War Crimes

Fifteen Years after the June 1982 War: Testimonies on the Battle of Burj al-Shamali Refugee Camp and Israel's Massacres and Air Raids (excerpts)

 In Burj ash-Shamali refugee camp in Lebanon, there is a small area reserved for collective memory. In the eastern side of the camp, the ruins of al-Hulah Club and its shelter, site of the Israeli Air Force’s horrific massacre, still remain.

  The shelter has become a collective tomb. The residential areas around the site have now expanded, and with the exception of a few square meters on which a very modest memorial monument has been erected, houses today take up much of the area and its surroundings. Shaded beneath a majestic cedar, several layers of cement blocks make up this memorial, which carries no engravings or testimonials.

On any given ordinary day, its proximity allows the living, in an intimate harmony, to remain close to their departed loved ones. On special occasions and religious holidays, they visit the memorial, lay wreaths of myrtle, burn incense, light candles, and then go back home to their once suppressed, but now reawakened pain and sorrow.

It was by coincidence that I began my interviews on the third day

 of the al-Adha Holiday. I poked at the ashes of sorrow, and they ignited anew. One of those I interviewed would tell me later that a cloud of sadness hung over their home for at least a week after the interview.

Muhammad Mustafa Abdallah (45), al-Na’imeh

Muhammad was born in 1953, in the diaspora. He received a technical Bachelor’s Degree in electrical mechanics, and works as a truck driver. Muhammad lost his wife and four of his children in the massacre at the al-Hulah Club’s shelter. The children were 6 year-old Nidal, 4 year-old Yumna, 2 year-old Sawsan, and newborn Nisreen, just one month old.

As soon as we sat in his living room, his mother, the Hajeh Um Khamees came in. Feeling that a stranger had come for an unusual reason, she asked, in her own way, why I was there. Muhammad did not tell her anything. For my part, I would have preferred if she had stayed and talked with me. When I asked Muhammad why he did not tell her about the purpose of my visit, he said that he did not want to bring back her sorrow again.

Alas, what sorrow! In the al-Hulah shelter, the Hajeh lost her 18 year-old daughter Zeinab. Her son Hassan lost his 1 year-old son Usama, and his wife Suad, who survived, suffered some burns. After being treated, Suad and Hassan were “killed” on their way to Beirut. Adding to her tragedy, another of the Hajeh’s sons, Ni’mat lost his wife, son and daughter, and her daughter, Mariam (Um al-Izz) who suffered burns and serious gashes, lost her five children.

Once I took in all these tragedies, I understood why Muhammad chose not tell his mother why I was there.

Um Khamees – the Old Oak Tree

“The 1982 war was the worst of wars,” said Mohammad. “The refugee camp was demolished and the conditions there were as if doomsday had come. Right at the height of the shelling and destruction, people were running in different directions, frantically searching for their relatives…. An entire wall fell on me as I was running in the street. My friend, Nuh al-Fayez covered his head with a wooden box to protect himself from the shelling.

When they got me out from under the rubble, I did not feel my physical pain…. The greater pain was when we found out about the al-Hulah Club massacre. I ran to the Club. I was the first to arrive. I saw the victims, drowned in pools of their own blood. I was able to dig out three of my children, but I did not find the fourth, and I did not find my wife. Through destroyed streets, I carried my children to the Jabal ‘Amel Center, but there was no medical aid at the Center. By morning, my children had died.

I buried them in a collective tomb, in a garden inside the camp. I was arrested with the rest of the youths, and moved to a detention center, then to the Ansar Detention Center, both inside ‘48 Palestine. I and some of the others were eventually released.”

I asked Muhammad: “How did you overcome this tragedy and start your life again?” He answered: “Two years after I was released from Ansar, I wondered a lot about whether I wanted to start a new family, only to have them killed again! I hesitated, but in the end, I decided that life had to go on. When I was at Ansar, my feelings about the value of life – my life and that of others – deepened. I said to myself then, ‘If I was not a prisoner, I could very well be dead.’

All I worried about then was how to hold on and not weaken and endanger my and my comrades’ life. Privately, I rehearsed my answers to the prison interrogators’ expected questions. I clung to life. I got married again in 1984, and I now have five children, 8 year-old Salam, 6 year-old Samah, 3 year-old Zeinab, 2½ year-old Mustafa, and 6-month old Shadi. They are now at about the same ages as my martyred children.”

I asked Muhammad if he ever told his children about the tragedy; whether he keeps pictures of his children’s martyred brothers and sisters; whether he lets them see those pictures; and why he did not name his children after their martyred siblings.

