Children of Catastrophe: Journey from a Palestinian Refugee Camp to America
Author Jamal Kanj talks about life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. In his recent book “Children of Catastrophe: Journey from a Palestinian refugee camp to America,” provides an account of life from Palestine to refugee camps in Lebanon and the events leading for the creation of the state of Israel.
INTIFADA PALESTINE – EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW – With Jamal K. Kanj: Author Children of Catastrophe
A great deal has been written over the years addressing the Palestine–Israel conflict, and the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem. However, few works on the subject really present the personal aspect: What is it like to be a refugee? What propels a decent human being to take up arms, to become a freedom fighter or a “terrorist?”
This book tells the remarkable story of one such refugee, following his journey from childhood in the Nahr El Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, becoming a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), through to eventual emigration, a new life as an engineer in the United States, and a ‘return’ trip to historic Palestine.
Jamal Kanj joined me in an exclusive interview to discuss his book Children of Catastrophe: Editor Elias Harb
ELIAS HARB: In your book you convey the personal aspect of the life of the refugees. Can you tell us what inspired you to write Children of Catastrophe?
JAMAL K. KANJ: The Americans and the West in general are not well aware of the Palestinian experience. On the surface and at an emotional level, they are generally more sympathetic towards Israel, but this is mainly due to their lack of understanding or total disconnect with the human side of the Palestinian story.
Also one must recognize that the peculiar relationship between Israel and the West is deeply rooted in a long history of abhorrent Western anti Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. Hence, it was a mix of sympathy, guilt, and religious institutions in America and Europe which played an important role in shaping the lopsided view towards the Palestine Israel conflict.
Having lived in the US for thirty years after leaving the camp, I discovered that most people tend to switch off when trying to make an intellectual or historical argument explaining the Palestinian position. At the same time, I observed that the majority can better connect and listen when the intellectual or the historical argument is framed within the personal experience. During those 30 years, almost everyone whom I came to know at a social level consciously or subconsciously became more sympathetic with the Palestinians.
To sum it up, the main impetuous for writing this book remains my strong conviction that we, as Palestinians have a powerful story to share with the rest of the world, especially in the West. Throughout the pages of this book, I hope to connect with all those whom I have not, or may not have the honor meeting personally, to share with them the personal aspects of the Palestinian side of the story.
EH: Can you briefly tell us of the British role facilitating the Zionist colonization of Palestine ?
JKK: While the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was founded in Europe in the late 1800s, their plan to colonize Palestine did not start to take shape until the 1920s and 1930s. One major reason, up until 1917 and in addition to Palestine , the Zionist movement contemplated other options for this “Promised land” such as Uganda , Cyprus , Sinai and parts of Argentina .
They basically were willing to take any “real estate” property a colonial power was willing to sell them. But in November 1917, and to sway the purported “influential” Jewish opinion in the US on the war (at the time, WZO had very close relation with the German Kaiser and maintained its headquarter in Germany ) the British Foreign Ministry issued a letter to a Jewish banker, Baron Walter Rothschild, promising the banker with a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In 1920, and as the new occupying power, Britain appointed Herbert Samuel, a professed British Zionist as the high Commissioner for Palestine. Under his reign, Jewish immigration to Palestine increased exponentially and unlike the old Jewish residents, the new wave of European immigrants chose exclusive Jewish communities, segregated from the Native Palestinians and even from the old Jewish neighborhoods. With a lush of funds provided by the international Jewish National Fund (JNF), the new immigrants attempted to purchase land at any cost. Much like the extraneous prices they are willing to offer today for properties in East Jerusalem and Hebron.
As then and now, the Zionist organizations failed to acquire much, if any Palestinian owned properties. It is worth noting here, the JNF owned less than 7 per cent of Palestine when the UN voted to partition the land between its Natives and the new Jewish immigrants. Most of the properties the Zionists eventually purchased were from absentee landlords, mainly large feudal Lebanese land owners in the northern part of historical Palestine.
The aggressive land ownership program, combined with new exclusive communities, created a political and cultural chasm between the Native and the new settlers. At that point, it got even more complicated as this new European community closely allied itself with the despised colonial power. In response, the Palestinians waged in 1936 one of the longest civil disobedient strikes in the history of Palestine, lasting for more than six months protesting the mandate power and its policies of transforming the demographics from the local Native population with the new European colonists. After failing to quash the civil protest, Britain promoted, enabled, and armed Jewish military groups to help repress the local population. These same Zionist military groups metamorphosed into the Jewish Haganah, the nuclei of the future Israeli army, and became officially part of a joint contingent of British/Jewish military force suppressing the Native Palestinians.
To give you a good idea on the level of Palestinian resistance against the British colonial power and its Zionist instrument, before its departure from Palestine, England had more military forces in Palestine than they had in the entire Indian continent.
EH: How were the Zionists successful in driving Palestinian from their homeland?
JKK: In short, well organized systematic terror campaign by the Zionist paramilitary groups. The terror campaign resulted in the expulsion of 805,067 Palestinians and the destruction of 531 indigenous villages, representing roughly 85 per cent of the native population and the seizure of 92 per cent of the land.
