No place like home: my bitter return to Palestine

Show caption A Palestinian woman and her children walk through an Israeli military checkpoint in the West Bank in 2008. Photograph: Dan Balilty/AP No place like home: my bitter return to Palestine All my life, my exiled parents had told me about the tragedy of Palestine. Then, when I was in my early 20s, my family moved back – and I saw it with my own eyes Fida Jiryis Tue 27 Sep 2022 06.00 BST Share on Facebook

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At 22 years old, I set foot in my country for the first time. My parents were Palestinian, but in 1970 they had gone into exile. We had been living in Cyprus after fleeing the war in Lebanon. Now, a new era of reconciliation had arrived. A year or so after the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) were signed, we were finally allowed to go back. It was exciting to return to our ancestral home after all these years. Our extended family in the Galilee, especially my grandparents, were overjoyed, and we were swamped in a tide of love. I was thrilled to finally return. I wanted a country. I wanted not to feel like a foreigner any more. This was a dream come true. The years of statelessness were behind us. But going home was much harder than I imagined, for all of us.

My father struggled to find his bearings in Israel, which had changed so drastically in his years away. He had grown up in a rural village in Galilee, but had gone into exile due to his political work and involvement in a Palestinian resistance movement. He had also published a book, The Arabs in Israel, detailing the harsh fate of Palestinians who remained after the occupation. In Beirut, and then in Cyprus, he went to work for the PLO, and became a close associate of PLO leader Yasser Arafat. On our return, Arafat pressed him to take a post with the newly established Palestinian Authority.

But my father did not want a bureaucratic position, feeling it would hold him back after his years of independent research and writing. He remained in an advisory capacity to Arafat, meeting with him at his office, in hotels, or with friends. The PLO headquarters had been moved from Tunisia to the West Bank. Palestinians in Israel were largely free of the hassle that my father had endured before he left, when they were repeatedly harassed and arrested, their houses raided and torn apart. Now, though, they had a more generalised system of discrimination to deal with.

A few weeks after we arrived at my father’s village, Dad took me and my younger brother on a short drive. We did not go far, just over a mile, and found ourselves entering a small village. “This is the site of Deir el-Qasi,” he said. The sign read: “Elqosh”. After the destruction of Palestine – which we call the nakba, or catastrophe – in 1948, the Deir had been ethnically cleansed and renamed.

We drove through quiet roads dotted with houses and willowy trees. There were a few chicken coops. Dad stopped the car and we got out. “See this?” he pointed to an old, stone structure. “This is one of the original homes of the village.”

I stared at it as the reality hit me. All my life, I had read and heard of the tragedy of Palestine. Now, I was looking at it.

“They didn’t tear down all the houses,” Dad was saying. “They kept a few, because the newcomers were from Yemen and they liked the Arab homes. There’s another one … ”

The people of Elqosh kept chickens, grazed cows and grew vegetables and fruit. They popped into our village, Fassouta, to do some small trade and see the doctor or dentist. After I settled in the village, I would drive back and forth past this site every day. The houses of Deir el-Qasi, which my father had shown us, would stare back at me. Which was worse, I wondered – to have one’s home destroyed, or to have it remain, for others to live in?

All that remained of the village of Suhmata since the Israeli bulldozers had come were olive trees and a few jutting stones. Most of its people were in Lebanon, but some had managed to stay, and they lived in nearby villages. I met several families in Fassouta. Again, I wondered which was more painful: being totally removed and far away, or having to pass by the site of their village and see its ruins?

In fact, my family and I were lucky, a rare “exception”. Although the peace accords allowed for the return of several thousand PLO personnel to the Palestinian territory, only a very small number were allowed to return to their towns or villages of origin in Israel, and only if they had held Israeli citizenship before they had left. As tension resumed between the PLO and Israel, only about 10 were able to return, and few brought their families with them. We had no frame of reference, no one to talk to who had been through the same experience.

Palestinians were at the bottom of the social ladder. The older generation remembered the years of military rule and oppression. They had lived under a thick blanket of intimidation. For decades, they had not even referred to themselves as Palestinians. Instead, we had a great oxymoron of a label: “Israeli Arabs”. People in Fassouta reacted with either bewildered silence or acute discomfort when I mentioned Palestine. Even when we spoke of our inferior standing in Israel, they only saw it from the perspective of work and their immediate problems. They had to be part of the Israeli system in order to survive. For the younger generation, born after the creation of Israel, this system was all they knew.

