The Last Days of “Free Galilee”: Memories of 1948

VOL. 33


No. 1
P. 55
The Last Days of “Free Galilee”: Memories of 1948




An air of uncertainty and anxiety, not to say dread, hung over Nazareth with the approach of 15 May 1948, the deadline set for the end of the British Mandate and the final evacuation of the British troops. I was busy seeing patients, while hoping that my father, who had been diagnosed with cancer, would stay well at least until we got through our national ordeal. In the Nazareth area, as in the whole of Palestine, whatever mobilization or preparations there were to ward off Zionist attacks were haphazard and uncoordinated. Trade in all kinds of small weapons was brisk. In fact, the livestock market habitually held every Monday near our house suddenly became a kind of arms bazaar. I once witnessed at the cashier’s counter of the Barclay’s Bank in Nazareth a British army officer deposit his pistol on the counter. Jokingly, the cashier asked him if the pistol were for sale. Machinist shops virtually suspended their usual activities of mending tools and equipment in order to meet the growing demand for repairing and adjusting antiquated rifles and pistols. Yet despite this premium on arms, great quantities of valuable ammunition were wasted with volleys of gunfire at every occasion, from funerals to weddings and even circumcisions. One afternoon while walking back to my clinic, I saw a large number of men in striped uniforms milling aimlessly around the area in front of the Casa Nova hospice on the main street. They turned out to be Arab prisoners released from the infamous Acre Prison by the British authorities ahead of the government’s scheduled departure, and seemed to have nowhere to go. The Casa Nova area already had a chaotic feel, with meat-broiling kiosks and vendors of all kinds springing up as Nazareth men, cut off from their jobs in Haifa or other towns under pressure from the Zionist forces, tried to earn their living as best they could.


Nazareth, like every other Arab town in Palestine, had a National Committee, ostensibly under the overall authority of the Arab High Committee in Jerusalem. In our town it was headed by Ibrahim al-Fahum. Its mandate was nebulous and its effectiveness minimal. In fact, early in the year Mr. Fahum’s son had openly contested the right of Officer Abu Ghazaleh, the highestranking Arab police officer in the area, to assume control of the town after the British left the country. This feud, along with other manifestations of power vacuum and confusion, increased the sense of insecurity and impending chaos, itself heightened by the disorganization and improvisation of our side’s preparations. The Arab leadership had either been totally unrealistic in its projection of what was coming, or it was erroneously counting on military help from outside, oblivious to the incapacity of the surrounding states to put together a coordinated, unified fighting force capable of facing the highly trained and well-armed Jewish forces. Locally, there were sporadic attempts in various neighborhoods to recruit people and organize them into nightwatch units, but these efforts were limited to the neighborhoods that initiated them.

As the 15 May 1948 deadline approached, the Jews stepped up their carefully planned military operations intended, among other things, to scare the Palestinian Arabs, especially in the villages, into leaving the country. Many of the bourgeois city dwellers had already left for the summer with the idea of waiting until the situation clarified. With the rising uncertainty, people from nearby villages, such as Mujaydil and Ma‘lul a few miles to the southwest, began moving into Nazareth, which was felt to be more secure. A number of families from Mujaydil were settled across from our house in the compound that had been occupied by a unit of the Royal Engineers, and which had been vacated ahead of the 15 May deadline. For many years to come, it continued to be known as the “R.E.”


One evening in mid-April 1948, my father received a call from the British district commissioner who was still in his residence on the hill adjoining the “Khanuk” northern pass. He wanted my father, who was part owner of the hall that was used as the local movie theater, to prepare the place to accommodate Arab evacuees from Tiberias. There had been a systematic onslaught on the villages around Tiberias since the thirteenth of the month, and the city itself fell on the eighteenth. By that time about 19,000 people had already been expelled from their homes, and about 3,000 of them were brought to Nazareth by buses of the ‘Afifi and Galilee bus companies. Many of these families eventually ended up in the Casa Nova hospice, the Betharam Convent, as well as the now-vacated movie theater. The Betharam Convent also housed some of the people who had already left Haifa, including the family of my mother’s sister.


