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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2008, pages 34-35

Voices of the Nakba

All Palestinians Not Living in Palestine Are “Refugees” of al-Nakba

By Ray Hanania

  • The author’s late uncle, Yusef Hanania (Courtesy Ray Hanania.)

ONE OF THE great misconceptions is that if you are a Palestinian and you do not live in a refugee camp, or if you have established your life in another country outside of Palestine, you are not a refugee.

But the reality is that all Palestinians who were pushed out of Palestine by the pre-Israel terrorist campaigns by the Irgun and Stern Gangs, and by the ethnic cleansing of Mandated Palestine by David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, in 1947 and 1948, are in fact refugees.

My father, George, immigrated to the United States to join his eldest brother, Mousa (Moses) in Chicago in 1926, when another brother, Yusef (Joseph), drowned at the Jerusalem Quarry. According to the police report, Yusef Hanania could not get help from any of the bystanders because Jews thought he was an Arab, and Arabs thought he was a Jew. My father was so distraught by the tragedy of his brother’s death that he left Palestine to seek a new life in America.

Weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, George Hanania and his brother Mousa, who by then were both American citizens, enlisted in the U.S. military. My father served in the U.S. 5th Army and my uncle served in the U.S. Navy—mainly because the recruiters believed “Moses” could help the Navy part the seas in the war against Nazism.

After serving their country, they both continued to lead successful lives. But in 1947, when Jewish forces in Palestine launched attacks against civilians to force Christians and Muslims to leave so they could establish an exclusive “Jewish-only” nation of Israel, my father’s remaining brothers and sisters, who lived in Romema in West Jerusalem, were forced to flee their homes.

Their homes were occupied by Jewish settlers and the military members of the Haganah, the military arm of the pre-state Jewish militia forcibly expelled its residents from lands the Jewish settlers had occupied. My father’s mother, and his brothers Khamis, Farid and Edward, and their sisters Helene and Ellen, were forced to cross over to seek the protection of the Arab armies. They fled to what later became known as the West Bank, where they lived in a refugee camp for several years.

Sometime in 1952, my father and his brother Mousa were able to scrape up enough money to help bring their mother and siblings to the United States, where they also settled in Chicago and established themselves as small clothing store owners. My uncle Mousa worked as a chef at Rolling Green Country Club in the prestigious Arlington Heights suburb. My father worked for Sinclair oil company after attending DePaul University law school. Khamis and Farid opened a clothing store, and together the family rebuilt their shattered lives.

Although my father had fled the violence in the mid-1920s, he always felt that he was a refugee, because the new Jewish nation of Israel refused to allow him to return to his original home and land in West Jerusalem. In fact, during Israel’s existence, most Christian and Muslim Palestinians have been banned from entering Israel, and denied access to Jerusalem. In 1967, when the Israeli army invaded the West Bank, Sinai and the Golan Heights in a so-called pre-emptive strike, the Israelis occupied Arab East Jerusalem as well, shutting the city to Palestinian Christians and Muslims. Ironically, the Israelis had argued that Jordan, which occupied East Jerusalem as a caretaker after the 1948 Israeli war, refused to allow Jews to visit the holy sites in East Jerusalem. Til this day, most Christian and Muslim Palestinians are denied access to the holy sites in occupied Arab East Jerusalem.

My mother’s family was luckier. They lived in Bethlehem, free from Israeli brutality until Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank in 1967. Prior to 1967, my mother’s family immigrated to Venezuela, where many Bethlehem Christians relocated to avoid the constant military attacks by Jewish settlers and Israeli forces across the border from Israel. They did not want to leave, but felt compelled to by the constant fighting and by what was clearly Israel’s indifference to the safety of Palestinian civilians who lived near the 1967 armistice lines. Every week, neighbors and friends of my mother’s family would be killed by rockets fired across the border by Israeli forces and armed civilian militias which later became the backbone of the extremist settler movement in the West Bank.

My mother’s family members also are refugees. Even though they left the region before Israel’s army forced them to, they have been denied access to return to their homeland. While my mother could visit as a tourist holding an American passport, she could never return to Palestine using her former Jordanian passport, issued to her after the 1948 Israeli assault.

My mother’s family owns more than eight acres of land just north of the illegal Israeli settlement of Gilo, which today is an official Israel “neighborhood.” Not only have the Israelis prevented my family from accessing the property, they destroyed the home and the water well that was on the property—all while building large Jewish-only homes along the mountain ridges that frame the olive tree-filled valley.

To my family, the Nakba is a true catastrophe that reflects the tragedy of conflict and the brutality of Israel’s policies targeting Christian and Mulims civilians.

One day we will return, either through peace, hopefully, or through conflict. Regardless of our success as Palestinians living outside our natural homeland, we continue to be refugees of a special category. We do not live in refugee camps, but have been stripped of our rights by Israel’s military policies and its strategy to expel non-Jews and build a nation for one religion only.

By Ray Hanania, an award-winning author, journalist and standup comedian living in Chicago. He can be reached at <>.