* * *

There were few jobs in the village. It became clear I might have to move away from my family to find work. My father’s younger brother, George, worked for the Yellow Pages and lived in Haifa. He found a job for me with one of his clients, a firm that sold educational software. The salary was low but I had to start somewhere. Haifa was one and a half hours away and I could not afford to buy a car. I had to move there, and I found a room in an apartment with some first-year university students from Fassouta.

The place was old and dingy, but it was all we could afford. I shared a room with one of the girls, and the other two shared the other. It was difficult to have any privacy, and I was the odd one out, as they were cousins and seemed unsure how to relate to me. On our first evening there, I helped them clean the apartment and we had dinner. I could not sleep till late, tossing and turning, and I was not sure if my roommate slept, either. But I felt awkward trying to talk to her.

The next morning, we barely managed some toast before leaving. Our nerves were racing: it was their first day at university and mine at work. I had no idea how to get around, but they read the bus signs and helped me. Their stop was before mine, and they got off and turned around to smile and wave. I waved back weakly, fighting a sense of panic.

Fida Jiryis with her father, Sabri, in Fassouta, 2017. Photograph: Courtesy of Fida Jiryis

I looked to the front again and saw two soldiers getting on the bus. My eyes bulged. They were carrying guns. They walked down the aisle and sat down on the empty seats in front of me. I stared at the rifles slung over their shoulders. It was the first time I had seen the cold metal so close. I swallowed hard. No one had carried guns in Cyprus. Why were there guns on the streets? Was this normal? What if one of them went off?

I wanted to change seats. My eyes darted around, but they were all taken. There was one seat at the far back, but there were more soldiers there. Everyone was chatting normally as the bus continued on its route. I was the only one who was breaking into a cold sweat.

I also seemed to be the only Palestinian. I told myself to be calm. It was probably not long to my stop now. Try as I might, though, I could not stop the terrified thought racing through my mind: “I’m on a bus with Israeli soldiers!”

Ten minutes later, I recognised the area, rang the bell hastily and scrambled off. In the street, I took a deep breath and made my way to the building. I had a jarred, surreal feeling, almost like I was in a bad dream.

The first day at work was awkward. I was alone in a small, windowless attic with a low ceiling, where I was assigned to test software. It was a great relief when it was 5pm and time to leave, but another knot of fear clenched my stomach.

On the bus home, I gazed outside the window as we inched forward in rush hour. The billboards and street signs were all in Hebrew. There were just a few restaurants with Arabic names. The conversations around me were in Hebrew. More soldiers got on, jostling for space on the crowded bus. It was at that moment that a cold feeling gripped my heart. I was not in the Palestine of my dreams.

On 14 May, I experienced my first Israeli Independence Day. Israelis waved flags and had parties and barbecues on what was Palestinian land. The country was plastered with flags for weeks before and weeks after, even more so than usual. Did we really need a flag at the swimming pool in Nahariya; at a small, grimy coffee shop near the bus station; at the bus station, itself; and again every few yards on the beachfront?

On that day, I was so depressed I simply chose to stay home.

* * *

In the village, the situation depressed me even more. More than half of Palestinians in Israel lived below the poverty line. Most of the state’s budget for infrastructure and economic development went to Jewish communities. We had no business initiatives, and no industry or factories. Many of our local councils were insolvent, and most had to raise their own funds to install basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems.

Most families in my village made about half the earnings of an average Jewish family. Our communities had a lower life expectancy and a higher number of people suffering from stress-related diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. To add insult to injury, the Hebrew term avoda aravit, or “Arab work”, was commonly used to denote work of poor or slapdash quality – despite the sad irony that most of Israel was built by Palestinian hands.

It was no easier for those with an education – the village was full of frustrated graduates, waiting for interviews that never came. One of my cousins had graduated from the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. I found out that there were several subjects that Palestinians could not study, such as certain fields of physics, nuclear science and pilot training, for example, on the pretext of “security”. In employment, they were completely excluded from the defence and aviation industries, among others. To avoid having to look for an employer, many students were turning to free professions, such as law, landscaping, dentistry and other health professions where they could open their own practices.

* * *

One weekend, I made the trip to see Raja and Sawsan, my old university friends, in Ramallah. We were overjoyed to meet again. “The only good thing about Oslo,” they laughed, “is that we could see you again.”

My friends were stuck in the West Bank. Before the accords, they could travel freely in the country. “We simply got in the car and went,” they told me. “To Haifa, to Jerusalem, to the beach in Jaffa.” Now Israeli checkpoints were set up at all exits to Israel, and Palestinians needed permits to cross. After that, they were barred from using the airport at Tel Aviv, just half an hour away. To travel abroad, they had to cross over to Jordan and fly from Amman, adding time and expense to their trip.