Muhammad told me that he did not name his new children after the names of their martyred siblings because he wanted the wounds to heal. “My children know they had brothers and sisters who were massacred by Israel, and they see the pictures from time to time, and they ask about their names. The brothers and sisters look alike. They will grow up knowing everything, just as our generation knows everything about the tragedy of the September 1970 massacres, even though we did not live it. Every generation of Palestinians knows the tragedies, and they pass them down to the next generation.”

Ni’mat Mustafa Abdallah (49), al-Na’imeh

Ni’mat lost his wife, Mariam, and his two children, 6 year-old Rami, and 4 year-old Rania, in the massacre. His wife was pregnant at the time, due to give birth the very day of the massacre. I met him in the house of his sister Mariam (Um al-Izz), and he was ready to talk.

He told me about the camp’s siege, about the Israeli forces’ failure to enter it all day on 6 June 1982, and about the threats to destroy the camp if the “terrorists” did not lay down their arms and surrender by 12 noon on 7 June 1982. Ni’mat said: “On the evening of 6 June, I took my wife and children to the shelter at Jabal ‘Amel Center, adjacent to the camp. When the shelling started at midday the next day, I feared that my children were killed. I left the shelter at al-Najdah al-Ijtima’iyyah, where 13 people were martyred only minutes before the intensive shelling began, and I rushed to the shelter at Jabal ‘Amel to search for my family.

I was told that they went to the al-Hulah Club shelter. I felt my suspicions were right…. I don’t know how I made it to the shelter, because all the roads were full of debris and rubble. I went down to the shelter, and my hair turned white from the sight of the victims’ naked bodies, their clothes completely burned off. Some people told me that they took my sister, Um al-Izz to the clinic of the Palestine Liberation Army because she was badly burned and blinded by the attack. When I found out that my other sister, Zeinab was martyred in the shelter, I lost my mind, and I cried for a long time, praying ‘my God, at least save this sister, keep this sister with me,’ referring to Um al-Izz.

We rescued the children, among whom were my children, my brother Muhammad’s children, and my sister Mariam’s (Um al-Izz), who were all in the shelter. As I held my 4 year-old daughter Rania in my arms, after we pulled her from the rubble, she cried out, weak and dying: ‘Daddy, daddy, I will not go back to school anymore!’ I don’t know how, but I managed to answer her, tears streaming down: ‘No, my darling, you will not go back at all.’ I took her to the Liberation Army’s clinic, and Dr. Mahmoud Ataya had only two words for me: ‘No hope.’

I went back to the shelter to help in the rescue. I removed an infant, still alive, from her dead mother’s tight embrace. No one recognized the child, so I said ‘this baby girl will be mine. I will raise her, and she will be God’s compensation to me.’ But the child died shortly after the air touched her body.”

Ni’mat continued telling his story: “During the night, I moved the children to the Jabal ‘Amel Center, and prayed to God that he would keep at least one of them alive. The children asked for water, but there was no water in the center. I dipped a piece of cotton in the toilet bowl, where the water was red from the rust, and dabbed their lips with it.

On 8 June, my brother and I decided to move our and our sister’s children, those who had survived, to the Emergency Forces’ facilities in Qana. We did not care about the dangers. We only wanted to save as many of them as possible. They were received without even having to register their names. I found out later, through the Red Cross, when I was at Ansar, that the children were taken to Tabneen Hospital, and that they never came back from there.

We went back to the refugee camp, knowing that we had to bury the martyrs. Because it was not possible to take them to the camp’s cemetery, which is located in the Ma’shouq region, we decided to bury them inside the camp. Some of them, including my brother’s wife, were buried near the Jabal ‘Amel Center. My children were buried not far from here, in my uncle the Haj’s garden. The rest were buried in the shelter itself. They said to me: ‘Come and take your wife’s body from the shelter.’ But where would I take her, I could not reach the Ma’shouq Cemetery or anywhere. So, like many others, she is buried in the shelter.”

Ni’mat went on to say: “After burying my wife and children, I almost lost my mind, because I had nothing left in this world. I set fire to everything left in my house and in my sister Um al-Izz’s house. How could anything be of any value, now that I had lost what is most dear to me! Like our popular Palestinian proverb says: ‘If the house is lost, one should not be sorry for the cupboards.’ I went to my brother’s house in the town of Burj ash-Shamali, where I stayed for 20 days. Then the landlord asked us to leave, and threatened us if we didn’t. We left for Sidon. In Sidon, I was arrested and taken first to a detention center in Atlit, and then to Ansar. Six months later, the Red Cross gave me a choice: go back to Sidon or go to Tyre. I chose to go back to Sidon.”

Ni’mat’s story is also long in Sidon, but he managed to return to the camp before the Israeli forces’ withdrawal from the region.