One day around that time, there was a summons for the young men of Nazareth to go to the aid of the people of Sajara [Shajara in the written sources], a village about 15 kilometers from Nazareth and strategically located just south of the Tiberias-Nazareth road northeast of the Mount of Tabor. The Zionists had encircled the village preliminary to their assault. A crowd of young men responded to the appeal, and soon, as a fierce battle got underway, there were calls to households to supply food and water to the fighters. That evening, I joined other physicians in the city to attend to the wounded in our local hospitals; when no more beds were available, some of the wounded had to be treated at Nazareth’s only hotel at the time, the Galilee. By nightfall, Sajara had been captured and the inhabitants driven out.


On 22 April, the last stages of the battle for Haifa ended with the evacuation of some 50,000 Arabs from the city. The majority of them were escorted by the British through the gates of the Haifa port, which had been opened for the occasion, to board all kinds of boats, from small open rowboats to larger sailing and even merchant vessels, to take them up the coast to Lebanon. Most of them landed in Sour (Tyre), where many were temporarily housed in units that had been built in the late 1930s for the Armenian refugees from Iskandaroun when it was handed over to Turkey. Toward the end of April, the Jews attacked villages in southern Galilee and around Baysan, on the fringes of the Jordan Valley. Acts of brutality were intended to scare the villagers into leaving. On 11 May, the Arabs who had not already left Baysan were forced out, and some took refuge in Nazareth. In the meantime, on 7 May 1948, a call for reinforcements reached Nazareth from the Arabs of Safad. Volunteers with various types of guns and ammunition rushed in cars to the besieged town, located about 45 kilometers away. The volunteers returned the same afternoon; by the time they got there, Safad had already fallen and its 11,000 Arab inhabitants had been expelled.


By mid-May, thousands of refugees had poured into Nazareth. Some had been taken in by friends and relatives or were able to rent spare rooms, but many were housed in makeshift fashion in the halls of the local religious establishments or in vacated public buildings. No preparations had been made for the desperate need for relief and assistance, so we doctors got together and established a Medical Committee to act as a sort of Red Cross. We held meetings in our homes on a rotation basis; we selected Dr. Michel Shammas, the medical officer of the Palestine [Mandate] government’s Department of Health, as our secretary, and he kept the minutes. The other members, besides myself, were Dr. Bathgate, representing the Edinburgh Medical Missions Hospital, locally known as the English Hospital and later renamed Nazareth Hospital; Dr. Joseph Daoud, representing the French Hospital; Drs. Jubran ‘Atalla, Leonhard Konitzer, and Theodore Skoumberdis, all in private practice in Nazareth, and Mwaffaq Diab from the nearby town of Shafa ‘Amr. Fawzi Hakim, the chief clerk of the District Health Office, was also indispensable to the committee’s operations. We collected funds from the community, and our two hospitals put their resources at the disposal of the committee’s projects. One of these was a soup kitchen serving hot meals to the refugees. The various religious institutions in town were important contributors to our activities. It was in the context of the committee’s social work that I got to know Sami Jeraisy, a probation officer in the Palestine government’s Social Welfare Agency established a few years before. Later, the two of us participated in a number of social activities that bound us into a close friendship.


Meanwhile, anxiety intensified as the situation grew more and more desperate. By the time the Mandate officially ended in mid-May, “modern” Jerusalem, which lay outside the Old City walls, had already been overrun; Jaffa, Haifa, Tiberias, Safad, and Acre had all fallen and been emptied of their Arab inhabitants. Buildings, furniture, and equipment in all those cities had been taken over and thoroughly looted. What was going to happen next was the big question in everybody’s mind. Most people were still counting on help from outside, namely from the Arab states that were sending in troops to “undo what had been done.” But although the Arabic news broadcasts from across the borders made it appear that the Arab states were in unison as far as the Palestine question was concerned, one could sense that there was no agreement on tactics or strategy, and no concrete plan of action. There was among my circle of friends a realization that in this instance, “undoing” would be far more difficult and costly than “doing.” We all had a sense of impending catastrophe, though we could not have imagined its scope. With hindsight, it seems quite extraordinary that so few people, even at that late stage, foresaw that Palestine would be completely swept away.


