With the Great Return March, Palestinians Are Demanding a Life of Dignity
The Nakba is not a just a memory, it is an ongoing reality. We can accept that we all must eventually die; in Gaza, the tragedy is that we don’t get to live.
KHAN YUNIS—Over the past eight days, tens of thousands of protesters in Gaza have breathed life into a place that is slowly being depleted of it. We have come together, chanting and singing a lullaby we’ve all longed for—“We will return”—bringing all that we have left to offer in an attempt to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice. Despite our peaceful marches, we have been met with and clouds of tear gas and live fire from Israeli soldiers. Unfortunately, this is not new to Palestinians in Gaza, who have lived through many wars and a brutal siege and blockade.
Gaza is home to almost 1.9 million people, of which 1.2 million are refugees who were expelled from their homes and land during the establishment of Israel 70 years ago, known as the Nakba (catastrophe) to Palestinians. Since the beginning of the siege almost 11 years ago, the task of simply surviving each day has proved to be a challenge. To merely wake up and have access to clean water and electricity is now a luxury. The siege has been particularly hard on young people, who suffer from a 58 percent unemployment rate. What’s worse is that all of this is a result of Israeli policy, which can be changed. This harsh and difficult life does not have to be the reality for Gaza.
Fishermen cannot go beyond six nautical miles, making it a challenge to gather enough fish to sustain their families. After Israel’s wars on Gaza, in 2008–09 and then again in 2012 and 2014, and all the killings that happened in between, the people here aren’t even afforded the chance to rebuild, as Israel has tightened its hold on the entry of construction materials. The state of hospitals is alarming, and patients are rarely given the chance to seek treatment outside. This isn’t even to mention the perpetual state of darkness we live under, with barely any electricity or clean water. It is as though displacing us was not enough; it’s as if the entire memory of Palestinian refugees must be contained and erased.
I was born in Rafah refugee camp in Gaza. My parents are from the city of Ramle, in what is now known as Israel. Like most Palestinian refugees, I heard the stories from my older family members about being brutally displaced from their homes during the Nakba. No matter how many decades pass, they, like hundreds of thousands of others, are never able to forget the horrors they witnessed during their dispossession and all the violence and pain that came with it.
I have never seen my family’s home in Ramle, and my children have never seen anything beyond the confines of Gaza and the siege. With my eldest just 7 years old and my youngest 2, they do not know a reality beyond the sound of bombs, the darkness of night with no electricity, the inability to travel freely—or the fact that these things are not normal. Nothing about life in Gaza is normal. The Nakba is not a just a memory, it is an ongoing reality. And while we can reconcile that we all must eventually die, in Gaza the tragedy is that we don’t get to live.
It is in spite of this harsh reality that we endure. The last two Fridays, we stood against all the powers telling us to break and die in silence and decided to march for life. It is a protest of a people who want nothing more than to live in dignity.
In 2011, Palestinians marched near the borders from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza, and the West Bank. Some were killed, others made it past the border and were arrested by Israeli soldiers. But long before then, in 1976, Palestinians protested the expropriation of their lands by Israel in what later became known as Land Day. Six Palestinians were killed then, and 42 years later Israel is still resorting to deadly violence to prevent refugees from returning, killing at least 25 Palestinians in Gaza since last Friday. Those human beings dared to dream beyond the alleyways of the refugee camps; they had a vision of a home they never had the chance to see.
I have worried for our safety as we came out in the thousands to what Israel deems a “no-go zone.” I have thought about the consequences. As I stood with my family near the Return March square in eastern Khan Younis, we were all tear-gassed, including my children. I was pained to see the innocence of childhood being tainted by such a traumatizing experience. But what many people fail to recognize is that whether we are in our homes or protesting in the fields, we are never truly safe in Gaza, nor are we truly alive. It is as though our entire existence, and dreams of ever returning home and living in dignity, must be hidden in the dark.
However, this year, after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the possibility of making what he called the “deal of the century,” Palestinians have felt an imminent threat to the legal right of return of refugees, despite its being enshrined in UN Resolution 194. It is a collective worry that our rights as refugees are in serious jeopardy, and we must resist it in an innovative, unified, revolutionary way—one that exists outside the parameters of negotiations and factionalism, to place pressure on Israel to reclaim our rights.
For the past 70 years, Israel has been in a perpetual state of displacing and humiliating Palestinians. We saw it happen in 1948, and again in 1967, and now we are still witnessing it, with the growth of settlements. As Israel pushes Palestinians out, it brings in new immigrants from around the world and settles them on lands stolen from Palestinians, in violation of international law. Yet Israel continues to be emboldened by a lack of pressure from the international community, and by the support of the Trump administration, so settlements continue to expand relentlessly.
Israel would have the world believe that Palestinians willingly left our homes and chose this life of degradation, without basic human rights, and that we brought it on ourselves.
Today, the Palestinians of Gaza are attempting to break the chains that Israel has tried so hard to force us into. We are unarmed demonstrators confronting heavily armed soldiers with peaceful protest. As a result, it is difficult for Israel to smear us and justify its brutal violence, and the world is faced with the reality that innocent civilians are being killed just for exercising their right to protest peacefully. The excuses Israel uses to justify its policies toward the Palestinians are slowly losing their effectiveness, as people around the world are increasingly realizing that the true face of Israel is that of a brutal apartheid regime.
Despite the calculated violence and targeting of unarmed protesters by Israel, with our Great Return March, Palestinians in Gaza are stating loudly and clearly that we are still here. For Israel, it is our identity that is our crime, but we are celebrating the very identity that Israel tries to criminalize. People from all walks of life are joining the march. Artists are contributing with the traditional dabke dance, intellectuals are organizing reading circles, entertainers are dressing as clowns and playing with children. What has been most striking is the young, living and playing, their laughter the greatest protest of all.
The UN warned that Gaza may be uninhabitable in just two years. Resisting the fate that Israel has planned for us, we are fighting back peacefully with our bodies and our love for life, appealing to the justice that remains in the world.
Ahmad Abu Rtemah is an independent Gaza-based writer, social-media activist, and one of the organizers of the Great Return March.
Photo: A Palestinian clown entertains Palestinian refugee children at the tent city protest near the border with Israel, in Gaza, April 2, 2018. Source: Mohammed Talatene / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images.