Chasing Paradise A Palestinian Clan Dreams of Going Home

The members of a large Palestinian clan dream of escaping Gaza and going back to their homeland, the village of Ni'ilya. For 70 years, they've been imagining this return to a place that no longer exists, except in their collective memories.

Jonas Opperskalski / laif / DER SPIEGEL

It acts like a magical word. It lights up rooms. It gives everything a purpose. It is the goal. The direction. The solution. When Yahia Khalout utters the word on this afternoon, a light seems to go on inside him. The word is "Ni'ilya."

Khalout is 55 years old, he has a gray moustache and black eyes that usually appear to be peering into a bottomless abyss. He is sitting with a dozen men in the shell of a house in Jabalia, the biggest refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. It's raining outside. The men, who are wearing tracksuits, have assembled around a bed as if it is a sacrificial altar. Yahia Khalout's seriously injured son is lying there. His name is Abdullah and he is 23 years old. He's pale and wrapped in a fuzzy, colorful blanket. He was hit by a bullet while protesting at the border fence with Israel and is still too weak to tell the story of his survival, so his dad recounts it instead. It sounds like a ballad. A partisan song.

It goes like this: On the morning of the first "March of Return," three friends set off for the fence. The sun has just risen. They have a Palestinian flag. All three are in their early twenties. They're going home. To their homeland, which they know is wonderful. Every Friday, Palestinians want to raise awareness about their situation in Gaza, where there are countless shortages, with a peaceful protest. They don't have enough food, water, work or freedom. The Friday marches are meant to bring them closer and closer to the border fence with Israel and, on May 15, Nakba Day, the dark day of the Palestinian people, they will reach the border. Nobody knows what will happen after that, but the three men get going.

The first shot is fired when they are 200 meters (700 feet) from the fence. It hits the flag-bearer in the leg. The next man gets up, lifts the flag, walks a bit and then is also struck in the leg. Then the third man takes the Palestinian flag and carries it further. The man is Abdullah Khalout. The Israeli sniper's bullet hits him in the chest. They take him to the Indonesian Hospital in northern Gaza where his father works as a nurse. Yahia Khalout was treating a boy when he saw his bleeding son being carried into the emergency room. Abdullah had serious internal bleeding. He was in shock. They give him several transfusions and bring him to the Al-Shifa Hospital, the biggest in Gaza. The father accompanies his son. "Forgive me, father," the young man says before losing consciousness. They operate for five hours, at which point a doctor appears in the waiting room and says, "There's little hope, Yahia." After another five hours, Abdullah wakes up to say, "Tell mother she should forgive me." Then, during the afternoon of the next day, a surgeon appears in the waiting room, takes the father by the shoulders and says, "God has saved your son!"

And that's how it was. The prayer beads click in Khalout's hand. His son nods weakly. "We have been fighting for 70 years against the injustice of the Israeli occupation," Yahia says. "My family has provided 60 martyrs. Sixty. I sat in an Israeli jail for five years, in the Negev Desert, for this struggle for the rights of my people. My son has now continued this fight. We are almost there."

Where?

"In our homeland," says Yahia Khalout. "In Ni'ilya."

The light inside him turns on. He smiles, even his eyes smile. The word has turned an angry man into a happy one. All the men are now smiling, including the one sent by Hamas to monitor and make sure the international public was being appropriately informed. Ni'ilya is the name of the village the family comes from. It's located about 20 kilometers away, on the other side of the border. A small village south of Ashkelon, which they call Majdal. None of the men in the room have ever seen Ni'ilya. But all can describe it. The houses, the fields, the trees.

"We had oranges and grapes," says Yahia.

"Almonds," says another man.

"Melons."

"Apricots."

"And grain," says Yahia. "We brought it to the market in Majdal and sold it there. My grandfather had 150 dunum of land." That translates to about 15 hectares.

A Huge, Intertwining Clan

They all know the size of their ancestors' land, but aren't as familiar with the circumstances under which they were driven out of that paradise. In 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, the inhabitants of many Palestinian villages fled to Gaza. The cause of this flight -- a war in which the Arab neighboring states intervened because they didn't like the idea of an independent Jewish state in their midst, or because they didn't accept the UN's plans for dividing Palestine -- have either been forgotten or repressed by them, or smothered by the other terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people. The wars, the blockades, a society in neverending transition, living in refugee camps whose tents became first huts and then houses. The only constant has been the feeling of great injustice that began 70 years ago, on Nakba Day.

"Ni'ilya: Ethnically cleansed 25,280 days ago," says a Palestinian website that translates the displacement into numbers.