After the Zionists declared the State of Israel on 15 May, the Arab armies entered the country to push back the Jewish advance. The Galilee was to be defended not by one of the regular Arab armies but by the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), volunteers organized by the Arab League to bolster Palestinian defenses and under the command of Fawzi Kawukji. A few days after the fifteenth, the avant-garde of the ALA reached Nazareth after a long thrust from the Lebanese border. Emir Majid Arslan, Lebanon’s defense minister, accompanied the military units. After an appropriate small-scale ceremony and speeches, most of the ALA troops were deployed outside the town, but an officer—an Iraqi named Madloul—was put in charge of law and order as well as other civil matters in town. Later, in July, when Jewish forces began closing in on Nazareth, Madloul helped prevent frightened residents from leaving. He positioned an armored vehicle at the northern pass, the only remaining exit from the city. This happened to be the intersection that the attacking force would have to pass through. People who tried to leave out of fear of the atrocities that had befallen other towns were turned back. The men in the armored car stayed at their post until the attackers started ascending the slope of the road from Saffuriyya, at which time they retreated north.


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Despite the presence in town of the ALA, there was no clear authority in charge; the National Committee, though still technically in existence, was completely ineffectual and in fact nonfunctioning. Things happened haphazardly, without plan or supervision or even rules. One morning, as I was walking up the main street to my clinic, I saw a large group of rowdy young men that appeared to be crowding around something. I approached and asked what was going on. I discovered that a youth from our town had shot and killed a young man from a neighboring Jewish colony, tied the corpse to his motorcycle and dragged it through the town. Angry and ashamed, I rushed to the house of Shaykh Qassem Fahum, a gentle and responsible Muslim cleric, and asked him to intervene. He, too, was shocked, and hurried to stop the ugly show. On another occasion, I attended the funeral of a young man from Nazareth who had been killed by a sniper near ‘Affula. The amount of ammunition that was fired into the air at the graveside was shocking. The logic of this behavior was beyond my understanding; the waste of materiel that might be crucial to the survival of our people and town sickened me and deepened my pessimism.




Around the middle of June 1948, my father received a notice from the hospital of the American University of Beirut (AUB) warning that his 1947 radiation therapy checkup was long overdue. Since a general truce between the Jewish and Arab forces had been declared under UN pressure as of 11 June 1948, we set out for Beirut on 26 June. The possibility never occurred to us that there would be any difficulty returning or that we were embarking on a journey that would last more than a few weeks. We drove through Rameh, Sa‘sa‘, Hurfaysh, all in the “free” zone and where no fighting had yet occurred, and then across the Lebanese border, still entirely open without so much as a checkpoint, to Bint Jbeil. My father was admitted to the AUB Hospital immediately upon our arrival, and released after a week in what we were told was good condition. Before attempting to return to Nazareth, he wanted to spend some time with his children and his nephews who were at either the Brummana School or the AUB. We also had a number of family friends in Lebanon. We found a great deal of anxiety and confusion among them about what was happening in Palestine, partly because of the huge gap between the disastrous reports we were hearing and the exaggerated claims and promises that had been made by the media and especially local and regional leaders. Nonetheless, many were still expecting to return soon to a liberated country.


Almost immediately after the truce ended on 9 July, fighting in Palestine resumed. The Nazarenes had always expected that any Jewish attempt to occupy Nazareth would come from the south. However, it became clear at the resumption of hostilities that the Jewish forces were heading towards Nazareth from the west. With very little resistance to speak of, the mayor, accompanied by religious leaders, surrendered the city on 16 July 1948 to the Haganah officer from Canada who commanded the occupying contingent.