At this point, I asked Ni’mat how he started his life again, and he said: “After the massacre, I did not think of starting a new family. I kept saying to myself that this is my lot in life, and it was enough. But when I was in Sidon and Ein al-Hilweh, I learned to deal with my tragedy when I found myself overwhelmed by others’ tragedies. Many families were entirely exterminated.

My father, who lost 18 relatives, among them some of his children, was very strong and loving, and he also helped me. He told me then: ‘If the tree bark is still green, then the tree will blossom.’ I married a friend’s sister, and we have five children, 6 year-old Rami, named after my first martyred child, 9 year-old Miriam, named after my martyred wife, 12 year-old Nagham, 8 year-old Amani, and 2 year-old Lial.”

I asked him if he told his children about the massacre, and he answered: “No. I don’t hang the pictures of their martyred sisters and brothers at home, but keep them in a locked box. Every time I remember the tragedy, I get a headache. I cannot see massacre scenes on the television. I was not able to watch the news coverage of the Qana massacre.” At this point, his tears spoke what his lips could no longer utter.

Mariam Mustafa Abdallah (Um Al-Izz), al-Na’imeh
Kamal Jum’ah Mushairfeh (Abul Izz), al-Na’imeh

Mariam, Kamal Jum’ah’s (Abul Izz) wife, was one of the survivors, but she lost all of her five children in the massacre at al-Hulah Club’s shelter: 8 year-old Fadwa, 6 year-old Fadi, 4 year-old Faten, and the 6 month-old twins Firas and Iyhab. Scars from the severe burns she suffered are still visible. She temporarily lost her sight and hearing, regaining both only after long treatments.

Abul Izz was the one who arranged for us to hear the testimonies of Fayez Hassan al-Ghoul, also known as Abu Khalid, and Ni’mat Mustafa Abdallah. Um al-Izz was with her children (born after the massacre) in the next room, and she heard the two testimonies through the door. When her brother, Ni’mat spoke about her and her martyred children, she was unable to hold back her tears, and her children witnessed her pain and sorrow.

She ran into the room we were sitting in and burst into tears. In a pained voice overwhelmed by her weeping, she started to tell her story, speaking for a long time about intimate human details too extensive to be all mentioned here. Her words were often interrupted by crying that came from the depths of her soul, and like a volcano, Um al-Izz suddenly erupted, releasing her deepest sorrows. With the written word, one can never really feel another’s ache of the heart, and the real value of Um al-Izz’s testimony is the tone of her recorded voice.

“I became in the other life”

The words of Ni’mat, Abu Khalid, Um al-Izz, and Abul Izz overlapped. Abu Khalid said: “When I arrived at the shelter, Um al-Izz was there, at the door. I did not recognize her because of her burns. I asked her who she was.” At this point, Ni’mat interrupted to indicate that there was some kind of substance oozing out of her eyes. Then Um al-Izz said: “I recognized Abu Khalid from his voice.” She went on to say: “When the shelter was shelled, I was inside nursing my child, and I don’t know what happened after the explosion.

All I remember is that I was walking on bodies, some lifeless, but others still managing pained moans…. I went out of the shelter, but could not see anything, I had lost my sight completely, and I did not know where I was. I said to myself that I must definitely be in heaven. I recognized the voice of our neighbor Abu Ali talking to his wife. I called out to him: Uncle Abu Ali! ‘Who are you?’ he yelled back. “I am Um al-Izz,” I answered. ‘Are you Um al-Izz? Oh, my God!’ he shouted.”

Um al-Izz was still weeping as she spoke, and Abu Khalid wiped away his tears. Abul Izz tried to stop her so that she could control herself, but did not succeed. The volcano of pain within her continued to erupt, and she talked and wept at the same time. “I did not know where I was, and then you (pointing at Ni’mat) said to me ‘Come sister let me help you.’” At this point, Ni’mat started talking: “I took her to the clinic where they laid her next to three dead bodies, because there were no means of aid.” Then Um al-Izz said: “I was in a coma for a long time, and felt nothing until Abu Rami (Ni’mat) came.”

She turned to him and started to remind him: “Do you remember when you said to me ‘Sister, I brought you bread,’ and I told you that I just wanted some water?” Um al-Izz then continued to tell her story, and spoke about her feelings when she was then slipping in and out of consciousness. She spoke about Mariam ash-Shantiri, the nurse who tried to help her, and remembered the wife of the martyr Mer’i (the first martyr of the revolution in the camp) who tried to console her “beloved Um al-Izz.” She recalled a series of misty memories of people, siege and death.

