Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat – Eight years ago, on the fifty-second anniversary of the Nakba, Hajj Ahmed al Izzat, 85 years old, handed over the key to his house located in the village of Bayt Jibran to a child refugee and asked him to return to his village and to ensure that the key, in turn, would be handed down to his children.
“It is symbolic…the key is a symbol of return. I want it to be passed on from generation to generation,” Izzat told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Sheikh Ahmed possessed two copies of the key to his house in Bayt Jibran; he personally gave one key to the late Pope John Paul II when he embarked upon a historical visit to the Dheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem eight years ago.
Sheikh Ahmed handed the key directly to Pope John Paul II and said to him, “I would like you to take it back to Bayt Jibran for me,” to which the late pope nodded.
Sheikh Ahmed clings to his right to return to the village of Bayt Jibran, which he left, along with the rest of his family, in 1948, at the age of twenty. Sixty years later, al Izzat does not feel that his journey has been a long one. He explained that the Israelis have worked for over 2000 years to build their state but “we will struggle [against it] for another 5000 years.”
Today, al Izzat spends his time in the kitchen of his humble home in a refugee camp that is located north of Bethlehem. He lies down on the floor and does not let anything come between him and his small radio as he listens to the latest news.
In response to the speech delivered by the incumbent American President George Bush in the Israeli Knesset on a recent visit to the Middle East, Sheikh Ahmed said, “Bush is going. His words at the Knesset are of no value, even though they are hurtful to listen to. The Israelis built their state before he was even born.”
Ahmed says that though he may pass away soon, he has a clear conscience. He pointed towards one of his many grandsons and said, “He will be the one to return.”
Sheikh Ahmed remembers the fine points of his village. He remembers every house, the names of his friends, the families and the landowners and is able to draw a detailed map of the place. He remembers a cave in one of the mountains and hopes to return there once again. Ahmed says that it is nicer than where he lives now and is better than the refugee camp, Bethlehem and the whole of the West Bank.
Hajj Ahmed’s journey began after he was driven out of his home in Bayt Jibran. He then headed for Hebron then Jericho until he reached Bethlehem.
His children and grandchildren live a mediocre life and work in schools and universities and are respected within their community. However, Hajj Ahmed believes that the life that he leads is one “without dignity” and “is a life of humiliation,” as a refugee who has been expelled from his land.
“Today I am a refugee; do you know what that means? It means [someone] without a land and without dignity who lives on rations.”
He went quiet for a while and then continued, “Everything in Bayt Jibran is more beautiful than here. Our life was a lot better back then. We had our land, our livestock, and our minds were at ease.”
“Don’t tell me that refugees are comfortable; this house is rented out to me by the UNRWA. Life isn’t just about having enough to eat and drink like animals; life is about dignity. For me dignity can only be found in Bayt Jibran.”
Along with his four brothers, Sheikh Ahmed left his home in Bayt Jibran and today the family has expanded to reach over 100 members. In total, Hajj Ahmed has 60 children and grandchildren.
Ghassan, one of Ahmed’s many grandchildren was sitting beside him as he spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat. Ghassan studies Sociology at Bethlehem University. As Sheikh Ahmed began to say that like all Palestinians he has not exerted enough effort in his fight for the right to return, his grandson interrupted to say, “That is not the case. You have taught me to love Bayt Jibran and I’ve never even seen it before. That is the most important struggle.”
Like his grandfather, Ghassan dreams about going back to Bayt Jibran. He says that his grandfather planted love for the village in his heart at a young age. “This is my land…it is my right [to return] and nobody will ever take that away from me.”
Ghassan agrees with his grandfather that they are living a degrading life. He said, “When I see children growing up and playing next to heaps of rubbish, I curse the refugee camp. This is not our home.”
Sheikh Ahmed interrupted to add, “I do not want this house, or electricity, or water; all I want is a tent in Bayt Jibran.”
Young Ghassan continued; “I hope that we can go back. I would love to return and see the tree that my grandfather talks about that stands in front of our house.”
Hajj Ahmed al Izzat clings to the hope that he will one day return to his hometown. He seems confident that the solutions [to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] that he hears about will not succeed. Ghassan has a stronger opinion on this matter as he dislikes the way in which the [Palestinian] leadership engages in negotiations.
“Don’t expect more than this from the Palestinian leadership,” stated Sheikh Ahmed. “Beggars can only turn to God and can only live on what they have got.”
Hajj Ahmed called upon Arab countries to boycott the Israelis: “Look at what the Israelis have accomplished in 60 years and how it has armed itself. In seven thousand years what have we achieved? We haven’t even made a car.”
Ghassan wants peace; however he wants peace that is just. When asked what he meant by “just peace” he said, “For the Israelis to leave our land.”
“Do you mean Tel Aviv?” I asked.
“Of course, [they should leave] all of our land and go back to wherever they came from. We want all of Palestine back and this is what I mean by just peace.”
Ghassan does not approve of the agreements that have been signed in the past by the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel. “[I do not agree with] the Oslo [Accords] or the Geneva [Accord] or the negotiations taking place today or any compensation or any agreement. They take away my right of return. I will teach my children, in the same way that my grandfather taught me that the right of return will never be relinquished.”
Sheikh Ahmed appeared to be satisfied with his grandson’s comments as his effort and struggle were not wasted. He said, “The keys that I gave to the pope and the child refugee will return…today I have no strength, I am an old man, but my grandchildren will be the ones to return.”