The Palestinian sovereignty provided for by the accords was a mere facade. The identification cards and passports issued by the authority needed Israeli approval, just as they had when issued by Israeli occupation forces. All border crossings were controlled by Israel. Worse, the new Palestinian police force became a tool for security coordination with Israel, trailing and handing over those who engaged in resistance. No one could have imagined such a scenario.

Objectors to the new setup found themselves excluded from jobs and the perks of the authority, or imprisoned. “We’re living a worse nightmare than before,” Raja told me. The agreements made Palestinians subservient to Israel, economically, politically and in every aspect of life. When the Oslo Accords were signed, Israeli settlement activity was supposed to cease immediately in the Palestinian territory, and, three years later, negotiations were to begin on significant issues, including refugees, settlements and borders, aiming for a full Israeli withdrawal within five years. But Israel had already thrown its commitments to the wind.

The Palestinian village of Wadi Fukin and the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit beyond, both in the West Bank. Photograph: Nir Elias/Reuters

The newly elected prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was from the rightwing Likud party, which had opposed Palestinian statehood and Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territory. His government continued seizing land to expand illegal Jewish settlements and construct Israeli-only bypass roads. Instead of stopping, Israel’s settlement activities had multiplied.

The Oslo Accords were soon seen by Palestinians as bringing neither peace nor freedom and tensions simmered between the Palestinian Authority – which was dominated by one political faction, Fatah – and its rival, Hamas. Israel pressed Arafat to rein in terrorism – as it termed any act of resistance – and he, though reluctant, often complied. My friends were angry and insecure in the new circumstances. They knew how different life in Israel was. The decades of occupation had left their own society damaged, unable to rise to the same standard of living.

As Palestinian returnees attempted to rebuild their lives in the West Bank and Gaza, I had the equally daunting task of trying to find my place in Israel. So far, I had had almost no interaction with Israelis.

I did not speak Hebrew. I lived between my village and an apartment with Palestinian girls in Haifa, and I worked in a Palestinian company. When I went down to the street to buy lunch, all the falafel and shawarma shops were owned by Palestinians. When I got on the bus or bought something at the supermarket, and it was an Israeli driver or cashier, I just fished out my money and handed it over, not understanding the amount they were saying, just looking at the cash register to see it. They gave me the change and it ended there. I saw Israelis everywhere, but had a completely separate and parallel existence to them, and I was hit by a painful feeling, one that has never left me since: I was a stranger in my own country.

* * *

Thankfully, my cousin, Rania, lived in Haifa, studying at college and working part-time. She often called me to meet up. Sometimes, Rania and I went out, walking around the Hadar neighbourhood and buying cheap clothes or cosmetics on our shoestring budget. The city was weighing down on me. After the nakba, only 3,000 of Haifa’s 70,000 Palestinians had remained there. They were forced into certain neighbourhoods, where they lived in gruelling conditions.

The Israeli government set about completely changing the character of the city, destroying many Palestinian properties, taking over others for Jewish use, replacing Arab street names with Hebrew ones and obliterating Palestinian cultural heritage, which had been so rich and vibrant in Haifa before its ruin. Everywhere we walked, surviving homes peeked out at me like ghosts from another era.

My only respite was when we went to the malls, since they were disconnected from the outside reality. But even there, everything was in Hebrew. There were no Arabic signs at all, even though it was the second official language of the state, and many of the customers were Palestinians. Arabic road signs in the country were full of glaring spelling mistakes, and the Hebrew names of towns were transcribed into Arabic instead of using the original Arab names.

At the entrance of every mall, government office or public building, guards and metal detectors were standard. If a bag was left on a bus or at a train station, or if someone left their luggage for a minute and went to get something, it became an emergency. People looked around frantically, and if the owner was not found, things could quickly escalate. At the central station, I witnessed the scene as warning sirens sounded, the site was evacuated and a bomb squad was brought in to dismantle a suspicious object, which turned out to be someone’s clothes. The sense of constant alarm was palpable, yet it was treated as normal.

Part of Israel’s separation wall near Ramallah in 2005. Photograph: Oded Balilty/AP

After going through three jobs in less than two years, I needed a real change. For three months, I locked myself up and studied Hebrew, taking a mechanical attitude and pushing my feelings aside. By the end of that time, I could speak, read and write basic Hebrew. I began to apply to software companies. Weeks went by with no response. Then, a call came from a large firm in Haifa. The lady spoke to me in Hebrew and I was very nervous, but I managed to arrange the time of my interview.

On the day, when I found the building and passed security, I tensed up. So far, I had had almost no interaction with Israelis. When a pleasant young man met me at the door and shook my hand, I broke into a light sweat.

