Suffuriya Heritage Association in the Galilee is an example of an independent village based group supported by ADRID. The work of this particular committee clearly demonstrates the increased level of political activity amongst the 1948 refugees at both a village-based level and amongst the younger generation.
In 1948, the Galilean village of Saffuriyya was larger than the nearest district town of Nazareth. Famous in Roman times as Sepphoris, with the remains of a coliseum still visible, Saffuriyya’s hilltop is today covered with a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to commemorate such random events as Guatemalan Independence Day. The somewhat dilapidated fortress of Zahir al-‘Umar al-Zaydani (ruler of northern Palestine for short period during the second half of the 18th century) still stands, but it is no longer surrounded by a Palestinian village. An Israeli moshav (farming settlement) named Tzippori now sits on the lands of Saffuriyya, its travel brochures welcome tourists to see its ancient Roman ruins, but never acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of an entire Palestinian village half a century ago. Israeli forces occupied Saffuriyya, a town with over 4,000 Palestinian residents and 55 000 dunums of land, on 15 July 1948. Many people fled to Lebanon or farther afield, but a large number found themselves living just a few kilometers away in the Nazareth neighbourhood of Saffafra, on the edge of what is today the largest all-Palestinian city inside the Jewish state. Ziad Awaisy points through the locked gate amongst the trees to the place where his family used to live. He describes himself as “pure Suffuri,” since all four of his grandparents were born in the village. As part of the Suffuriya Heritage Association, Ziad was on the organizing team in last October’s festival for the residents of Saffuriya, which was held in Saffafra. The organizers decided to make a film of the testimonies of those members of the older generation who can still remember the days prior to exile in 1948.
“We brought people back here to the site of the village to film their reactions, and people remembered every little shape and detail, irrespective of how the landscape had changed,” said ‘Awaisy. “We visited the convent still working in the village that used to serve our people as a clinic and a girl’s school.”
The Saffuriyya Heritage Association began to work in 1993, with the aim of keeping the memory of the village alive in the memories of the second and third generation. With this goal in mind, a whole variety of activities emerged. After a long struggle with the Israeli authorities, villagers succeeded in fencing off and cleaning up one of the cemeteries (al-maqbara al-ummumiyya) that had been neglected and partly destroyed by Zionist forces and subsequent settlement. The group organized a demonstration by another vandalized cemetery, the Ashraf cemetery, near the castle of Zahir al-‘Umar.
Visits for the refugees are not trouble-free, with Jewish residents calling police three times in the filming of the recent festival documentary. “One Romanian living here started accusing us of trying to set fire to his house. But when we talked further, I saw that it was not this that he was afraid of. Looking at us, he was afraid that we wanted to come and take back our homes,” ‘Awaisy noted. People have been arrested trying to enter land classified as private property, just because they wanted to see where they used to live, or visit a family grave.
The internally displaced from Suffuriyya have big plans for the future. “We are trying to establish a small museum with all the instruments and tools and artifacts we’ve collected from people over the years,” explained Awaisy. “We want to build a small information center to gather information about Suffuriya and the names of the people and places that they live in today. It would be ideal if we could hire a place in the neighbourhood in Nazareth where the majority of Saffuriyya people live, in order to continue our activities within the community. Not only would this be a base for activities (films, lectures, adult literacy classes), but this would enable us to strengthen our work with journalists and groups visiting Saffuriyya.” But of course such plans need money.
Despite having no official premises, the organization has coordinated many visits to the site of their destroyed village, and organized activities from people’s homes. Last year a team of woman ministers from the UK accompanied by Christian Aid visited Saffuriyya as part of a solidarity visit, and later in the year a BBC documentary team paid a visit. The group has already produced three books and magazines, and organized an annual festival. The Association is determined to keep the memory alive sending “to almost every house in the neighbourhood copies of old pictures and a small bag of sand from Saffuriyya.”
Refugees inside the 1948 borders are part of the one million Palestinians living inside Israel that are labeled and classified by the Israeli state as ‘Israeli Arabs.’ The fact that many outside Israel do the same contributes to the perception that 1948 Palestinians are an Israeli ‘domestic issue’ – i.e. not worthy of international support. The 2003 Israeli elections focused more attention than usual on the potential role of ‘Arab-Israelis’. It seems that the only factor of interest about the community was which way they would vote, whether this 20% of the Israeli electorate would back the Labor Party and its new leader Amram Mitzna, Palestinian parties, or simply boycott the election.
For the 1948 Palestinian community inside Israel, the election brought little hope of change. “Some of us vote, some don’t, but we try to unite people of all parties to work on the untouchable issue of the right of return.” The furore over whether or not Israel would let Palestinian parliamentarians Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi even stand for reelection, meant that there was little hope that any winners in the Israeli election would take a positive stand on the rights of any refugees, ‘internal’ or otherwise. Internally displaced refugees are struggling to keep their issue on the agenda as part of the wider campaign for the right of return. “Our issue symbolizes the core of ethnic discrimination and the violation of Palestinian national rights,” states ADRID. “Raising awareness of the issue of the internally displaced on the local and international levels will increase awareness of the historic international responsibility for one of the most critical issues which will never be outdated.”
Isabelle Humphries is a freelance journalist working for the 1948 workers' rights NGO Sawt al-Amil, and is just embarking on PhD research focusing on the situation for 1948 Palestinians living in Nazareth.