We were still in Lebanon, and as the dire reports concerning the impending assault on Nazareth filtered in through travelers and foreign radio broadcasts, my father insisted that we arrange to bring the families of my older sister Hana and my uncle Nakhle to the safety of Beirut. On 14 July, a group of us went to find Mahmud, the driver from Haddad’s Palestine-Lebanon Travel Office, who had driven us many times back and forth between Nazareth and our schools in Lebanon. Eventually we found him. We commissioned him to drive to Nazareth and bring back our loved ones. When we hadn’t heard from him by the next evening, we went to his house to find out what had happened. He had indeed made the trip, but had been prevented at the northern corridor (Khanuk) from entering the town. A solitary armored vehicle belonging to the ALA—the one stationed there by the Iraqi officer Madloul—had turned him back. He added that he had seen the soldiers in the armored car preventing townspeople from leaving on foot or by car. Much later, it was realized that this small force had done a great service to the people of Nazareth; this action, however minor, had helped spare many of our residents the horrendous misfortunes and ongoing suffering that befell hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Of course, this was not the main reason that Nazareth was spared the massacres and expulsions that occurred in other towns and cities. The Illustrated London News, a pictorial newsmagazine I happened to see in Beirut a week or two after the occupation of Nazareth, described the fallen town as “flag bedecked”—a reference to the foreign flags hoisted on the twenty-five or so Christian institutions scattered on the hilltops and in the valley that make up the city. The halls of those institutions were filled with townspeople who had sought refuge for fear of brutal actions.


With the fall of Nazareth, my father understandably became deeply depressed and restless. Summer had come full force and it was getting hot in Beirut, so we went up to Brummana, a resort village in the mountains. There, we rented a house in the middle of the old part of the village from a local postal clerk. A number of Christian families from Haifa were already in Brummana; they had come to spend the summer in the hope that by the time the schools reopened in the fall, the Arab armies would have been victorious and they could return. My maternal uncle Elias and his wife and three children rented a house in the neighborhood of the churches not far from our new dwelling.


While in Brummana, trying to cope with my father’s depression, I was unexpectedly pressed into service as a “volunteer” to help with the flood of Palestinian refugees pouring into the south as the Jewish forces advanced. On a Sunday afternoon in early August, I was out for a drive in my Wolsely (an English automobile) when a Lebanese gendarme made me pull over. He had me follow his motorcycle, and when we got to an underground garage he courteously asked me to lock the car and hand him the keys against a receipt. In response to my questions and protests, he would only say that these were his orders and that I needed to claim my car at the Suret´e G´en´erale—central police headquarters—the next morning. The next day, when I presented myself as ordered at the Suret´e in Beirut, a crowd of visibly confused and frustrated men was milling around the building’s lobby. I quickly realized that these were medical people from Palestine, some of whom I recognized. One was Dr. Shafiq Haddad, whom I had known in Nazareth in 1940, when he was a health officer in the Mandate government and I was still a medical student, and when I had accompanied him on medical inspection visits to villages in Galilee. It turned out that he had been one of the main organizers of this roundup of Palestinian doctors. He apologized for the need to resort to such drastic measures, but explained that there had been no response to the call for help sent out by him and a few colleagues. I was asked to serve for two weeks in Bint Jbeil, followed by another two weeks in Baalbek, with a one-week break in between. As Dr. Haddad was registering the dates and locations of my assignments, he mentioned that a Dr. Joseph Tamari was going to be my companion in Bint Jbeil.


Two days later, after making all the arrangements in Brummana, Dr. Tamari and I set off for Bint Jbeil, a large village just over the border on the Lebanese side. We proceeded up the mountains of the south through Tibnin to our destination. On the way, Joe, as he liked to be called, confided to me that he was not a medical doctor at all but a dentist. He assumed that there would be little need for dental services, even if the necessary equipment was available, but he wanted to put his qualifications to use in any kind of service. I assured him that together we would fill the need, whatever the circumstances.


We arrived in the early afternoon and to my great surprise I found an old friend and classmate,Yussif Nuwayhid, who turned out to be one of the two physicians in charge at the Bint Jbeil’s ambulatorium. The clinics had been set up in a decent two-story building in the center of the village. Dr. Nuwayhid and his colleague, Dr. Yussif Yahya, showed us around, explaining the setup and the available resources, as well as briefing us on the common medical problems of the refugees. They also indicated that up to this point there were no inpatient facilities, but that they hoped such a service would be available in the future. At present, patients needing more specialized treatment were to be referred to the Sa‘dalla Khalil hospital in the coastal town of Sour.