In November 1948, Ni'ilya was cleared. Back then, the village had 297 houses, and all except one were destroyed. But the families from Ni'ilya still exist. Indeed, they have grown with time. The 1,520 Palestinians who left Ni'ilya in 1948 have turned into around 60,000. They live across the world, in the United States, Germany and Saudi Arabia. But most are in Gaza. Yahia's family alone now has over 1,000 members and is related to another family from Ni'ilya, the Yassins, a huge clan with intertwining relations that are hard to decipher. There are 10-year-olds who are uncles of 40-year-olds and siblings whose birthdays are 30 years apart. But all of them ultimately come from this village of dreams. From Ni'ilya.

It's a place that holds together all these people with different names and faces, like a path leading through this enormous family.

If there is a kind of central square on this path, it might be Sad Aladin Yassin, a distant brother-in-law of Yahia Khalout. Yassin is 68 years old and was born in a tent in Gaza one year after his family left Ni'ilya. His father was a farmer and owned 150 dunum of land, Aladin Yassin says right from the start. Then come the orange trees, the shade, the peace. And the smile.

Sad Aladin grew up with three brothers and two sisters. Now he has 60 grandchildren, a long beard, a walking stick and a Samsung Galaxy, which he uses more than his prayer beads. There's always someone who wants something from him. Sad Aladin is the imam at the mosque in Jabalia, where 120,000 people live in an area that measures just 1.4 square kilometers. It is one of the biggest mosques in Gaza. His cellphone's screen saver is a selfie with the words "Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine" emblazoned over it.

One morning between two marches, Sad Aladin Yassin is sitting in one of the tent camps that has been built up at the border, and talks about the upcoming May 15, the fateful day. The fence is located about 500 meters from here. They will overcome it, the imam says. Some predict that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians will head to the sand rampart where Israeli snipers await. According to the organizers' plans, they will all be holding hands.

And then? Will they simply continue to Ni'ilya?

"It is our land," says the imam. "We will return. Soon."

And what will happen to the people who live there now?

"They are welcome to visit us. From time to time," he says. "We don't want war. You need to tell that to the world, including German readers. The Zionist media control the global media. They speak in different tongues. They are the true aggressors. Two of my nephews have been shot at during the peaceful demonstrations. They are still children."

After an anti-Semitic fit, like a dry cough, the imam is smiling again. In the afternoon, after prayers, he extends an invitation to his home to introduce his family, the children of Ni'ilya.

Brandishing Injuries like Trophies

The two injured boys sit amid the men. They brandish their bandaged legs like trophies. Pride, pain medication, attention. Yahia Khalil Yassin is 11 years old and the uncle of Mahdi Yassin, who is 16. The young uncle was shot at during the first Friday march. His nephew on the following Saturday. They both claim to have been far from the border fence. When it comes to children, the Israelis shoot at their feet, Mahdi says, but they shoot older ones in the knees, to make them immobile forever. He would like to go back next Friday on his crutches, but his family won't allow it.

His father shakes his head. The imam smiles. The two boys are missing school and their exams. This summer, final exams have been pushed back in Gaza anyway because of the Nakba anniversary and there are special classes in which the injured students can catch up on their lessons. Thus far, 490 underaged youths have been injured in the Friday marches. Mahdi and Yahia have been at home for four weeks. Mahdi's injury is healing well. Yahia's wound is still infected. He needs further operations because his joint is affected. His orthopedist says he will never again be able to walk properly. Three times a week, two nurses from Doctors Worldwide, a Turkish aid organization that has been working in Gaza for three years, visit the boys to change their bandages.

Yahia remains impassive as the nurse treats him. He would really like to show his injury. His foot is swollen, with a small hole on the instep, a larger one, with rough stitches, at the heel. He is beaming.

"This is what the occupation makes out of us," he says.

Before the nurses leave, the 11-year-old signs the forms with an air of experience.

How bad is the pain?

"Middling," says Yahia, laughing.

"He even laughs when he's crying," his mother says.

At this point, about 20 family members are sitting in the living room: uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters. There's tea, coffee and waffles. The imam is sitting between the injured boys. Yahia, the young uncle, describes his homeland: cool, calm, an old house, surrounded by orange trees.

It's something he can look forward to. A kind of future. Yahia is a good student, they say, but where will that get him? His older cousins, nephews and brothers have no work. Some went to college -- most of them, surprisingly, studied something relating to media -- and they now sit around at home all day and wait for something to happen. Youth unemployment in Gaza is 70 percent. None of them has ever traveled. They sit in a cage, surrounded by fences on three sides and on the other side the sea, in which they cannot swim because it is polluted by the unfiltered sewage coming out of Gaza. Their greatest hope is that things will someday be as nice as they once were.