Um al-Izz would fully regain consciousness only when she was in a Haifa hospital, in ‘48 Palestine. She was moved from the clinic to Tyre, and then to Haifa by the International Red Cross. She spoke about Kamal, an Arab nurse, who took extremely good care of her, not only out of his sense of professional duty, but also because of his own overflowing nationalist sentiment. At that point in time, she still did not know that here five children had been killed in the massacre.

She said she wept when she saw her burned face and shaven head in the mirror. She wondered how her children would feel if they saw her in that terrible condition. Nurse Kamal came to her one day and said: “Mariam, I have good news for you.” She was so eager to hear anything about Burj ash-Shamali. Kamal told her that there was a woman in the next room who came from Lebanon and who said that she new her. It was a strange coincidence when she discovered that this woman was none other than her sister-in-law Suad, her brother Hassan’s wife.

They embraced each other, and then Um al-Izz begged Suad for information on the people in Burj ash-Shamali. Suad could no longer hold in the tragic news, and she simply repeated the traditional lamentation when informing people about the death of a loved one: “We are compensated by your survival! Um al-Izz shouted out: “What do you mean? My children dead, my brother Hassan’s children dead, my brother Muhammad’s children dead, and my sister Zeinab dead…and you are compensated by my survival!?” And she wept in Suad’s arms, refusing to believe the news. It was not until she went back to Sidon and was reunited with her brother Ni’mat and with her parents that she finally accepted the news.

Um al-Izz left Haifa after spending 13 days in the hospital. She left the estranged homeland and its coldness, and returned to the camp’s affection and intimacy. But the camp is not a homeland, and she went back to be with her surviving relatives, searching for her fragmented self.

Um al-Izz said: “I asked my brother Ni’mat to take me to my children, and he did not want to prolong my torture. He asked me: ‘Are your children more precious than your brother Muhammad’s children, or your sister Zeinab?’ I said no, and he said: ‘We are compensated by your survival, every body was martyred.’” Um al-Izz went on to say: “I cried and cried and cried, but what can I do?” Her father tried to console her, telling her: “My dear daughter, you cannot be more generous than God! These martyrs were a gift from him and he has now reclaimed his gift.” Her mother, al-Hajeh Um Khamees, the old patient and strong oak tree, said to her: “Go see all the people who died in the streets, not just your children and sister.” She was telling her this only to comfort her, but, as Um al-Izz told us, even this strong oak tree was suffering and would sometimes aimlessly roam in the gardens, as if to escape from something.

Um al-Izz told me that one day recently she was near the UNRWA clinic, and a beautiful young woman came to her, took her hands warmly into hers and asked: “Don’t you recognize me, Um al-Izz? I was the friend of your martyred daughter Fadwa!” Um al-Izz’s eyes filled with tears as she told this story, saying at the end: “It felt as if a knife had been jabbed into my heart!” Sorrows never die.

The story is not yet over

Now Abul Izz continued his story. When the massacre occurred, he was engaged in the resistance’s battle for the defense of the camp. Bilal, alongside whom he was fighting, asked him to go and check on the Club shelter.

“It was around sunset,” Abul Izz said. “Houses were destroyed, and debris and rubble covered the roads. I walked in the direction of the shelter, and I heard my cousin shouting ‘Where are all you Arabs! Where are all you leaders!’ I moved towards the voice, and tried to enter the shelter through an opening caused by the shelling. The scene inside the shelter was horrible: scores of people, their bodies and limbs tangled together into piles of burned human flesh. The shelter reeked of sulfur and phosphorous, from the incendiary bombs. I heard weak moans from various parts of the shelter.

I tried to pull a woman up through the opening. I took her arm but, as I started to pull, it came unhinged from her body, and all I had in my hand was her severed arm. I picked up a child through the shelter’s entrance, but he died the moment he was brought out. I got other children out, all with burnt bodies, and then I heard a faint moan from a little girl. I looked and saw that it was my daughter Fadwa.

I took her out of the shelter and, still moaning, she said: “Help me, daddy!” I looked for my wife, but remembered that she had been taken to the Palestine Liberation Army clinic, where she clung to life, her body like a black charcoal laying along side the bodies of a number of martyrs. My daughter’s calls for help made me even more determined to continue the resistance. I left the site of the massacre, and rejoined Bilal.” In moments like this, Abul Izz says, life and death become equal, with death maybe having more value.

Abul Izz continued telling his story, saying: “I went with the groups of fighters out of the camp, to Sidon, on a long march, which I describe in the play entitled “The Siege and the Resistance.” Then, after the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, I went to Beirut, where I rented a house in the Shatila refugee camp. There, I also saw the tragedies of people after the massacres. I was unemployed for a while, but then I made my decision: I have to live. Our sacrifices are our unavoidable fate. So I brought my wife Um al-Izz from the south, and I worked very hard in order to be able to continue the medical treatment she had started in ‘48 Palestine.

