After 5 years of taking time off the anxieties that come with visa applications, I just applied for one to Tunisia, taking a heavy toll on me. We need to speak more those anxieties and the microaggression that underlines the whole process, which is not only underestimated but normalised. My travel partner Vilius found all the information he needs online in a matter of a quick search, reassuring him of the visa-free privilege he gets for being from Lithuania. But as a Palestinian holder of a UK travel document, it wasn’t straight forward for me. It consumed me.
In a nutshell, the visa process is an unequal system based on the hierarchy of human rights. This hierarchy is rooted in an imperial structure that classifies some as more superior than others. Indeed, it gets more complicated when you put the intersections of race, gender, class, religion and sexual orientation in consideration. But you can safely say that it all depends on the documents one acquires by birth, and somehow these documents dictate your life, you’re either lucky or doomed. In historic Palestine, for instance, those documents decide at which side of Israeli apartheid you stand. While the Israeli apartheid regime systematically violates Palestinians’ human rights, it creates a parallel, privileged life for Israeli citizens and settlers, from which Palestinian citizens of Israel remain excluded in many ways. Similarly, these apartheid policies are reproduced by western and some non-western border agencies based on the imperial premise of ‘shared values’ between Israel and the EU.
When I think of visa, my body becomes overburdened with countless traumas. For most Palestinians, visas represent uncertainty. You’re held in limbo until a further notice. If you’re from Gaza, there are other uncertainties as visa could be obtained, but it could expire while you’re still trying cross to the other side of Rafah Border like what happened to my dad in 2017. And then when you’re out, you’re reminded of your inferiority, both explicitly and implicitly, as you present your document at any border control. You stand on the queue and watch people showing their passports and passing and everything is going smoothly until your turn comes. Then this smooth process is suddenly interrupted because the border police needs to ask you a few ‘casual’ questions that leaves you wondering: Why are you so curious about my life?!
Tunisia wasn’t the first holiday destination I had in mind. I contemplated Bali and invested a lot of effort to get an answer on how to proceed with a visa application- all in vain. The Indonesian embassy has nothing online on the process holders of refugee travel documents needs to undergo to obtain a visa. I called countless times and no one picks the phone, as if no one works there. Then finally someone replied only to tell us that they cannot advise on this issue. I gave up the idea and started contemplating Tunisia as an alternative. That’s when I realised this treatment is not limited to Indonesian embassy. I spent many hours trying to get hold of someone for advice. On the VisaHQ’s online chat, I asked for advice. “We don’t deal with travel documents,” a person replied. “This behaviour is discriminatory,” I replied with frustration, and that was the end of the chat. But I left them the worst review that was available in protest. Meanwhile, I was still spamming the London-based Tunisian embassy’s phone since Friday and literally no one picked the phone. This is probably due to the Eid season but this thought didn’t make it less frustrating. They did eventually reply on Facebook, and explained the documents I need to include with my application and the fees. But really the issues that a holder of a refugee travel document goes though are beyond unacceptable, and those examples are just few amongst many.
At the post office today, I spent nearly two hours trying to make sure that my application is complete. The postman revised the documents for me- I needed him to double check because I cannot afford any mistake. Between every interaction I had with the postman, a sigh would come out of me unintentionally. “Don’t forget to smile,” he said. “It will be fine and you will get the visa.” I smiled to him and said, visas take your smile away. He asked, “where are you from?” I said joking, “I’m a doomed Palestinian, and you?” He replied, “I’m from India but I feel for you. It took me a while to become British but I only needed to become British as my original documents have no value compared with an EU passport.” But the problem is documents of ‘higher value’ doesn’t suddenly turn your skin colour white nor does it protect you from racist policies or negative presumptions.
When I get the visa, I know I’ll be excited about travelling and exploring new places. However, it’s upsetting to be living in a world order that is inherently racist and treats people according to the documents they hold by birth, their skin colour, religion or sexual orientation. This shouldn’t be normalised. And those who are privileged enough to be born free of those anxieties and movement restrictions must not take their privileges for granted and fight with us for equality for all. The hierarchy of human rights should be abolished.
PS: I took the picture of my visa pictures in a hurry. Later I noticed the Arabic article headline of a recently-released Palestinian prisoner Bilal Odeh included in the picture, reading “Memories from prison.” Not to compare but it could be argued that such mechanisms are forms of imprisonments. Most of the traumatic memories I carry with me are attached to Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison, where life was another synonym for uncertainty, not only when it comes to a travel visa but pretty much any serious or minimal issue you may encounter in your daily life. And even those of us who managed to break free of that prison, elements of that prison chases them wherever in one way or another. I cannot wait to be able to travel with my Palestinian passport wherever with dignity, free of all forms of violence. Until then I will continue to expose it, individually and collectively!
This article was first published at Media Diversified on 21 September 2016.
As world leaders were meeting in New York for the UN Migration Summit on Monday, activists transformed Parliament Square, the doorstep of British decision makers, into a graveyard of thousands of lifejackets. These lifejackets had once been worn by refugees that made it to the European beaches. No one knows if they arrived alive or as a lifeless unidentified body.
