How My Family Lost Their Home When Israel Took Over Palestinan Property in 1948

Roundup: Media's Take

George E. Bisharat, a professor of law at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, in the Arizona Republic (May 16, 2004):

This month, the 56th anniversary of the Palestinian"Nakba" (Catastrophe), when one people gained a homeland and another lost theirs, I was thinking of a home in Jerusalem.

It was the residence occupied by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir - author of the famous quip that"the Palestinian people did not exist" - when she was Israel's labor minister. It was also the family home built in 1926 by my grandfather, Hanna Ibrahim Bisharat,"Papa" to all of us.

I went to visit our home for the first time in 1977. Although he was a Christian, Papa named the home"Villa Harun ar-Rashid," in honor of the Muslim Abbasid Caliph renowned for his eloquence, passion for learning and generosity. Painted tiles with this name were inset above the second floor balcony and over a side entrance.

When Papa first built the home in what became known as the Talbiyya quarter of Jerusalem, few other residences existed nearby. As I grew up, my father regaled me with tales of his boyhood exploits in the surrounding fields and orchards. Two of my uncles were born while the family lived there; one uncle succumbed to pneumonia in Villa Harun ar-Rashid. The young boys went to school up the road at the Catholic-run Terra Sancta College. My uncle Emile told me of a wager he made with his younger brother, George (for whom I am named), that he could not stand on a swing on the front porch and swing with no hands - with predictable, but fortunately mild, consequences.

The wall enclosing the front yard was a fledgling design effort by my father's twin, Victor, later a successful architect in the United States, whose buildings helped galvanize the urban renewal of Stamford, Conn.

Beginning of the end

My grandparents eventually suffered a reversal of fortunes, and in the early '30s, leased the house to officers of the British Royal Air Force, expecting to return in better times. Frescoes on the interior walls were plastered over to accommodate the tastes of the British officers. My family moved a short distance to a more modest house. Little did anyone appreciate at the time that the move signified the family's final departure from Villa Harun ar-Rashid.

A sense of foreboding gripped many Palestinians in the years leading up to the wars in the region. Under the gathering clouds of unrest, my father and uncles came to the United States to study, while Papa shifted his business activities to Cairo. Thus, the family was outside Palestine on May 14, 1948, when Israel declared independence and war with the Arab states commenced. Our fortunes were better than most of the 750,000 other Palestinians who were driven out or fled their homes in terror during the fighting.

Villa Harun ar-Rashid was picked by armed Zionist groups for the commanding view it offered from its roof. No blood was shed in taking it, as the British officers simply handed over the keys to the underground Israeli militia Haganah.

Like most Palestinian families, we were subsequently stripped of the title to our home through a law passed by the new state of Israel called the Absentee Property Law.

Villa Harun ar-Rashid was divided into several flats. During the 1960s, Golda Meir occupied the upper flat. Anticipating a visit from U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammerskjold, some claim, she ordered the sandblasting of tiles on front of the house to obliterate the"Villa Harun ar-Rashid" and conceal the fact that she was living in an Arab home.

When I went to Jerusalem in 1977, I had only a photograph of the home and a general description of its location from my grandmother. It was summer, hot and dusty, and I paced back and forth through the neighborhood, inspecting each of the houses, occasionally asking for directions. All the street names had been changed to those of Zionist leaders and figures from Jewish history, and the hospital that my grandmother had described as a landmark apparently no longer existed.

As I was resting against a wall in the shade, I saw a home that resembled Papa's. As I hurried across the street, I could just make out the name in the tile: Villa Harun ar-Rashid. I guess Golda's sandblasters had been a little rushed....

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