The Testimony of Audeh Rantisi
At 7:15, Monday morning, July 13, 1948, three Israeli soldiers came to our home in Lydda. I remember going to the door with my mother. I was 11 at the time. I heard the soldiers say in English: “Leave your house open and go outside.”
We did as we were ordered. My father, George, 49, my mother, Fayqa, 38, my three younger brothers, Elias, 8, Philip, 6, and Mahfouz, 1, my two sisters, Adla, 14, and Sonia, 3, and my two grandparents—we all went outside and left our home unlocked.
At first my father thought the Israelis were doing what the British had done during the six-month strike in 1936, when they had everyone leave their homes and gather at the threshing-floor center in the city. Back then the British were checking for weapons and, once they had finished, they let the people return to their homes later in the day. We are Christian Palestinians, so my father thought we should wait in the compound of St. George’s Church. Hundreds of people were heading in the same direction.
We never made it. At a turn in the road just before the church, Israeli soldiers directed us down a road that ended at a narrow gate that led into the mountains. By this time the number of people had grown and panic began to set in. Word had spread about the mosque. The Israelis had herded over 136 men into the Dahmash mosque, the smaller of Lydda’s two mosques, and machine-gunned them. Not one person survived.
When we saw Tawfeeq abu-S’oud, the headmaster of one of our schools, he told us how the soldiers had come to his home and told him that he and his family had to leave in three minutes or they’d all be killed. And what made our fear so rational, if that’s the word, was the fact that the soldiers were not forcing us out onto one of the main roads, where it would have been easier to walk, but out onto rough, hilly terrain, littered with rocks and boulders and clumps of bleached thorn, a place where they could kill us and leave our bodies for the wildlife.
By now the heat had reached a hundred degrees. The scene was chaotic. Women in black abbahs and heavily embroidered Palestinian dresses hysterically clutched their infants as they stumbled forward to avoid the expected spray of machine-gun fire. I remember holding the hand of my paternal grandfather, Audeh Rantisi, whose name I, as the eldest son, was given, as is our custom. In his other hand my grandfather held our only remaining possessions: a small tin of sugar and some milk for my aunt’s two-year-old son Easa, who was sick with typhoid.
About a mile outside the city we came to a private vegetable farm, its entrance framed by a large gate. Atop the gate sat soldiers with machine guns, firing over our heads and shouting at us to hurry through the gate.
I did not know it at the time, but our death march had begun.
Behind us, forever, was our home, our family business, our clothing, our food, along with those possessions we were never able to replace. When the editor of The Link asked me for photos of our home in Lydda or of my childhood in Lydda, I had to say we had to leave all that behind. The one thing I do remember my father taking with him was the key to the front door of our home.
Our house was located in the new section of Lydda in the district of Haqouret Al-Qura. My father and his father, Audeh, built it with their own hands sometime in the 1920s. Prior to the new home, our family had lived in the old section of Lydda. There we can trace our family history back at least 1,600 years. My father, like his father, and his father before him, were soap makers. We made soap from olive oil. It was our family business.
In front of me, as we were prodded through the gate to the vegetable farm, an old cart on metal-rimmed wheels wobbled over uneven ground. Alongside the cart, a mother, clutching her baby, was being pressed by the crowd. Suddenly, in the jostling, the child slipped from its mother’s arms and fell to the ground. I saw the cart’s rickety wheel run over the baby’s neck. The shrieks of the mother as she picked up her dead baby still ring in my ears.
Inside the gate, the soldiers had placed a blanket on the ground, and were ordering everyone to throw all of their valuables onto the blanket. This included money, jewelry, wristwatches, pens, even wedding rings. Amin Hanhan and his wife had only been married six weeks. When the soldiers demanded a container with money that he was carrying, he refused. One of the soldiers lifted his rifle and shot him. He fell to the ground, his young bride beside him, screaming. It was the first time I had ever seen one human being kill another. I was so shocked and so afraid. It happened so fast, and so casually. I remember feeling I wanted to throw up.
Then the soldiers wanted to search my grandfather. He refused because he was afraid they would take the milk and sugar he had brought for Easa. When they pressed him, he held up his cane and shook it in their faces. They let him go.
Now the only thing that kept us going were the horrors we had witnessed. We stumbled on through the blinding sun, over stones and sharp undergrowth, placing one blistered foot in front of the other, the thirst within us growing.
Before we left the vegetable garden we picked some eggplants. The soldiers were telling us to “Go to Abdullah,” that is, to the area of Palestine under Jordanian control. If we had to walk, it meant a march of some 25 to 30 miles. Eggplants might be the only thing we’d find to sustain us.
