Issue No.
193, May 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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     Personality of the Month

Jameel Hamad of Al-Safsaf A Weeping Willow
By Riyam Kafri AbuLaban*
Al-Safsaf, known during Roman times as Safsofa, the weeping willow, is a small village northwest of Safad. It sits on a hill at 750 metres. Safsaf’s beautiful nature was home for Jameel Ismael Saleem Hamad, his three brothers, and his father. Their mother, according to Jameel, was not around. She must have died when they were young. Locked in a synergistic relationship with the land, the people of Safsaf planted mainly olive trees and fig trees. They lived on what the land offered them, and in return they gave her the loving strokes of their mihrath (plough), and the drenching passion of spring water. They kept her moist and rich, and she returned their favour with bitter and tangy olives and luscious honey figs. A small village of 300 homes and close to 1,000 residents sounds like a place one would escape to in order to find quiet. Safsaf’s serene fields and slow rural pace seem like the perfect place to stop and smell the jasmine. Jameel’s description of his village makes you want to visit it, makes you want to hold his hand and let him lead you directly to the land on which he spent the first 13 years of his life, until all he knew and loved vanished into the black hole of international community silence.

Al-Safsaf is no longer. It was ruthlessly seized by the Haganah in October 1948, and what the villagers witnessed for several days afterwards has all the elements of a tragedy punishable by human laws on earth and by God’s law in the heavens.

News of Palestine’s being taken over by the Jews was spreading like wildfire. Friendly neighbours suddenly turned into ruthless enemies who fired rifles and shells into Palestinian homes. A new country that was formed on the ruins of another did not bode well. Palestinians till this day tell of their utter shock and sense of betrayal. They continuously affirm that they did not expect that their Jewish neighbours would turn on them. Jameel’s story communicates this utter shock, this unexpected turn of events.

Jameel sits in his living room at the forever-temporary yet very permanent Shatila Refugee Camp in Lebanon. He stares directly into Tarek Bakri’s video camera and tells his little portion of Palestine’s oral history. Tarek asks him brief questions that stimulate his memory. You can almost see his neurons firing like angry canons trying to dislodge the memories of 1948 from their dark corner and into the light. The weeping willows of Jameel’s memories sway as he weathers the storm of painful remembrance.

The Haganah, an armed militia of the newly formed state of Israel, began its attack on Safsaf on the afternoon of October 29, 1948. It was part of Operation Hiram, which aimed to capture Upper Galilee. Jameel’s brothers who lived in Haifa had already sent word to their family, telling them the unfortunate news. The villagers were largely unarmed, their weapons were simple rifles, and they had very little ammunition. Together with the Arab Liberation Army, they returned fire in an attempt to protect their village. Less than a day of fighting passed when the village fell under Israeli militia control. People surrendered, and the Arab Liberation Army withdrew, leaving Jameel and the rest of the villagers completely defenceless. Families quickly gathered at three different homes to make plans to flee, but the village was completely surrounded. One can only imagine how terrified they were. After all, the news of Israeli brutality and savagery was quickly spreading through the country.

Israeli militias stormed the house where Jameel and his brother were hiding. They ordered all the men out. Jameel remembers wrapping his arms tightly around his brother Mahmoud, preventing him from leaving with the other men. They were teenagers, Jameel barely thirteen, and Mahmoud sixteen. “The Israeli soldier took me by my arm and flung me across the room, then he dragged my brother out with the other men.” Minutes later life was hijacked from Mahmoud and his kinsmen. The Israelis executed them. “When we came out we found the men on the ground face down, they were shot in the back. My brother was right by the door.”

Jameel’s dark eyes shimmer with pain. Age-old sadness radiates from his pupils. He does not crack a smile, not even a faint one. I wonder if he remembers how to smile. The memories that pour into the camera are as fresh as yesterday. Most of the time he seems to be fighting the sobs that try to escape through his quivering voice. “We did not bury them,” he continues. “They brought a truck and asked a few of the elderly men to come help them collect the bodies. There were maybe 100 bodies.” According to other accounts the Safsaf Massacre refers to the Israeli army’s execution of 70 blindfolded young men. Jameel recalls 100. In fact, the precise number is not important because one man killed is one man too many. Those seventy men all had names, they had dreams, they belonged to mothers, sisters, and wives. They had children who wrapped their tiny baby arms around their feet and squealed with joy at the sight of Baba. They were young teenagers tasting the sweetness of first love or dreaming of moving out of the village and into the city. They weren’t just bodies collected in a pickup truck and thrown into a ditch and covered with soil to be forgotten. They were people. Jameel, like any other human being, loved his brother. He looked up to him like any other 13 year old would look up to his older, wiser brother. The last image in Jameel’s head before Mahmoud turned from a brother into a dead body is that of an Israeli soldier dragging him out to his dark fate.

Jameel spent fifteen more days in the captured Safsaf, after which he braved the odds with his cousin and his cousin’s mother to walk through the olive groves to Al-Jish. From there he moved to Yaroun in Lebanon and then finally to meet some of his family in Soor. He caught up with his sister-in-law; his brother had lost his life trying to leave the village while fighting the Israeli militias..

When Tarek asks him if he would return to Safsaf, Jameel responds: “Hada ishy mostaheel mostaheel mostaheel.” (That would be impossible impossible impossible.) When Tarek asks him if he would accept a home in Nablus, Ramallah, or any other Palestinian city, he responds: “Ah, barooh ba’od hunak laje’ mitel ma ana hone laje’.” (Yes, I would go. I can be a refugee there just like I’m a refugee here.)

*Based on an interview conducted by Palestinian artist and photographer Tarek Bakri. Tarek is a computer engineer based in Jerusalem. He is currently the project coordinator of Filistin Ashabab for cultural production. He works on photography and documentation of Palestinian ethnically cleansed villages in 1948. Tarek can be reached at

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