Thursday, February 12, 2009

Americans who wonder 'why they hate us?' should consider Ain al Hilweh in Lebanon

Leila Abu-Saba writes:

The post on this site yesterday that mentioned the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp at Ain al Hilweh in Lebanon in 1982 hit me personally. That camp is my turf, it is my ancestral soil, it haunts my dreams. I lived there as a baby when it was still a middle class suburb, I watched the Israelis bomb it in 1974. In 1985 militants from Ain al Hilweh sacked my village and killed my grandmother. I have blood kin inside the camp: stateless children of a Lebanese cousin who married a Palestinian.

Ain al Hilweh lies west of my village, Mieh-Mieh, a Lebanese Christian enclave atop a steep hill. There is also a famous refugee camp in Mieh-Mieh, but the two halves of the village are completely cut off from each other by earth berms and soldiers. Ain al Hilweh and Mieh-Mieh are now suburbs of Sidon, a port city thirty miles south of Beirut. My grandparents owned property in Ain al Hilweh in 1948 which they farmed - it was rich orchard soil. The story is in a novel I'm writing and I've written about it several times, including a piece for the Homelands Anthology (Seal Press, 2007).

In the Nakba of 1948 when the Palestinians fled to Lebanon, many settled on the outskirts of Sidon. The Lebanese government approached my grandfather and other villagers who owned property in Ain al Hilweh, asking them if the refugees could stay on the land “for two weeks.” When it looked like the displacement would last longer, the United Nations began paying us rent of thirty Lebanese pounds per year; in the 1970s this was maybe $10, a laughable sum even then. My uncle started a lawsuit in the early 1970s that got held up during the civil war and has never been resolved. He is now 70 and still agitating to get compensation. My mother, brother and I inherited some of that land when my father died. It would be worth about $400,000 US. I doubt I’ll ever see the money though. First somebody would have to answer the question of the refugees.

My uncles and father used to take me to Ain al Hilweh to visit people we knew, or just to look at our property which by then had become an urban slum. The buildings were all illegal but there was nothing we could do. Today our few remaining Palestinian friends all live in the Mieh-Mieh camp because Ain al Hilweh is too dangerous. Yet in 1970 when I was eight I went to school at the front gate of the camp for a semester, at the American missionary school for girls. This was a Protestant prep school founded by rich Philadelphia Presbyterians in the 19th century. I used to walk to Ain al Hilweh alone every day. No kid from our village would do that now but we still drive past it on the way up the hill to our neighborhood.

I was raised in the United States and my mother is American. My story is similar to Obama's, except my dad stayed with my mom, and we returned to Lebanon for summer vacations until the civil war. One morning in July 1974, when I was 12 years old, I watched three Israeli fighter jets bomb Ain al-Hilweh. I could see what was happening from my uncle's balcony, and later went up to the roof with my cousin to watch. Only a handful of people died in that particular bombing; it traumatized me nonetheless.

When I returned to the States to my friends in Illinois, nice kids from Reform Jewish professional families, I tried to talk about what I had seen. Every kid I knew repeated what their parents had told them: "terrorists hide in the skirts of their women." It didn't matter what I had seen. They were all sure that if Israel bombed that refugee camp, then those people deserved it. However years later some of my friends from that time changed their reflexive support for Israel, partly because of knowing me in childhood.

The attack on Ain al Hilweh during the Israeli invasion of 1982 affected me deeply. In that first week of bombing Israel killed more than a thousand souls in Ain al Hilweh. Read Robert Fisk on what the IDF did. Young Palestinians like Saifedean al Ammous have no idea how bad 1982 was. He thinks Gaza is worse. The attacks on ambulances, the mass bombings, phosphorous, starvation, roundups, mass executions: we saw it all during that invasion.

I lived in New York then and spent the summer of 1982 horrified, depressed, reading news reports of unbelievable violence. I was surrounded by people who thought the invasion was a great idea, although I did have some friends on the Lower East Side who understood.

Americans wonder why “they” hate us so much. Juan Cole theorized that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon 1982 is what spurred Osama Ben Laden to attack America in 2001. I think that’s possible. Ain el Hilweh 1982 makes Gaza 2006 look like a soccer scrimmage. Americans are so insulated, so cut off from understanding the depth of the horrors perpetrated with our assent that they really don’t get it, still. People’s eyes glaze over if you bring it up. When I talk about it to people who aren't already informed, they tell me I am just “too angry” and should “let go and move on.” I have moved on. But the killing and destruction keep happening.

When you terrorize people without utterly exterminating them, they don't become cowed, they just rise up another day. Israel will pay the price. America has. My family has. I fear we will all live to suffer from this violence.


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