Excerpts from Part 2
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George and Mary Antoun were awakened by a loud voice speaking heavily accented, imperfect Arabic. The words came from a loud-speaker mounted to a rapidly moving truck. Arabs were being advised to leave Haifa. "Escape while there is still time! Jewish forces have surrounded Haifa. Accept the last offer of safe conduct. Terrible consequences will overrun your family if you do not leave immediately. Escape! Escape! Remember Deir Yassin!"
The Jewish man's blaring voice grew smaller and smaller, until it faded away completely. Worried, George lay in bed, trying to decide what would be best for his family. Thoughts of Deir Yassin and the possibility that his wife and son could be murdered in their beds caused him to break into a sweat.
Every Arab in Palestine knew the story of Deir Yassin. The Arab village had declared its neutrality and refused to join the fight against the Jews. Nevertheless, on April 9, 1948, the Jewish renegade Irgun gang had attacked the village and massacred over 200 Arab men, women, and children. Since then, frightened Arab civilians of Northern Galilee had fled Palestine, seeking safety in Lebanon or Jordan.
Sighing, George reached for his wife and pulled her to him.
Mary said nothing, but the rapid beating of her heart expressed her fear more accurately than words.
The moment George dreaded most had arrived. Soon, the battle for Haifa would begin and George did not know what to do. Should he stay and fight? Should he take his family and flee to Lebanon? As he considered their dilemma, his eyes became fixed and his thoughts drifted. If only the Zionists had not come to Palestine...
The Jews were defeated by the Roman Army in 70 AD and Jerusalem was destroyed. Captive Jews were taken to Rome as slaves. Those Jews who escaped Rome's wrath scattered throughout Palestine. For nearly 2,000 years, through wars, invasions, and occupations, the Jews and Arabs of Palestine lived together in peaceful coexistence.
But toward the end of the nineteenth century, tensions between Jews and Arabs in Palestine began to appear. European Jews, fleeing persecution and discrimination in Europe, began arriving in Palestine seeking sanctuary. Jews purchased large tracts of land from feudal absentee Arab landlords living in neighboring countries. Palestinian tenants and sharecroppers were forced off the newly purchased land by owners who wanted to till their own soil. Random acts of violence began to occur between the two peoples.
Jews began founding Zionist colonies and forming political parties. The Arabs responded by establishing anti-Zionist societies. Using the Old Testament as evidence, Jews began to assert that Palestine was their rightful homeland. The Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, categorically rejected the idea that Jewish settlement during biblical times gave present day European-born Jews a legitimate claim to Palestine which overrode Arab birthrights. Influential Arabs petitioned the Ottoman rulers, demanding that Jewish immigration into Palestine be halted. The Jewish immigration was slowed but not stopped.
When World War I began in 1914, there were 690,000 citizens of Palestine living under the rule of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Of these 690,000 people, 535,000 were Sunni Muslim Arabs, 70,000 were Christian Arabs, and 85,000 were Jews. When the war ended in 1918, war and famine had taken a toll, and while the population figures had not increased, the political structure of Palestine had changed dramatically. Great Britain had driven the Turks from Palestine and beaten the Turkish Army. The Ottoman Empire's 400-year rule ended, and the 30-year British occupation began.
During the early days of British rule, colonial officers attempted to please both Arab and Jew. They promised Jews they would have a homeland. They assured nervous Arabs that Jewish immigration quotas would never exceed the economic capacity of Palestine. Neither Jews nor Arabs were satisfied and both began venting their anger against the British Government by attacking British soldiers.
During the 1920's, the Jews of Europe faced increasing anti-Semitism. By 1933, Jewish immigrants from Europe were flooding Palestine. Three years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, the Jewish population of Palestine had exploded to 400,000.
Palestinian Arabs, reeling in anger and fear, demanded that the British rulers turn back the Jewish tide.
Although the British government claimed Palestine could economically support a much larger population, they placed quotas on Jewish immigration.
European Jews denied entry into Palestine by the British quota evaded authorities and entered the country illegally. Violence between Jews and Arabs increased.
A Royal Commission for the British Government investigated the situation in Palestine and concluded that Arabs and Jews could not peacefully reside in the same country. The commission recommended that the area be partitioned into two separate states. The Jews accepted the recommendation. The Arab's response was to begin an open rebellion against the British occupiers.
In 1939, the outbreak of World War II forced the British government to assign the Palestinian problem a low priority, and the Arabs and the Jews settled into a temporary and uneasy truce.
Without warning, a blast of noise louder than anything George had ever heard burst into the room, numbing his hearing, rattling every object, and shaking the entire house. He leaped to his feet, screaming, "The Jews! The Jews are blowing up Haifa!" Without speaking, Mary reached into the wooden cradle lying close to her body and lifted their infant son, Demetrius. The child began to cry.
The echo of the huge blast faded only to be replaced by the sounds of rapid gun-fire coming from all directions. George was breathing rapidly. The time had come to make the decision he had sworn never to make...to leave Palestine. One quick look at the innocent face of his child and his decision was made.
George hurriedly told his wife to pack. "Just a few things," he said. We must leave at once!" He paused at the door and turned to his wife and child. "I'll get Pa. Be quick!"
Mary nodded to her husband. Tears filled her eyes. She clasped Demetrius to her breast as she began to pile their clothes into a brown suitcase laying open on the floor.
George and his father gathered the family's important documents, family photographs, a few treasured books, several carpets, some copper trays, Mary's favorite cooking pots and kitchen utensils, some food supplies and placed everything on the stone walkway in front of their house. Then they walked through the house, closing shutters and locking doors.
After putting everything into the car, the Antoun family paused for a long parting glance at their home from the front garden. Then they climbed into the automobile and drove away. They planned to return.
The sounds of war startled the baby and he began to cry once again. Mary soothed her son, all the while turning her head to look over her shoulder toward the wonderful home she was leaving. She had planned to raise Demetrius in that house. Now she wondered what would happen to their dreams? What would happen to them?
© The Sasson Corporation • Rights to publish Ester's Child owned by Windsor-Brooke Books, LLC.
Excerpts from Part 2
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