We started a new family, and we have five children: 14 year-old twins Zeinab and Iman, 11 year-old Rula, 8 year-old Nesreen, and 6 year-old Muhammad.” This once “black charcoal” has given life to five young branches.

Fayez Hassan Yunis Al-Ghoul/Abu Khalid (56), al-Zouq/Safad

Abu Khalid works as a taxi driver between Tyre and Burj ash-Shamali refugee camp. I met him at the end of a long day of work for him, that evening we were at Abul Izz’s home, where we gathered to record several testimonies. In the massacre at the al-Hulah Club, Abu Khalid lost his wife and all eight of his children: 12 year-old Khalid, 13 year-old Awsaf, 8 year-old Walid, 6 year-old Muna, 5 year-old Dalal, 4 year-old Suhail, 3 year-old Mazen, and 2 year-old Tareq.

After telling me about the siege and resistance of 6-7 June, we started talking about the massacre, and he said: “After the massive shelling in the afternoon of 7 June, we discovered that the al-Hulah Club shelter was totally demolished. I and my cousin Nimr were among the first to reach the site, and we found Um al-Izz crying.

I was the first to go down into the shelter. The scene was unimaginable. There was a raid when we were inside the shelter, and my cousin ran out yelling for me to get out also, but I said that I wanted to die here. I passed out and, for about fifteen minutes, lay alongside the dead and injured. When I came to, I heard the people’s moans, and I rushed out into the street, running aimlessly without knowing where I was going. I came across Abu Talal and Abu Nabil, and I was crying and shouting that the Club shelter is over, and the people there are over, along with my wife and children.” Abu Khalid had a lump in his throat as he recalled that horrible moment, and said “I lost my mind. I was carrying a gun and I wanted to shoot my self, but youths took it from me, and calmed me down. For may be more than one week, I remained unaware, losing my memory.”

Abu Khalid joined the fighter group of Ahmad Rahheel (later martyred), and left the camp along with the other groups. Speaking about the exodus, he said: “We were walking at night, and hiding during the day. Small groups would go and scout out the road ahead of time, and then come back. When we reached al-Zaharani, Ahmad Rahheel led one such group, but did not come back. Along with losing my friend, I also lost my feeling of security, and I took a hasty decision to leave the group and walk in the day time.

As I neared al-Ghaziyyah, I met another group of fighters, but did not join them and continued walking alone. I saw a shepherd I knew, and asked him for some bread and food, and he gave me a pack of cigarettes. I met another lone fighter, and we decided to walk together. The Israelis ambushed us and ordered us to raise our hands. I stood still, hands raised and with grenades in my pockets. My comrade ran, and they shot and killed him instantly. I made sure that I was close enough to a high fence that led to an orchard. In the blink of an eye, I jumped over the fence – I don’t know how I did that – and there I was, in the orchard, having fallen into a ditch, with a chest injury from the fence wire.

I also found a wound in my stomach. I crept away and slept until the morning, and then continued my march towards al-Ghaziyyah, until I reached another orchard, where I rested and slept under a tree, for three days without food. The landlord found me, and thought I was dead. I heard him say ‘You deserve this.’ I gathered my strength and answered back: we deserve this for what, what did we do? He apologized, saying ‘I didn’t mean it, by God, I didn’t mean it!” I changed my place, and his wife came with some bread and medicine. She cried and started to curse the Arabs.

They invited me into their home, but I declined. I continued my march along the railway tracks leading to Ein al-Hilweh. I reached my relatives’ house one month after I had left the camp. We were then five days into the month of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting.

I was arrested in Sidon, when we were ordered to gather at the maslakh (slaughter house), and someone from the camp was able to recognize me. I was taken to the Atlit detention center where I was held for one month, and then to the Ansar detention center where I spent sixteen months. When I was released, I returned to the camp.”

A stranger in the land

Abu Khalid continued: “I went back to the camp and started again from square one. I had no house, no money, and no one was caring for us, as if we had come from the moon. My parents encouraged me to take charge and change my situation, and they encouraged me to get married again. At first, I didn’t want to, and I told my parents that I felt very strange in this land, and that I must leave. When I was in Ansar, I had decided then that I wanted to leave the country. My mother, who is very loving, said to me: ‘If you leave, I will not know you, and I will not want you to know me any more!’ I changed my mind, and got married after I had rebuilt a two-room home with tin sheets for a roof. I have five children: 12 year-old Muhammad, 9 year-old Awsat, 7 year-old Fatima, 6 year-old Rima, and 4 year-old Ahmad.”