There were two other people in the room. They asked me many questions and, thankfully, I could answer some of them in English. Leafing through my CV, they enquired, in more detail, about my work in Cyprus. I was glad and took it as a sign of interest.

“Well, thank you,” the pleasant man finally smiled. “Oh, and one more thing. Can we have your army number?”

I had a sinking feeling. “Um, I don’t have one … ”

“OK,” the smile remained, fixed in place. “Thank you. We’ll be in touch.”

Upon finishing school, every young Israeli had to complete military service. Doors were then open for study loans, jobs and generous mortgages. Palestinians in Israel were exempt from service and very few of them enlisted. But the completion of army service was a requirement for many jobs and social benefits.

I walked out in defeat. I had researched the company, prepared for the interview, bought a new outfit. I had been excited about the opportunity. But no one called, and neither did three more companies that I interviewed with. Fighting panic, I began to wonder what to do. What about the computer science degree I had earned with merit, the money my father had spent on a top British university? Why was it so difficult here?

* * *

I finally managed to get a good job, as a tester with a software company. The company was in a technology park in Tefen, an industrial zone about 20 minutes away from my village in the Galilee. It was perfect. At last, the insecurity and stress of the last two years were behind me. It took me a few days to realise that, of about 30 staff, I was the only Palestinian.

There was an impenetrable wall between me and my colleagues. They had their homes, their jobs, their lives – few stopped to think of where the land that they lived or worked on had come from. It was this jarring sensation, of being in a huge graveyard while everyone else ignored the tombstones, that began to eat away at me and that would eventually break my sad attempt to integrate.

I became close to Lisa, the human resources officer. It was a curious friendship. She was in her 50s and I was 24, younger than her daughter. But we were delighted to chat in English. Lisa was Jewish and had emigrated from Britain as a teenager and married a local Israeli. She would often turn up at my office door for a quick chit-chat after making tea in the kitchen nearby.

One day, Lisa appeared for our usual chat. I looked up gratefully from my screen. But she was flustered. “I’m a bit worried about driving home these days,” she blurted out.

“Why?” Lisa lived in Atzmon, a Jewish community in Galilee.

“Because of the recent troubles. Some Arabs have been throwing stones along the road.”

Arabs, I noted – not Palestinians. The state had laboured to negate our identity, and had not used the word Palestinians until after the Oslo Accords, and, even then, only to refer to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, not to its own citizens.

It was the first time Lisa had ever mentioned us. “Troubles?” I echoed.

“A few Arab boys were working in Atzmon for a while, but some people were upset and made them leave. For a few days now they’ve been throwing stones at our cars as we pass. It’s really stressful!”

“Why were they fired?” I asked.

“Oh, you know … ” she looked uncomfortable, waving her hand. “Some people just don’t want Arabs working at the kibbutz.”

“Oh.” I swallowed. Many Jewish communities did not allow Palestinians to work in them, and most did not allow them to live there, either. One of my cousins was a handyman at a kibbutz, but the likes of him were few. Most of these communities had a vetting procedure through an “admissions committee”, the decision of which was final. Some even began to require their applicants to swear loyalty to Zionist principles. A few Palestinians had gone to court to protest, but it was rare that they won.

Similarly, it was unthinkable for a Jew to live in a Palestinian village. Those who did – to make a point – were usually welcomed by the Palestinian communities and largely shunned by their own. But they were, again, very few.

I looked at Lisa and wondered what her take was on this. But she was so agitated that she seemed oblivious to my thoughts. “I’m calling my husband to be on standby, in case I need help.”

I nodded. She said a hasty goodbye and was gone.

On my way home, I thought about her words as I passed a Jewish settlement, with its rows of neat villas, lush gardens, fountains and wide pavements.

The difference between Palestinian and Jewish communities, often lying next to each other, was so marked that anyone could immediately tell them apart. State funding for Jewish communities ensured that they would offer a standard of living to attract immigrants. Hundreds of Jewish localities had been built by Israel since its establishment, but not one new Palestinian village or town was created, and the existing ones were suffocated. In every Palestinian village I visited, I saw neglected, overcrowded ghettoes, narrow streets full of potholes, a lack of amenities, no parks or public spaces and a heavy, depressed atmosphere.

Palestinian villages had evolved over hundreds of years, before modern zoning and municipal planning. The new Jewish communities were built in a planned, methodical way, their homes neat copies of each other, like neighbourhoods in the west. They seemed to have dropped from the sky, in place of the destroyed villages. In all the beauty and order, I only saw ugliness, because my mind always turned to how they came about.

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