But as I pointed in the book, equally important to the Zionist campaign of terror, was the fact that more than 50 per cent (413,790) of the refugees mentioned earlier were forced out of their homes by the Zionists’ terror while Palestine was still ostensibly a British protectorate. As an example, the infamous Massacre of Deir Yassin took place on April 9 1948, over a month before the departure of the British army form Palestine. When according to UN investigation reports the Jewish Irgun organization, under direct orders from Menachem Begin, slaughtered a large number of the Palestinian civilians in the village. To justify murdering women and children, Begin explained that “The massacre was not only justified, but there would not have been a state of Israel without the victory at Deir Yassin.” Alas, Begin became a future Israeli prime minister and won the Noble “peace” prize!
But the overall Zionist campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestine was led by Ben Gurion, (first Israeli Prime Minister) who consciously or unconsciously assigned to their military operations jargons tantamount with ethnic cleansing, from names such as matateh (broom), tihur (cleansing), biur (a Passover expression meaning “to cleanse the leaven”) and niku (a Hebrew word for cleaning up).
This was a plan which Joseph Weitz, the head of the National Jewish Fund, described earlier in his diary on 20 December 1940 that “Not one village must be left, not one [Bedouin] tribe. The transfer must be directed at Iraq , Syria , and even Transjordan .”
EH: What happened to old Palestinian towns and villages?
JKK: Since 1948, the Jewish National Fund (which owns 85 per cent of land in Israel ) has led an international scheme to cover up the destroyed Palestinian villages with a specious environmental forestation campaign promoting the planting of trees in Israel. The JNF boasts that it “… has planted over 240 million trees in the land of Israel ”. The JNF does not, however, disclose to its unsuspected donors that at least eighty-six of these forests and parks are built over the ruins of destroyed Palestinian villages. As an example, the well-known Israeli Canada Park was built on the ruins of the ethnically cleansed villages of Emmuas, Yalu and Bayt Nuba; the trees in Biriya Forest grow over the foundation of the village of Amuka ; the town of Reihaniyeh is buried under Ramat Menashe Park and the remains of Ajur are fertilizing the greenery in Park Britain.
Wherever the JNF did not reforest what were once peaceful villages and as part of Israel ’s conjured history, Israel bestowed Hebrew pseudonyms replacing the Native names of Palestinian towns. Thus, Tel Rabi became Tel Aviv, Lubya turned into Lavi, Al Zeeb transpired into Gesher Haziv, Saffuriyya into Tzippori and Beit Jala metamorphosed into Gilo.
EH: Following the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe) did Israel leave the Palestinian Refugees alone?
JKK: The Zionists consider the mere existence of Palestinians whether under occupation or in refugee camps represent a negation to their ideology which denies the Palestinian people as a collective national identity. As mentioned in the book, the camp or camps became to symbolize Palestine away from home, it became little Palestine . I expounded extensively on this parallel which was very well understood by the Zionist ideologues. Hence, Israel maintained a terror campaign against camps and repression under occupation to force Palestinians into capitulation and self defeat. Israelis always tried to make the point: we won and you lost, just accept it.
However, Israelis fail to understand people’s connection to the land, for other than their religious patrimony, the people of Israel never in modern history have they had to experience that kind of relationship. I suspect that throughout their history of oppression in Christian Europe, Jews had accepted defeat and lived psychologically as a defeated community all the way through the Holocaust. While I am not a psychologist, I suspect by tormenting Palestinians under occupation and in refugee camps, Zionists are attempting to mirror their own experience of psychological defeat on the people of Palestine.
To their chagrin however, the refugees’ identity became an expression of nationhood and defiance, rather than privation and compliance. As Israeli writer Danny Rubinstein described the Palestinians in his book: Every people in the world lives in a place. For Palestinians, the place lives in them.
EH: Can you describe what is it like to be a refugee?
JKK: Aside from Israeli terror, and on the economic level, I am not sure I understood at the time, what it was like not to be a refugee.
However on the political level, it was very clear, and like all young children who were born in the camp, I realized at very young age that I was a victim of human injustice. I was reminded every day that I was born in Lebanon, a foreign country with no citizenship rights. And I don’t necessarily blame Lebanon for this, for the blame should fall on the entity that took my parent’s home and made me a stateless person. My parents’ only fault was that they belonged to a different religion. Unlike Israel, Lebanon gave us a place to call temporary home.
I do however fault Lebanon for depriving the Palestinian refugees from their political and economic rights. Palestinian refugees, who lived or were born in Lebanon , could not own a property and were not allowed to work in over 70 trades. The law was amended recently reducing the number of prohibited trades.
As I elaborated extensively in the book, at the emotional, we lived relatively a normal life in the camp. The strong family structure made up for life’s hardships and shortcomings. With as little as we had in the camp, I have no memory of lacking any of life’s intuitive pleasures. Philosophically speaking, it is not possible to lack what you have never experienced. In other words, you do not miss what you never had. In short, life as a refugee was normalized by what we had and not by what was lacking.
EH: Why did you believe your parents avoid conversations at home about the Nakba (Catastrophe)?
