Salwa Salam Qupty clutches a fading sepia photograph
of a young Palestinian man wearing a traditional white headscarf. It is the
sole memento that survives of her father, killed by a Jewish militia during
the 1948 war that established Israel.
"He was killed 60 years ago as he was traveling to work," she said,
struggling to hold back the tears. "My mother was four months pregnant
with me at the time. This photograph is the closest I've ever got to him."
Six decades on from his death, she has never been allowed to visit his grave
in Galilee and lay a wreath for the father she never met.
This month, after more than 10 years of requests to the Israeli authorities,
she learnt that officials are unlikely ever to grant such a visit, even though
Mrs. Qupty is an Israeli citizen and lives only a few miles from the cemetery.
Government sources said allowing the visit risks encouraging hundreds of thousands
of Palestinian refugees to claim a right to return to the villages from which
they were expelled in 1948.
As Israel celebrated its 60th Independence Day with street parties this summer,
Mrs. Qupty was marking two related anniversaries: the Nakba, or catastrophe,
and her father's death in the early stages of the war.
"I am a twin of the Nakba," she said from her home in Kafr Kana,
close to Nazareth. "I was born at the very moment when most of my people
lost everything: their homes, their land, their belongings, their livelihoods.
In my case I lost my father, too."
Faris Salam was killed in late March 1948, shortly before Israel's establishment.
On the day he died, Salam left his village of Malul, west of Nazareth, to catch
a bus to his job on the railways in Haifa.
"Those were dangerous times," Mrs. Qupty said. "My family were
even afraid to go and collect water from the village well because Jews would
shoot at them from their positions up in the hills."
When the bus drove into an ambush, Salam and the driver were shot dead and
several other passengers injured. He was buried in Malul, but four months later
the 800 inhabitants were forced to flee when they came under sustained attack
from the Israeli army. Mrs. Qupty's mother sought sanctuary in Nazareth, where
she gave birth to Salwa days later.
Soon the army declared Malul a military zone and blew up all the homes, sparing
only two churches and the mosque. The Christian cemetery, where Salam is buried,
was enclosed by a military base named Nahlal.
For the past 12 years, Mrs. Qupty has been trying to find a way to visit the
grave and say a few words to the father she never knew. "As I get older,
the fact that I never met him and that I haven't seen where he is buried gets
harder to bear," she said. "I want him to know that I exist and that
I miss him. Is that too much to ask?"
Over the years she has lobbied members of the Israeli parliament, written to
the defense ministry and sent countless letters to the local media – to little
"The nearest I can get to him is looking through the base's perimeter
fence at a forest that hides my view of the cemetery," she said. To the
bemusement of the Israeli soldiers on guard, she sometimes throws a bouquet
of flowers over the fence.
On one occasion, she said, she found the courage to approach the base's gate
and asked to be let in. An officer told her to address a formal request to the
defense ministry. "But I'm not going there with a gun, only with a bunch
of flowers," she said.
This month a government spokesman finally responded, calling Mrs. Qupty's request
to visit her father's grave a "complex" matter that had been referred
to the defense minister, Ehud Barak, for a final decision.
Ministry officials were reported to have decided that her visit should be blocked
on the grounds that other Palestinians who seek to return to the villages from
which they or their ancestors were expelled in 1948 might use it as legal precedent.
During the war, 750,000 Palestinians fled from more than 400 villages, all
of which were subsequently leveled. Most of the refugees ended up in camps in
neighboring Arab states.
Unlike them, however, Mrs. Qupty's mother managed to remain inside the borders
of the new Jewish state, along with about 100,000 other Palestinians, and eventually
Today there are 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, one fifth of the
country's population. Of those, one quarter are internal refugees, or officially
classified as "present absentees": present in Israel in terms of citizenship
but absent in terms of legal redress over their forced removal from their homes.
Isabelle Humphries, a British scholar who has interviewed many families expelled
from Malul, pointed out that the refugees' Israeli citizenship conferred on
them no more rights to access their former village than refugees living abroad.
"Most cannot make even short visits to the ruins of the villages, to their
places of worship or their graves. Often the lands of the destroyed village
have been declared military zones or are now in the private hands of Jewish
Ms. Humphries said Israel had repeatedly used the excuse that making any concessions
to individual refugees would open the floodgates to the return of all the refugees.
"If Israel were to admit that internal refugees have rights to the land
and property confiscated in 1948, policymakers know that it would draw further
attention to Israel's continuing refusal to recognize the rights of refugees
outside the state."
Mrs. Qupty, a social worker supervising children in protective custody, said
her work had increased her understanding of the trauma that the events of 1948
had done to Palestinians.
"My mother was left with nothing after the war. I was born in a tiny room
in Nazareth and we lived there for many years. My older brother and two sisters
had to be placed in religious institutions because she did not have the means
to care for them. We grew up hardly knowing each other."
For several years after the war, her grandfather secretly returned to Malul
by donkey to grow crops on his land, though he was fined when he was caught
On a few occasions Mrs. Qupty accompanied him, but never saw the cemetery where
her father is buried. "By the time I was old enough to understand what
had happened to my father, the military base had been built over the cemetery."
Finally convinced that Israel is unlikely ever to concede a visit, Mrs. Qupty
said she would turn to the courts.
But human rights lawyers regard her chances of success as slim. The Supreme
Court rarely overturns government decisions taken on security grounds.
This article originally appeared in The
National, published in Abu Dhabi.