By the evening of the first day we stopped on a mountain top near the village of Jimzu. Once the sun went down, we had to cope with the severe cold, and we had nothing to keep us warm. Some of us gathered twigs and made a small fire. But the Israeli planes must have spotted the light and headed low towards us. Afraid they might fire on us, others in the group made us put out the fire, forcing us to use the precious little water we had left.
That night I cried myself to sleep.
In the early hours of the next day, soldiers on horseback came riding at us shooting their guns. The soldiers were yelling for us to get moving. Everyone started running. It was a stampede.
At the time we were on a mountain, half way down into a valley. In the confusion I lost sight of my family. I went down the mountain and stood in the valley, asking about my family. Where I was standing there was a donkey behind me. Suddenly a bullet missed my waist and hit the donkey, immediately killing it. I began to run in fear of my life.
A short while later I saw my sister, Adla. She too was lost. We began to ask people and to look for the rest of our family.
Then we came across my uncle, Suliman, with his family. He told us our parents were behind us and would be coming along soon.
They never did.
As the sun went down, we stopped for the night somewhere in the mountains in a particularly rocky place that offered us some protection from the cold. I remember eating for the first time that day. A camel that was about to die was slaughtered and the meat was divided among all of us. Each of us got a very small bite.
With the darkness came an awful loneliness and anxiety. In my head I heard my father telling us what the soldiers had recently done in the village of Deir Yassin, how they rounded up the men, women and children and killed them all in cold blood. I thought of the men in the Dahmash mosque. I thought of Amin, the young man shot in front of me. I thought of the bullet that almost killed me. Had the soldiers killed my family?
I had to know if they were still alive.
So, around 8 p.m., I got up and, without saying a word to my uncle, slowly began to retrace my steps down into the valley, in the pitch darkness, stumbling among the thousands of people on the ground. About 45 minutes went by when, in the distance, I heard my father’s voice. I started shouting at him. Sounds carry long distances at night in such places, and I could hear my parents asking “Are you safe?” and “Where is your sister?” I shouted back that we were both well. We kept shouting until we found each other. I will always remember that moment when he and my mother hugged me.
My father wanted to move that night to be with my sister and uncle. So he hired three donkeys for my mother and grandparents to ride.
I have been asked how he managed to hire donkeys in the dark out in the middle of nowhere. And where did he get the money, if he had to give it to the soldiers? As for the money, he never handed it over. I wonder had the soldiers found it would they have killed him, as they did Amin Hanhan? The donkeys belonged to local villagers along the way, who came out to see if they could help and also to see if they could make money. My mother and grandparents along with the youngest of the children rode the donkeys. The owners of the donkeys stayed with their animals until we reached the rocky area where my uncle and his family were. Then the owners took the animals back.
Reunited with my family, I went to sleep that night, feeling now I could face anything.
This was the day most would die.
The heat felt worse than ever, and the lack of water began to take its toll. Many of us — 4,000 by my estimate — staggered and fell by the wayside, either dead or dying in the scorching heat.
Scores of pregnant women miscarried, their babies left for jackals to eat.
I can still see one infant beside the road, sucking the breast of its dead mother.
The wife of my father’s cousin, Yacoub, became so thirsty she could go on no longer. She slumped to the ground and died. Not being able to carry her, we wrapped her in cloth and, after saying a prayer, left her body beside a tree.
Eventually, as we neared the village of Budros, northeast of Lydda, we found a deserted cistern. But we had no way to get the water up. So some of the men tied a rope around my father’s cousin, Ibrahim Rantisi, and lowered him down, then pulled him out. Then we literally sucked the water from his clothing. The few drops helped, but the thirst still tormented me as we trudged along in the shadeless heat. Some people were so thirsty and desperate that they drank their own urine.
One of the people I saw on the death march was George Habash. George, then 23, was a medical student and, like me, came from a Christian family in Lydda. I’ve often thought of how this experience must have affected his life. As many know, he became a physician, graduating from the American University of Beirut. Brilliant as well as eloquent, in 1952 he co-founded the Arab Nationalist Movement which, in 1967, merged with the Syrian-based Palestine Liberation Front to form the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. To this day George’s organization is the only PLO splinter group that continues to reject the Oslo accords, claiming that they only sanction more Zionist expropriation of Palestinian land and expulsion of Palestinians from their homes.
