By Ghada Ageel
Last August, the voice came loud through the phone line, “We made it, mom. We are home. We are in Gaza.” It was one of the most pleasant pieces of news I have heard in a long time. In fact, it’s probably the main achievement of my family this year.
My children and husband succeeded where even members of the US Congress are now failing due to the bigotry of the Israeli government and the active collusion of the American president.
I had been waiting to hear this news for about 96 hours. Over four consecutive days, I worried. The six-hour trip from Cairo to Rafah’s border at the southern end of the Gaza Strip now takes days and sometimes weeks. Travelers endure countless checkpoints and multiple searches. They sleep on the floor, on the road, under 40-degree heat. They have access to few services but lots of flies and humiliation. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, I was counting the hours waiting for any news about them and reflecting on how in 2012 I made the same trip in several hours while being warned by the US government that it was too dangerous.
My daughter repeated herself, thinking I had not heard her. “Did you hear me? We succeeded in practicing our right of return. We are home with our family, we can hug them and we can talk to them directly and not through multimedia, Viber or Skype. Isn’t this incredible?”
Joy filled my soul. I didn’t comment on the full right of return being a return to my family’s home in Beit Daras from which my grandparents and parents were ethnically cleansed in 1948 by Zionist militias even before the state of Israel was formally established later the same month. That conversation can come later.
When I tried to inquire about my youngest son after the heatstroke he had on the way, my daughter said that was all in the past. “This is home and is worth the cost.” When I heard this sentence, I felt for a minute that I was childlike in my worries and that my child had become the adult comforting me. In my absence, my children had aged and matured through the trip in unbelievable and unexpected ways. Could a hard trip and the suffering along the way produce this kind of maturity and clear vision?
When the call ended, I started to think of my daughter’s words. Right, returning home is worth the cost. I know that. And true, everyone has the right to return to his or her home and practice their right of return — whether to Khan Younis camp or Beit Daras. I know that too.
When the right of return to one’s country was envisioned it was meant to include everyone, including Palestinians. Palestinians have the right to visit and to return to their homeland whenever they wish, the same as the French have the right to visit and return to France and the same as the British have the right to visit and return to the UK. Even birds can return home. The laws of nature can be mightier than the imposed laws of states.
Yet some states, or more accurately occupying (apartheid) states such as Israel, along with the collaborating state of Egypt, deny many Palestinians this right — whether they live in exile or in the Gaza ghetto. What is wrong with Palestinians insisting we be allowed to visit and return to our homeland of Palestine?
My daughter spoke to me compellingly about basic human rights, the right of return home, the right to move freely, the right to travel without fear of the barriers at borders, and the right to travel without fear of being denied egress at the end of the visit. She was not speaking about a theoretical right, but about exercising her rights in going to visit her family in Khan Younis refugee camp by breaking the fear of borders. She was feeling in her bones what it means to “return home,” a feeling denied to many Palestinians — even the wealthiest and most politically powerful who can seemingly be disregarded and disrespected without repercussion by Israel.
Now, here she was speaking about being reunited with her family and the land. For a moment, I thought of the hundreds of Palestinians I know who live in exile and yearn to visit home but fear the denial, fear the borders and inevitably fear the cost. For them, especially the generation born in Palestine but kicked out in the 1948 ethnic cleansing or Nakba, this is the chance to feel home, to talk and hear directly without multimedia as my children say. It is the time to kiss the ground as my children did. And it is the time to experience the unbelievable surging feeling of belonging as my children did. It’s the chance to express and let out some of the feeling that has been bottled up during decades of imposed exile.
For the new generation born in exile, it is a crucial time to establish bonds with Palestine and establish ties with the generations that have been born under the occupation and have never seen their cousins and relatives (entire families sometimes), let alone the wider world. It is a chance to listen, to share, to hug, to feel and to be felt, to kiss and to explore our roots as family, as a people and as a nation. For all the generations, this is the first step in breaking the fear of the occupier and solidifying our rights in this land.
Could this small exercise to visit Palestine be a new pilgrimage? I think it could be.
During their visit to Gaza, the conversation between my children and their home and people continued through discussions with my family, friends and neighbors. The phrase ahlan wa sahlan, welcome or sometimes even Met ahlan wa sahlan, million ahlan wa sahlan, hundreds and millions of welcomings, can be heard from everyone who meets or greets my children as if the people in Gaza want to assure the visitors that despite the denial, the obstacles, barriers of borders, the humiliation they endured along the way, they are most welcomed in and to their home. My children say that they heard or replied to this phrase probably hundreds of times a day, as if all Palestinians in Gaza want to affirm to them that their right, as a fourth generation Palestinian refugees, to their homes is intact and unquestionable.
For native and refugee residents of Gaza alike, travel or freedom of movement is a far-fetched dream. Until very recent times (2005), the movement within the strip itself was hindered with the Israeli colonies occupying 40 percent of the best areas in Gaza — not unlike apartheid South Africa and much like the West Bank to this day. Military checkpoints divided the tiny strip into three small cantons. Gazans, including this writer, endless hours waiting for these checkpoints to open in order to go to school, work or return home.
