Salwa Salam Qupty clutches a fading sepia photograph of a young Palestinian man wearing a traditional white headscarf. It is the sole memento that survives of her father, killed by a Jewish militia during the 1948 war that established Israel.
“He was killed 60 years ago as he was travelling to work,” she said, struggling to hold back the tears. “My mother was four months pregnant with me at the time. This photograph is the closest I’ve ever got to him.”
Six decades on from his death, she has never been allowed to visit his grave in Galilee and lay a wreath for the father she never met.
This month, after more than 10 years of requests to the Israeli authorities, she learnt that officials are unlikely ever to grant such a visit, even though Mrs. Qupty is an Israeli citizen and lives only a few miles from the cemetery.
Government sources said allowing the visit risks encouraging hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to claim a right to return to the villages from which they were expelled in 1948.
As Israel celebrated its 60th Independence Day with street parties this summer, Mrs. Qupty was marking two related anniversaries: the Nakba, or catastrophe, and her father’s death in the early stages of the war.
“I am a twin of the Nakba,” she said from her home in Kafr Kana, close to Nazareth. “I was born at the very moment when most of my people lost everything: their homes, their land, their belongings, their livelihoods. In my case I lost my father, too.”
Faris Salam was killed in late March 1948, shortly before Israel’s establishment. On the day he died, Salam left his village of Malul, west of Nazareth, to catch a bus to his job on the railways in Haifa.
“Those were dangerous times,” Mrs. Qupty said. “My family were even afraid to go and collect water from the village well because Jews would shoot at them from their positions up in the hills.”
When the bus drove into an ambush, Salam and the driver were shot dead and several other passengers injured. He was buried in Malul, but four months later the 800 inhabitants were forced to flee when they came under sustained attack from the Israeli army. Mrs. Qupty’s mother sought sanctuary in Nazareth, where she gave birth to Salwa days later.
Soon the army declared Malul a military zone and blew up all the homes, sparing only two churches and the mosque. The Christian cemetery, where Salam is buried, was enclosed by a military base named Nahlal.
For the past 12 years, Mrs. Qupty has been trying to find a way to visit the grave and say a few words to the father she never knew. “As I get older, the fact that I never met him and that I haven’t seen where he is buried gets harder to bear,” she said. “I want him to know that I exist and that I miss him. Is that too much to ask?”
Over the years she has lobbied members of the Israeli parliament, written to the defense ministry and sent countless letters to the local media – to little avail.
“The nearest I can get to him is looking through the base’s perimeter fence at a forest that hides my view of the cemetery,” she said. To the bemusement of the Israeli soldiers on guard, she sometimes throws a bouquet of flowers over the fence.
On one occasion, she said, she found the courage to approach the base’s gate and asked to be let in. An officer told her to address a formal request to the defense ministry. “But I’m not going there with a gun, only with a bunch of flowers,” she said.
This month a government spokesman finally responded, calling Mrs. Qupty’s request to visit her father’s grave a “complex” matter that had been referred to the defense minister, Ehud Barak, for a final decision.
Ministry officials were reported to have decided that her visit should be blocked on the grounds that other Palestinians who seek to return to the villages from which they or their ancestors were expelled in 1948 might use it as legal precedent.
During the war, 750,000 Palestinians fled from more than 400 villages, all of which were subsequently leveled. Most of the refugees ended up in camps in neighboring Arab states.
Unlike them, however, Mrs. Qupty’s mother managed to remain inside the borders of the new Jewish state, along with about 100,000 other Palestinians, and eventually received citizenship.
Today there are 1.2 million Palestinian citizens of Israel, one fifth of the country’s population. Of those, one quarter are internal refugees, or officially classified as “present absentees”: present in Israel in terms of citizenship but absent in terms of legal redress over their forced removal from their homes.
Isabelle Humphries, a British scholar who has interviewed many families expelled from Malul, pointed out that the refugees’ Israeli citizenship conferred on them no more rights to access their former village than refugees living abroad.
“Most cannot make even short visits to the ruins of the villages, to their places of worship or their graves. Often the lands of the destroyed village have been declared military zones or are now in the private hands of Jewish communities.”
Ms Humphries said Israel had repeatedly used the excuse that making any concessions to individual refugees would open the floodgates to the return of all the refugees.
“If Israel were to admit that internal refugees have rights to the land and property confiscated in 1948, policymakers know that it would draw further attention to Israel’s continuing refusal to recognize the rights of refugees outside the state.”
Mrs. Qupty, a social worker supervising children in protective custody, said her work had increased her understanding of the trauma that the events of 1948 had done to Palestinians.
“My mother was left with nothing after the war. I was born in a tiny room in Nazareth and we lived there for many years. My older brother and two sisters had to be placed in religious institutions because she did not have the means to care for them. We grew up hardly knowing each other.”
For several years after the war, her grandfather secretly returned to Malul by donkey to grow crops on his land, though he was fined when he was caught doing so.
On a few occasions Mrs. Qupty accompanied him, but never saw the cemetery where her father is buried. “By the time I was old enough to understand what had happened to my father, the military base had been built over the cemetery.”
Finally convinced that Israel is unlikely ever to concede a visit, Mrs. Qupty said she would turn to the courts.
But human rights lawyers regard her chances of success as slim. The Supreme Court rarely overturns government decisions taken on security grounds.