The hundreds of refugees in Bint Jbeil came primarily from villages in southern and eastern Galilee, which had fallen at the end of April and during the first half of May. During the two weeks of our stay, the refugees were still numb and in a state of shock; few realized that their exile would be permanent. Most were staying in the open under the olive trees and in fruit groves. The local population was kind and hospitable and provided the newcomers with water and other necessities. Only a very few families could afford to rent rooms or houses that were available in the village. One of those families that had been able to secure a roof over their heads was the Sayigh family from Reineh. I was surprised to meet them there. They had been my friends and patients in Nazareth. A few days after our arrival in the village, Dr. Tamari and I were invited to dinner at the home of the Bazzi family, distant relatives of family friends. We stayed late, under a vine-roofed patio. The breeze was mild, crisp, and cool and the moon was full. There was a rustic fragrance of drying hay and burning weeds in the air, and every now and then we could hear in the distance the short repeated bark of a dog or the cry of an infant.


The clinics were kept busy and were run by volunteer nurses, the majority of whom came from the AUB School of Nursing. Joe and I shared patients. Joe took care of dental problems, but the greater part of his time was spent treating wounds, burns, and other minor problems he felt qualified to handle. We did not encounter major trauma or war wounds, and for the time being not many new refugees were coming in. A second truce had been declared after the “ten-day war” (11–19 July), during which the Jews had captured Nazareth and overrun the Galilee up to a line running south of Eilabun and curving around in a northwesterly direction toward Ra’s al-Naqura. After the second truce, though Israeli advances continued in the central and southern parts of Palestine, the Galilee remained relatively quiet until the end of October. Thus, only a handful of complicated or very serious cases needed to be referred to Sour. Two of these were of typhoid fever. Injectable typhoid vaccine was offered in the clinic for people who asked for it. Since there was no official system for registering refugees trekking into the village, it was impractical to institute compulsory immunization. Such measures became necessary later on. When more refugees poured in when the rest of Galilee was taken, the Lebanese government and eventually the newly created United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) took charge of housing them in special camps, and a comprehensive system aimed at meeting their various needs was implemented.


As the days passed, Joe and I were feeling more and more comfortable with what we were doing, and I daresay we both felt some gratification. During those two weeks, we also had some free time, which we used to explore the area around the village and to visit families of old friends. We drove to ‘Ayn I’bl and inquired about some schoolmates I had at the Salesian School in Nazareth, from the Shbat and Sakr families, but found none in the village. We made a similar visit to the border village of Rmeish. A friendship developed between Tamari and myself that was rekindled some twenty years later when our paths crossed again.


Two new volunteers came to replace us when it was time for the two of us to leave. We were to have a week off before the next assignment Dr. Shafiq had planned for us, and it was good to be back among my family. My father, however, was feeling desperate regarding his health and deeply homesick, and begged to be taken back to Nazareth to die. I was greatly moved and promised him that we would go back as soon as it could be arranged.


At the end of my week’s “recess,” Dr. Haddad called to let me know that Monday at seven in the morning we were to drive to Baalbek to establish a medical clinic for the refugees in the area. I rode with him, and on the way he explained to me the situation in that particular camp. He drove fast, as I expected he would; I had not forgotten my rides with him in the Nazareth region eight years earlier. But he was intent on the road as he outlined his plans for the camp.


We did not have to go into the town of Baalbek. As soon as we saw the six remaining columns of the ancient Temple of Jupiter, we veered off to the right of the main road and drove through a wide gate in a neat wall topped by an iron fence. The surrounding wall was of the same construction as the row of six huge buildings within the compound. I was told that these were at one time the barracks of the French army in the Beka‘. Here, the Lebanese government cared for the refugees, who as we arrived were being served the morning meal into their own dishes and utensils. The kitchen adjoined the large serving hall; together we went inside and everything looked clean and in order. Dr. Haddad introduced me to the Lebanese catering contractor and his associates, who said they would give me a ride back to Beirut whenever I needed.


