldiers leave?" If course they could do nothing--two aging, unarmed and bewildered men against the guns of these soldiers.
More immediate was the need for shelter and protection from the waether. Obviously, we could not continue to live exposed to rain and the cold nights.
After a brief discussion, it was proposed that we climb the next hill to Gish, our nearest neighboring village. Surely the people there, who were also Christians, could made some provisions for us temporarily while we sorted out this mistake by the rude, young soldiers.
Cresting the hill that rose between our village and Gish, we felt a strange somberness. No shepherd greeted us as we crossed the open fields. the lot where young boys played soccer was vacant. A frightening pall of silence hung in the streets between the empty houses where yioung women and grandmothers should have been chattering among sleeping babies and old men.
After a long search through the empty village, we discovered ten elderly people who told use they had been left behind. From them we learned that these unarmed people had suffered a fate similar to our own.
Soldiers had arrived in trucks, they told us. But for some reason, they did not use the ruse with these people that they had used in Biram. With machine guns leveled, they abruptly ordered the people to get out, not bothering to drive off these few old men and women who were apparently too feeble to abandon their homes. one old man was certain that the soldiers were impatient to get the evacuation over, because he had heard gunfire just outside the village, "Just to warn the people to move along faster." Most of them suspected that the villagers had fled into Lebanon, which was only a few kilometers distant.
"We do not know when they will return," said one old man, next to tears.
"Or if they will return," added another grimly.
Even with this weight of sadness, they offered us a sort of ruined hospitality: "You are welcome to stay in our village" they told us, "though little is left here."
He was right. the soldiers had rampaged through most of the homes, smashing or carrying off the furnishings in their trucks. A least it was shelter.
Unfortunately, there were fewer dwellings in Gish than families from Biram. In somehomes, two families were cramped into a single room with old sheets or worn carpets hung for dividers. For families with ten or more children, conditions were utterly miserable. Abu ' Eed visited, offering comfort and encouragement.
Father was fortunate enough to find a tiny, one-room house for us. He was also able to find a small room nearby for his aged parents who suffered terribly during the nights outdoors, as had all the elderly of Biram. Our room was dilapidated, barely larger than the grotto on Father's land, and empty but for a few broken chairs. In one corner I found a smashed toy--a doll with its head crushed in. Fingering it, I thought of the child who must have dropped it in fear and confusion and a ghostly feeling came over me. I drew my hand away suddenly and never touched the doll again.
Struggling groups that had been driven from other villages carried more distressing news as we settled uncomfortably in Gish. The soldiers were moving systematically through the hill country, routing the quiet, unprotected villagers. Many were fleeing in foot for Lebanon or Syria. And there was talk of violence in the south. A certain, unnamable eeriness clung to the air with each fragment of information that came.
We wondered, as we tried to piece our lives together, when the soldiers would return and what they would do if they found us in our neighbors' village. And though Mother and Father repeatedly assured us that we were safe, one thought ramained fearfully unspoken: What had happened to the men, women and children of Gish?
I would be the first to learn the answer. A week or more after our arrival, Charles and I were shuffling glumly through the streets together when we found a soccer ball. It was slightly soft from the cold, but still had enough life to respond to a good kick. Immediately, Charles broke into a trot, footing the ball ahead. "Come on, Elias," he called. "Let's have a game!" from side streets and open doorways, ten other boys joined as we passed.
Dodging through the streets, we reached a sandy, open lot at the edge of Gish.With the innocent abandon of small boys, the fate of Biram was momentarily forgotten. We raced up and down the lot, loosing our pent-up energies in a swift-footed competition.
Charles' team scored two points almost at once. One boy was lining up for another attempt, eyes riveted on the goal, when I charged him, roaring, laughing, waving my arms. He kicked hard, and the ball breezed by my head, high and wild, out of bounds. I pivoted and tore after it. The other team dropped back to defend their goal, and my teammates took their positions awaiting my return.
I reached the ball where it had thumped and settled in a stretch of loose sand. Oddly, the ground seemed to have been churned up. I stooped and picked uo the ball, noticing a peculiar odor. An odd shape caught my eye--something like a thick twig poking up through the sand. And the strange color. . .
I bent down and pulled on the thing. It came up stiffly, the sand falling back from a swollen finger, a blue-black hand and arm. The odor gripped my throat. . . .
"Elias, What's wrong?" Someone was hollering in the reeling distance.
Numbness dulled all feeling. the stiff arm lay in the sand at my feet-a boy's arm. I imagined the face--sand in the sealed eyes--gagging the slack moouth. I thought I was yelling. No sound could escape my throat. Vaguely, I could hear Charles beside me calling. . . .
Later, the shallow graves were uncovered. Buried beneath a thin layer of sand were two dozen bodies. The gunfire that the old man had heard had done its bitter work.
The victims were hastily re-buried in honorable graves. There was seething anger and talk of retribution when we had no power against this madness? Most of the men, Father especially, would have no part of such ugly talk.
As for me, the innocence and durability of youth were on my side. No one mentioned the incident to me at all. Mother, Father and my grandparents were overly kind, ignoring my outbursts of impatience or tears. My brothers and cousins eventually distracted me with more games, though we avoided the sandlot for quite some time.
In the coming months, as summer crept into Galilee, I was little aware of events outside our secluded hills. but major decisions were being made by nations far more powerful than ours--decisions that would soon leave us without a homeland or an identity. Father and the village elders honed their disbelieving ears to news about the drama that was unfolding across Palestine and the world's supreme court justice--the United Nations.
The elders learned, as news and rumors traveled like wildfire through Galilee, that the "question of Palestine" had come before the U.N. It seemed that the Zionists no longer wanted the British to control Palestine, and they wanted to establish their national homeland in place of ours. The British, whose military and financial ability to govern Palestine were bankrupted by the long war in Europe, could not stop the Zionists from taking over the land. The Zionist forces, known as the Haganah, had taken over the munitions factories in the south and were using the mortars, bombs, machine guns and heavy equipment against British and Palestinian alike. Each time a Palestinian village was raided, a few of its men would gather in the hills with their donkeys and antiquated carbines in a pathetic attempt to protect their land. These ill-prepared bands were subsequently crushed by the the Haganah in further reprisals. It was hardly a contest. And now the United Nations had been called upon to arbitrate a peaceful solution to the bloodshed.
Certainly, the men of Biram reasoned hopefully, the powerful nations of the world who controlled the U.N. would reach a just solution. The summer of 1947 passed, the rains of autumn soaked the earth, and still we waited as refugees. Month after month in our cramped quarters, we prayed for the news that we could return to our homes in Biram.
In November, refugees fleeing from larger towns brought more devasting news.
Palestine was to be partitioned in what the U.N. called a "compromise." Our elders and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians throughout the land were shocked beyond words, for the terms of the "compromise" were brutal.
The Zionists were to possess the majority of Palestines--fifty-four percent--even though they owned only seven percent of the land! In five major areas that were being handed over, well over half the people--up to seventy and eighty, even ninety-nine percent--were Palestinians. The " compromise" gave the Zionists almost all the fertile land, including the huge, main citrus groves that accounted for most of our peoples' export income. It gave away the vast Negev region where the Bedouins produced most of the barley and wheat grown in Palestine. There was three times more cultivated land in this one area than the incoming, European settlers had cultivated in all Palestinian in the previous thirty years.
Such concession, in the eyes of the Palestinian people, could hardly be called a "compromise." Our people were being told to hand over more than half of our well-cultivated lands that produced our only livelihood.
How had such a sweeping and one-sided decision been reached? Among the nations of the world, the U.N vote was accepted without question or prtoest.
As an eight-year-old boy, the elders' talk was just words to me. It would be years before I discovered the truth about international intrigues and clandestine agreements that had let to this Middle East tragedy. For now, the eyes of all were blind to thses political machinations. And I was onl;y aware that my peaceful homeland of Palestine, known as the Holy Land, had become a land of war.
Shortly after the U.N. vote the British announced that they would be withdrawing all forces from the Middle east the folowing sring - by May 15, 1948.
Throughout the winter months and into spring 1948, we heard of more terror, of villages blown up by barrel-bombs while others narrowly escaped the falming ruins of their homes. Thopusands were now uprooted, living in the hills and arid wastelands.
Most especially, we came to fear one name - the highly- trained and singled-minded Zionist organization called the Irgun. One of its leaders had been among the ten terrorists most wanted by the Vritish for his part in bombing the luxurious King David Hotel in Jerusalem. His name was Menachem Begin and his proclaimed goal was to "purify" the land of Palestinian people.
In April of that year one of these acts of purification was the destruction of a village on the outskirts of modern Jerusalem. The scene at Deir Yassin was later recorded by an eyewitness, Jacques de Reynier, the head of the International Red Cross emergency delegation.
On April 10, Regnier was stopped on the Jerusalem raod by members of the Irgun, who refused him entry to the village. He bravely pushed through their lines and into homes where he found "bodies cold. Here 'cleaning up' had been done with machine-guns, then hand grenades. It had been finished off with knives, anyone could see that...As I was about to leave, I heard something like a sigh...It was a little girl of ten, mutilated by a hand grenade, but still alive...There had been 400 people in the village; about 50 of them escaped and were still alive..."
The native Jewish people were shcoked and disgusted. In tears, they protested that such things violated their ancient beleifs. Upon hearing the news about Deir Yassin, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem flew into a fury.
Unfortunaltly, religious censure was not powerful enough to stop the military machine.
As May approached, more trucks rumbled into peasant villages. And daily, refugees swarmed through Galilee bringing word of more towns sacked. Others drowned in the Mediterranean as they tried to swim for overcrowed refugee ships leaving from Haifa and Lidda.
Early on May 14, while the last British were scrambling to get out of Palestine, a young man named David Ben Gurion assembled more than two hundred journalists and photgraphers to proclaim the establishement of the Sate of Israel. Within hours, the governement that the new Prime Minister Ben Gurion and his camards had been carefully planning for months was in place. Within sixty minutes, the United States offically recognized the new nation of Israel under Zionist rule.
The same jopurnalist and photpgraphers who attended Ben Gurion's proclamation soon recorded for the world our summer of tears. Through May, June and Jully, almost one million Palestinian were driven out of the newly-proclaimed democracy. Soldiers from surrounding Arab Nations of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon fought to stop the takeover, but were driven back.In the confusion and terror, husbands and wives were forever parted, parents lost small children never to see them again and elderly died.
The Jews who had been our neighbors, our friends who lived with us and shared our customs, ached for us. They could not understand or accept such violence, but they were powerless to help. And the nations were silent.
By autumn of 1948, the Zionists had swept north and were close to us again. The forces were "cleansing" the towns around the Seas of Galilee, almost at our doorstep. As winter set in--our second winter in Gish--the Zionists advance stopped short of the upper Galilee. Thin blankets of snow fell, and only one question was discussed in low voices around guttering fires: Would the soldiers find us here in our hill-country refuge--or would they think we had fled to Lebanon or Syria or Jordan as had so many others?
Although we had been refugees from our own home for almost two years, Father never prayed for us, for our protection or provisions. He continued in his simple belief that his children were like "the birds of the air" that God had promised to feed and refused to worry over us--though I think Mother had a more difficult time when food was scarce. We had barely survived our first year, eating animals from the abandoned flocks, making bread from the stores of grain and working small gardens.
I was increasingly aware of Father's unbelievably forgiving attitude toward the soldiers. He faithfully continued our times of family prayer and never failed to pray for those who had made themselves our enemies. Night after night I would lean my head against Mother, fingering the fish and doves on her necklace, and hear Father pray: Forgive them, oh God. Heal their pain. Remove their bitterness. Let us show them our peace."
As spring 1949 pounced upon us, tiger-like with its fercious heat, I could see little peace anywhere but in our own home. An uneasy lull moved in with the blistering days and cool nights. We rose each morning with a fear that we might not lie down on our mats that evening. At any moment we too, might be swept away.
On a sultry morning, our lull was shattrered. I was playing in some trees near the road to Gish with a few cousins and some other boys when we heard the ominous, rumbling of trucks. In the distance, rounding the side of the next hill, came the first of the army vehicles. For a split second we looked at each other in wordless terror, then scattered.
When I reached home, Father was in the doorway with Mother and the children. The trucks had reached the edge of the village, and a harsh metallic voice rang from a loudspeaker: "All men must show themselves at once. Young men and old men. Come outside with your hands on your heads. Do not resist."
I looked at my brothers. Rudah and Chacour were now young men. Musah was a teenager. They, too, would have to go. What about Atallah and me? And what would the soldiers do to the men who surrendered themselves? My face tingled with a burning fear.
Father looked grim, but as he turned to my three oldest brothers he spoke with a perfect calm. "Come boys. It will be all right."
Wardi clung to Mother, and Atallah and I stood numbly at her side. The four of us watched Father march bravely, with Rudah,Chacour and Musah striding uncertainly beside him, out to a large open lot where the soldiers stood with leveled guns. Atallah and I crept outside to watch. I was shaking, nearly choked with tears.