The only person in the room who was born in Ni'ilya is Mohammed Ibrahim Yassin, the imam's older brother. He's 71 years old, and he was just 1 year old when they left. He, of course, has no memories of fleeing. But he went back once, in the 1960s, with his father. He was so happy to stand on the soil of his homeland, he says. He found it even nicer than the stories he had heard from his parents.

It's totally quiet in the room.

"All I want is 100 square meters to build my own house. And a small garden," says Mohammed Ibrahim Yassin.

It is the most concrete plan for a future on the other side of the fence uttered by anyone in the family. It seems as if they can't really imagine what would happen if the fence came down.

"The food in Ni'ilya was so much better than it is here," says Yahia's mother.

"Grapes."

"Lemons."

Yahia's eyes light up.

"Don't worry, you will see it soon, Yahia," says his sister, Ghada Khalout. She's at least 30 years older than her brother. She lived in Germany for 13 years, in Graubündener Strasse in Bremen, she says. Her husband, a brother of Yahia Khalout's, was an engineer there. He died of cancer and so she returned to Gaza in 2013. One cannot move around as freely as in Europe, she says, but her family is here. And the memories of the golden era are also more alive here.

The Sheep Ate the Documents

Ghada now has a new husband, Kreem Halawi, who is also sitting here. Because we are currently talking about Bremen, he mentions that he is impressed by Hitler. "A great man. Not because of his behavior toward the Jews, at least not primarily," says Halawi. He said he was impressed by the energy and determination with which Hitler led his people out of the Depression. Halawi spent time in an Israeli jail, from 1986 to 1991, because of his political work for Fatah, he says. He claims they tortured him. He speaks about it in such a relaxed manner, as if jail was a kind of training course. He later worked for the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, until Hamas took it over in 2006. Since then he has been unemployed. He wears a suit and an ironed shirt. Every day. He keeps himself ready. He now has a wife who speaks German and who carries this Ni'ilya story with her. Palestinian traditions are intertwined. He has married into this dream. It doesn't matter that he has never seen Ni'ilya -- others haven't seen it either. At this point, there are around 30 people in the room. He's the only one who is not a Khalout or a Yassin. There is warm bread, olives, spices and sweet juice.

"We have documents and also the keys to our house in Ni'ilya," the imam says.

Can he show them?

"I don't know exactly where they are."

"The sheep ate them," says his brother Mohammed.

"Right," says the sister-in-law from Bremen. "We had sheep here earlier, when the house didn't have a roof yet."

And the key?

"Sheep eat everything," says the brother of the imam. Nobody smiles. The sheep ate the documents. That's just how it is.

"Key or no key," says the imam. "It's our land. That land remains. That's what we want back. And compensation. The Koran says that the occupation will end someday. And the Jews know this. They know that they will pay us. They are afraid of it. That's why the Zionist global movement is trying to destroy the Islamist movement."

Is there absolutely nothing that the family took with it from Ni'ilya?

Ghada Khalout says that she still has a dress that belonged to her grandmother. It is black and decorated with traditional patterns. But she unfortunately cannot show it. She left it with a relative in Bremen. The last piece of Ni'ilya is hanging in a closet there. Left behind on this epic flight. This journey has indeed been a very long one for them.

Ghada Khalout thinks of her grandmother, Halima, who might still have something. She was already a grown up when they fled. It is the end of the path through the large Yassin-Khalout family. Or the beginning. The oracle of Ni'ilya.

Halima Hussein Kahlout is 95 years old. She lies under one of these colorful, fluffy blankets in a small, darkened room. She is small and thin, her body's outline barely visible under the blanket, her eyes are hazy but her spirit is awake. She was 24 years old when they left Ni'ilya.

She says she didn't see any Jews in 1948. No soldiers. They fled from rumors coming from the north, heard from Palestinians traveling through from Jaffa. Maybe there were also shots fired from Majdal, she says. That could be. Ashkelon, which they call Majdal, was so close. She could hear the noise of its marketplace from her garden. She isn't sure. She only remembers the feeling of fear. Because of it, she made her way south, toward Gaza, with olives, fruit and bread as provisions. Everyone on foot. She and her three children. Two boys and a girl. The oldest son was 6 years old. Along the way, they met her husband, who had been in Gaza with a donkey and cart to sell grain there. He then took them with him. It was autumn.

She falls silent. A light breeze blows through the room. Then she resumes talking. A stream of consciousness from the past. Memories of life in Ni'ilya, clear of her grandsons' expectations.