Similarly, painful is that many Gazans traveling outside the Gaza Strip spend weeks and even months in transit lounges of various airports or on borders or no man’s land. When their residence permits expire where they are working, they are deported and told to “go home.” President Donald Trump even told a Palestinian American member of Congress to go home, but when she tried to visit her ancestral home he told Israel to say no.
Since 2006, the right to freedom of movement has been more restricted when first Israel and then Egypt imposed an illegal, immoral and inhumane blockade, considered the longest in human history, on the impoverished Strip. It is because of this suffocating closure and blockade that Palestinian civil society organized the Great March of Return to call the world’s attention to the slow strangulation by blockade as well as the unimplemented right of return.
In the peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins held in the buffer zone imposed by Israel hundreds of yards from the outer perimeter of the fence encaging Gaza, Palestinians have narrated our story and put before the world an extraordinary example of resistance, celebrating Palestinian survival, tradition and culture. Since March 30, 2018, protesters have gathered for about two years but suspended now because of the pandemic, to sing, dance traditional dabkeh, share stories, fly kites, cook traditional meals and recount memories of what was once their homeland, all the while praying for and dreaming of return. On Fridays, Palestinians protest by burning tires. Some throw largely symbolic stones at the well-protected occupying forces stationed at the fence that hinder their return home.
For daring to remind the world of Palestinian rights, protesters have paid and are paying a heavy price, far more costly than the four days my family spent on the border under the heat of the Sinai sun. The World Health Organization reported over 300 Gazans shot and killed by the Israeli army during these rallies, as of December 2019, with 35,000 more injured. On May 14, 2018 alone, military snipers killed 60 unarmed demonstrators and wounded 2,700. These crimes, alongside the collective punishment imposed on the strip, are being committed because Palestinians dare to demand their rights.
In February 2019, after a year of demonstrations, the Independent Commission of Inquiry, set up by the UN Human Rights Council, confirmed “reasonable grounds to believe that Israeli snipers shot at journalists, health workers, children and persons with disabilities, knowing they were clearly recognizable as such.” Accordingly, the report found that the Israeli army might be responsible for war crimes in Gaza against protesters involved in the Great March of Return.
When my children speak about their homeland, I cannot but recall my grandmother’s words, descriptions and shattered hopes about our land. Through the description of my grandmother of her village, Beit Daras, her home, her happiness, her memories, that I described at length in my book, Apartheid in Palestine, I can see all these threads of my grandmother’s description bold and clear in my children’s description of home. That lineage is clearly and beautifully there and as strong as I could dream it to be despite the fact that none of them, fourth-generation Palestinian refugees, nor me as third generation, have ever been allowed to visit our lands and our villages from which we have been exiled. How have all these feelings, the yearning and the love still be carried in all parts of their body?
Isn’t this incredible to use my daughter’s word?
They astound me with all they tell me about the happiness at home – the food has a different taste and the air smells different. Laughter seems wider, faces brighter and happiness has a taste. Happiness having a taste mirrors exactly what my grandmother — my sitty — used to say to me about her days in Beit Daras, when happiness had a taste. It is the same feeling I used to have when home, even amid the incredible worry, pain and danger caused by the occupation.
The conversations with my children and the feelings they have brought forward in me have made clear the utter failure of 53 years of occupation and 72 years of ethnic cleansing. We have not forgotten. All of us remember where we came from and the taste of both happiness and freedom.
Generation after generation sends the same unified message: return is possible. It is an absolute, sacred and unquestionable right. Israel backed by Trump and the vast formal diplomacy of the West claims this right is unrealistic, impossible and won’t be allowed. But fourth-generation Palestinian refugees say return is possible, definite, absolute, sacred, unquestionable and will happen. There is power in our resilience.
Seeing all the suffering Palestinians endure in Gaza, power outages of 10 hours a day, shortages of cooking gas, shortages of medical supplies, undrinkable water, zero ability to move, poverty but also a buzzing humanity, my daughter kept asking: How can we Palestinians convey the message of such unspeakable suffering, the beauty of Gazans, and the overwhelmingly nonviolent nature of the resistance to the wider world?
Today my daughter claims that she knows the answer. Palestinians: Come to Palestine. Practice your right of return — even if just partial — to visit home, to any place in Palestine that you can reach, Gaza included and Gaza first and foremost. Break the barrier of fear, barriers of borders and barriers of occupation. You deserve to be home and homes will welcome you. Palestine says: Ahlan wa sahlan. Answer the call.
– Dr Ghada Ageel is a visiting professor at the University of Alberta Political Science Department (Edmonton, Canada) and active in the Faculty4Palestine-Alberta. Her latest Book is “Apartheid in Palestine: Hard Laws and Harder experiences”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.