BEACH CAMP, Gaza (Reuters) - Forty years after Israeli troops occupied the Gaza Strip, Palestinian grandmother Umm Ali struggles to come to terms with a twist of fate that she feels has ended up making her a refugee for most of her life.
After fleeing her home village near what is now the Israeli city of Ashkelon during the battles of Israel’s foundation in 1948, she found refuge in Egyptian-run Gaza, just to the south.
But on June 6, 1967, aged 44, she found herself again under siege as Israeli forces took control of the coastal enclave on the second day of what would become the Six Day War and dashed her hopes of returning to her childhood home.
Now 84, Umm Ali finds it hard to conjure up images for her grandchildren at the United Nations’ Beach Refugee Camp of the home village of Sawfeer that she fled from nearly 60 years ago, carrying her children in her arms.
“I wish I’d died and never had to leave our land,” she said.
One child, playing round his grandmother as she sat in traditional robes on the dusty and unpaved street, asked: “Did you grow grapes there, Grandma?”
“Yes, we did my grandson,” Umm Ali replied with a half smile of recollection. “We had everything at home.”
Now, she said, life was hard even though Israeli troops and settlers quit the Gaza Strip two years ago. Israel maintains a tight security cordon, while international sanctions against the ruling Hamas Islamists and bitter rivalries between Palestinian factions have crippled the territory’s fragile economy.
Ultimately, like many Palestinians, Umm Ali blames the “nakba” — the disaster of Israel’s birth — in 1948 and the “naksa”, or setback of the 1967 war, for her hardships:
“Of course, it is all because of our displacement.”
Israel defeated Arab armies led by Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six Day War.
Others in the camp, home to some 90,000 people and run by the United Nations’ UNRWA agency, echo a common view among Palestinians that they were betrayed by the Arab states.
“We were victims of a conspiracy by Arab and foreign states,” said 58-year-old Abu Mohammed. “We were forced from our homes,” he said, leaning on his walking cane.
Another man, declining to give a name, recalled the high hopes on the eve of war as Egypt, Jordan and Syria, backed by Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, took on Israel.
“They told us not to fight because they had seven armies,” he said. “But they were defeated like butterflies.”
The fate of the refugees remains one of the thorniest issues hampering any definitive peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, along with the status of Jerusalem, which Israeli forces seized full control of on June 7, 1967.
Anxious to preserve a Jewish majority and unwilling to open a mammoth review of land claims, Israel rejects any solution that would let hundreds of thousands of Arabs enter the state.
Yet those abandoned homes still loom large in memories shared in the refugee camps of Gaza, the West Bank and beyond.
Umm Hazem, who was only four years old in 1948, has 11 children of her own now.
“They ask many questions about home. Are we going back?”
While grateful for UNRWA coupons, there is resentment at increased dependency on aid handouts as Gaza’s economy suffers under the Israeli embargo and factional infighting.
“Now people are totally dependent on UNRWA,” Umm Hazem said, as children played barefoot nearby. “We wish we could go back to our original homes, to plant our land.”
For Umm Ali, age means she is unlikely to realise any dream of farming her family plot.
Her dream is now simpler: “I wish to go back to my home and die. I wish only to see it, and then to die.”