I am a refugee myself for the second time of my life in the UK; I was born as a third-generation refugee in Gaza’s Jabalia Refugee Camp, and I have recently been granted refugee status in the UK. But I am one of the lucky ones who managed to enter this country on a student visa by airplane and claim asylum successfully. Over the years I’ve met so many refugees who are stuck behind closed borders, putting up with bureaucratic barriers that they experience as a slow death sentence.More than solidarity is needed
When I first saw the display, I was stricken by the children’s lifejackets which made up the majority of them. It evoked the picture of the Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi, whose little body laid dead at the shores of Turkey. Though his story resulted in a growing movement of solidarity with refugees, this movement hasn’t yet been strong enough to force world leaders to take concrete actions to help these refugees and offer alternative safe passages to such deadly routes.
This graveyard of lifejackets places Alan in context of the 4,176 people who have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean since his death, according to UNCHR. These numbers are most likely to be rising as world leaders are discussing at the UN Migration Summit.
This disturbing scene aims to remind world’s decision makers of the ongoing suffering of tens of thousands of refugees who continue to take such deadly routes as they flee war and persecution. It is a call for immediate actions, based on humanity and solidarity, to put this suffering to an end. Most importantly, it is to emphasize that such decisions are about lives that do not have the luxury of time. These refugees continue to lead a daily struggle for survival.
Untold Stories Behind Numbers
So many stories behind these numbers have gone untold. Rahela Sidiqi, trustee of Women for Refugee Women and an Afghan refugee in the UK, narrated some of these stories that floated on the surface of her memory as she saw this scene. “I automatically remember my friends, my relatives, and so many people who died in the Mediterranean,” she said with eyes open wide as she contemplated the display of lifejackets. “A relative of a friend of mine who was 7-months pregnant died in the Mediterranean as she fled war in Afghanistan. Her husband has gone mad following her death that he couldn’t see any evidence for, except for her disappearance. He gave up on the humanity of world and decided to stay in Turkey, waiting in vain to find the dead body of his wife.”
In her work with Women for Refugee Women, Ms Sidiqi has visited the Calais Jungle Camp to meet vulnerable women stuck at the borders after surviving terrifying journeys. “A lady I met in the Jungle was in the middle of the ocean with her four children when the engine of the boat suddenly went off,” she recalled. “Her only wish to God was not to die in the ocean because she didn’t want her dead body to go missing or unidentified, and to be reduced to a number among the thousands of victims. She survived that terrible crossing, but she is still stuck behind closed borders, in limbo under unlivable conditions, waiting for a safe passage for her and her children.”
We, refugees, are increasingly facing different forms of anti-refugee attitudes from the public and even official bodies in our host countries, including detention, deportation, interrogation. Such ill-treatment is encouraged by the distorted narrative of xenophobia and fear against refugees. This narrative that frames us as a “threat”, “burden” or “problem”, not as an added value to the society. Such a narrative should be discussed at the UN Migration Summit and challenged.
When we think about the alarming numbers of refugees who continue to be forced to undertake such deadly journeys, we must think about their suffering. But also about the utter failure of others to understand, to empathize and to take action.
Palestinian toddler Ali Dawabsha burned to death in an arson attack by Israeli Settlers
Overnight on Friday, 31 July, a group of masked Jewish settlers threw firebombs through a window of the Dawabsha family house in Kufr Douma, near Nablus. They fell in the bedroom where the whole family had been sleeping peacefully, setting the house on fire. The arsonists left graffiti, reading “revenge” and “long live the Messiah”, alongside a Star of David on the walls as their footnotes to this atrocious attack. They then fled, according to local witnesses, to the illegal settlement of Ma’aleh Ephraim, where approximately 1,800 armed settlers live under the security of the Israeli occupation forces.
18-month-old Ali Dawabsha was found a charred body. The rest of the family, Ali’s parents and his four-year-old brother, survived the fire with critical injuries. The aftermath inside the house is horrifying: utter destruction and black walls, burnt clothes and photos of the family laid on the ground, among them Ali’s smiling photos and his tiny white bib reading “Good morning Mama”.
This Israeli attack is another crime in the never-ending Nakba the Palestinian people have endured since Zionism’s inception. Ali is another Mohammed Abu Khudeir, who was burnt alive by a group of settlers in Jerusalem on 2 July 2014. He is another Palestinian child falling prey to the Israeli murder machine, as Palestinians commemorate the first anniversary of Israel’s 51-day offensive on Gaza, which it called ‘Operation Protective Edge’, during the summer of 2014. Over 2,200 people were brutally killed, mostly civilians, including 551 children.
This morning Israeli leaders rushed to feign humanity and condemn the arson, calling it a “terror attack”. The Times of Israel reported that Natanyahu expressed his “shock” at what he called a “horrific, heinous act”, before saying, “The State of Israel deals forcefully with terror, regardless of who the perpetrators are.” It also reported that Netanyahu’s remarks were echoed by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and the Israeli Defense Forces. At the same time, heavily armed Israeli forces spread across the West Bank to employ collective-punishment policies against Palestinians and prevent any rage from being expressed. As I write this, several injuries to Palestinians were reported after Ali Dawabsha’s funeral. Update at 11 pm: One of the injured people, 14-year-old Laith al-Khaldi just passed away.
