Groton cleric reflects on generations of loss and dispossession

During a break in the shelling last week, Palestinian men and boys clean the ground for prayers in front of the destroyed Imam Shafi'i Mosque in Gaza City.
During a break in the shelling last week, Palestinian men and boys clean the ground for prayers in front of the destroyed Imam Shafi'i Mosque in Gaza City. Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times

As a boy I lived in Egypt, where my dad worked for the World Health Organization. Our suburb of Cairo, where the American School was located, was popular with expatriates and also with Palestinian émigrés, and I remember well the Farouky family who lived next door.

The boys were about the same age as my brother and I, and their family roots were in Jaffa, the ancient Biblical city that adjoins Tel Aviv and is called Joppa in the New Testament. Saïd, their father, had brought the family to Cairo in 1948 when the Israeli state came into being, leaving behind the substantial groves of oranges that had brought the family prosperity for generations.

Jaffa was a Palestinian town, while Tel Aviv was the new center of Jewish life in Palestine under the British mandate following WWI. With the approach of Jewish forces fighting for Israeli independence in 1948 the Faroukis, like most of the indigenous population of Jaffa, fled for their lives, never dreaming that they would not see their homes again. Those with means went to Cairo or Beirut or Amman. Other Palestinians from Jaffa and Ramla, Lydda, Jerusalem, Galilee and the countryside fled in great numbers to Gaza or south Lebanon, the Jordan Valley or western Syria.

Stories of loss and dispossession were told me by many other Palestinians at my school. Joyce Saïd, sister of the late Edward Saïd, was a classmate who came from an old Christian family in Jerusalem. They could never go home, she told me, and her brother would eventually move to New York where he became a distinguished professor at Columbia University and worked tirelessly for Palestinian rights.

When I was in Beirut recently I spent a morning walking through the remains of the Shatila and Sabra camps that were home to thousands of Palestinian refugees who had fled north into Lebanon in the 1948 conflict over Israeli independence. The camps had become a distinct neighborhood in South Beirut, although their residents remained Palestinian and stateless and kept alive the dream of return to their homes south of the border. Their presence had a destabilizing effect on Lebanese politics and contributed to the Lebanese civil war fought in the 1970s.

When Israel intervened in the war and occupied Beirut briefly in 1982, a massacre took place in the refugee camps that took an uncounted number of innocent lives. Reliable estimates range in the thousands, and it is beyond dispute that Israel, the occupying power, and Ariel Sharon, Israeli defense minister, gave permission for allied local militias to exterminate the residents of the camp.

Today in a bustling urban scene there are only a few wall paintings to indicate that September night in 1982 when Shatila and Sabra became names that cause hardened soldiers to shudder.

As we read of the misery of Gaza at this time it is important to remember that the 1.8 million souls living there are still refugees - some of the third generation - living in one of the world's largest refugee camps. Unable to leave the "strip" that confines them between Egypt and Israel, facing endemic shortages of food and medicine, living on handouts from UNWRA and humanitarian organizations, without work for the young, with crumbling infrastructure and a shortage of housing made much worse by the devastation of the present war, Gaza can never return to the status quo ante.

The 22-day war in 2008 took nearly 1,400 Palestinian lives and destroyed more than half of Gaza's hospitals. There is a crisis of fresh drinking water. We cannot simply dismiss the humanitarian disaster in Gaza as "collatoral damage" in a war of self defense.

Hamas' continuation of the armed resistance is a way of telling Israel and the world that their spirit is not broken after 56 years of living as refugees without a country in a small area that is that one of the most densely populated places on earth.

What of the future? Repair of the break with Fatah, something that had taken place just prior to the present war, is surely a promising development. A way of connecting Gaza to the Occupied West Bank must be made, perhaps a corridor through the Negev; there must be open borders and hope for a life in which there can be a Palestinian state.

The PLO was once branded a terrorist organization and now is the recognized voice of the Palestinian people. The same can surely be for Hamas when there is hope for a future living alongside Israel.

In planning for the future after a cease-fire takes place, Israel has the choice to make peace with its neighbors, stop settlement activity and allow a Palestinian state to come into being. The alternative is to plan for endless war, a situation that holds no promise and pits the Jewish state against a demographic time bomb.

The Rev. Bruce M. Shipman is chaplain of The Episcopal Church at Yale. He lives in Groton.

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