On the first Friday of the Great March of Return I went to the border between Gaza and Israel with my two youngest children, Yasser and Jaffa. Yes, I named my only daughter after the city I was meant to be born in. This is a bit of a tradition among Palestinians, especially if the place name is a particularly graceful-sounding one. The two of them waved Palestinian flags in their little fists as they walked. Looking directly at the perimeter barrier, Yasser asked: “Dad, is Jaffa behind that barrier?” My daughter was unfazed by this ambiguity. As I gazed at one of the Israeli snipers, crouched by his gun on the man-made dune that acts as a border, I imagined we were both locked in a staring competition. My kids pose no threat to you, I tried to say with my eyes. We’re more than 300 metres away. My kids have no weapons, no stones; they’re not here to fight. It’s a fantasy, of course. Later that day, and in the weeks that followed, Israeli soldiers used extreme force to clear the area: tear gas dropped by drones, mortars, live ammunition.
The Great March of Return, the peaceful show of resistance by Gazans at this border over the last seven weeks, will culminate tomorrow on the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba. The border protests have attracted a lot of attention. Dozens have been killed — including kids barely into their teens, and journalists — and thousands more injured; any international concern presumably is out of fear of military escalation in the wider region. While this fear is legitimate, it also exposes a profound misunderstanding of the protest.
The word nakba, meaning “catastrophe”, refers to the moment in 1948 when more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their towns and villages — the majority of which were destroyed — in what became the declaration of the Israeli state. For us, 1948 was year zero in the collective, inescapable nightmare that all Palestinians have lived through ever since. All that followed — the displacement, the poverty, the wars, the curfews, the interrogations, the incarcerations, the intifadas, the hunger, the lack of basic provisions (medicines, electricity, clean water, drainage), the restrictions on travel ... every horror that has befallen Palestinians — began in that moment.
I could have been born in one of my grandfathers’ villas on the southern beach of the city of Jaffa. Instead, I was born in a squalid, overcrowded refugee camp to the north of Gaza City. My European friends often say: “So what! Many more people were displaced during the two world wars and went on to build prosperous, new lives for themselves.” This is true, but at least those conflicts were settled, entire economies were rebuilt. What was left of Palestine was never allowed this happy ending. Most European countries, and of course the US, refused to even recognise Palestine as a state. What chance did it have? Even Britain, which devoted its policies in post-1917 Palestine to replacing Palestinians with Jewish emigrants — thus violating their own mandate to prepare the country for independence — recognises Israel and still refuses to recognise Palestine without conditions.
Recounting the pain
My family’s hometown wasn’t entirely lost to me, growing up. The camp I lived in — Jabaliya — was (and still is) divided into neighbourhoods named after the towns and villages their occupants hailed from. So I grew up in the Jaffa neighbourhood, listening to tales of fishing adventures and stories set in orange orchards — memories of life in one of Palestine’s most vivid cities during the first half the 20th century.
I always had the feeling that the tellers of these stories were in actual, physical pain as they narrated; I imagined them with some covered wound, which quietly bled as they spoke. It was not that they were still living in the past, nor that the past haunted them. It was that they had been abandoned by the past, they had lost it somehow, and needed to reassure themselves that it had ever happened at all. My grandmother Eisha was one of these storytellers. When she was forced to swap her spacious house on the beach for a small, white tent on the hot sands of Gaza, she also had to walk over 100 kilometres for the privilege. Whenever I listened to one of her stories, I felt it was my duty to keep retelling her stories, and to tell them the way she did. Thus, at the age of 12 my first attempts at writing began. I jotted down a version of the story she always told about visiting her doctor in Jaffa. Then I realised there were other stories I could also share and elaborate upon. As a result of the Nakba, my own family is scattered across Gaza and Jordan, as well as Jaffa, where a few relatives managed to remain. The reunification of the family became the goal of my writing: in spirit at least. While Eisha healed the family’s wounds through testimony and remembrance, my mission was to irrigate the present with hope. I write to keep the life of this family moving forwards. But that’s a very personal way of surviving. Each Palestinian has their own private strategy to keep themselves and their loved ones going. The Great March of Return has been one of the rare occasions when people have found a collective strategy for this survival.
Of course the protesters know that no one will be returning anywhere at the end of this march. Of course they have no plans (or means) to remove the separation barrier. And of course this protest isn’t an attempt to somehow remove or negate the state of Israel. Any suggestion that these are the aims or expectations is ridiculous. The protesters merely want their voices to be heard; they merely want the Nakba, and its decades of repercussions, to be included in the rest of the world’s narrative, rather than dismissed.
It is only the hope of becoming a fully recognised state one day (with all its accompanying freedoms) that has kept Palestinians alive these last 70 years — alive through wars, blockades, endless indignities and uncertainties. Those 70 years have turned the Gaza Strip into a prison where everyone is serving a life sentence; and everyone’s children will serve a life sentence too; and their children’s children, and so on.
Vestiges of a narrative
The protest’s message is simple: We cannot live like this forever; even after 100 years Palestinians will still be born with inalienable human rights, however much the Israelis want to stamp them into the dirt. Israel cannot expect to enjoy peace, stability or prosperity while we are still penned in like animals on a factory farm. The separation barrier is not only a physical border between two nations. It is also a conceptual, discriminatory line between two worlds, two realities. The misery of one world is the happiness of the other; the dreams of the former are buried beneath seven decades of sand in the latter.
On the first day of the great march, I laughed at the sight of teenage boys tearing up photos of Donald Trump. His decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is entirely psychological; it has no consequences other than as a provocation.
It’s unfortunate that in the century since the Balfour declaration the international community has never once been able to acknowledge the needs of the Palestinian people. Palestinians have always been able to distinguish between people of the Jewish faith, and the state and government of Israel; it’s just a shame that, when it comes to criticisms of the latter, the wider international community has never been able to make this distinction — and in doing so, has continued to fail the ethics, norms and laws that it set up.
By trampling over any vestige of a Palestinian narrative in how the world views occupied Jerusalem, Trump has just hung a lantern on the international community’s hypocrisy towards Palestine. By hanging a lantern on it, the playbook goes, you can get away with it, you lay the ground for greater crimes to come.
Back in the 90s, when the Oslo Accords were drawn up, Palestinians agreed to the barest of bare minimums — a state cobbled together out of just 22 per cent of their fathers’ and mothers’ homeland. And Israel wasn’t even happy with that — wanting us to share even this 22 per cent. The road to a two-state solution has been deliberately blocked with obstacles, barricades, checkpoints and colonies.
So what next? The Great March of Return might end, but the questions it raises will not only remain but continue to pile pressure on Palestine’s prison perimeters. If nothing changes, it is hard to imagine what new direction this desperate nation will take, after a century of political abandonment, 70 years of displacement and — for Gazans in particular — 11 long years of blockade.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Atef Abu Saif is a noted Palestinian intellectual and novelist. He is the author of The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire.