Unarmed Gazan protesters gather peacefully at makeshift encampments by the wire-fence separating their tormented strip of land from Israel. They evocatively call their trek to the border March for the Return. They number in the tens of thousands, and they are in a festive mood. Ordinary, everyday Palestinian men, women, children. Young and old. The elderly in wheel chairs. Toddlers in strollers.
The idea for the march was first floated by social media activists several months before and only later adopted — some will say, latched on to — by Hamas. But no need here to fret over who sired it. It smacked of people-power and hit a chord with Gazans. After all, to march for the return speaks to many in Gaza, out of whose population of just under two million, 1.3 million are refugees, or the descendants of refugees, from cities, towns and villages in ancestral Palestine.
And these folks begin to throw stones at the fence, most hurled from 150 to 200 yards (imagine a par 3, if you’re a golfer) with only a few reaching their target. No matter. Stone throwing is a symbolic act for Palestinians, going back to the days of the 1987 uprising against the occupation, an uprising that captivated the imagination of people around he world, who in turn naturalised its Arab name, Intifada, into their own languages.
It was a Friday, the last day but one of March, which coincided with Day of the Land — for Palestinians a solemn occasion that commemorates the events of 1976 when the Israeli government’s announcement of a plan to expropriate and colonise thousands of dunams of Palestinian land triggered protests that resulted in the killing of six unarmed Palestinians and the wounding of a hundred others.
And here are these Palestinian at the Gaza-Israel border, whose stone-throwing hurt no Israelis. Hurling stones was not, after all, meant to hurt but to say. Yet, before the day was out, well over a dozen Palestinians were shot dead by soldiers and hundreds of others were injured. Why, you wonder, did the Israelis unleash such lethal fury against a crowd of unarmed Palestinians?
Simply this: They were unarmed and they were Palestinian. Nothing scares Israel — and sends a shiver down its spine — more than unarmed Palestinians reminding it of who they are, where they came from and why their sense of peoplehood remains anchored in Palestine. Hey, Palestinians as a nation were meant to have atrophied and disappeared from the world stage soon after their dismissal in the Balfour Declaration a century before as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine” and the “Arab refugees” they were called after their patrimony was dismembered seven decades ago.
Yes, here they are, in the tens of thousands, with their children and grandchildren at “our border”, armed with evocative slogans like the return (Awda), the catastrophe (Nakba), exile (ghourba) and land-is-honour (Ardi-Aardi), slogans that, as they gave resonance to the Palestinians’ collective vision, raised serious doubts not only about “our claims” to exclusive ownership of the land but also about “our right” to subordinate others.
Yes, indeed, a war waged by Palestinians where they throw stones at their occupiers, and coin poignant bywords imbued with historical pathos, is more deadly to Israeli leaders than one waged through use of blood and fire
Recall how conservative Jews in Israel and in the Euro-American world reacted when, in July 2001, the late Edward Said, the renowned Palestinian academic and the West’s most respected Arab intellectual, himself decided to become a stone-thrower, headed down south of Lebanon and hurled his own symbolic projectiles at the fence that Israel had erected after it ended its 18 years of occupation of the region: The man was so ostracised that the Freud Society in Vienna cancelled a lecture he had been invited to deliver there titled ‘Freud and the non-European’ — and never mind the pouring of outrage by conservative Jews in Israel and the United States. (Said expressed surprise at the reactions his action caused, but no regret at his move.)
True, Palestinians have lived troubled lives — for some, as Gazans will tell you, non-lives — but if the ethos of the Nakba has taught them anything, it is this that the strength of a community reveals itself in times of distress, when men and women find that a capacity to show resilience, teleologically acquired during national struggle, becomes woven into the fabric of their identity. Somehow you find ways to survive and heal, to regenerate and re-vision. you become empowered, as it were, by the spite of your enemy.
And Jews, more than anyone else, should know about that from their long history of interaction with anti-Semites in the European world. Thus, Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch philosopher, who was of Jewish descent, observed in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that the Gentile enmity directed at Jews had the effect, ironically, of preserving the Jewish identity — in short, to extrapolate here, we can say that just as today Israelis accuse Palestinians of terrorism, Gentiles in Spinoza’s time (and beyond) accused Jews of acts of malfeasance, that is, the killing of Jesus, which made Jews deserving of degradation.
Dispersal in exile and suffering under occupation should have, over the last seven decades, caused the Palestinians to become unglued, but in fact these two different calamities have served, in tandem, to sustain their identity and sharpen their genius for survival.
We mourn the death of the 18 Palestinians who were killed at the border last Friday as they protested within a stone’s throw from their ancestral homeland. They died as martyrs. And when a man dies, his life ends, but when a martyr dies, his life begins. Their memory will continue to animate new modes of expression in our lives.
So keep the faith, I say, keep the faith, when you join the March for the Return again this coming Friday, perhaps finding time to sing the song that my generation of Palestinians, who grew up in the refugee camps in Beirut in the late 1950s, sang, a song whose refrain is: ‘Who am I, who are ye? I am the returnee, I am the returnee.’
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.