Abu Khalid also said: “I usually take my son Muhammad with me, when I go to visit the memorial to the martyrs at al-Hulah Club, on holidays and special occasions. This way, one generation after another, no one will ever forget.”

Kamal Hassan Deeb (49), al-Smairiyyah

Kamal Hassan Deeb, known as the “Mukhtar,” had inherited this title from his father who died following the 1978 Israeli invasion of south Lebanon. In the massacre of al-Hulah Club’s shelter, the Mukhtar lost 37 family members, including his wife and eight children, his mother, his brother and sister-in-law and their eight children, a sister and her seven children, another unmarried sister, his two daughters-in-law (one of whom was also pregnant) and their four children, and his uncle and wife and children. Two of his sons survived the massacre because they were with the Palestine Liberation Army. Because the Mukhtar’s home and the homes of his relatives were all very near the shelter, they all had taken refuge there.

The Mukhtar told me that right before the attack, he had been sitting at the shelter’s door, smoking a hubbly-bubbly, “but my uncle, Sheikh Hammoud, may God have mercy on him and on all the dead, was thirsty, and I went home to bring him some water. At that moment, there was an explosion at the shelter, and I saw flesh flying everywhere. I went to the shelter and saw the people dead, and I cried out ‘My children have died in the shelter.’ I went around to the other shelters in the camp, shouting ‘Leave the shelters, run away.’ And while I was going from place to place, I saw that the camp’s low-lying neighborhood had been destroyed.”

The Mukhtar left the camp with Ahmad Rahheel’s (who was martyred later) group, and eventually reached Ein al-Hilweh, after spending three months in orchards along the way. The Mukhtar said that after Ahmad Rahheel was martyred, he and the rest of the group hid their arms in the orchards of al-Ghaziyyah and infiltrated into Ein al-Hilweh camp through the railway tracks. “We started to enter the camp in groups of two or three people at a time.

His two surviving sons, who were in the Palestine Liberation Army, were arrested in Sidon, and taken to prisons in ‘48 Palestine, but were later released in a prisoners’ exchange operation. The Mukhtar returned to Burj ash-Shamali six months after the camp was occupied, and he lived with his sister. He was arrested on charges of arms possession, and was imprisoned at the Azmi Zughayyar Building in Tyre, where he spent four months, and released only ten days before the building was destroyed.

Talking about his interrogation at the detention center, he said that he constantly emphasized to the Israelis: “You are interrogating me, when you have killed my wife, my children and my relatives!” To this, the Israelis answered “Stop saying this, and we will give you whatever you want, cement and iron.” “But I kept repeating it,” he said.


After his release, the Mukhtar, who wanted to remarry, went to Sheikh Mahmoud, the Mosque’s Imam, and asked him to go, on his behalf, and ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. The Mukhtar, who got married while his two sons were still in prison, now has two children, his 12 year-old son Muhammad, who is physically disabled, and his daughter Dheeba, whom he named after his martyred mother.

The Mukhtar told me that he was encouraged to start a family again after a vision came to him in his sleep, where he was in the middle of wide-open fields of sabbar (cactus fruit), white birds perched on his chest, his eight children and wife were all sitting around him, and they were all talking to each other and they were happy.

The Mukhtar said: “I thought hard about my vision, and did not tell anyone about it. I understood the fields of sabbar as meaning patience (in Arabic, the word sabbar is very close to sabr, which means patience), and I interpreted the presence of the birds and my wife and children’s happiness as symbols of a new family and home.”

Ghassan Ali al-Rameed (30)
al-Hajeh Um Salem al-Rameed (65)

During the war, Ghassan was a 13 year-old boy who was, along with his mother, al-Hajeh Um Salem, the only two to survive the shelling of the Ali al-Rameed/Abu Khanjar cave (which was named after the family). The cave, which became a collective tomb for 21 victims after the massacre, lies beneath the house’s courtyard, only a few meters away from where we sat and talked. In this cave, seven members of Ali al-Rameed’s family are buried. The seven who left the physical life, but are still in the house are the 22 year-old eldest son, Salem and his 22 year-old wife Aidah, their children Buthainah, 2 years old, and Haitham, 1 year old, and Ali al-Rameed’s younger children; 14 year-old Lamia, 12 year-old Amineh, and 8 year-old Saleh. Twelve year-old cousin Fatimah also died.

Ghassan described the scene in detail, as if this young man’s memories were still very fresh ever since that day. Then Hajeh Um Salem came, limping as her foot was injured during the cave’s collapse, and was the first to start talking, but then quietly listened to her son, occasionally interrupting only to confirm his recollection, or to lament.