As a Palestinian who is well-informed about the history of bloodshed and dispossession inflected on Palestinians who collectively bear the trauma of our encounter with Zionism, and one who carries the memories of many brutal Israeli attacks on Gaza, this claimed “shock” didn’t hit me. It rather outraged me at Israel’s crocodile tears and pretentious humanitarianism, despite its brutal military occupation of West Bank, the continued expansion of its illegal settlements, the suffocating siege of the Gaza Strip that remains in ruins after Israel’s genocidal war last summer, and its ongoing assertion of itself as a “Jewish state”, not a state for its citizens, as it discriminates against 1948 Palestinian citizens of Israel, or what its leaders call a “potential fifth column”.
The world should not look at today’s appalling incident as a singular event. It is another link in the Zionist settler-colonial mentality which always sees Palestinians as an existential threat, dehumanises us and constantly views us as inferior and marginal. Israel cannot absolve its responsible for these settlers’ acts, nor pretend they don’t represent its own warped morality.
Israel is the one to blame, not only because it encourages illegal settlements to expand, arms settlers with advanced weapons and further protects them with its “defence” forces, but also because these actions are an extension of the longstanding Zionist enterprise that, as much as it sought to dehumanise Palestinians, in return dehumanised Israeli society. This is evident in the Israeli cultural discourse, which celebrates Israel and portrays it as a “heroic,” while ignoring the political and humanitarian costs “others” endure due to its “successes”. The persistent portrayal of Jews as “victims,” facing “hostile” and “terrorist” Palestinians, also feeds this mentality. Even Israeli children’s books are exploited to demonise Palestinians and Jew as victims against terrorist “Arabs”.
Today’s attack cannot be decontextualized. It is deeply connected to Israel’s celebrated “War of Independence,” which declared Israel as a Jewish state after a systematic process of ethnic cleansing that ranged between massacres, like that of Deir Yassin, to psychological violence, and made almost a million Palestinians refugees. These acts of terror reproduce the same mentality that led to the Kafr Kassim massacre of 1956, whose perpetrators were pardoned and freed after a year. An Israeli border police unit, for no reason whatsoever, opened fire at Palestinians returning from their farms, unaware of the new military curfew imposed on their village. The gunfire killed 49, almost half of them children. It is also the same mentality that led to the second mass expulsion of Palestinians in 1967.
According to an Israeli soldier whose testimony appeared in Haolam Haze, 10 October 1967:
We fired such shots every night on men, women and children. Even during moonlit nights when we could identify the people, that is distinguish between men, women, and children. In the mornings we searched the area and, by explicit order from the officer on the spot, shot the living, including those who hid or were wounded, again including the women and children.
And again, it is the same attitude that blames Palestinian civilians in Gaza for the collective punishment against them and periodic attacks that are, by Israel’s own dehumanising description, nothing more than “mowing the lawn” . The last Gaza attack was only the latest episode in this ongoing war of alleged “self-defence”.
The arson attack should be seen within this context of the Zionist state’s history of negating Palestinians and relentless attacks against our very existence. Most international media covered it as “unique” before emphasising Israeli leaders’ condemnation of it, suggesting that it was not representative of the state. It is absolutely representative and should be received with outrage, not against setters’ violence, but against their host regime that has been built and lives on terror, yet continues to be celebrated in the West’s political and cultural discourse, feeding its impunity. We should demand not just denunciation of this atrocious attack against 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha, but delegitimization of Israel and its Zionist ideology that produces and endorses such violence, and has long justified it morally and politically.
My martyred uncle Mohammed Abu-Louz and his 2-year-old son
I can almost hear my dad’s voice breaking in tears echoing in my ears when I called him on August 13th 2014 following the murder of our neighbour Hazem Abu-Murad who grew up next door to our home and was like a son for my Dad and his best companion whenever he sat at the front door of our home. Along with five others, Hazem was killed while trying to diffuse an unexploded 500-kilogram Israeli missile in Beit-Lahya. I can still recall the unspeakable shock that my family suffered on the first day of Al-Fitir Eid over the loss of my uncle Mohammed Abu-Louz who was killed leaving behind a very young widow with a 2-year old son and 3-year-old daughter who were too young to comprehend what was going around them and were dressed with new Eid clothes and constantly asking when their father would be back to give them candies and gifts.
I can almost hear my mum’s shaky voice on the phone saying whenever I called, “We’re okay, thank God. Don’t worry.” Continuous bombing rumbled in the background, almost every second. Sometimes, right after I heard the terrifying sounds of explosions, the call disconnected. That would drive me mad as dark thoughts, all about death, destruction and loss, filled my mind. I would try endlessly to call back as panic overcame me. Only when I heard their voices again could I calm down and breathe, or at least sigh as attempts to keep myself together failed. During those traumatizing times, sleep was the last thing on my mind. If I slept, I dozed unintentionally on my computer or my sofa. But I woke from these accidental naps terrified, almost out of breath, thinking that anything could have happened while I slept. I would run to call my family, and could only relax once someone answered the phone. I would break into tears that were a mixture of conflicting emotions: fear, trauma and happiness. Their voices on the phone indicated they were still alive, or not dead yet.
