Zeinab was born in a farming village called Bassa in the western Galilee. Bassa is one of some 400 Palestinian towns and villages that disappeared after the Israeli War of Independence; its fields and orchards were destroyed, eventually becoming part of the village of Shlomi, established in 1963 for new Jewish immigrants and now home to about 4,000 people.
“We had land, groves of olive trees,” recalls Zeinab, puffing on one of a chain of cigarettes, her voice trailing off. “The deed is still in the city of Acco.”
Her most vivid memory, though, is of 1948, soon after David Ben-Gurion declared independence and fighting between Arab and Jewish militias turned the bustling port city of Haifa, where she had been living since the age of 10, into a battleground. At the time, she was a young mother of three small children, including a newborn.
The Haganah defeat of Arab forces was quick. There were bursts of gunshot and mortar-fire, firebombs thrown into homes, and a haze of black smoke hanging in the streets. “Jewish fighters came at night and shot into houses, and 36 people in our neighborhood were killed, but we escaped. My daughter was one week old and I grabbed her. My husband took our six-year-old Fawzi, and our three-year-old son Ibrahim was already hiding with my mother’s family,” says Zeinab. Throwing her hands in the air, she says, in a voice that still recalls the mayhem six decades later, “It was a war. I was escaping. I was afraid, terrified actually.”
She found refuge in a neighbor’s home farther away from the fighting. A few days later she and her husband returned to their house and loaded their belongings onto a truck her father-in-law had rented. “We took mattresses, blankets, only basic things. We thought we were going to come back. We thought we would only be away for about two weeks,” she says. “But we did not go back.”
The family made its way east to Umm-el-Fahm, a town then untouched by the war, where Zeinab had relatives. At first they lived in a tent but soon rented a house and ended up staying for six years.
On the eve of the 1948 war, Arabs made up about 67 percent of the population in the area that would become the state. By the time the fighting was over, 780,000 had either fled or been driven out of their homes by Jewish militias. Approximately 150,000 remained in the country, among them Zeinab and her family, who, like many others, had become internally displaced.
The Edris family settled in Jaffa in 1955. Before the war Jaffa had been a cosmopolitan hub of Palestinian urban intellectual life alongside Haifa and Jerusalem, but now only 3,000 out of 100,000 remained. The family was part of a war-weary and disoriented Palestinian population that tried to make sense of its situation in a newly born state in which it was suddenly a minority. The bulk of its upper and middle classes, including its leaders and intellectuals, had fled, leaving behind a largely poor and agrarian population that needed time to regroup.
Although Arabs were guaranteed equal rights under Israel’s Declaration of Independence, their lives were separate and far from equal. Based on 1945 emergency regulations set by the British, military restrictions were put in place largely to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes and land, says Shira Robinson, a professor of Middle Eastern history at George Washington University. Until military rule was repealed in 1966, Arab citizens were subject to curfews and needed difficult-to-obtain passes to travel between cities, including for work. Political organizing was restricted and newspapers censored. It was also a period of large-scale land confiscation. The majority who had made their living as farmers now had to take low-paying service jobs.