By the end of the third day we had been forced to march for miles up rocky hills, then down into deep valleys, then up again, gradually going higher and higher. At long last, we reached a main road, where we were met by trucks that had come from Ramallah and other places the Israelis had not occupied. The truck drivers came to search for their family members and to help the people who had been evicted. A man who came to transport relatives evicted with us gave us a lift on his truck. There were over 50 persons packed like sardines on that truck. But it got us to Ramallah.
Our death march was over. Our life as refugees had begun.
The 13 members of my family arrived in Ramallah carrying nothing but the clothes we wore. I lived in a refugee tent camp for the next three and one-half years. For the first three of those years I had no formal schooling.
We were not alone. Of the 1.3 million Arabs who lived in Palestine in 1948, between 700,000 and 900,000 of us lost our homes, some forcibly driven out, as we were, others fleeing to escape the terrorism of the invaders.
1948 was one of the severest winters on record. For the first time I saw snow on the ground. I looked out of the tent window one morning and found the whole ground completely white. It did not take long to discover the seriousness of such weather. Water began to bubble up from underneath our tents. In one tent there were my parents, brothers, sisters, grandparents, aunt and her child and uncle.
My father died in 1979. He spent most of his 31 years in exile doing odd jobs. He always held on to the large metal key to our home in Lydda.
My mother passed away in 1987. She remained in Ramallah, traveling once with my father in 1975 to Toronto to see her sons Elias, Philip and Mahfouz. Her last years she lived with me and my wife.
My grandfather, Audeh, died in Ramallah. Every day he would go to the Orthodox Church for evening prayers. One day, in 1952, while waiting outside for the church to open, he died.
My three brothers, as I noted, ended up in Canada. Elias works for a medical company. Mahfouz studied in Nova Scotia and is an architect. Philip is a carpenter, who worked for the Ministry of Education in Kuwait where he was responsible for all courses in carpentry; he moved to Canada after suffering a back accident, requiring the insertion of a steel plate in his spine.
My sister, Adla, lives in Bir Zeit, here in Palestine’s West Bank. She has nine children, four of whom live in the United States.
My other sister, Sonia, lives in Ramallah. She has seven children, three of whom live in the United States.
My father’s cousin, Ibrahim, the one they lowered into the well, has since died. He lived for a while in Ramallah, then moved to Amman. He had a daughter and two sons, both of whom are goldsmiths in Jordan.
My cousin, Easa, who had typhoid, still lives in Ramallah. He worked for a while as an X-ray technician, then worked for a Lutheran bookshop in Jerusalem. Presently he is unemployed. He has a daughter and a son, who studied in Germany.
Yacoub, my father’s cousin, whose wife died on the march, died himself a long time ago.
I went on to study at the Bible College of Wales in Swansea, South Wales, and then attended Aurora College in Illinois. I served as a missionary in Khartoum, eventually being ordained a priest in the Arab Evangelical Episcopal Church. In 1965, I founded the Evangelical Home for Boys in Ramallah to care for Palestinian orphans. What motivates me, I believe, is the desire to give these youngsters the childhood I never had.
Also, in 1965, I married Patricia Greening, whom I had first met in Swansea. The daughter of an Anglican clergyman in England, Patricia had gone on to work in Peru as a missionary nurse. We had kept in touch by letters, and in 1963, she visited Ramallah. Soon after, I asked her to marry me and we were wed in Shrewsbury, England. After a honeymoon in North Wales, we took a ship for the Gulf of Aqaba. There we were driven to Amman, and crossed the Jordan River to our home in Ramallah. Pat and I have been blessed with three daughters, Susan, Hilary, and Rosemary.
In 1967, I again came under Israeli military rule, when Israel occupied Ramallah and all of the West Bank. In 1976 I was elected deputy mayor of Ramallah. In 1991, I wrote a book about my death march experience, “Blessed are the Peacemakers: A Palestinian Christian in the Occupied West Bank,” co-authored with Dr. Ralph Beebe, Professor of History at George Fox College, Newberg, Oregon. The first edition of the book faced a strong wave of criticism from the Zionist lobby in the United States. Zondervan Books, publishers of the book, eventually bowed to the pressure and decided not to reprint the book.
Soon after Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, a group of us who had been driven out of Lydda took a bus trip back to see our former homes. I knew that two Jewish families were living in my father’s home. As the bus drew up in front of the house, I saw a young boy playing in the yard. I got off the bus and went over to him.
“How long have you lived in this house?” I asked.
“I was born here,” he replied.
The Testimony of Charles Amash
It was so hot, that July day in Lydda. At 7 a.m., three Israeli soldiers came to our home with guns, one pointed at my father’s head. His name was Elias. My mother, Victoria, who was pregnant at the time, my four sisters, one brother and myself stood behind him. At 16, I was the oldest of the children.