These fears filled me for 51 days and nights, but intensified more as the war grew crazier, more brutal, then beyond brutal. My days and nights merged so I no longer kept track of time. It became meaningless. Food lost its taste. Even rest, though I was exhausted, became undesirable. I spent 51 days in isolation, sitting in front of my computer and phone, watching Al-Mayadeen coverage, and at the same time listening to Palestinian radio channels like Al-Quds, Al-Aqsa and Al-Sha’b online. To keep my sanity, I wrote on social media, sometimes filling my sketchbook with black and white, or marching through Istanbul’s streets with a group of Palestinians to express our anger. We chanted as loudly as we could for justice and holding Israel accountable for its crimes, for stopping the attack on Gaza and the bloodshed. Looking outside my window in Istanbul used to feel like a slap in the face as I saw typical, ordinary days, as if nothing was happening in Palestine and no one was dying almost every moment.
At times, I felt that even though I was privileged to study outside the Gaza ghetto, where the lives of everyone, regardless of age of gender, were threatened by the Zionist murder machine, it was harder to bear than the times I was there, experiencing attacks first hand. But I think that was because I had been there when death was everywhere and bombings surrounded us. I knew what it was like, and that was what made me go mad. We had survived many attacks, but that did not mean we would survive all of them.
The last Gaza massacre was beyond brutal. The Israeli occupation crossed all red lines with its immoral and inhumane measures. Neighborhoods were completely destroyed. Families were wiped out, with not even one member surviving to pass on the stories and ambitions of those who were murdered. But the international mainstream media had reduced this devastating cost that the Palestinian people endured into numbers in its headlines or even between the lines.
A year has passed since the ceasefire was declared after 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, died in front of the whole world as Western powers parroted their commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense. Meanwhile the death toll rose higher and higher. Self-defense against whom? Numbers themselves tell the whole story clearly. 2,200 Palestinians, most of them civilians, a third children, were killed in Gaza, and more than 100,000 buildings totally destroyed, while 73 Israelis, nearly all soldiers, died. This is an occupation against the occupied, not equal armies fighting a ‘conflict.’ Ours are people calling for their legitimate rights, rejecting brutal living conditions that resemble a slow death sentence under a suffocating siege, and resisting oppression that has lasted 67 years by a colonial power that treats them as less than human and continues to deny their most basic rights while attacking their very existence, identity, culture and history.
A year has passed and the piles of rubble remain as cruel reminders of all our people endured during the 51-day onslaught, its devastating aftermath and how little progress has been made since then. Reconstruction has barely begun. Thousands still live in makeshift shelters, leading a life of uncertainty and struggling daily for survival. I am sure every Palestinian, especially those from Gaza, is still traumatized. What we survived during the summer of 2014 will take a lifetime to heal. It will always remain like a scar on our psyche until justice for the victims who died is achieved, and the freedom for which we paid this huge price is gained, until Israel is held accountable, denaturalized and treated for what it is in reality: a settler-colonial state.
But not only Israel is responsible for what our people have endured. It is a responsibility shared by the whole international community, who give Israel a green light to cross all red lines. Israel’s impunity is fortified by a world that not only watches silently, but is proactive in its unconditional support for Israel’s crimes. International solidarity with Palestine has to move beyond mere sentiment to serious political actions that fight the policies of governments who support Israel and all it does.
Do not allow your governments to continue their support of Israel in your name! Have your say! Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a tactic that is growing all over the world and effectively threatening Israel. Empower it more wherever you are and help spread the voice of justice. And always remember that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This drawing of mine describes the way I feel: depressed, frustrated and suffocated while waiting for the Rafah border crossing to open.
I have tried many times to write about my experience at the closed Rafah border crossing with Egypt that has left thousands of people in Gaza stranded. Every time I start, a deep sigh comes over me. Shortly after I feel paralyzed, and finish by tearing apart my draft. I have never found it this difficult to write about a personal experience. No words can capture all the suffering and pain our people in Gaza deal with collectively under this suffocating, inhumane Israeli-Egyptian siege.
As I write, I am supposed to be somewhere in the sky, among the clouds, flying to Istanbul to begin my graduate studies. But I could not catch my flight, as I am still trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip, sitting in darkness during the power cuts caused by fuel crisis, trying to squeeze out my thoughts during what is left of my laptop’s charge.
As much as I am attached to Gaza City, where I was born and spent all 22 years of my life, each day I spend trapped in it makes me despise living here. Each day that passes makes me more desperate to set myself free outside this big, open-air prison. Each day makes me unable to stand the mounting injustice, torment, brutality and humiliation.
