Mustafa Abul-Qumsan was 10 years old when he woke up one morning to the sound of bombs destroying several facilities around his occupied village of Deir Isneed in the north of the Gaza Strip. After the explosions, he heard someone knocking at his door asking him and his family to leave the village immediately because the Zionist gangs had arrived.
"I was shocked that the Egyptian troops who should have protected us during the 'war' with the Zionist militias in the late 1940s asked the villagers to leave their homes when the bombing started," the 80-year-old refugee told MEMO. "They came to Palestine and deployed among the villagers prior to the war and said they would protect us from the Zionist Jewish gangs."
The Palestinians, explained Abul-Qumsan, were prevented from owning weapons. Any Palestinian who had a pistol was imprisoned by the British army and sentenced to two years in prison; even a knife led to six months behind bars. "When the Arab armies came to Palestine prior to the war," he added, "they told us we did not need to have weapons as they would protect us and defend our lands and homes."
I asked Abul-Qumsan to tell me his background. His father died when he was very young, he said, so he was regarded as an orphan by his local community. "My elder brother took care of me, my mother and two other brothers and sisters." He was the youngest in the family and went to Breer, a neighbouring village, to go to school, living with his sister, who was married to a man there. "When the Zionist gangs attacked Breer, I fled to Deir Isneed and told my family. My mother told me to go to bed and said that the Egyptian soldiers were there to protect us." Things didn't quite work out that way.
"In the morning, the bombing started and the Egyptian troops asked us to leave the village. They said that we would leave for a while, so we left our homes without taking anything. We did not even take our money and other valuables." After all these years, Abul-Qumsan is adamant that the Egyptians were complicit with the Zionists. They knew everything, he insists, but did not tell the villagers the truth.
Using what became known as a common tactic, the Zionist militias bombed three sides of the village and left the fourth untouched. This was their way of giving the villagers an escape route out of the village, to which they would never return. As planned and expected, the villagers of Deir Isneed duly headed for that way out.
"The route led to Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, the northern villages of the Gaza Strip and the nearest to our village. A large number of villagers were killed and wounded during the bombing. We could not bury the ones who were killed or help those who were wounded. Some of the wounded, who needed the help of others, bled to death. We did not have time to look behind for a second."
When some of the villagers crept back to their village the next day, they found that most of the houses had been demolished. Deir Isneed was no more. They buried the dead where they lay. "Everyone who had been wounded had died overnight," said Abul-Qumsan, "except my sister and a man who was bitten by dogs during the night. Both recovered, but it took a long time."
First phase of displacement
The new refugees had nowhere to go. "We remained out in the open for a couple of weeks, without mattresses, blankets or food." The lack of food was a major problem. "We starved and three children aged one to five died. It was August and we only ate grapes and figs. Some of the villagers moved deep into Gaza and joined their families or acquaintances, but most of us remained homeless."
Deir Isneed originally had around 1,000 inhabitants, half of whom went to Gaza; the rest dispersed around different villages which were, in turn, occupied by the Zionist gangs. Although some refugees got assistance in parts of Gaza, in general, the economic situation was very bad.
"All of the Palestinian territories at that time suffered bad economic circumstances due to the high taxes of the British Mandate occupation and the restrictions imposed on many aspects of life," explained Abul-Qumsan. "However, everything was provided for the Jewish migrants who lived in settlements. They were even guarded by British soldiers, trained to use British weapons and supplied with British guns and ammunition."
The refugee camp
After some months living in the open and sleeping under trees, Abul-Qumsan and his family were told to go to an area to the west of Gaza City where they were given a tent and their names were recorded. "This was to count us as part of our 'temporary' situation," he said. "That's what we were told."
This was the beginning of Al-Shati ("Beach") Refugee Camp administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, known simply as UNRWA. The camp is still there on Gaza's Mediterranean coast.