After the shelling, the Hajeh endured about 24 hours under the cave’s rubble. She said that “the cave was full of people, and they demolished it right on top of our heads. No one remained. I was trapped until the next day, and I did not know what happened in the camp, because they took me straight to the hospital. And now you see my leg. I cannot walk on it.”

Um Salem paused, and stared far away. And in her tired eyes, I saw old and new sorrows reborn. She stopped talking, and her son Ghassan took over.

Life under ground is different

“At first, we hid in the Abu Riyadh shelter. But when we heard that shelters were being shelled, my mother, sisters, brothers and I, and a few other families all went to the cave.” His father, Ali al-Rameed did not go with them. Ghassan said that Israeli jet fighters immediately began bombing the cave when they saw someone entering. Parts of the cave collapsed, and its entryway was blocked by a huge fallen bolder. Ghassan described his feelings at that moment: “I thought someone brought a blanket and wrapped me in it.

I was covered with dirt. I started to scream for help. I started digging, and eventually I managed to free my right leg out from under the rubble. At that point, I noticed a faint ray of light streaming through an opening between the rocks, so I imagined there was another world, a different world from the one we live in, under the ground.” Ghassan then summarized the whole situation in one word: “Stunned…I was stunned. I tried to move, but my mother was in front of me under the rubble. So I moved the dirt away from her chest as much as I could, but one can not do much alone…so I went out.”

When Ghassan came out of the cave, it was like “doomsday”…destruction and horror all around as a result of the shelling.

The first thing Ghassan saw in the above-ground world was a blind woman lying in the middle of the street. Manwah Abu Kharroub, who was already blind in one eye before the shelling began, went out of the cave to get her radio from her home. She was still in the street, being led by Suade, a blind man himself, when the Israelis began bombing the area. Suade ran for his life, and the woman was left behind. “The woman was hit by a splinter, and now she was blind in the other eye. A blind man leading a half-blind woman, in times of war…a surrealist scene, but a very human and compassionate scene. The worst crime is the one that makes you laugh,” Ghassan said.

Ghassan led the woman to the Abu Riyadh shelter, where she was aided by a young girl, Najah Hadrus. Ghassan went around the camp, looking for any one who could help him remove the rubble, but no one dared leave the shelters because of the shelling. He and his cousin went out. “My cousin is naïve,” Ghassan said. Then the shelling stopped, and Ghassan saw people coming out of their homes and shelters, and going towards the neighboring orchards.

At this point, Ghassan saw his father in the distance, walking very tiredly, a wall having fallen on him during the shelling. “He was hiding behind the wall, and it fell on his back,” Ghassan said. The father asked about the family, but Ghassan did not tell him anything at first, and he took him to a shelter near the Mosque.

“A number of youths arrived, carrying picks and shovels, and began clearing away the rubble from the cave. The first survivor they brought out was Jum’ah al-Nahili (Abu Shihab), but he would later die of his wounds. Then they brought out Aidah, my brother Salem’s wife, and they carried her to the clinic. Aidah asked for water. They dabbed her lips, and then she died. Then they brought out my mother, and we moved her to the Istiraha in Tyre.”

The prisoner’s story

“As we were carrying Abu Shihab to the clinic,” Ghassan said, “and as we were near the house of (name withheld), which is right on the main road, we heard moans, (name withheld) was with us then. We entered the house, and we found a person with burns over half of his body, laid out on a stretcher, and dressed in a military uniform that was adorned with several stars on his epaulettes. We recognized the Israeli star and the Hebrew writing, and we decided to help him and save his life. They said: ‘We are now at war. If we were not, then it would be an eye for an eye!’ At that moment, Bilal came with a group of fighters, and they took the prisoner away and disappeared into the orchards.”

Ghassan went on to relate more details: “A few days later, an Israeli officer came to me and asked me, in Arabic, about what happened at the cave during the shelling. He was afraid to go inside alone, and wanted me to accompany him. I refused and said to him: ‘If you want to shoot me, go ahead, but I will not go in.’ And then he said: ‘We do not kill civilians.’ ‘What about these people who died, did they all die by themselves?’ I asked him, and he said: ‘Shut up! They were terrorists!’ The next day, bulldozers came and leveled the cave.”

The cave is now inside the al-Rameed family’s home, and the victims continue to live in the house, their bodies and souls forever witnesses to the crime. As al-Hajeh Um Salem, Ghassan and I talked, a few of the neighbor’s children came. They shouted a little, listened a little, and then asked: “Did all these people die?” They got no answer.