The soldiers told us we had to leave before noon or else they would shoot us. Yallah ala Abdallah, they ordered, “Go to Abdallah (the King of Jordan.)” Today, a half-century later, whenever I hear the word terror or terrorist, I think of that morning.
At 10 o’clock, the soldiers returned demanding to know why it was taking us so long to pack and get out. Some of the soldiers spoke Arabic; they told us again either to get out or be killed.
I remember my mother made some dough and around 10:30 she had me take it to the bakery to be baked. When I got there, three soldiers appeared with Tommy guns. They aimed them at the baker and ordered him to leave his shop. The poor man did as he was told, without a word of protest. After he left, I went back in and baked my mother’s dough. Later I learned that while I was at the bakery my parents had asked our local priest, Hanania Khoury, to intercede with the Jewish leaders to let us stay. The leaders said we had to go.
When I got back to our house, more soldiers were there. They wanted to take my father away as a prisoner of war. My mother was wailing so loudly it scared them. When they came to take me, my mother said they would have to kill her first.
They waited a few minutes, then urged us to leave peacefully before they had to use deadly force. My mother packed some cans of sardines and corned beef (or bully beef, as it was called) along with the freshly baked bread and a jug of water.
Only now, in retrospect, as an adult, can I fully grasp what it must have meant to my father to have to leave behind a house he had spent eight years building. Every year, from 1939 to 1947, he was either adding or finishing a room. I remember when they poured the concrete over the steel bars and mesh to make the roof, and how they celebrated the occasion by cooking a lamb and offering it to all who came by. That was in 1945. It would take two more years to install the doors and the windows and the floors and to do the painting. And my father did it all—only now to be driven out at gunpoint by strangers.
We started walking at noon. Others joined us, leaving their homes behind. There were no greetings, no hellos, just the sound of walking. It was the holy month of Ramadan and our Muslim neighbors were fasting. Like zombies we marched together, Christians and Muslims, with the soldiers prodding us to move faster.
Eventually we came to a square where two boulevards crossed north to south and east to west, with a traffic circle in the center. A soldier came up to us and asked my father if he had any money. When my father emptied his pockets of a few pounds, the soldier got angry and almost shot him. I told my father to give him his watch—it was a Swiss watch with a new incablock feature to regulate time more accurately. The soldier ripped it off my father’s wrist, turned and went after someone else.
A week before all this happened, my cousin, Fayek, had entrusted my father with 1,200 pounds (about $3,600). On the day of the march, not knowing what might happen, he came and asked for his money back. My father gave it to him. Fayek was 22 at the time. Halfway home he was stopped by Jewish soldiers who searched him and took his money. Then they told him to run and began shooting at him between his legs. Fayek was so traumatized he fell to the ground and died shortly thereafter from a heart attack.
My sister, Leila, tired and weak, began lagging behind. I had to carry her on my shoulders while holding on to the food. By 3 p.m., with the heat as hellish as it was, we ran out of water. Some of our fasting neighbors had to lie down on the side of the road, gasping for air.
Soldiers on horses came along, firing their guns in the air. Some fired at the people to make sure we kept on moving.
Somehow, we did. Silently, save for the shuffling of feet, the feet of over 100,000 men, women and children, we kept on moving.
I know for a fact that before that black day we in Lydda had over 40,000 people from Beit Dajan, Sarafand and Jaffa, and from other small villages that had come seeking our protection. Lydda was jokingly called the eighth state in the then seven-state Arab League. The inhabitants of Lydda were proud of defending their city and sent many truckloads of najda’i or armed men to Al-Castal and to other locations in order to help in the struggle against the aggressors.
Then one day Jordanian army personnel came to Lydda and informed us that the Jordanian army was taking over the defense of the city. They collected our weapons, including three tanks made of 1-inch thick steel plates, and cannons hijacked from the British army. When the Jewish forces came for Lydda, they came wearing Jordanian outfits and firing in the air, chanting Khallielseif yugoul, a familiar Jordanian chant . When they reached the center of town — coming in from the exact same direction the Jordanian army would have come — they began strafing people with their machine guns. Defenseless, Lydda fell through treason and deception. But this is a story for another time.
After the Jews took Lydda, they mined all the streets going in or out of the town, taking sofas, chairs, armoires out of homes to block all the streets, leaving only a small opening wide enough for one person at a time to pass. The people being marched out of the town, instead of walking on the roads, had to walk through the dirt fields that were strewn with sharp shoots from the recently harvested crops, and this very soon caused their feet to bleed and their toes to blister.
