Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tiberias, Samakh and Beisan

We left Nazareth Friday morning in groups of 15-20 to visit villages and towns in upper Galilee that were depopulated or destroyed in 1948. As we drove north, we saw how the ring of Jewish settlements surrounding Nazareth has effectively prevented the city's Arab population from expanding. It is difficult not to ascribe intent to this type of urban "planning". On our way to Tiberias (now Tveria), we passed through Mashad (of Jonah fame), Cana (of new wine fame) and Toraan (where "it is said" Jesus told the parable of the sower and the seed). Tiberias itself is a thriving lakeside city which, in places, resembles the Atlantic City boardwalk. Naim Ateek told us as a child he swam regularly in the sea of Galilee. Water pumped from Galilee has significantly lowered the lake today and pollution makes swimming inadvisable. Ashkenazi Jews began settling in Tiberias at the end of the nineteenth century and by 1948 comprised a little over 50% of the population. Arabs and Jews had generally good relations until the 1947 Partition Plan was announced, the British began their withdrawal and war between Palmach and Arab Liberation Army forces threatened. As in so many other places, with few weapons and no training, Arab defenders were no match for well-organized and strongly motivated Jewish soldiers. Late in April, 1948, all Arabs were evacuated from Tiberias.

Today, no Arabs are allowed to live or own land in Tiberias. Not by law, but by custom. It reminds me of large parts of Coral Gables where, when I was growing up there, no Jews lived anywhere near us. "They just don't live here." We viewed the remains of a Greek Orthodox Church, a Roman Church and a mosque which, by Israeli law, are preserved but not allowed to provide worship services.

Samakh was a small village (a little over 3,000) southeast of Tiberias at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. It sat at the crossroads of commerce between areas east and west of the Jordan River with a railway which which ran from Samakh west to Haifa, stopping at 42 villages on the way. A former resident of Samakh who accompanied us candidly described the population as victims of colonial power and Arab mistakes. Citizens were caught between Jewish and Arab forces from Syria. All that remains of the former Samakh is the old railway station.

The final stop of the day was in Beisan where Naim Ateek grew up. Naim's father was a successful jeweler who built three houses on property filled with every sort of fruit tree. Naim described Beisan as blessed with many springs and a stream which flowed through their property. As a child he played often with Muslim classmates and loved climbing to the top of the local minnaret from which the daily calls to prayer were sung (without benefit of electronic amplification). Naim was 11 in 1948 when Jewish forces entered Beisan. Citizens were worried, but did not resist. Shortly after Israel declared independence, the Haganah commander ordered all citizens to bring what they could carry and gather in the city square - where we were standing listening to Naim. When Naim and his family got there they found the square encircled by soldiers. Muslims were ordered to one side, Christians to the other. Muslims were loaded on trucks, carried to the Jordan and told to find their way east. Christians were loaded on other trucks headed for Nazareth, a city at that time outside the UN partition. Naim's sisters had just baked bread in their oven (few citizens had their own) so they carried a basket of fresh bread they shared with others. As they were driven out of town, they passed their home which soldiers had already entered and were playing one of Naim's brother's accordian. As they left Beisan, Naim's sister heard her father, a very pious Orthodox, utter, "Naked I came into this world, naked I shall return, blessed be the name of the Lord".

From the square we walked to the location of Naim's home where a bank and parking lot now exist. Naim explained that there is an Arabic saying, the one who owns the land (his family still has the deed to this land) owns all that stands on it. With a wonderful smile, he said he hopes that when he comes to claim ownership of the bank, it will not be bankrupt.

That evening, after dinner, we processed our day in small groups. I sat next to Josef Ben-Eliezer, an extraordinary man who later told his story to the whole conference. He was a Holocaust survivor who, with his family, narrowly escaped the SS only to be shipped to Siberia by the Russians. As a teenager, he managed to immigrate to Palestine and, while still a teenager, joined the Haganah to fight for his survival as a Jew. In 1948 he was among the troops who depopulated Palestinian villages. As he began to witness the harsh treatment of Palestinians - and the murder of some - he began to question what was happening. He questioned his colleagues and escorted some Palestinians to safety, but began feeling terrible guilt at what was happening. After the war, Josef left the military and, later, very sadly, left Israel for England. In the years since the War of Independence and the 1967 War he has become an advocate for an end to the occupation and a just peace.

It is indeed humbling to sit with some of these people, hear their story of courage and faithfulness and wonder with them how long it will be until a just peace is accomplished.

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