"I was 12 years old when I got married," she says. "My hands were painted with henna."

"There was a lot of land, where we grew grains and fruit. We sold them at the market in Majdal. There was no market in our village. We carried baskets and jugs on our heads. The British forbade us from carrying knives, but one of my brothers hid a weapon. One day the British came and turned the whole house upside down, but they found nothing. The British were stupid but cunning. We lost part of the land due to a deal over oranges with a Brit. He promised us wealth, but then a large load of oranges rotted on a ship because it got caught in a storm. I'm sure he knew about it beforehand."

Does she still remember her house?

"It was simple. We all slept on the ground. The floor was made of clay, the walls were made of clay. There were no windows."

Her nieces, grandsons and daughters all sit on the edge of the bed, their gazes downturned.

Tell them about the trees, mother. The blooming gardens of Ni'ilya. Please.

The organizers of the march also often end up speaking about the past when discussing their visions of the future. If you ask Dr. Yousef Saleh, the chief ideologue of Hamas, how he imagines a life living side by side with Jews, he answers: "There is space for everyone. After all, we've lived together more or less peacefully for 3,000 years."

Saleh was previously the right-hand man of Hamas' leader. Today, he heads up the "House of Wisdom," which he describes as a think tank. He is based on the 13th floor of a high-rise located directly on the beach in Gaza. Portraits of Gandhi, Mandela, Martin Luther King and Angela Merkel line the walls, and shelves display the souvenirs of his journeys around the world. Salah wears a uniform which looks as if his tailor was inspired by Kim Il Sung, Bertolt Brecht and Daniel Libeskind. He is sitting on a throne-like chair, lending him the appearance of being something akin to the god of Gaza. Only, the scarcity of electricity means that the elevator to his heavenly realm only works every half-hour.

Erased from the Map

Outside in the salon, a Swedish professor is waiting. He's a friend of the Palestinian people. Saleh speaks about how impressed he is by the way people live together in Switzerland. Switzerland could be a role model for Palestine, he says.

Switzerland. In other words: even god doesn't have a clue where things go from here.

His room is full to the brim with Matryoshkas, Indian elephants and Gandhi portraits, but his thoughts end at the border with Israel. They have no clear idea of what paradise looks like, but they are always about it enter it.

Ni'ilya was cleared of people on Nov. 4, 1948. It doesn't exist on Israeli maps. There's no town sign, no houses -- just the coordinates on Wikipedia: 31°3846N 34°3418E.

You have reached your destination, the GPS navigation system says at a dusty crossroads. There are scrubby hills to the left and the right, where wild apricot trees and thorny bushes grow, and there are also piles of trash. Here and there you can see the remains of old foundations.

Around 500 meters away, the new buildings become visible. Five and 10-story buildings, dozens of cranes. And beyond that is the skyline of Ashkelon, the city where Halima's children went to school and where they sold their fruit. The first school in Ni'ilya was built in 1948 but was never opened. It was torn down immediately along with all the other buildings. The mosque and graveyard are gone too. There's a new cemetery here where mostly Russian Jews are buried.

Two Bedouins are herding sheep and goats across the steppe. They come from Arad, around 75 kilometers to the southeast, in the desert near the Dead Sea. There's no grass there for their flocks, just sand. That's why they've come here, they say. To feed their animals.

"Palestinians?" one of the two shepherds asks. "There are none here. Here, there are only Jews."

You can ask passing joggers or dog walkers about the history of this inhospitable area, but the minute the words "Palestinian village" are uttered they become tight-lipped and walk away. It's like a mysterious enchanted land, one that is somehow haunted.

Around four weeks ago, archeologists with the Israeli Antiquities Authority discovered a site here. They are now digging the ground in Ni'ilya and perhaps they will find proof that they were the first ones here. It's like everywhere in this country. If you can't come up with a convincing argument, you look for historical fragments to confirm your story.

What are they searching for in Ni'ilya?

The Antiquities Authority doesn't respond to inquiries. The fence here has a warning sign, there are motion detectors and a drone hovering overheard. It all seems a bit bizarre in this remote place. The cranes in the distance, the smell of trash, the thorn bushes, the lizards sunning themselves on the stones, and the boys tearing down dusty paths on dirt bikes. And yet the past, present and future are all here. The archeologists' bosses know that no new house on this disputed land will change the facts, not even if it is 20 stories high. Neither the ownership deeds nor Sad Aladin Yassin's old house key are decisive. It's about a better, older history.

The villagers have fled, the houses are demolished, the paths obscured, the trees withered, the maps gone. But the name -- that can never be destroyed: Ni'ilya.

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