Two villages, 1948

Nabil Adwan born in Azariya, but still feels like an outsider among fellow Palestinians.

Nabil Adwan 521 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Nabil Adwan 521
(photo credit: Miriam Alster/ Flash 90)
Nabil Adwan is a high school principal in the West Bank town of Azariya, just east of Jerusalem. He wasn’t yet born when his family fled Qastal, their native village, during the fierce battles for control of the western approaches to Jerusalem in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 – 64 years ago this month.
Adwan, 50, is bitter when he compares the plight of the Qastal villagers to the experience of the residents of neighboring Abu Gosh. “Our only crime was that our village was situated at the top of the mountain and it was a strategic military spot. If it weren’t so, I would be able to live comfortably today in a big house, like they live in Abu Gosh,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
“Where are you from?” Adwan asks one of his children. “From Qastal,” the young boy replies.
“Take this kid for instance, I haven’t told him a word and he didn’t say he was from Azariya, but from Qastal,” says Adwan, his emotions rising. “I was born here and my family has been here since 1948, for 64 years already. I am a school principal, and everyone in Azariya treats me respectfully, but when I turn my back for a moment they say, ‘Who is he anyway? He is actually an outsider here. He’s not from here.’ I support the return. We need to return, it’s necessary to return.”
Finally, his voice breaks and tears form in his eyes. “Look at what has happened. No one from Qastal stayed there, no one,” he says.
Hard to understand
For outside observers, especially Israelis, it is sometimes hard to understand why Adwan feels like an outsider in exile among his fellow Palestinians in Azariya, where he was born. Why has the connection to Qastal, his forefathers’ home, remained so strong after so many years? The explanation is that the identity of the local population was based on tribal traditions and tied to a certain village, neighborhood, home and clan, separating them from the neighboring village and the rival clan.
Adwan’s family were Qastal refugees, who left their homes on the mountain pass controlling the western gateway to Jerusalem and relocated just a few kilometers east, but he feels that he has been dishonored and humiliated by a life of exile. He is not angry, but is envious of the neighbors in Abu Gosh who managed to stay in their homes, on their own land.
The family home largely remains the most dominant factor in the Palestinian identity. Ironically, the powerful feelings of local belonging and tribal loyalty became the Palestinians’ biggest weakness in 1948. In the absence of widespread national solidarity, the residents of the Palestinian towns and villages did not know what to do in order to protect their homes and families.
They were torn between the different options: to join the armed struggle; help the foreign Arab armies; or perhaps avoid a struggle and try and reach accommodation with the Jews so they could keep their homes and land. These dilemmas dissipated the Palestinian national struggle and weakened it significantly.
“We fought on isolated fronts, each town for itself, without coordination, without order, without organization and without cooperation,” noted Mussa Alami, a prominent Palestinian political leader during the British Mandate.
Israel Independence Day, celebrated according to the Hebrew calendar, fell this year on April 26. The Palestinians commemorate what they term the nakba, the day of “catastrophe,” on May 15, the day in 1948 on which the British Mandate ended, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, and five Arab armies invaded to terminate the existence of the newly born state.
Since then, the Palestinians have marked the day of their catastrophe in a series of ceremonies and marches, mostly in the refugee camps of the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.
Around half of the 1.3 million Arab residents of the country lost their homes, their property, and their whole world in the war and became refugees. Among these villages was Qastal, along the approach to Jerusalem, where crucial battles took place in early April 1948, and where Palestinian leader Abd al-Qader al-Husseini was killed.
Husseini’s death was a turning point in the war. A scion of the most distinguished Arab family in the country, he was a revered commander and his death left the Palestinian Arabs in a state of grief and chaos.
After the 1948 battles, the village was in ruins. Only one large structure remained, the residence of the mukhtar on the top of the hill. The Israeli authorities turned the summit of the steep mountain into a national park, called Castel, which attracts scores of visitors, mostly school pupils, who come to learn the history of the battles for Jerusalem. A large Israeli flag, which can be seen from afar, flies from the roof of what was the mukhtar’s home. Signs describe the 1948 battles. There is also a memorial site for the fallen.
Spectacular view
The view from the top of the Castel is spectacular. To the west one can see the skyline of Tel Aviv, the coastal plain and the sea. To the southeast there is the Beit Jala ridge and the outskirts of Bethlehem in the West Bank. To the north is Ramallah, the effective capital of the Palestinian Authority and in the east, Jerusalem.
From the mukhtar’s r esidence o ne c an see clearly how important it was to gain a military foothold in the area. The main road connecting Jerusalem with the rest of the country is dominated by the Castel heights.
Today, the large village of Abu Gosh, whose residents did not fight the Jews in the 1948 war, and the neighboring villages Ein Naquba and Ein Rafa, have the peaceful sheen of affluent suburbs.
They boast splendid villas, businesses, stores, reception halls and restaurants, which are packed with visitors every weekend. Popular music evenings are held in the church hall above Abu Gosh.
Mustafa Murad al-Dabbagh has written a guide to the vanished Palestinian villages. In his book, Palestine, Our Land, he describes Qastal:
“It was a small village. Its entire built-up area was 5 dunams (1.25 acres). It was situated 808 meters above sea level, approximately 10 kilometers west of Jerusalem. It served as a fortress during the time of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages (its name derives from “Castellum”). The fields of the village spread over 1,446 dunams (357 acres). In 1941, 59 residents were counted in the village, living in 16 structures. It also had two Christian families.”
The residents of Qastal took refuge in the neighboring communities after their village was conquered by Hagana units in early April 1948. From there they went on to East Jerusalem.
According to Nabil Adwan, when they fled their homes, the village numbered 150 people. In addition to the Adwan clan, there were two more large families in the village. Various welfare organizations and eventually UNRWA , the UN agency set up to deal with Palestinian refugees, helped them find a place to live in Azariya. Other refugees, from neighboring villages, were housed nearby.
The descendants of the Qastal refugees, now numbering about 1,000 people, have remained concentrated in one small neighborhood on the southern slopes of the Mount of Olives, west of the Israeli settlement of Ma’ale Adumim on the road to Jericho. Most of the Qastal community live on a small street that branches off the town’s main road. It has a few stores and workshops, and it connects with other alleyways and parcels of land populated by the people nicknamed the “Qastalawiya.”
Adwan has studied the history of the village, abandoned before he was born, in minute detail. He can describe with uncanny accuracy the twists and turns of the old road to Jerusalem, which used to pass between the outlying homes.
There was a café in this area, owned by a Christian resident, Abu George, and next to it were fruit and vegetable stands, mostly belonging to farmers from nearby Qalunya.
Travelers and drivers would stop for a break at Abu George’s café and buy fresh fruit from the farmers, before embarking on – or recovering from – the hair-raising ride through the sharp turns of the Seven Sisters section of the road. He describes the exact spot where Husseini was shot and killed: “By the fence of Ahmad Sayid Netayer’s house, in the southeastern corner of the village.”
These days, Azariya feels more than ever like exile. Until the start of the second intifada in 2000, the villagers could travel freely to west Jerusalem and beyond. The construction of Israel’s security barrier has left Adwan and his community isolated behind walls and checkpoints and unable to exit the West Bank without special permits from the Israeli authorities.
“Here we barely get by,” Adwan sighs. “I get a measly salary from the Palestinian Authority Education Ministry, and sometimes I don’t even get that. I used to work inside Israel, right by Qastal, but today I’m not allowed in. They don’t hand out permits.”