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mural copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
Image: DW/K. Shuttleworth

Back on the map

Kate Shuttleworth, Hebron
May 15, 2014

It’s been 66 years since 750,000 Palestinians fled or were removed from their homes in over 400 villages across what is now Israel. Nakba, or the catastrophe, is still raw in the memory for many elderly Palestinians.


In the Hebron subdistrict near Beit Semesh there are hidden clues - bits of stone walls, tomb stones of Muslim leaders, clumps of old trees and fences. They are all revealed in a new iPhone application that leads people to the traces of former Palestinian villages across the country.

Earlier this month a non-profit organization run by Israelis and Palestinians called Zochrot, Hebrew for remembering, merged the narrative of the Nakba with the high-tech app to put Palestine back on the map.

Their new interactive app called "invisible lands" maps out the over 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1948 and some since using virtual pins.

The app which links in with google navigation leads people to traces of Palestinian villages all over the country. At first glance the map cluttered with virtual pins is depressing, but the photographs and testimonies offer an acknowledgment to the many refugees who were displaced in the nakba.

Screenshot Nakba App copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
Trying to make the "invisible lands" visible

"People have started uploading more photos of their destroyed villages and adding and changing information, sharing their historical knowledge," the creator of the app, Raneen Jeries told DW.

Jeries said many refugees had contacted Zochrot and asked if they could get help with directions to reach specific villages.

"It's not easy to find the destroyed localities, because now we're 66 years after the nakba and many of these destroyed localities became Jewish settlements and others became parks for the Jewish National Fund, so you need to go inside the parks and look for ruins."

Zochorot describes itself as promoting Israeli acknowledgement of, and accountability for, the ongoing injustices of the nakba and the reconceptualisation of return as the imperative redress of the Nakba and a chance for a better life for the entire country's inhabitants.

Strong connection to the lost villages

There are only a few remnants of Beit Natif near Beit Shemesh, just 21 kilometers from Hebron. Today the land has been taken over by Jewish Israelis who formed a kibbutz on the land, which later became a Jewish town.

It was once a thriving Arab village with a population of 2,150 people and was one of the wealthiest villages in the region.

"I think I am going to die soon, but I still want to go back, because this land I am living on now is not my land," Mustafa Ibrahim Abu Srur, 81, told DW.

Mustafa Ibrahim Abu Srur copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
The key to recognition?Image: DW/K. Shuttleworth

He was only 14-years old when Israeli soldiers attacked his village in the middle of the night. He remembers a time before 1948 when the Arab and Jewish populations coexisted peacefully in Beit Natif. "It was a really good relationship. Jewish, Christians and Muslims lived together peacefully."

He remembered on October 21, 1948 when soldiers broke into homes in his village, shooting residents and bombing buildings. Three or four of his friends were killed in the initial attack but his family managed to escape alive into the hill above their village with just the clothes they were wearing.

Much like the Syrian refugees in camps on the border in Jordan, who begin their lives in flimsy canvas tents today, Abusur spent two years living in a tent in Aida refugee camp, beginning in the winter after October 1948.

His family were some of the first residents at Aida refugee camp, just north of Bethlehem. The land where the camp sits today was once lemon, olive and orange tree orchards but was leased to the refugees of the nakba.

The UN Relief and Works Agency was created to alleviate the refugee crisis in Palestine and supplied every family with a single green fabric tent, regardless of the number of family members.

"The tents weren't very strong - they were destroyed in the wind and it was winter. It was a disaster, life was really hard, everything was hard. We had no work, no money. The only food we were given was milk for the babies from the Red Cross," Abu Srur said.

Two years later permanent structures were built and it would take another 20 years before roads were paved in the camp, so residents would sink in mud up to their knees.

Bright future?

Entrance to refugee camp copyright: Kate Shuttleworth
The entrance to a new identity?Image: DW/K. Shuttleworth

Today Aida is a maze of paved roads, houses, shops and people. Bright yellow taxis race around corners, clothes flap in the wind on outdoor clothes lines and children skip along the streets carrying school bags bigger than them.

Abu Srur's life is very much here in Aida, with his six sons and five daughters, but he still longs for his original home. Three of his sons were imprisoned during the first Intifada. One of his grandsons, Mohammed, said "this place is for chickens, not people."

There has been a lot of misunderstanding about the Nakba as it was prevented from being taught in Israel. In the late 1980s Israeli historians were able to access state archives that had been locked away and revisited the period.

The official texts mostly confirmed what Palestinians had always claimed that many were made to leave their homes by force.

According to Hanin Zoabi, an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset, the Nakba wasn't just an event: "It's a process. Israel claimed about five million dunums [500,000 hectares] that belonged to the refugees and all of their assets but still it was not enough." Zoabi was the first Arab Israeli woman to be elected to the Israeli parliament on an Arab party's list. "What Israel has continued to do after 1948 is to Judaise the area. I cannot study my identity in schools, it's not just a matter of confiscating land it's about taking my identity and creating for me a new identity," she said.

The "invisible lands" app may be a first step toward raising more public awareness for the plight of those caught up in the nakba.

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