Majdal: The ethnically cleansed birthplace of Ahmed Yassin is now known as Ashkelon
Lost in the news about the brutal and cowardly murder of Ahmed Yassin is the
fact that he was a refugee, chased out of his home by the Israeli army in
the catastrophe of 1948.
His hometown of Majdal is today inhabited by immigrants from the former
Soviet Union and Ethiopia. Here is a report from Newsday.com.
Read and reflect.
March 26, 2004
Towns' Muslim history all but erased
BY EDWARD A. GARGAN
New York Newsday
ASHKELON, Israel - A few deserted cafes, their chairs strewn across the worn
flagstones, stood hollowly in the wall of what used to be this town's
mosque, its minaret a silent, abandoned relic of an Arab village that once
Sitting on the low, tiled wall of a plaza, Alex Alchassar furrowed his brow
and said slowly, "Yes, I heard the news he was from here."
"He" is Sheik Ahmed Yassin, founder the Palestinian militant organization
Hamas. Yassin, killed Monday by an Israeli rocket, grew up here in what then
was an Arab town called Majdal. "It was right that we killed him," said
Alchassar, 35, who emigrated from the ex-Soviet territory of Abkhazia, now
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings that aim to return
Palestinians to this and other towns, even if that means dismantling the
Jewish state in the process.
Now, Ashkelon is a thriving seaside town, growing rapidly with the steady
immigration of Jews like Alchassar from the old Soviet Union or Ethiopia.
As far as Alchassar is concerned, his town has always been Israeli and
Jewish. "I've been here nine years," he said. "It's my home. I don't know
anything about Arabs living here."
Before 1948, though, this was an Arab town, built on farming and weaving,
with a scattering of Jewish settlers. In that year, the fledgling Israeli
army fought its way down the coast and drove off the Egyptian army. Here and
across much of what had been British-ruled Palestine, the people who would
eventually call themselves Palestinians fled their homes and lands. In
Ashkelon, that is celebrated by the town's official history as a
"There were 15,000 Arabs here," said Danny Shahar, Ashkelon's spokesman and
weary publicist. "Between 1948 and 1949, there were already no Arabs in the
area. Jews who were uprooted from Europe were the first to settle here, Jews
from places like Poland."
For Palestinians who came from here and who now live packed into the
impoverished enclave of Gaza, Ashkelon is still Majdal. For many of them,
any peace with Israel must be built on what they call "the right of return,"
the right to resettle on the lands taken from them.
Yet in Ashkelon, as in much of formerly Arab Israel, there is little of the
Palestinians' past to return to, no houses to recover, no farmlands
untilled. The mosque has become a cavernous one-room museum, displaying a
few stone fragments from the Roman empire, photographs of Ashkelon's
"liberation" and two copies of documents in Arabic written in 1947 urging
residents to preserve public order as the Israeli troops advanced.
The Palestinians' return is precluded by the "right of return" that Israel
has conferred on Jews around the world to settle in Israel and become
"In 1990, there were 60,000 people here," said Shahar, the town spokesman.
"Now there are 115,000. In those years, 37,000 people came from the former
Soviet Union, and 3,000 people came from Ethiopia."
Up the coast about 10 miles, there was another Arab village, called Yibna,
which Abdul Aziz Rantisi, who has succeeded Yassin as leader of Hamas, calls
his home. Eager to return there, Yibna's Palestinian ex-residents have
established a Web site laden with its history and denunciations of the
But Yibna is no more. Today it is Yavne, and where low, limestone Arab homes
once stood are malls, apartment buildings and suburban clusters of houses
with red tile roofs. A mosque is now a synagogue, and a Muslim cemetery has
been turned into a grassy, shaded park.
The synagogue bears no signs of its previous incarnation. David Hamo, 63,
shows a visitor the Hebrew library and the place for prayer, and he offers a
history of the domed edifice.
"We think this building is 800 to 1,000 years old," Hamo said as he stroked
his ash-gray beard. "This is a holy site. There was a revival of Jewish
learning here in the third and fourth century. And this is the tomb of Rabi
Gamliel, who was the head of the Jewish center here."
Asked about the people who lived here before Israeli Jews, Hamo thought for
a moment and replied, "From the Turkish to the Ottoman Empire, I believe
this place was used by Muslims. But there are no Arabs here anymore."
Not all Arabs have been driven from Yavne, however. In a neighborhood where
teenagers skateboard and matrons walk dogs, Yavne's last three Arab
families, a clan of Bedouins, live in tents of nylon and plastic sheeting.
"I'm 55 today," said Salim Abu Salouf, grandfather of the family. "We've
been here a long time."
Salouf said he retired from the Israeli army, where he served for a decade.
With 10 children and three grandchildren, he has come to see himself as an
Israeli who happens to be Bedouin and Muslim.
Salouf's shared faith with the Palestinians does not imply sympathy. "I'm
not interested in Palestinians," he said. "I don't need other people and
"I grew up here," Salouf said. "We're all brothers here. I'm just a Bedouin
and they're ... " he waved his hands at the suburbia around him, "they're
Jews. We help each other out."