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Passage of time doesn't diminish memories of home

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


LOD, Israel -- Of all the people at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport, they looked about the most harmless.

The Rev. Audeh Rantisi, 63, a Christian evangelical minister, was on his way to Canada to officiate at a friend's wedding. With him was his British wife, Patricia, 60, herself the daughter of an Anglican priest.

Still, the Israeli security agents were suspicious. Rantisi was an Arab, and their passports showed they lived in the occupied West Bank. For the next three hours, they were searched, interrogated, searched again.

As he was ordered to strip to the waist, Rantisi thought about that broiling day in July 1948 when he was 11 and Jewish soldiers from the new state of Israel came to his house in Lod and told his family to leave immediately. He thought about how they and thousands of other Muslim and Christian residents of the town had to walk for days through the mountains, with no food and little water. He thought about how they had to live in a tent for so long they marked the time not in weeks or months but in years.

But mostly he thought about all that his family had lost, right here where this young Israeli agent was treating him with what seemed like such contempt.

Rantisi looked him straight in the eye and asked one question:

"Do you know you're standing on the grounds of my olive grove?"

When the Camp David peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed last week, both sides blamed the failure on the inability to agree on the future of Jerusalem.

But unresolved, too, is an issue that could be of far greater import to the future of Israel itself -- whether Rantisi and other Palestinians who left their homes in 1948 should be compensated for property losses and allowed to come back.

The "right of return," as the issue is commonly known, arouses enormous passions in Israel. It also has caused many Israeli historians and politicians to rethink long-held views of what happened during Israel's 1948 War of Independence against Arab nations.

For years, Israeli history books maintained that the vast majority of Palestinians left voluntarily or at their leaders' urging, not because they were forced to by Israeli soldiers. How else to explain the fact that so many Arabs are still in Israel -- some 1-million, or almost one-sixth of the country's population?

But in recent years, some historians have come to accept the Palestinians' claim that they were the victims of a concerted "act of expulsion" by Israel and had no choice but to flee.

"I think the official view of Israel was that they left because of their own will and after a while it became clear that this was not true and some were forced to leave by Israeli forces," says Dr. Efraim Inbar, head of the Begin-Sadat Center at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University.

"It was a war and sometimes civilians suffer."

Efraim thinks it is possible that a quarter of those who fled -- about 125,000 people -- were ordered to go. Palestinians put the figure far higher, arguing that as many as 3-million -- reflecting population growth over more than half a century -- should now have the right of return.

While not admitting responsibility for the exodus, Israel has reportedly agreed to let 100,000 Palestinians come back. But to allow a huge influx would destroy the very character of the nation, Jews say.

Arabs "primarily view the right of return as an opening for unlimited Palestinian immigration into Israel, which would tip the demographic balance and make Israel no longer predominantly Jewish," says Nicole Brackman, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"That's the primary concern -- that Israel retain its character as a Jewish state, especially if Palestinians do attain statehood in the West Bank and Gaza."

As more emerges about what really happened to the Palestinians in 1948, their claims for return and compensation may strengthen or ebb. But for Rantisi, there is no question -- the Israelis, he says, took his land, and he and the many other refugees like him will never forget how it happened.

Forced departure

Like so many other places in this part of the world, the city of Lod, or Lydda, is a rich mosaic of religions and cultures grouted together by thousands of years of history.

Mentioned several times in the Bible, Lod is where the Apostle Peter cured the paralyzed. Where St. George, the patron saint of England, met his martyrdom. Where, over the millennia, Jewish scholars gave way to Roman and Muslim conquerors who gave way to Christian crusaders.

Rantisi traces his roots to the fourth century, when an ancestor served as the first priest of St. George's Church. His family, though, was largely one of soapmakers, who turned oil from the olive trees into fragrant green cakes of soap.

"My clan had groves; the land was handed down from generation to generation," he says. "Americans don't understand this -- in your country, if you don't like your house you sell it and move. Here our homes are handed down; they represent all of your history and blood."

Rantisi recalls Lod as a happy place to grow up, where people of different religions lived peacefully together. But that would start to change in late 1947, when the United Nations decided to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab sectors. Lod was placed in the Arab portion.

On May 14, 1948, Israel declared its independence, and the nearby Arab states, angry with the partition plan, attacked the new nation. Lod became a battleground, bombed and shelled for nearly two months.

"I remember it was on a Sunday afternoon that the Jews entered my hometown," Rantisi says. "They put us under a curfew 24 hours a day. For eight days we were not allowed to go out or even look through the windows. There was a dead silence -- people were full of fear about what was going to happen. Our parents tried to occupy us, we would play games sometimes and my mother would get us to pray together.

"After eight days all our food ran out. It was at that time, quarter past 7 in the morning, when there was a knock on the front door of our home. When my mother opened the door, there were three Israeli soldiers, blue-eyed, fair-haired, speaking perfect English. They told her, "Leave your home open and go.' Where, we didn't know."

In a small act of defiance, Rantisi's father locked the door and put the key in his pocket. Then the family -- eight in all -- joined the ever-growing stream of residents who also had been ordered from their homes. When they came to the edge of the city, the soldiers refused to let them onto the main road but instead herded them toward the rocky mountains to the east.

"We kept walking until we came to a large vegetable farm and that farm had an entrance covered with a cement roof. There were three Jewish soldiers mounted on top shooting overhead. We had heard by that time that 136 young Muslim men had been killed in a mosque (in Lod) and we said, "Now our turn has come.'