Hardships and happiness
I have never experienced as many extreme ups and downs as I did this month. Despite the hardships throughout September, I also had some immensely happy moments. I think will remember them the rest of my life. This is life in Gaza: highs amid lows, everything in the balance, nothing secure from day to day, no plans, no guarantees.
At the beginning of September, I started the process to secure my visa for Italy. I am supposed to be there on 10 October to celebrate the publication of my first book, the fruits of my work over more than three years of writing. It is the Italian version of my blog, Palestine from My Eyes, which I started in May 2010. My book launched on 22 September. It was impossible for me to attend its release in Italy.
My blog was never about me as an individual. It is rather about a young Palestinian woman who grew up in the alleys of a densely inhabited refugee camp with an imprisoned father. It is about a woman whose awareness of her Palestinian identity was shaped in a besieged city under the brutal Israeli occupation. My blog is about our people, who are routinely dehumanized and whose stories are marginalized and unknown to the majority outside. It was about our Palestinian political prisoners and their families, whose lost and missing loved ones have become statistics, numbers which fail to communicate all the injustices they face under the Israeli Prison Service, which denies them their most basic rights.
The book, inspired by the harsh and complex reality we are forced to endure, makes me feel that my responsibility as a voice for our Palestinian people has doubled. Some amazingly dedicated Italian friends are fixing a busy schedule of events, book fairs, conferences and presentations in many different cities. My presence in Italy is very important, because I am sure few people there have met Palestinians. I am anxiously waiting for the Rafah border to open so I can be there for these events, to help my book spread as widely as possible.
I read on Reuters last Tuesday: “According to Abbas’s request, Egypt agrees to reopen Rafah border crossing on Wednesday and Thursday for four working hours each.”
My first reaction was laughter. Where was Abbas while the Rafah border was closed to thousands of patients seeking medical care abroad which they cannot access in Gaza, or students whose dreams to pursue their education overseas were crushed?
We are not only paying the price for the unsettled situation in Egypt. We have even become the victims of our own divided Palestinian leadership. It makes me furious to think that the opening of Rafah crossing, a lifeline for our people in Gaza, has come under the influence of the internal division between political parties competing to seek favors from our colonizers. The ruling factions seem to have become participants in the collective punishment we suffer.
The headline infuriated rather than relieved me. Opening the Rafah border for eight hours over two days was not a solution to the crisis caused by the complete closure of Rafah for more than a week.
The same day, in the taxi heading home, I received a call telling me I finally got a visa to Italy. I was so happy I forgot the conservative nature of my society and started screaming out of happiness in the car. The visa process took shorter than I thought. I called my friend Amjad Abu Asab, who lives in Jerusalem and received my passport for me, since Israel prevents Palestinians in Gaza from visiting the city, urging him to find someone coming into Gaza via the northern Erez checkpoint on Wednesday.
This can be my chance to leave Wednesday or Thursday, I thought. My happiness didn’t last. “Erez checkpoint will be completely closed from Wednesday until Sunday, 22 September, because of the Jewish holidays,” Amjad said. “No express mail, and no person, can cross Erez to Gaza during this period.”
“What an absurdity!” I screamed. “When the Rafah border crossing finally reopens, Erez checkpoint closes. We have to deal with Israel from one side and Egypt from the other. How long will we live at the mercy of others? There must be some emergency exit.”
Life of uncertainty
“The definition of uncertainty in the dictionary is Gaza,” my fellow Electronic Intifada writer Ali Abunimah once told me. That describes in short my life at the moment, and the lives of our people generally: a life of uncertainty.
I had no choice but to wait for the Jewish holidays to end for Erez to reopen and to get my passport. But on Wednesday, I insisted on going to Rafah. I refused to sit at home, powerless, unable to do anything but wait. At Rafah border crossing, I saw a gate of humiliation. People crowded on top of each other, roamed the waiting hall, waited impatiently for some news to revive their hopes, and ran after policemen, asking for help and explaining their urgent need to travel.
I met many of my fellow students who were stuck as well. They came with their luggage, hoping they could leave, but ended up dragging it back home.
I stayed until 2:00pm, hoping that I could at least register. I did, I think. I explained my situation to a policeman at the gate. He took my scanned copy of my passport and returned after about five minutes, saying, “Your name is registered.” I am not sure what he meant, but he did not say anything else. I asked him if there was a certain date I could leave. His reply was, “Only God knows.” I wish someone could tell me when I will be able to leave so I can have a break from worrying. But no one knows anything, “only God knows.”
While doing an interview with the Real News Network that morning at the border, an elegant elderly man in a formal black suit and holding a black bag interrupted. “I would like to make an interview,” he said. “I speak English, and if you like, I can do Hebrew.” The old man looked very serious as we awaited his poignant words. “This border, all this area, was mine. They came and stole it.” As he continued, the Real News crew and I realized the interview was descending into farce. “I have bombs in this bag and I can explode the whole place in a second!” the man said. We started laughing and said jokingly, “Go explode, then. We’re standing by you.” Yes, this Rafah gate of humiliation must be wiped away so we, Palestinian people in Gaza, can have some breath of freedom.