JKK: For Palestinian refugees in general and mine in particular, losing home was an experience beyond description. Deep inside they must have felt guilty, shamed and blamed themselves for leaving and not dying on their land; but more importantly they believed that they were hoodwinked by the Zionists and for believing in the sense of international justice.To them, talking about the Nakba was like adding salt to injury. I was not sure if they were trying to suppress their memory hoping to lessen their anguish, or simply avoid it.
At the same time, they were much happier talking about Palestine , the land and life before becoming refugees. They seemed more at peace and complete when reminiscing the little details about what it was like “back at home.” A person would have to be in their shoes to be able to comprehend or appreciate their life long trauma.
EH: In Children of Catastrophe you write that Palestinian refugees in Lebanon represent a special and unique case. Why are refugees in Lebanon different than Palestinian Refugees in other Arab countries?
JKK: As I indicated above and elaborated at length in the book, while all Palestinian refugees suffered the same terrible problem of adjusting from statehood to statelessness, unlike other Palestinian refugees, the refugees in Lebanon represented a special and unique case. From the outset, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were treated as foreigners with no social, labor, or political rights. Unlike refugees in the West Bank and Jordan who were granted citizenship, and Syria where refugees were accorded full residency privileges, Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were prohibited from working in more than 70 trades and professions (the law was amended recently reducing the number of prohibited trades.) The Lebanese government instituted also special regulations restricting the movement of refugees within the state and limiting their ability to build or to own property in the country.
The confessional Lebanese democracy between various religious sects (18) certainly contributed to this complexity. For the presence of the Palestinian refugees was considered by some Lebanese as an upsetting factor in the balance of power in this small country. This is an important area, which is addressed at length in the book.
EH: In the summer of 2007, your camp, Nahr el Bared was completely destroyed following a raging battle between the Lebanese army and a little known group Fatah al Islam. Were there other reasons to destroy the camp and what happened to the camp residents?
JKK: Destroying the more than 6000 homes could have been easily avoided, but as I surmised in the book, the destruction of the camp must have been an end by itself.
The camps with a very high population density, over 40,000 inhabitants living in an area less than one square mile. Fatah al Islam numbered less than 300 fighters (a spokesman of the organization claimed in the Lebanese press the number at 98 fighters). Their defending positions were located at the north end of the camp. However, from the onset of the fighting, the Lebanese army bombarded the camp proper indiscriminately and did not limit the shelling to Fatah al Islam fighting positions.
According to Amnesty International and other Human Rights organization, the Lebanese army deliberately set some homes on fire and several houses were destroyed in the weeks after the end of fighting.
I have concluded in the book that there were at least three reasons for the destruction of the camp: Middle East peace process; 2nd Lebanese sectarianism and 3rd Economic reason. Not to mention the possible Israeli hand via its spy network within the Lebanese army. In 2009, Lebanon arrested an army Major, who played an important role in directing the battle of Nahr el Bared for working on behalf of Israel.
Now more than three years later, the camp residents are still homeless and awaiting the Lebanese government and the international community promises to rebuild the camp and return them to their homes.
EH: There was a tearful meeting of yours cousins (Amsha’s daughters) who you never met, when you were checked in at the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Can you tell explain why you have never met them?
JKK: I must say that meeting was a climax in mine and I am certain in their life too. Like many Palestinian families, my grandfather was forever separated from his only sister (Amsha) in that May Day in 1948. They both died later, she in her country that became no more, and he in a refugee camp in other lands. Amsha left behind three daughters who remained in what became Israel.Despite a UN resolution calling on Israel to allow for the return of refugees back to their homes. Israel did not comply with the UN resolution, thus leaving many families forever separated from their loved ones and from their homes.
Our reunion was not planned, but it was destiny for us to meet after 50 years since they were split forever from my father. In late 1996 I was checked in at the emergency room at the Hadassah hospital, and when my cousins (Amsha’s daughters) found out, they were next to my bed in no time. It was our first ever meeting. A section in the book details how even under a semi comatose condition, I recognized them before they had a chance to introduce themselves to me.
Sadly, they lived less than 200 miles from the camp, but when I met them at the emergency room, my travel was via the US over 10,000 miles away. Yet, I may have been the lucky one, for others have never had a chance to be reunited with their loved ones gain.
EH: Do you think there will be light at the end of the tunnel for Palestinian refugees in general, and in Lebanon on in particular?
JKK: Meeting with the refugees, I can attest to the Israeli writer whom I quoted earlier, that Palestine lives inside every one of them. However at this period in time, I am not very optimistic with a light at the end of the tunnel. Israel far right hard liners have hijacked Israeli politics, not that their left was much better off. It is clear, the more the Palestinian leadership is willing to compromise, the more Israel moved to the far right, which has manifested today by the call to recognize Israel as a Jewish democracy (theocracy).
The light at the tunnel will come when the international community can live up to its commitments for a just peace that takes into heart the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and allow the Palestinians to exercise their God given right in a country they can call their home.
EH: Thank you Jamal for your interview with Intifada Palestine, and congratulations on your new book Children of Catastrophe.