The majority of the refugees in the camp were from the village of Lubya, which had fallen to the Jewish forces just after Nazareth. Lubya was a large and rich village located on the south side of the main Nazareth-Tiberias road. I recognized the orange and burgundy colors of the women’s dresses and the typical bandeaux around their heads that were embroidered in the Palestinian folkloric manner, and I liked hearing the cadence of their dialect. I had had patients from Lubya during my two years of practice in Nazareth, from August 1946 until June 1948, when I had had to leave because of my father’s illness. During those two years, I had come to know the various styles of dress, dialects, childrearing practices, and even clan relationships in many of the villages around the Galilee.


After I returned to my practice in the Galilee later that year, I used to pass by the ruins of Lubya every time I drove on the Nazareth-Tiberias road. On the southern side of the road one could see parts of walls of bulldozed houses, Mediterranean cacti typical of Arab villages, and fig or pomegranate trees that had been spared uprooting by the Jews. On the northern side of the road there was a new colony designed and built in the same mass production pattern as were all other colonies of that period. These were built first, and their occupants were fitted in later, very different from the natural evolution of Palestinian inhabited areas, where houses follow the contours of the land. The ruins of Lubya village, and its people as I saw them in that Baalbek camp, brought home the fact that nothing had changed in the behavior of mankind at war.


The refugees, many on foot, who were pouring into Lebanon and the other countries bordering on Palestine had been driven from villages that were almost immediately razed. It later became known that this was official Israeli policy to prevent anyone from returning, either right away or at any time in the future. It was not uncommon for demolished abodes to be mined, and a number of people were killed while sneaking back to recover things they had left behind. Tactics became even more brutal when the Zionists were ready to complete their occupation of the Galilee in October. By that time the Arab villagers, having seen what had happened elsewhere, had become adamant about staying put in their homes and on their lands. To frighten them away, the occupying forces started a strategy of planned massacres, which were carried out in Eilabun, Farradiyya, Safsaf, Sa‘sa‘, and other villages. In places where this was not to their advantage for one reason or another, the army would resort to forceful expulsion. I was to witness some of these tactics in Rameh a month or so later.


During the two weeks I stayed among the refugees in Baalbek, a clinic staffed by a permanent nurse and an orderly was set up. A clear referral plan was established, and appropriate medications were procured. There were a few obstetric cases that had to be referred to the local hospital in Baalbek. A general sense of gloom pervaded the camp; by that time the magnitude of the catastrophe was beginning to sink in, especially as news of loss after loss came in despite the much-anticipated participation of the Arab armies. The depression became even more acute when someone died. The death of a patriarch of a clan from Lubya, for example, turned into a wailing ceremony for the loss of the village, the land, and the country. The whole camp as well as people from Baalbek participated. My two weeks ended soon after that, and it left me with a troubled spirit.




My uncle Elias, a shrewd businessman by nature, had brought with him a substantial amount of cash and was eager to conduct lucrative and exciting business deals. He had already made friends with some of the wholesale merchants in the souks of Beirut. One day, one of these friends suggested that the population of northern Galilee, more or less under the jurisdiction of Kawukji’s liberation army, was in need of provisions, and he encouraged Elias to provide them with some of those needs. So Uncle Elias, after many bureaucratic difficulties, managed to ship a truckload of sugar to northern Palestine followed by another truckload of flour. During this period, he also renewed contact with an old business friend from Rameh named Yussef Awad. After returning from such a trip, he told me that there was a great need in that area for a physician. There were two doctors in Rameh, one of whom was a good friend of mine from medical school, but none in the larger village of Tarshiha, not too far from the Lebanese border. He suggested that I try doing general practice in northern Galilee. My father was enthusiastic about the idea. We did not know how long it was going to be before we could return home and were almost out of funds. I decided to give it a try.


