Untold stories: Saadat Hassouneh
IMEU, Apr 2, 2008
Saadat Hassouneh is the proud father of three: one daughter is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and another is pursuing her Ph.D. at Duke University, his son is an engineer who works for Microsoft. He remembers a time when this would have seemed impossible. Hassouneh was 10 years old in 1948 when his family was driven from their home in Lydda, Palestine during the Zionist takeover. Having lost everything and living in a West Bank refugee camp, his father couldn't afford to send him to school. He wanted to go so badly that he would run away from home, insisting that he be allowed to attend. "It was the first time in my life that I felt insecure. I didn't realize what was happening to us. In Lydda, I never felt that way. I knew this was our land; that we were a people and we were there. Now I had to stand in line for a flour ration."
Hassouneh, who now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, belongs to a prominent Lydda family. His father owned citrus groves and exported oranges to Europe. "The Yaffa oranges you see now in American supermarkets, those grew on our trees."
Hassouneh's family was expelled from Lydda by Zionist forces seeking to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. "The Zionists shelled the town with mortar fire for three days and nights straight. Then they went house to house and forced people out at gunpoint, men, women, children, everyone. They made us walk to the town square with our hands in the air. The men and boys were imprisoned inside the mosque and the adjacent church. The women and children were allowed to go home. I was only 10, so they let me go with my mother. On the way home, I saw five bodies lying in the street. They had foam coming out of their mouths. I was scared to death."
A few days later, Zionist forces decided to expel the city's residents. "They made two columns of soldiers and forced the people, at gunpoint, to go between them out of town. There were no roads. They didn't let us take anything mechanized, no cars or trucks. We only took our animals and anything we could carry. They started shooting at us from a village along the way. One fellow next to me, a boy just like me, got hit. He saved me from that bullet."
Hassouneh walked for days with his family and the other Palestinians who had been expelled from Lydda. They slept under olive and fig trees. Several people died along the way. "My mother brought a jar of honey and my father had friends in the villages along the way who gave us some wheat. We ate bread and honey and we were the lucky ones."
Eventually, they made it to the West Bank city of Ramallah. His father built a shack in one of the refugee camps and the family lived there. "Things were bad. There was not enough money, food or water. Finally the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) came to the camps and brought water and rations. I remember getting in line to get rations for the family: flour and some oil and rice, I don't remember if they gave us sugar. It was humiliating to go overnight from being landowners and merchants to standing in line for charity."
Hassouneh did manage to make it to school. He graduated from Sacramento State College in 1962 and went on to work as a computer programmer for the State of California, in the Washington State Department of Ecology and with Boeing. He holds a M.Sc. and a Ph.D in Computer Science.
In 1994, he took his daughters to see Lydda, now inside the State of Israel. "I showed them our orange groves. Our home was demolished; it's a highway now. I was happy and sad; sad that I came back to my country only as a visitor, not as one returning home. But I was happy to show my daughters where they are from, their roots. We have been wronged in a big way - me, my family and other families, the whole nation. We want justice. We want to go back to our country."
The "Nakba" ("catastrophe" in Arabic) refers to the destruction of Palestinian society in 1948 and the exile of more than 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and homeland. It is estimated that more than 50 percent were driven out under direct military assault by Israeli troops.
Others fled in panic as news spread of massacres in Palestinian villages like Deir Yassin and Tantura. Nearly half the Palestinian refugees had fled by May 14, 1948, when Israel declared its independence and the Arab states entered the fray. Israel depopulated more than 450 Palestinian towns and villages, destroying most while resettling the remainder with new Jewish immigrants without regard to Palestinian rights and desires to return to their homes. Israel still refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and to pay them compensation, as required by international law. Today, there are more than 4 million registered Palestinian refugees worldwide. The Nakba is a root cause of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Israel's denial of its expulsion of the Palestinians and seizure of their homes and properties for Jewish use continues to inflict pain and to generate resistance among Palestinians today.