The Rafah border crossing closed again after 800 persons left to Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday. I am sure this closure would be easier to understand if it was a natural disaster. But knowing that other human beings are doing this to me and 1.7 million other civilians living in Gaza, while the rest of the world looks on, is too difficult to believe. It is more painful and shocking to realize that our neighboring Arab country, Egypt, is joining our Zionist jailers and collaborating with them to tighten the siege.
This experience made me believe that human dignity has become a joke. International law is nothing but empty, powerless words printed in books. We are denied our right to freedom of movement, our right to pursue our education, our right to good medical care, and our right to be free or to live in peace and security. But no one in power bothers to act.
I spent September worrying about the border and my dreams which may fade away if Rafah remains closed. This takes a lot of my energy and makes me suffer from lack of focus and sleep, and makes it hard for me to sit and express myself in writing or with a drawing. Our people’s tragedy caused by the ongoing closure of Rafah border continues, and the crisis is deepening. Living in Gaza under these circumstances is like being sentenced to a slow death. Act and set us free. It is time for these injustices we face on a daily basis to end.
My latest drawing that comes as a response for Ben Gurion who said, “The elderly will die and the young will forget.”
Today, I look back in anger to a gloomy day in the Palestinian history. It happened 95 years ago, long before I could have witnessed it, but I still live its impact daily. Without even a shred of legitimacy, on 2 November 1917, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, promised the leaders of the Zionist movement they could establish their national homeland in Palestine, violating my people’s right to self-determination.
Balfour laid the groundwork for the conspiracy launched against the people of Palestine which led to our Nakba, the mass killing, dispossession, and systematic ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people at the hands of Zionists gangs.
Great Britain is responsible for this atrocity against my people that the Balfour Declaration triggered, for the expulsion of three quarters of a million Palestinians, who with their descendants now number many millions more. It is also responsible for the Palestinians who survived the violence and mass expulsion, and were forced into ghettos within occupied Palestine under a military regime for decades.
An everlasting hope that has no remedy
Last night, I was reading Revolutionaries Never Die, the biography of George Habash, one of the Palestinian leaders who founded the Arab Nationalists Movement, and in 1967, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In his book, he vividly describes the terror he saw inflicted on the people of his town, Lydda in 1948.
He wrote, “June 11, 1948 was the darkest day I ever witnessed in my life. Zionists arrived and ordered us to evacuate our homes … We were forced out of our homes, leaving everything behind under the threat of their weapons. I saw the neighbors fleeing their houses while being watched and threatened with violence. We didn’t know the reason for our mass expulsion. We thought that they planned to gather us in one of the fields to search our houses without having any witness, and then let us go back home. We never imagined that they were actually uprooting us, and that we would never return. Indeed, everything was organized to lead us outside Lydda as soon as possible.”
Not only George Habash thought that the Nakba was the darkest period in Palestine’s history. All the victims of the ethnic cleansing of more than 500 cities, towns and villages shared the same sentiments. I heard my grandparents repeatedly say them. They were expelled from Beit Jerja to the Gaza Strip, and they grasped the dream of return until their last breaths.
I recall my grandmother’s affectionate words when my siblings and I surrounded her once. “I lost my father amidst the panic of that gloomy day,” she said. “I never saw him again, so I realized that he was buried at home. But at the same day I lost him, I gave birth to your uncle Khader. This incident, with all its harshness, symbolized for me the Palestinian struggle, which will end only when we return.”
My illiterate grandmother couldn’t have been more right. The Palestinian struggle will only end when justice prevails, and no one will ever manage to distort this glorious struggle for justice. According to Mahmoud Darwish, “To be a Palestinian means suffering an everlasting hope that has no remedy.” After more than six decades of the Nakba, refugees have never given up hope to return, and they never will. There are those who thought that the elderly will die and the young will forget. We haven’t forgotten. We are still here, the young and the old, suffering the Israeli occupation’s terror and continuing our struggle for justice.
Whoever surrenders their right to return is no longer a Palestinian. To be a Palestinian is to be a revolutionary, born to struggle for all our grandparents possessed, their keys and their faith in our just cause. To be a Palestinian is to love and constantly feel attached to a homeland you never saw.
To be a Palestinian is to live maturely at a very young age, to grow up breathing politics, and to observe how others trade with your life and your rights. To be a Palestinian is to keep cultivating the national principles in your children and grandchildren, and to warn them never to digress or lead the cause in a different direction. To be a Palestinian is to never stop raising revolutionaries who will get what you couldn’t live long enough to accomplish. This is the cycle of the Palestinian life and struggle.
Abbas’ Balfour Declaration
On the anniversary of Balfour Declaration, Mahmoud Abbas came with another declaration competing with Balfour’s.
I felt sick when I first read an article about it. I could imagine Abbas saying this. At the same time, I wished that it could be fabricated news that he had renounced his — and our — right to return to our homes and villages. Then I saw the interview when he uttered those shameful statements, and I couldn’t believe what I heard. I am sure that the majority of Palestinian people and people of conscience worldwide were as frustrated as me.