The soldiers couldn’t have cared less. In addition to thirst, we now suffered hunger. The sardines and the canned English “bully beef” we had brought with us were useless, as we forgot to bring a can opener. Eventually we came to the village of Jimzu, which had two public water wells. Jewish soldiers there were having a great time going from one well to the other, urinating in them. You could hear their laughter for miles. Leila was faint from thirst. Carrying her in my arms, I approached one of the soldiers and begged him to give my sister some water from his canteen. He got his mess utensils and poured a teaspoon of water on Leila’s tongue. When I pointed to my other sister, Ayda, he pushed me to the ground with the butt of his rifle and hit me on my back with it, saying he had given enough water for one day.
Our march continued. I remember how terribly slow it was and how hot our feet were, how very hot. We were so tired from walking. By now our caravan stretched as far as the eye could see: miles and miles of human beings trying to make it through the day in order to rest somewhere, anywhere in this unforgiving climate.
My father was getting especially tired, saying not a word, except every so often to utter the words Ya rub Ibhamma, “God have mercy on us.” At one point he came to me and whispered “Khalil, take care of your mother and your sisters. Keep going and do not look back.” I looked at him. He could hardly speak; he was faint, drained of energy, his tongue stuck to the inside of his mouth. I went nuts. I’m just a kid. How in God’s name am I to do what he asked? I can’t take care of myself. We are thirsty, hungry, destitute, humiliated by strangers. I was so mad. Why is God doing this to us, I thought? Why does He allow strangers to uproot us from our homes and push us into the wilderness to die?
I saw women carrying sewing machines, pillows, kitchen pots and pans. In time, they abandoned their treasures along the road. Water was the treasure we all sought. The two wells in Jimzu were dry when we got there; people were drinking mud mixed with urine. My father couldn’t keep going and I knew if I left him he’d die of thirst. I told the others to stop while I searched for water. Two young women came along with a baby carriage and two bottles of liquid in the carriage. I was told the bottles contained lemon juice for making lemonade, but the water intended for lemonade already had been drunk. I didn’t care. All I knew was that I had to taste it — and it only made my thirst worse.
I walked on for another 50 yards or so to where an old man was lying on the roadside. His mouth was wide open, the sweat on his face had dried, and he was motionless. I asked if he could hear me. He nodded, but could not talk. Beside him was a basket of big eggplants, the kind you make baba ghannoug with. I broke one open and squeezed it into his mouth. Then I squeezed another and, by God, he was revived. I asked him if I could take some eggplants and I ran back to my father and did the same for him. He too revived and we all cried until the tears would come no more.
Night at last came and with it a clear, cloudless sky. In the distance we could hear the sound of big guns, while above us flew two small planes which dropped gasoline bombs that did little damage apart from terrorizing an already traumatized people. Someone said that meat was available in the village of Ni’leen, where a cow had been killed and where some people from other small villages were selling water at five pounds a gallon (about $15). Some people could afford it; we couldn’t since we had been robbed of all the cash my father had on him. My mother, however, had stashed away a little money of her own and we used it to buy some water and meat.
We collected branches and dried weeds and made a fire. But the cow meat had been aged on the hoof and no fire would have made her tender. It was so tough no one could chew even a small piece. Early the next morning we found someone with a can opener and we shared our sardines and beef in exchange for the use of the opener.
That morning we moved on to Ni’leen, another village on the way to Ramallah, where most of the exodus survivors were headed. We arrived in Ramallah later that day, some 30 miles and a lifetime away from our home.
Three days later, my mother suffered a miscarriage.
My father passed away on November 5, 1975; it was my 44th birthday. My mother died on December 4, 1998.
My little sister Leila, whom I carried on my shoulders, is now married to an engineer who heads an oil company pump division. She has two boys in high school.
My sister, Ayda, to whom the soldiers refused to give even a drop of water, died in 1997. She left two boys and a girl, all of whom are now in college.
In 1958, I came to the United States. Two years ago I retired, having worked in real estate and the restaurant business. I have one daughter, Rosalinda. On May 21, 2000, I went to Boston to attend her graduation from Boston University’s School of Law.
This has been a brief account of what happened to my family and our neighbors in Lydda. The town of Ramleh suffered a similar forced evacuation. The Jewish state has consistently denied expelling the people of Lydda and Ramleh — as well as Palestinians from hundreds of other towns and villages. But we are living witnesses to the terror inflicted on us.