Present and Absent in al-Ghabisiyya
By Rebecca Pierce
Shrouded by a young cypress forest and buried under layers of chalky yellow dust, the remains of al-Ghabisiyya lie nine miles from the ancient city of Acre in modern Israel, close to its border with Lebanon. Scattered sandstone, a flattened cemetery, and the battered Mosque are the only visible clues that the uninhabited space once hosted a thriving farm community. Ghabisiyya was one of hundreds of Palestinian Arab villages emptied before or during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, in what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe. Many of the displaced villagers fled or were expelled from the area, but most of those who stayed in the newly formed Jewish State became citizens. Despite attempts by the displaced villagers to return, the Israeli government declared Ghabisiyya first a “closed military zone” and later “absentee property,”and subsequently razed the village. Today, most of the area remains empty and military orders still bar its former residents from their lands.
In the summer of 2011, I visited Ghabisiyya with an American peace-building delegation, accompanied by former resident and village committee member, Dawud Bader. The story of the village and its refugees can be pieced together through his testimony, various historical accounts of the Palestinian exodus in 1948, and the experiences of Israel’s Arab citizens after the birth of the nation. The fate of Ghabisiyya and its “Present Absentees” is a poignant reminder that building a “Jewish and Democratic” Israel on indigenous Arab land created legal and humanitarian complications. These “complications” form a paradox that haunts the experiences of the country’s internally displaced and non-Jewish citizens to this day.
Prior to May 1948, the village of Ghabisiyya was a small Muslim community located in the Acre district of the Palestine Mandate, adjacent to the towns of Shaykh Dannun and Shaykh Dawud. Most residents supported their families by raising animals, tending olive trees, or farming vegetables and grains. Villagers made communal use of Ghabisiyya’s school and olive press, and worshipped together in the town mosque. By 1945, Ghabisiyya had a population of about 690 people who lived in close proximity to Netiv ha-Shayyara, a settlement that recent Jewish immigrants from Iraq built on village farmland. The town was located in an area proposed as part of a future Arab state in the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan.
The years leading up to the British withdrawal from the Mandate of Palestine, and the subsequent declaration of the State of Israel, were marked with increasing violence and instability as the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel clashed with the simultaneous nationalist desires of a Palestinian Arab majority. Attacks between the Jewish Yishuv and Palestinian communities proliferated as a full scale conflict between Zionist militias and allied Arab forces became more and more likely. Still some Palestinian towns, including the village of Ghabisiyya, remained friendly with neighboring Jewish communities. In late 1947, villagers negotiated a deal with local Haganah forces in which they agreed to supply the Zionist paramilitary group with resources and information in exchange for not being attacked. Despite this agreement, the Haganah’s Carmeli Brigade invaded Ghabisiyya on May 21, 1948. Dawud Bader explains that when they saw the soldiers approaching, “the people of the village held here a short meeting near the mosque, and decided not the resist…One of the people climbed to the roof of the mosque and shouted with the white flag, a sign of peace…The attacking soldiers saw this person on the roof of the mosque. They shot him, they killed him.”
Over the next two days, the Haganah killed eleven residents, and the rest were forced to run from the fighting. Although he was just six years old at the time, Bader recalls, “My mother woke me in the early morning and [she] took some things on [her] head and we went to the east.” Ghabisiyya was one of the last Palestinian communities to fall in the final phase of Operation Ben Ami, the final large offensive the Haganah launched before the establishment of the state of Israel and the creation of the Israeli military on May 15,1948.According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the purpose of the operation was to “resupply and reinforce the settlements in Western Galilee…to extricate noncombatants…and, in general, to secure permanent Jewish control over the area.”  A former Israeli military commander would later claim in a local newspaper that the attack on Ghabisiyya was justified because residents of the town were suspected of involvement in the ambush of a Haganah supply convoy in early 1948.
The villagers who survived the strike on Ghabisiyya dispersed in many directions. Bader says, “During this period, a few months, about fifty percent of the people fled across the Lebanese border to Lebanon, became refugees there…We remained here about fifty percent, including me, my mother, and my father.” The residents of Ghabisiyya had joined the ranks of over 700,000 Palestinians displaced in the conflict of 1948. Israel still bars those who went to Lebanon from returning to both their village and the nation in which it now lies. Although most Jewish people have an automatic right to Israeli citizenship, Israel does not recognize the U.N. resolution detailing a right of return for Palestinian refugees. Bader sees this contradiction as a great injustice and longs for his family to be reunited, saying “My brother and sister also have a right of return according to the U.N. Resolution 194, for sixty years. Why do we implement for people who don’t know the country and not also for another people who have memories, who know everything here?”
By 1950, most of the 160,000 Palestinians who remained in the newly declared Jewish state became Israeli citizens, including roughly 300 displaced people from Ghabisiyya. Theoretically, the Israeli government was supposed to give these non-Jewish citizens equal rights, as outlined in the Israeli Declaration of Independence. However, until 1966, the government kept areas heavily populated by Israel’s Palestinian citizens under varying degrees of Hammisishar Ha-Zevai, or military rule.
