The Invisible Return

Some of the refugees from an Arab Israeli village, destroyed in the War of Independence, have managed to return.

The village of Ein Rafa, west of Jerusalem 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The village of Ein Rafa, west of Jerusalem 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
THE MAIN ROAD BETWEEN Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the coastal area is especially crowded on spring days between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, when tens of thousands – tourists and hikers, Jews, Christians and Muslims – make the traditional pilgrimage to the holy sites in Jerusalem.
From Sha’ar Hagai (“the Gateway to the Valley”), at the foot of the hills on the road to Jerusalem, the winding highway climbs past Abu Ghosh, Ein Nakuba and Ein Rafa, a bloc of Israeli Arab villages surrounded by both veteran and newer Jewish neighborhoods. The Kastel, the highest point in the region, towers above.
The region has been important for millennia. For the Canaanites, the kingdoms of Judah, the Greek and Roman conquests, early Islam, the kingdom of the Crusaders, and the later Islam of the Ottoman Empire, this has always been the road to Jerusalem, the capital.
In recent times, the region has undergone remarkable development – hotels, restaurants, pubs and coffee shops, commercial centers, parks and resorts have sprung up alongside the historical antiquities and more recent archeological discoveries. There are two impressive churches here, one ancient and one new, annual classical music festivals – even a restaurant, located in a gas station, totally devoted to statues, drawings and pictures of Elvis Presley.
Interesting political developments are also nestled in these magnificent vistas. One might call this “a microcosm of the Palestinian right of return.”
Tzova was once a small Arab village located on the southern peak of the Kastel mountain; almost all of its villagers fled in the War of Independence in 1948. Yet since then, despite all of the talk about the right of return – or the lack of such a right – some of the villagers have returned. Not to the site of their original village, but rather to a small portion of their lands, located on the slopes of the mountain as it descends from the ruins of their village in the direction of Abu Ghosh. The refugees from Tzova have named their new village Ein Rafa.
In order to understand this unique phenomenon, we must go back 63 years in history to April and May 1948, the days of Israel’s War of Independence. In those days, the fate of the approaches to Jerusalem and of the city itself were determined.
DURING THE WINTER MONTHS, in the beginning of 1948, the Jewish forces faced heavy losses. The British were still in control, but their Mandate was coming to its end and irregular forces on both sides conducted cruel campaigns, focusing on travel on the roads. Jewish convoys were unable to break through to isolated Jewish settlements. Jewish Jerusalem, with its more than 100,000 residents, was under severe siege.
The main road to Tel Aviv was blocked at the approach to the mountain, in the area known as Sha’ar Hagai (Bab el-Wad, in Arabic); the water supply to Jerusalem had been cut off and the city was suffering from a severe shortage of food and medicine.
Under siege, Jewish neighborhoods and settlements near and within Jerusalem were about to surrender to local Arab forces and to the Arab Liberation Army, composed of units of volunteers from Syria and Iraq, commanded by Fawzi al-Qawuqji. Towards the end of the British rule, the settlements of the Gush Etzion bloc, to the south of Jerusalem, had surrendered to the Arabs, as had the settlements of Atarot and Neveh Ya’acov to the north. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City had also fallen to the Arabs, as had the small Jewish neighborhood of Shimon Hatzadik, north of the Old City.
The turning point came at the beginning of April 1948, when the Jewish community received significant military aid, including guns and ammunition, from Czechoslovakia (in accordance with directives from the Soviet Union). David Ben-Gurion, head of the Jewish community and soon to become Israel’s first prime minister, commanded the Jewish forces to engage in a campaign to break the siege on Jerusalem. Known as “Operation Nachshon,” the campaign involved bitter battles along the entire mountainous road, and especially in one small area, the Kastel.
Most of the villages near the Kastel had been captured by Jewish forces. Their residents had fled. Only the Arabs in the large village of Abu Ghosh and the residents of nearby Beit Nekuba, who had fled their village but were sheltered in Abu Ghosh, remained. The residents of Tzova, built on the ruins of a Crusader castle near the Kastel peak, had also fled, most of them to East Jerusalem and, from there to the north and to eastern Jordan.
Only 18 members of the Barhoum family from Tzova, who owned one or two houses on a plot of land in the valley at the slopes of Abu Ghosh, not far from their village, remained. According to reports from those days, the Barhoum family hid in their houses, and thus did not suffer the fate of the “Nakba,” the defeat and exile of the Palestinians in 1948.