Crouched in a shadow outside the door, we stared as all the houses of Gish gave up their men and older sons. Among the somber throng we saw all of our uncles, their faces riddled with tension. Young men filled the streets, their eyes a confusion of fear and defiance. Behind them shambled the old men, not willing in their fierce pride to sit at home while their sons and grandsons faced the danger alone. As they came, they were ordered into one large circle that stretched around the entire open lot.
Immediately the soldiers began to accuse. "You are rebels. Tell us where your guns are hidden. We know your are fighters--Palestinian terrorists."
These words scorched me. Father, my uncles, cousins and the mukhtars--"terrorists"?
On and on went the interrogation as the heat of the day built to a searing brightness. The men began to squirm, drenched in their own sweat as the sun poured down. There was no water. Neither could they relieve themselves.. Without ceasing, the soldiers demanded that they surrender their weapons. There was nothing to give up; there were no guns anywhere in our village. Still the soldiers harassed them through the long afternoon. Men weakened and some dropped as the heat and accusations pounded at them.
We could see Father at the far side of the lot. Sweat dripped from his chin. His eyes were shut and occasionally his lips would move. I knew that he was praying for the soldiers.
And suddenly, as the afternoon sun waned, it was over. The commanding officer barked abruptly: "Go back to your homes. But don't try to escape."
Father nearly collapsed inside our door. He and my brothers rested in the quiet coolness of the house while Mother and Wardi rushed to bring them water and a little food.
As the darkness settled over us, no one dared to light fires or to cook a meal. The soldiers remained in Gish, gathered around their trucks or patrolling the streets. We waited in a misery of silence, hoping they would leave.
Father seemed to have some inner warning of what would happen next. He drew close to each of us in turn, with a gentle touch and inscrutable look. I suspected that he was praying for us one by one. His eyes looked weary, and yet some reservoir of calm lay behind them. When he smiled at me and touched my shoulder I could almost believe that the soldiers would leave soon and let us live in peace.
And suddenly there was noise and bustling in the dark streets. I shuddered to the sounds of loud angry voices, gunbutts thudding at doors and growl of trucks motors starting.
The loudspeaker was blaring again. "Come out of your houses. We want all men to come out and give themselves up.You are leaving here at once..."
Mother seized Father's arm, sheer anguish carving her gentle face. "Michael, what are they doing? Where--?"
"Katoub," he stopped her, drawing her close. "God is watching us. You have to strong--" he paused, his voice dropping, "for the little ones."
For a moment they held each other as the terrible blaring continued. The wailing outside cinched the knot in my stomach. Tears streamed down Wardi's face. Then Father turned to my brothers and said quietly, "We'll go now."
Mother trailed after them, kissing Rudah, Chacour and Musah, wiping her tears with the back of her hand. I stood frozen beside her on the doorstep, Atallah and Wardi peering mutely over my shoulder. In the glare of headlights and flares, we stared into the darkness and chaos.
Soldiers were hurrying the men and older boys at gunpoint onto the open- backed trucks. More guards stood at thr tailgates barking orders. In the doorways, women stood weeping, their babies and smaller children wailing loudly in their arms. Father and my brothers had already been jammed onto one of the trucks with several dozen other men,and we could no longer see them.
As the last tailgate slammed shut, the loudspeakers called out to the women. "We are taking your terriorsts away. This is what happens to all terrorists. You will not see them again."
And then the trucks were rolling, rumbling away into the night. In the blackness, women flooded into the streets, sinking to their knees and weeping, calling the names of their husbands and sons.
Mother was to desolate to try to offer comfort to any of my aunts who came and hung on her shoulder.She walked numbly inside, and sat holding Wardi, Atallah and me long into the night. I clutched her skirt, shutting my eyes against the wails and screams. For a long time--I could not tell how long--I sat this way. I must have fallen asleep.
When I opened my eyes again, it seemed to me much later. All was silent but for the barking of a dog far off. Silent, but for the inner voices that begged inside us: Where have they taken my father--my sons--my husband? Will I see them again--or never again.?
I shifted a little and looked up at Mother. In the dark I could not see her face, but heard her slight whispers.
In these, the darkest hours of her life, Mother wuld turn again and again to her only source of strength and inner peace. She stroked my hair, and continued softly praying.