"We reached the gate and people were pushing. In front of us there was a cart with big wheels with wooden spokes and steel rims and -- I remember it well -- there was a woman carrying a child. In the press of people, the child fell and the wheel went over its neck.

"I will never, never forget."

As Rantisi and his family passed through the gate, they were greeted by more Jewish soldiers who, he says, spread blankets on the ground and demanded the refugees turn over "everything of value -- gold, money, whatever.

"I remember a young man from Lydda, married only six weeks. He was a merchant and he was carrying a basket with some money. The Jewish soldiers demanded that he place it on a blanket. He refused and was shot and killed in front of me. This man I knew, he was a neighbor just across the street."

The Rantisis and others stripped the fields of everything they could find to eat -- beans, tomatoes, eggplants -- and filled every container they had with water. By nightfall, they had struggled into the mountains and built fires to warm themselves against the nocturnal chill. Then they heard Israeli planes overhead; what little water they had left was used to douse the flames.

"We stayed until early morning when we heard the firing of bullets by Jewish soldiers mounted on horseback. People scattered and started running. I lost contact with my parents, brothers and sisters and found myself alone. I ran down to the valley. Israeli soldiers were shooting and a bullet just missed me -- it hit a donkey right behind me and killed it. When I saw this, I started running again.

"The third day was the most catastrophic; they called it the "death march.' We had been kept indoors for eight days and now people didn't have anything. You found young and old were falling dead from exhaustion and hunger. I saw another sight I would never forget -- a child sucking from its dead mother."

By now, Rantisi had found his family. They and other survivors continued their trek until people from the town of Ramallah -- Arabic for "hill of God" -- came to meet them with trucks and cars. The Rantisis were taken to a Quaker girls school, where they spent the next several weeks living in a single classroom with four other families. At one point, close to 1,500 refugees were crowded into the school, sleeping on the hard tile floors and sharing a few small bathrooms with no place to shower.

But, Rantisi says, "The people in the village were so hospitable. They got together and made bread; they used to bring bread and vegetables to everyone. Our people are very generous."

With school due to start, the Quakers needed their classrooms. The Rantisis moved first to a tent in the center of town, then when villagers started to complain, to another tent near a cemetery.

It was to be their home for the next 31/2 years.

"I thank God for that because it taught me a lesson that you don't learn in school or university. Life's lessons are so hard that they never leave you -- that's where I learned to care for those in need."

In their histories, Israelis often compare the Palestinian refugees unfavorably with the 600,000 Jews who fled Arab countries after the 1948 war and moved to Israel. While the Jewish immigrants flourished in their new home, the Palestinians in effect became professional refugees who did little to improve their lot in life, many Israelis claim.

But Rantisi, at least, had plans. He sold cigarettes and kerosene to earn money, and got an apprenticeship in a carpentry shop so he could learn a trade. When a U.S. missionary opened a boys school in Ramallah, Rantisi was the first pupil accepted.

"I decided to concentrate and really make up for the four years I lost in schooling. I used to study late at night and finally I caught up and finished high school. The time came when I felt ready to study for the ministry."

Rantisi spent three years at the Bible College of Wales, followed by more studies in the United States and a teaching post at a Presbyterian school in Sudan. But his dream was to return to Ramallah and start a boys orphanage, "to help those who've gone through so much and have no opportunity."

Rantisi and his bride, a priest's daughter he had met while at seminary, spent two months in England buying children's clothes and other supplies. "We didn't have a boys home yet," he says, "but we did have faith and trust."

They started with three small rooms -- one for themselves and two shared by 12 boys. After two years they moved to a larger place, and then an even bigger one.

When the orphanage opened, Ramallah and the rest of the West Bank were still under Jordanian rule. Some Jordanian youths came to Ramallah for the school year and returned to relatives in Jordan during the summer. But after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, Israeli security agents quit issuing permits for cross-border travel.

"This was heart-breaking," Rantisi says, "because the boys had become part of us."

The Rantisis ran the home for 18 years, helping some 300 youngsters. They went on to become teachers and electricians, doctors and, especially satisfying to Rantisi, Christian ministers. Many return to visit, some bringing their own children with them.

Though officially retired, Rantisi is pastor of a Baptist church in Ramallah, now a city of some 200,000 that is a center of the Palestinian National Authority. He and his wife live in a hilltop apartment from which, on a clear day, they can see into Israel and the place where the Rantisi clan lived for centuries

The spectacular view prompts bitter thoughts.

"You find Jews who weren't even born here are allowed to come and become first-class citizens and here we are, owners of the land, and we're not allowed to go back. . . . They should at least pay us for the loss we have -- all these years they've been using our land."

'A mixed feeling'

In 1967, almost 20 years after they were ordered to leave, Rantisi chartered two buses to take his mother, father, brother and several other former residents back to Lod. The Rantisi home was still there, occupied by two Jewish families.

"Oh, boy, it was really a mixed feeling psychologically to see it. It was deteriorated on the outside, and my father offered to bring cement and paint in order to renovate it but they didn't want to. After so much haggling, they let us in but there was nothing recognizable."

The house is no longer there. In the '90s, it was knocked down to make way for a high-rise apartment building. The Rantisis' olive groves had long since been cleared to expand Ben-Gurion airport.

And, yes, Father Rantisi and his wife were finally allowed to board their fight to Canada that day nine months ago. They were the last ones on the plane, escorted by Israeli security agents.

- Susan Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

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