I spoke to Palestinians who still hold the keys to homes they fled decades ago – many are still determined to return
Most of them were convinced – or thought they knew – that they would come back after a week or two and re-open those front doors, and walk back into the houses many had owned for generationsKeys must always be the symbol of the Palestinian “Nakba” – the “disaster” – the final, fateful, terrible last turning in the lock of those front doors as 750,000 Arab men, women and children fled or were thrown out of their homes in what was to become the state of Israel in 1947 and 1948.
Just for a few days, mind you, for most of them were convinced – or thought they knew – that they would return after a week or two and re-open those front doors and walk back into the houses many had owned for generations. I always feel a sense of “shock and awe” when I see those keys – and I held one in my hand again a few days ago.
Israeli and Palestinian historians have agreed on the history of the village. Today, al-Khalisa is the Israeli frontier town of Kiryat Shmona, and the few refugees who remain alive in the squalid camps of Lebanon can still see their lands if they travel to the far south of the country and look across the border fence.
Few camps could be more vile than the slums of Chatila, where Mohamed Issi Khatib runs his equally shabby “Museum of Memory” in a hovel adorned with ancient Palestinian farm scythes, photocopies of British and Ottoman land deeds, old 1940s radio sets and brass coffee pots – and keys. Just three of them. One, without even a proper bit, was probably used for an animal shed.
The Khatib family lost their own key (the one I held belonged to the grandfather of a refugee called Kamel Hassan). Mohamed was born in Lebanon, just after his parents fled al-Khalisa, and a few days before the independence of the new state of Israel was declared.
The UN General Assembly Resolution 194 of 1948 says the Arabs should return to their homes; hence the continued Palestinian demand – justified but hopeless – for a “right of return” to their own lands, which are now part of Israel.
This is not an argument you can put to Mohamed Khatib, who worked until his retirement 10 years ago as a doctor for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, set up in 1949 to look after Palestinian refugees from the “Nakba”, and later for those who fled or were driven from their homes in the 1967 Middle East war.
It cares for around 5 million Palestinians – many of them children and grandchildren of the 1947-8 refugees, born in exile, almost half a million of them in Lebanon
The documents and brown passports are familiar to me. Over the years, I’ve read through similar papers, land deeds and passports, usually surmounted by the crest of Mandate Palestine’s British “protectors”, that familiar crown, lion and unicorn, and the imprecation honi soit qui mal y pense – “may he be shamed who thinks badly of it”.
But shamed we Brits were by all this nonsense. Khatib blames us for the Palestinian disaster, and points to the keys. “You did this,” he says, smiling in complicity because we all know the history of the 101-year old Balfour Declaration, which declared Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, but referred to the majority Arab population as “existing non-Jewish communities”.
He sounds, I tell him, like the former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad – a crackpot of Trump-like proportions in my view – and I conclude it must be goodbye to the two-state solution if this is how Arabs plan to regard their future neighbours. But Khatib says – rightly, I fear – that the early Palestinian desire for such a solution has long ago been abandoned in the face of Israeli violence.
So what, I ask, did the Palestinians do wrong in all these years? Didn’t they make any mistakes? “They did,” he says. “Their mistake was to leave, to go out of Palestine. They should have stayed [in 1947 and 1948]. Our fathers and grandfathers should have stayed, even if they felt themselves in danger, they should have stayed on their land even if they died. My mother said to me once: “Why did we leave? I should have kept you with me and stayed with you there.”