A fortnight ago, a two-day meeting between Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land took place at Lambeth Palace in London. I write ‘Jews, Christians and Muslims’ rather than ‘Israelis and Palestinians’ since this meeting was largely religious in nature. It was part of an ongoing process of dialogue within the framework of the Alexandria Declaration between representatives of the three monotheistic faiths.
A fortnight ago, a two-day meeting between Jews, Christians and Muslims from the Holy Land took place at Lambeth Palace in London. I write ‘Jews, Christians and Muslims’ rather than ‘Israelis and Palestinians’ since this meeting was largely religious in nature. It was part of an ongoing process of dialogue within the framework of the Alexandria Declaration between representatives of the three monotheistic faiths. Held under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Jewish, Christian and Muslim participants held challenging and at times tense discussions. They concluded their deliberations with a two-tier communiquÃ©. On the one hand, it re-committed the Palestinian position for an end to occupation and the establishment of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel. On the other, it focused equally forcefully on the Israeli position for an immediate end to violence and suicide bombings.
During the same week, my mother also visited me in London. So my Chinese partner and I invited her on Sunday to join us for a pub-grub in Richmond. Sitting by the fireplace in a quaint country-like pub, I related to mum the proceedings of the Alexandria meeting. I also told her that the twin central issues of the discussions focused upon the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and the unceasing violence between the two peoples.
Mum enquired whether the issue of the 1948 refugees had also been discussed at the conference. I was somewhat baffled by the query since mum had never raised this issue with me before! Besides, I have also learnt from my own political experience that the mere mention of this ‘contentious’ issue has often led to the torpedoing of many a meeting between Israelis and Palestinians. It is true that there is a UN General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948 on the matter of Palestinian refugees that affirms the United Nations Charter as well as article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, article 11 of the UNGA Resolution grants Palestinian refugees the right of return as well as compensation. However, realpolitik between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has meant that the Oslo process for peace had not seriously tackled this issue. Whatever realistic convergence there might well have been on the matter was kept at bay by the forceful emotions that the issue releases on both sides.
So I encouraged mum to tell her own story! In 1948, my maternal grandparents were living in one of the most affluent neighbourhoods of Mandatory Palestine. Indeed, Talbieh housed many Armenian and Christian Palestinian families. In 1948, following the UN Resolution on the Partition of Palestine and the subsequent pan-Arab rejection of its terms, the first Arab-Israeli war took place. The Jewish fighters (terrorists for some, but freedom fighters for others) advanced on different parts of Jerusalem. Once in Talbieh, they started broadcasting by loudspeaker to all the non-Jewish residents of the neighbourhood that they had forty-eight hours to pack their bags and leave their homes. Many residents, panicking about the advancing Jewish fighters, fled their homes – in the hope of returning once the situation had calmed down. My grandfather, who lived in a beautiful house (with its symbolic lemon tree in the garden) and had a thriving business as a merchant of Persian carpets, refused to forsake his home – even temporarily. However, two days later, a Colonel in the British Army – who was both a family friend and customer – admonished my grandfather that the situation was worsening by the hour and that his family was facing grave danger. He had to go – and now!
So my grandfather hastily packed some essentials, covered the furniture in the house with white sheets in order to avoid dust, and drove his family to Beirut and the safety of his relatives there. However, he felt that he did not belong in Lebanon! One month later, he came back to Jerusalem! But he already knew that the borders had changed and that he was unable to go back to Talbieh – which had now become part of the newly-created Israel. So he contacted some of his UN friends to check whether he could at least be allowed to check on his old shop – situated now in the part of Jerusalem (not far from the New Gate) that straddled the buffer zone between Israel and Jordan. UN and Jordanian officers accompanied him to his shop where he ascertained that all the goods were still intact! Relieved, he returned once more a couple of days later in order to empty the shop and retrieve his carpets and goods to another shop he had opened in Souk el-Dabbaghah, near the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, once he got there, he discovered that the whole shop had been plundered and looted!
The years passed, and my grandparents and their three daughters re-constituted their lives. After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the Jordanian-held eastern sector of the city, my family went to their old house in Talbieh to see ‘whether the lemon tree was still there’. They even had the old key to the main door let alone the deeds to the house! They rang the doorbell, and an Israeli Jew opened the door for them. They told him their story, and he invited them in for a cup of tea. He listened to their story and expressed regret that they had ‘fled’ and left the house behind! This is life, he added, and then let them out. My grandfather could never go back to Talbieh again!
I come from a family whose grandparents lost both their house and business in Ottoman Turkey during the Armenian Genocide of 1915. They then lost their property all over again in 1948. I cannot casually disregard their story, or that of so many other children, women and men. Regardless of legal subtleties or political niceties, their past stories constantly coalesce into their present lives and colour their future hopes. Can anyone perhaps spot the positive moral of this story?
(c) harry-bvH @ 4 November 2002