During this period, the Israeli state viewed Israeli Arabs, as they came to be known, as a potential “fifth column” of enemy forces and governed them under strict ordinances based on British Mandate era laws originally intended to discourage Jewish and Arab resistance to colonial rule. Military governors could set up curfews and road blocks that restricted movement, and could hold citizens without charge, place them under house arrest, and bar them from leaving or entering their own lands. Military Police often disrupted journalism and political organizing and could threaten citizens with expulsion from the country. In the vast majority of cases, the government did not apply these policies to Israel’s Jewish population. The period in which Israel’s Palestinian citizens lived under military rule lasted nearly twenty years and it soon proved tragic for the people of Ghabisiyya. It also had a dramatic impact on how many Israeli Arabs, who today make up twenty percent of the population, view the country they live in. Bader says, “I think for us it is very painful here. We are living good, we are working…we have good connections to the Israeli people…but at the official level there is discrimination.”
During the early years of the state, some of the villagers from Ghabisiyya returned to their houses and were able to reinhabit the town for a short period of time. But on January 24,1950, the residents suffered expulsion once again. According to Bader, “The Israeli military police came to the village and said to the villagers they must leave within twenty-four hours. Why? They need the area for security purposes.” Fearing what had happened to them in 1948, and believing they would eventually be able to return, the residents left for a second time. But their hopes of moving back to Ghabisiyya for good were never to be realized. Bader explains that “No promise was fulfilled and the people began to try coming back to this village. Every time the Israeli Army prevented them and ordered them to go back.” Those who tried to return to their homes faced arrest, imprisonment, and potentially deportation to Lebanon. In November 1951, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the military did not have the authority to bar the people of Ghabisiyya from their property and permitted their return. Bader recalls that when the villagers tried to implement the decision, “Once more came the military police and ordered them to leave…The Israeli Government, under Ben Gurion at this time, had declared that Ghabisiyya was a military closed zone.” Still unable to reclaim their houses, most of villagers settled in the neighboring Arab towns of Shaykh Dannun and Mazra’a. In 1955, the Israeli Land Authority (ILA), the government body responsible for seizing and redistributing property vacated by refugees, declared Ghabisiyya “absentee property” and confiscated the entire village. The ILA carried out the seizure according to the Israeli Absentee Property Laws, which dictated that the government would declare “absent” any people who left their property during the conflict of 1948 and that the ILA would seize and redistribute everything they left behind. Two years later, in 1957, the Israeli Land Authority bulldozed the houses, school, cemetery, and other structures of Ghabisiyya, leaving only the mosque standing. Bader believes the ILA undertook this destruction to eliminate any chance of the residents returning. The ILA then planted cypress and pine trees over the former site of the village, obscuring it from view. In most cases, during that period, the ILA would have redistributed the land it confiscated to accommodate growing Jewish immigration to Israel, but Ghabisiyya was still a “closed military zone” and the ILA could not legally transfer or develop it.
Although their village no longer exists, the people of Ghabisiyya are still trying to go home. Former residents, many of whom still have the deeds to their houses, have mounted several efforts to reclaim their property, but the Israeli government has largely rebuffed them. In the 1970s, villagers formed a committee and petitioned the ILA for the right to renovate and use the overgrown and crumbling mosque complex. The ILA told the village committee if it wanted to use the building, it would have to sign a document recognizing ILA ownership of the property. The villagers refused to give up their right to the land, but continued their efforts to return to it. In 1995, the village committee began to repair the mosque without the permission of the ILA. Dawud Bader explains, “We knew that we cannot have such permission. So we came and cleaned. And in order to connect the people with the holy place, the mosque, the people of the village decided to pray every Friday.” The villagers continued to meet at the mosque for Jumu’ah, or Friday prayer, for close to a year. But in early 1996, the ILA returned, emptied the mosque, and sealed the complex off to the public. Bader fumes, “Forty-Five Years [it was] opened, neglected for everything. But when we prayed, used the mosque for some holy moments, holy acts, they cannot accept such thing so they closed the mosque.” The villagers found their prayers seemingly answered during the Israeli elections later that year when the incumbent government of Shimon Peres wrote a letter promising to repair and open Ghabisiyya’s mosque, citing a responsibility to “maintain holy places for all religions, including, of course, cemeteries and mosques holy to Islam.” Their fortunes fell, however, when Shimon Peres lost the election and the right-wing government of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s current Prime Minister, took power and shuttered the mosque once again.
Although Israel’s Palestinian citizens are technically no longer under military rule, to this day the area of Ghabisiyya is still a “closed military zone” and it remains under the control of the Israeli Land Authority, off limits to development by its former inhabitants. Today many of the internally displaced refugees of Ghabisiyya live just a few kilometers away from the site of their former homes. According to Dawud Bader, forty-five percent of the people in Sheikh Danun are refugee families from Ghabisiyya, as are thirty-five percent of those in Mazra’a, including the Mayor. These people are often paradoxically referred to as “present absentees.” The Israeli government has declared them “absent” from their land, but they are physically present as citizens living in the Jewish state. For Dawud Bader, these circumstances amount to a painful and paradoxical sense of inequality that haunts his experiences as a displaced Palestinian citizen of the “Jewish and Democratic State.” “We have the blue Israeli identity cards.” He muses, “We are citizens, and I understand citizens must be equal. All citizens; Arabs, Jews…But we are here, refugees in our own land.”
1. Khalidi, Walid. “All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated By Israel in 1948.” (Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992) 13-15.
2. Morris, Benny. “The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited.” (Cambridge Univeristy Press, 2004). 252.
3. Benvenisti, Meron. “Scared Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948.” (University of California Press, 2000) 141.
4. Pappe, Ilan. “The Forgotten Palestinians: A History of the Palestinians in Israel.” (Yale University Press, 2011) 18, 46, 51, 52.
5. Benvenisti, Meron. “Scared Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948.” (University of California Press, 2000) 201, 293-295