Muhammad Ja’far Taher/Abu Ja’far (66)

The Abu Ja’far Cave is located in the rocky cliffs on the camp’s northern side, and it leads to a valley filled with citrus orchards, including Abu Ja’far’s. The cave and orchard were not randomly named, for Abu Ja’far is the one who reclaimed the land, and had been cultivating it with citrus ever since he was forced to flee from his village, al-Hussainiyyah, in the Safad district of Palestine, in 1948. Ever since then, he has never left his orchard, becoming one of its rocks or one of its trees that cannot be uprooted.

Abu Ja’far welcomed us, Abul Izz and me, as guests in his home located at the edge of the orchard, right by the gate. When we asked him about the shelling of the cave, memories older than the recent massacre flooded back, and he took us back to the day in 1948 when Zionist gangs carried out a massacre in al-Hussainiyyah, in which more than 25 villagers were killed, and when houses were demolished right over the heads of their residents, after the youths had tried to defend it. Among the victims then were Abu Ja’far’s father, and his eldest brother Hussein. After the massacre, the people of al-Hussainiyyah were deported.*

In Abu Ja’far’s cave, there were about 50 people, women, elderly and children. Three of them were martyred and a number of others were injured, among them Um Ja’far who was hit with a rock that fractured her skull. The first bomb to hit the cave did not demolish it, because the cave was located beneath a depression, under thick layers of sedimentary rocks. This gave the people some time to flee the cave and spread out into the orchard, before the second bomb was fired, and before the cave was destroyed, its entryway blocked by a fallen bolder. Three people were not able to escape, and the cave is now their grave.

Abu Ja’far led us to the cave/grave through a narrow road, amid grass as tall as ourselves. He started to give us many details about the siege, and the resistance, and about the massacre at the al-Najdah al-Ijtima’iyyah, where Um Ja’far and others were injured.

The prisoner’s story

We asked Abu Ja’far about the Israeli officer and his story, and he said: “The Jews came here and cordoned off my place… an officer said to me: ‘You have a cave here,’ but he was talking about another cave, not the one that was shelled.” That other cave lies adjacent to Abu Ja’far’s house, and he told us that he denied that the Israeli officer was there and that he, Abu Ja’far did not see anything, and that he was not in the orchard the evening of 7 July, because he had to take his wife to Tabneen Hospital for treatment of her wounds.

Abu Ja’far went on to tell us the story of the Israeli prisoner: “When I came back from Tabneen, I saw someone thrown here in the cave…Who threw him? It was Abu Dalleh and (name withheld)…the officer was taller and heavier than me, with stars on his epaulettes. I wondered what I should do. I brought a rope, and dragged him into (name withheld)’s house.”**

Abu Ja’far said that the Israeli forces accused fighter Hassan Sami Taha, who is known as Abu Dalleh, of hiding the Israeli prisoner’s body. They would, from time to time, gather the camp’s residents in the orchard, and interrogate them on this prisoner’s whereabouts. In the end, the Israeli forces would bring police dogs to search for the prisoner. “They continued to smell the blood until they reached the house of (name withheld).”

We asked Abu Ja’far if the Israeli forces ever found the officer’s body, and he said that a group of youths had thrown the body in the orchards, in the area of Shadeenah, a little to the east of the camp. The police dogs eventually found it, and Abu Dalleh would later confess, under torture, that he was the one who threw the officer’s body in the orchard’s cave.

Abul Izz said that when arresting Abu Dalleh, the Israeli forces put him in a tank and rode out of the camp. And that would have been the last time anyone saw or heard from Abu Dalleh. To this day, his fate remains a mystery.

In his testimony, Abu Ja’far said that the Jewish prisoner’s father, who was born in Tiberias in ‘48 Palestine and spoke fluent Arabic, came to the orchard asking for help in searching for his son. “Please Abu Ja’far! I just want to see something of him.” He was crying, pulling out his hair, hitting himself in the head, saying: “We were living together…damned be the Jews’ religion for what has happened to us.”

Abu Ja’far commented on what this Jewish father said: “Do we believe the Jews? You know I was born in ‘48 Palestine, and I know the Jews…we do not trust them,” he said.

Abu Ja’far bid us farewell, and then went off to take care of his trees and fruits. It was as if someone had thrown a stone into a deep lake, disturbing the calm waters and causing innumerable ripples, before finally sinking and resting at the bottom of the lake.

* According to written records, the al-Hussainiyyah massacre was perpetrated on 13 March 1948, killing 30 people.
** The name of this home owner is the same as the one given by Ghassan Al-Rameed in his testimony. At the request of the interviewees, we refrained from divulging these names.

Jaber Suleiman is a Palestinian researcher. Translation by Khalil Toma. This article first appeared in Arabic in [ADD]. The article was translated from the Arabic and reprinted with permission of the author.