A truckload of sugar accompanied us to Tarshiha; my uncle rode next to me in my Wolsely. We arrived in early afternoon and while my uncle was delivering his merchandise, I went around trying to find relatives; a branch of our family had migrated from Lebanon to Tarshiha generations before, and some of them had eventually continued further south to Nazareth. Asking around the village, I was introduced to Hanna Rabah, the oldest descendent of the family. His trade was “Arab carpentry,” which was traditional and quite primitive. I watched him a number of times during my stay in the village. Wielding in his right hand a small ax with a sharp edge, he would hold in his left hand the branch of an olive, oak, or pine tree three to four feet long and about three or four inches in diameter. He would whittle away for hours until he shaped it into a smooth well-rounded handle of a shovel, rake, or whatever he had in mind. He could do bride’s trunks, but not cabinets, furniture, or doors and windows. While watching him at work, I often thought that he was fashioning the same things with the same techniques that Joseph and Jesus must have used in their carpentry shop in Nazareth.


Hanna welcomed me warmly and took me to what he said would be the most appropriate place for me to stay. Soon we came to an opening in a three-foot-high wall made of piled stones that led into a not-so-neat garden the size of a volleyball court. It had some dozen fruit trees, a few rows of vegetables on the far side, and various flowering shrubs on the side next to the road. We walked along a narrow dirt path and up three or four steps to a terrace, onto which three doors, one from each of three rooms, opened. Anise, a middle-aged spinster, and her mother came out to meet us.


I arrived in Tarshiha toward the end of September and stayed for almost three weeks. Every morning, after a hearty breakfast served by Anise and her mother, I would walk to what had been, until the end of the Mandate, an infant and mother welfare center. The key was available, but the nurse in charge of the center had to come from another village. I familiarized myself with the place and tried to make the best possible use of the available equipment and the scanty supplies. By word of mouth the people of Tarshiha, Mi’ilya, and even villages beyond quickly learned that there was a doctor at the infant welfare center, and began to come.


The general mood in Tarshiha—and indeed in the whole of northern Galilee at the time—was bleak. There appeared to be very little confidence in what the ALA could do if the Jewish forces moved to expand their conquests. In the meantime, everything was on hold; it felt as if time had stopped. There was no work, no weddings, no christenings, and, strangely enough, almost no deaths; there was only anxiety and apprehension. The infant welfare center occupied a second-floor structure built on top of a large house in the middle of the village. The room had a window in the western wall overlooking a widened stretch of the main road that served as the village square, and through that window I could see what was happening below in the square. Often men and officers of the ALA passed through. My impression—which was shared by the villagers—was that they were ill-selected, ill-disciplined, ill-equipped, and lacking the determination needed for a mission of the sort they had come to fulfill. This being the case, I was quite surprised one morning to see a large group of Druze elders from the surrounding villages in their black traditional dress and distinctive white headdress gathered in the square. Upon inquiring, I was told that they had come to present allegiance and promise loyalty to the local commanding officer of the ALA.


In early October, I was to return to Brummana to see my family and to procure a stock of drugs and supplies to bring back to Tarshiha from Beirut; I had already drawn up a list of what was needed. So, one morning I told Anise and her mother of my plans and asked them to keep my things as well as the key to the center. I bid them farewell, telling them that I hoped to be back within a week. I hit the road with my Wolsely, passing through Hurfaysh and Sa‘sa‘ and then crossing the border—still entirely open—into Lebanon, then heading west through Rmeish and descending the gentle slopes of Jabal A’ml to the coastal road. During the first part of my trip, I shared the road with old trucks, rickety pickups, and other kinds of vehicles carrying soldiers of the ALA on the way north. The men looked as heterogeneous as the vehicles they occupied. As I passed a whole series of these small separate convoys, I began to wonder about the purpose of this northward movement. I worried about how effective this kind of force could be in preventing the occupation of more land by the Jewish forces and in providing at least temporary peace of mind to the anxious population.


Within weeks, the final Zionist onslaught on the upper Galilee had begun, and by December 1948 the Zionists had captured the whole of Palestine to the Lebanese border.



ELIAS SROUJI, a retired professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma, practiced medicine in Nazareth until 1967. This article is taken from his memoir, Cyclamens from Galilee (forthcoming).