“As far as I am here in this office, there will be no armed third intifada,” Abbas promised, stressing “never.”
Abbas, you are foolish if you think you can prevent the dignified Palestinian people from expressing their anger at ongoing attacks and violations of their most basic rights, and the ongoing expansion of Israeli settlements? You can’t stop them from practicing their legitimate struggle, through all legitimate means, to attain their justice, freedom, and independence.
Did Abbas forget that the first intifada was a nonviolent struggle, and that Israel is the party that turned to brutal violence, especially against children, to crush it? Did he forget that when the second intifada began, Israel fired a million bullets in the first days and weeks to try to crush it and dozens of unarmed civilians were killed in those first days?
Carlus Lattuf’s reflection on Abbas’s declarations
The right to resist is legitimate
Abbas said, “We don’t want to use terror. We don’t want to use force. We don’t want to use weapons. We want to use diplomacy. We want to use politics. We want to use negotiations. We want to use peaceful resistance. That’s it.”
With such a statement, Abbas is ignoring all the sacrifices Palestinians made in their legitimate struggle. Thousands of our people who never carried a weapon were cruelly shot dead or injured, tortured or imprisoned by the occupier. Who then are the “terrorists”?
And of course nobody supports “terrorism” or harming innocent people regardless of who they are. But with such a statement, does Abbas really mean to suggest that all those who used arm struggle to fight for the dignity and freedom of the land and people, are “terrorists,” as the Israelis claim? Was Dad a terrorist? Is this the “president” of Palestine talking, or an agent of Israel? Mr. Collaborator, we will never allow you to defile the names of our martyrs, who paid with their lives as the price for freedom.
I have always been proud to be the daughter of a freedom fighter. I believed Naji Al-Ali when he said, “The road to Palestine is neither far or near. It’s the distance of revolution.” Kanafani was one of the most accomplished young Palestinian patriots and intellectuals. At the same time as his pen commemorated the glories of martyrs, awakening people to their national rights, he joined the PFLP’s armed resistance. Kanafani was murdered by Israel’s Mossad.
Couldn’t Abbas grasp how insulting it was to Palestinians for him to use “terror” to describe their struggle? Or did the United States dictate to him to say so? Being ‘nice’ while addressing the ‘democratic regimes’ doesn’t mean giving up your people’s most basic rights guaranteed by UN resolutions.
I feel bad when forced to use UN resolutions and international agreements to justify our right to return and legitimate right to resist occupation and ethnic cleansing and to defend ourselves. Why should Palestinians, as oppressed people, have to use these resolutions to prove the legitimacy of our rights? They were issued only to absorb our anger, as evidence of supposed objectivity, not to be implemented. We, the Palestinian people, don’t want resolutions, we want actions! We want real justice, not just words tossed into the air!
Regardless, UN resolutions guarantee the right to use force in the struggle for “liberation from colonial and foreign domination.” General Assembly Resolution A/RES/33/24 of 29 November 1978:
Reaffirms the legitimacy of the struggle of peoples for independence, territorial integrity, national unity and liberation from colonial and foreign domination and foreign occupation by all available means, particularly armed struggle.
It is up to Palestinians to decide if they use that right, or pursue their struggle by other means, but how strange that Palestinians must defend their right to defend themselves, while, Israel, the invader, occupier and colonizer is always granted the right to “self-defense” against its victims! What Abbas seems to be saying is that Palestinians neverhave the right to resist or defend themselves as Israel continues to violently steal what is left of their land. That can never be true.
Giving up the right of return
Abbas crossed another red line, the right to return, also guaranteed by a UN resolution (194). “I am from Safed,” he said. “I want to see Safed. It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. Palestine now for me is the ’67 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. This is now and forever … This is Palestine for me. I am [a] refugee, but I am living in Ramallah. I believe that [the] West Bank and Gaza is Palestine, and the other parts (are) Israel.”
He didn’t only surrender his people’s right to return, he also surrendered his people. He couldn’t have had in mind Palestinians who steadfastly remained in their lands, torn between their Palestinian identity and their cursed Israeli passports, enduring daily harassment and discrimination. He also forgot the millions of Palestinian refugees outside Palestine, many still enduring horrible conditions in their refugee camps in the diaspora.
After hearing Abbas, I allow myself to speak on their behalf to reaffirm that Abbas doesn’t represent us. His declaration ignores the majority of Palestinian people, who still embrace their right to return. It is an individual and collective sacred right, which no one can surrender. Abbas also ignored the historical fact that Israel was established on the ruins of ethnically-cleansed Palestinians villages.
Abbas, I hang the map of historic Palestine around my neck, like it hangs on every wall of many Palestinian houses. Not a day passes without me pointing at my original village, Beit Jerja, while uttering the title of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “I came from there,” with a slight smile. It’s the last thought I enjoy every night as I close my eyes, recalling my grandmother’s vivid description of the green fields of grapevines and olive and citrus trees. We’ll never stop dreaming of a dawn when the Israeli apartheid regime no longer exists, and we return to both see and live there, walking freely through Haifa, Yaffa, Al-Lod, Nablus, Jerusalem, Gaza, Bethlehem, and every inch of historic Palestine.