"The UNRWA workers distributed a tent to each family and we started a new life. At the beginning, we believed them and thought it would not last too long. As you see, though, the refugees have been waiting there until today." The tents were too hot in summer and very cold in winter, when high winds often sent flaps flying, leaving the refugees exposed to the elements.
"Suddenly, we would have rain hitting our heads," he recalled. "In the winter of 1962, my mother became sick and there were no medicines in the UNRWA clinic." She was diagnosed with asthma. "We did not have medicines or enough clothes for her to protect herself from the cold. We did not have a heater or even wood to make a fire." Abul-Qumsan's mother suffered for months, and passed away in the summer of 1963.
A school teacher
"After the death of my mother, my sisters got married except the one who was wounded when we were bombed in Deir Isneed." He decided to make a change in his life and went to the high school in Al-Nuseirat Refugee Camp in the middle area of the Gaza Strip.
The UNRWA-built school had rows of rooms, with a bathroom and toilet serving each row. The Agency, said Abul-Qumsan, gave one room to each family.
"I moved with my sister to one of these rooms and at the same time started studying. I was old, but that was not a reason to be rejected from a preparatory school because dozens of the refugees in the camp wanted to study." The Agency-run school accepted everyone. "When I finished the preparatory and secondary school stages, in 1967, I went on to become a teacher at the refugee school in the same refugee camp. My life improved and I left the room, rented a house and got married to another refugee."
By that stage, of course, the Gaza Strip was also occupied along with the West Bank, the Golan Heights and Sinai. All of what was once historic Palestine was under Israeli control. The refugee camps and facilities, including the schools, remained under UNRWA's administration.
Abul-Qumsan saved some money and bought a house in Gaza City. It was there that he and some friends established a charity to help their fellow Palestinians; Al-Mujamaa Al-Islami was born.
Return to Deir Isneed
The occupation of all of Palestine meant that refugees could at least visit their old areas. "It was very sad to see that all the houses in Deir Isneed were razed, as were the cemetery, the school and the mosque. There was nothing. It was planted with palm trees. I attempted to see the spot where I was born, but failed to locate it."
He was told by some Jews there that they were now the owners of the land and the trees. "I told them that this was my home and I had decided to stay somewhere, but they warned me that they would bring the police to remove me. I went back to the refugee camp. I still call myself a refugee and describe my house as being part of a refugee camp even though I no longer live in a camp."
He took his children to visit Deir Isneed dozens of times, as did many other refugees. "We used to spend some of our holidays touring our villages. We continued doing this until 1993, when the Palestinian Authority was established and ruled Gaza along with the other Palestinian territories."
Two of Abul-Qumsan's sons took part in the First Intifada, which started in 1987 and lasted until 1993. The eldest was imprisoned by Israel and the other was killed.
"The Palestinian Authority closed Al-Mujamaa Al-Islami, but I continued to help people –refugees, families of martyrs and families of prisoners. This continued until 2000, when the second intifada started and the charity was reopened."
Fifth phase, hope of return
He now has 35 sons and grandsons. Some of them live in refugee camps, some live outside the refugee camps, in Gaza and abroad. Each summer, most get together and sit with Abul-Qumsan in the yard of his house where he tells them about Deir Isneed.
"My children and grandchildren are keen to return to my village. I have three keys: the key of our house, the key of the mosque and the key of the school. I hope that I will live to see the day that I can return to my house in Deir Isneed, but if not then they shall inherit the right to my home along with the key."
Abul-Qumsan has never forgotten Deir Isneed. "In spite of everything that has happened and the atrocities that I have lived through, I still remember the way to my house even though it was destroyed."
The Great March of Return protests have raised his hopes about being able to go back to his birthplace. Like all of the other Palestinian refugees, Mustafa Abul-Qumsan has a legitimate right to return. They have never forgotten this right, and nor have their children and grandchildren.
MEMO's correspondent in Gaza, Motasem A Dalloul, was shot and wounded by an Israeli sniper as he covered the Great march of Return on Friday, 11 May.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.