Leila Abdelrazaq’s family has a heartbreaking memory: Her father’s Palestinian village, Safsaf, was the site of what Abdelrazaq describes as a gruesome Israeli atrocity in the ’48 war. What Abdelrazaq does with that memory, though, is revealing.
Her highly polemical graphic novel tells the story of the life of her father, Ahmad, from exile in 1948 until his departure for the U.S. in 1981. The book’s title refers to the refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon where his family lived until they moved to Beirut in 1969.
Baddawi appeals to the reader’s emotions through a motif common to many Palestinian memoirs of the pre-’48 period, conjuring up an idealized picture of a pastoral life. One common feature of these is the grandmother: “Palestine is buried deep in the creases of my grandmother’s palms. They once kneaded bread dough and sowed the seeds of her homeland in my family’s village, Safsaf. Its name means ‘the weeping willow’” (p. 16).
Ironically, it’s hard to see this motif as anything but a condescending Orientalist trope, but evoking an idyllic past intensifies the sense of loss and explains its ubiquity in Palestinian stories for young readers.
The author’s father, Naji al-Ali, was a political cartoonist who created a character iconic to Palestinians, Handala—
a ten-year-old boy with spiky hair, bare feet, and tattered clothes. He always stood with his back to the reader, hands clasped behind him, as political events unfolded around him. Naji al-Ali promised that once the Palestinian people were free and allowed to return home, Handala would grow up and the world would see his face (p. 11).
Thus, to Leila Abdelrazaq, the representative Palestinian is Orientalized as a passive child — the grandchild of a creased, bread-kneading, seed-sowing grandmother. He has no energy, no agency, no ability to adapt to a changed reality. The quintessential victim, Handala privileges infantilization over growing up.
The book repeatedly accuses Israel of “ethnic cleansing”: “But Zionist gangs were ethnically cleansing villages all over Palestine, committing widespread massacres,” writes Abdelrazaq (p. 18). According to the methodical and reliable Israeli historian Benny Morris, Israel did indeed commit some atrocities (as did the Arabs, though Abdelrazaq never alludes to these). Her father’s village Safsaf was the site of one in 1948, and there were villages which the Arab populations were “encouraged” to abandon during that war.
Still, as Morris explains, if Israel had really had a policy of deliberate and determined “ethnic cleansing,” the population of Israel today would not be twenty percent Arab. That there was a war that the Arabs started by rejecting the UN Partition vote of 1947 is never mentioned. In fact, the reader will find no Arab-initiated violence in this book, no invasion by Arab armies in contravention of the UN partition vote. Nor are there any terrorists: Muhammad Abu Yousef Al-Najjar, assassinated by Israel in 1973, is a “Palestinian freedom fighter,” though he led the terrorist Black September organization, whose members were killed or violently expelled from Jordan under King Hussein in 1970.
Such glaring omissions are accompanied by out-and-out lies. Thus, the author claims that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “was to become the longest and most brutal military occupation of modern times” (p. 35), neatly ignoring the Chinese occupation of Tibet (which began in 1950), not to mention Stalin’s brutal population transfers (the Crimean Tatars were deported in 1944) from territory his army occupied.
The first sentence of the book states categorically, “Today, Palestinians make up the largest refugee population in the world, numbering more than five million.” That depends, of course, on how you define a refugee. There is, curiously, one definition for Palestinians and one for everyone else:
[T]he United Nations treats Palestinians differently from the rest of the world’s refugees. Palestinians are under the auspices of UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East], an entity created uniquely for them, that has transformed the concept of refugee into an inherited characteristic. As a result, UNRWA today counts four generations of Palestinians as “refugees” — more than 5 million people […] And while in every other conflict around the world, refugee populations decrease over time, the number of Palestinian refugees has continued to rise – a phenomenon that has been weaponized against Israel.
In fact, if Palestinian refugees are counted the way all other refugees are counted, then, according to US government estimates, fewer than 200,000 remain. In light of the vast number of refugees in today’s world – over 12 million Syrians, for example, and over 6 million Ukrainians, according to the UNHCR, the remaining 200,000 genuine Palestinian refugees is relatively low, and to make this claim to young readers is irresponsible – and a slur on Israel.
Abdelrazaq also invokes a putative “Right of Return” for Palestinian refugees as (she claims) enshrined in “international law” through GA Resolution 194, a right purportedly guaranteed to “refugees and their descendants” (p. 120). Yet as Einat Wilf and Adi Schwartz demonstrate exhaustively in their book The War of Return,
there is no international law that requires Israel to allow Palestinian refugees and their descendants to return to Israel. In addition, no treaties or binding UN resolutions were violated by Israel’s expulsion of Palestinians during the 1948 conflict and none provide a right of return for Palestinian refugees. Refugee status in itself does not entail a right to return to one’s original country.
The exile of Palestinians in the wake of Israel’s war of Independence is complex and explored with subtlety and nuance by responsible historians like Benny Morris, who relies on documentation, not hearsay, for his conclusions. Baddawi isn’t history; it’s anti-Israel propaganda. It fabricates international law and mythologizes the Palestinian past. Palestinians did suffer in 1948, and young readers have a right to learn about their ordeal as one among many other peoples’ sufferings – the victims of China’s Cultural Revolution, the victims of Stalin, Jews expelled from Arab lands, and countless others. But omitting Palestinian violence and rejectionism erases a critical part of the story. A propaganda tract does not belong in schools, which have a responsibility to teach fair and balanced history.
 Benny Morris, “Israel Had No ‘Expulsion Policy’ Against the Palestinians in 1948,” Haaretz, Jul 29, 2017.
 See “Does UNRWA Violate International Law?” at Honest Reporting: https://honestreporting.com/does-unrwa-violate-international-law/. See also “Peter Beinart in NYT: Root Cause of Gaza War is Israel’s Creation,” https://honestreporting.com/new-york-times-peter-beinart-root-cause-of-gaza-war-is-israels-creation/.
 Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf, The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace. New York: All Points Books, 2020, p. 182.