Several years ago, Muhammad Said Raman, who was born in the village, published (in Arabic) his book, “Tzova, Recollections from a Jerusalem Village,” in which he describes the events between April 7 and 8, 1948. Numerous historians have written that if they were to set a specific date for the decisive moment in the campaign for Jerusalem, they would choose that night, in which local Arab units, known as the Holy Jihad (al-Jihad al-Mukadis) attempted to recapture the Kastel from the Jewish forces.
They deployed near Tzova, under the command of Abd Al-Khadar al-Husseini, the commander- in-chief of the Holy Jihad, and attacked the Kastel. Al-Husseini was a highlyadmired commander, scion of a venerable Jerusalem family, son of the head of the Arab Executive Committee and a relative of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem.
A few hours before the attack on the Kastel, al-Husseini had returned from Damascus, where he had tried to convince the members of the military committee of the Arab League to provide him with guns and ammunition. They refused, telling him that he should wait six more weeks, until the British left the region and the regular Arab forces invaded Palestine to defeat the soonto- be-established Jewish state. Enraged, al- Husseini returned to take command over the attempt to retake the Kastel. “The Kastel is Jerusalem,” he declared, meaning that whoever held the Kastel would control Jerusalem.
The attack was repulsed. Al-Husseini waited in the command base near Tzova but, as dawn broke, he lost patience and climbed up the mountain to see what had happened to his men. Near the peak, he was shot and killed by Jewish soldiers. Initially he was presumed missing, but soon the news of his death spread quickly through the region; thousands of Arabs rushed to the Kastel, attacked the Jewish forces and killed dozens of the defenders.
His death engulfed the Palestinian Arab community in despair. The next night, Jewish forces from the paramilitary Lehi and Irgun groups attacked the village of Deir Yassin on the western outskirts of Jerusalem, killing scores of villagers.
Those 24 hours, during which al-Husseini died and the killings took place in Deir Yassin, determined the fate of the war.
DURING THOSE SAME HOURS, the 18 members of the Bahroum family stayed in hiding near the small Ein Rafa stream, in the valley under their abandoned village. After the establishment of the State of Israel, many of the homes in Tzova were destroyed and Kibbutz Palmah-Tzova was established on the ruins and on land that had belonged to the village.
On the slopes towards Abu Ghosh, also near the Ein Rafa stream, refugees from the nearby village of Beit Nekuba received plots of land and built a new small village, known today as Ein Nekuba.
And what happened to those 18 members of the Bahroum family? Gradually, they managed to bring back many of the villagers who had fled in 1948 and lived in Jordan. Of course, not all of the refugees from Tzova have returned and resettled with the family in Ein Rafa, yet today there are nearly 1,000 former refugees living there. Some of this number is due to natural growth, but most of these residents have returned as a result of the permits given by the Israeli authorities for family unification. That is, the children of refugees in Jordan have married into families in Ein Rafa, moved to Israel and even obtained Israeli citizenship.
This is an unusual case: Some of the refugees from an Arab Israeli village, destroyed in the War of Independence, have managed to return to Ein Rafa.
Ein Rafa, on the lands of Tzova, almost never makes it into the news. There are almost never any untoward activities here.
There are no signs of antagonism towards Israel. Nor is there any hostility in the nearby village of Ein Nekuba or in Abu Ghosh, on the other side of the road to Jerusalem. This bloc of three Arab villages has a population of close to 10,000 residents. Only a few of them engage in agriculture; most of them work in Jerusalem. Many of them are academics, businesspeople, tradesmen and contractors.
A few Jewish families have recently rented homes in these villages and become partners in the restaurant and entertainment businesses that are flourishing in Abu Ghosh.
Looking out from the car window as you travel along the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, the stately homes of the three villages are clearly visible. Almost all of them are wellmaintained, built of stone; the villages resemble the well-to-do neighborhoods in the cities.
They encircle the Ein Hemed National Park, established at the foot of the Kastel. On the ruins of the Kastel is a memorial to the battles of 1948; further down the slopes, to the west, the remains of the convoys of trucks that tried to break the siege on Jerusalem are on display.
From the original village Tzova, only the ruins of a few homes that had been built on the remains of the Crusader castle are still standing. An ancient olive tree and oak tree mark the site where the village’s cemetery was once located, and hikers love to stop by the small brook and ancient irrigation system.
The media are speculating that US President Barack Obama may be presenting a new peace plan, according to which the Palestinians will give up on the right of return. Yet, even as the Palestinian refugees from the war of 1948 continue to cast a shadow over the possibility of peace, some refugees have managed to fulfill their demands and return to their lands.