The portrait that I drew for Vik after 3 days of his murder
It is ironic that justice has come for Vittorio Arrigoni and his family as we commemorate the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, one of the most atrocious crimes ever committed against us, against anyone. Thirty years have passed since it happened in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by a Lebanese Phalangist militia trained, supported, and secured by Israel. The blood spilled in less than three days, the elderly and the babies killed and tossed into rubbish heaps, women raped and brutally killed: the horrors unleashed on a vulnerable village knew no bounds. The memories of this atrocity are too painful to forget and the wounds it left in the Palestinian people’s hearts are just too deep to heal.
Justice was done for Vittorio — Vik, we called him — by Hamas, an organization that almost the whole world branded as a ‘terrorist’ organization and opposed when they were democratically elected in 2006. But justice for the thousands of victims of Sabra and Shatilla, a slaughter in which Israel was entirely complicit, has not yet been achieved.
And neither has justice for Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by a soldier of “the world’s most moral army.” He ran over her body with his Caterpillar bulldozer while demolishing a Palestinian home in Rafah that she gave her life trying to save. Less than a month ago, almost a decade after Rachel’s murder, an Israeli court in Haifa ruled that it was merely an “accident” for which the State should not take responsibility.
I decided not to attend the final court hearing for those suspected of killing Vittorio on Monday. I tried it once last April, but it was just too painful to watch the endless procedures mask the horror of the truth people were trying to find. I remember how I sat and shook, bit my nails, bowed my head, and looked at my tears falling on the floor. I remember how intolerably annoying it was to hear the murderers’ voices speaking of morals and respect while they had no shred of morals, respect, or humanity. I remember how I couldn’t bear to remain until the end and escaped the court to express my anger and sorrow at his murder outside.
At the time of the verdict, I sat in a cafe hall named after Vittorio Arrigoni, waiting for Adie Mormech, a British activist who was one of Vik’s best friends, to tell me what the court had ruled. He said that Mahmoud Salfiti, 23, and Tamer Hasasna, 25, were sentenced to life imprisonment, plus 10 years of hard labor, for kidnapping and murder, while Khader Ajram, 26, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment with hard labor for assisting. The fourth, Amer Abu Ghula, fled Gaza after the killing and was sentenced in absentia to a year of imprisonment for harboring fugitives.
I didn’t know how to describe my feelings about the criminals’ sentences. I don’t suspect them to be unjust. But something tells me that this trial only punished the hands behind this crime, not the minds that plotted it. I also believe that with the killing of the Jordanian Abderrahman Breizit and the Salafi Bilal Al-Omary during their shootout with Hamas forces, many facts were buried as well. This trial didn’t answer all our questions and left us still wondering, who benefited? Who had the most to gain from the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni and Juliano Mer Khamis who was killed in Jenin shortly before?
Even after the convictions of Vik’s murderers, they can never absorb the grief that his family and friends felt and still feel over his loss. Since his killers sentenced us to live the remainder of our lives without him around, Vittorio’s physical absence has been difficult. I still find it hard to imagine that we will have to continue without his laughs filling the room, without his voice singing, “Unadikum, ashod Ala Ayadikum,” “I call to you all. I take your hands and hold them tightly.” I know it’s been more than a year since he had his last Friday dinner with my family, but no Friday has ever passed without his memories flooding into our minds. His spiritual presence is very strong almost every place I go, especially in our house.
I see him in every corner of our home, on the sofas sitting and smoking his pipe while drinking coffee, on the dining table using his unique sense of humor to make us laugh and distract us from eating, even in the street in front where he frequently had football matches with my youngest brother Mohammed and other internationals activists such as Adie and Max Ajl. He also used to chat in the garden with my father about his immense pride in his grandparents who resisted fascism in Italy, a legacy that inspired him to fight the fascist policies of Israel against the Palestinians.
My second portrait of Vik in his first anniversary.
I will never forget you, dear Vik, and I’ll always cherish your memories dearly. We still laugh very hard when we hear any of my family or our friends imitating you, speaking your countable Arabic words that you used to repeat over and over again, “Zaki, Mushkili, Mish Mushkili, Mumkin, shway.”
You will live immortally in every heart of every Palestinian, every farmer, every fisherman, and every child in the Samouni family to whom you gave your strength and sympathy. In the massacre, you were there for them like for so many others, right from the moment Israel forced a hundred of them into one house, before dropping a missile on them all. You were one of those trying to reach them, as the dead and injured lay together under the rubble for four days. 29 of them were killed, yet three years later Israel’s military prosecution absolved the Israeli army of wrong-doing, arguing that the massacre had not been carried out “in a manner that would indicate criminal responsibility.”
I hope you’re resting in peace, looking upon us from heaven, and smiling. Be sure that those murderers didn’t kill you, but made you immortal. You have become a symbol of humanity, an icon of Muqawama, the tattoo you chose for your right arm out of your faith in our cause and as a promise to the oppressed Palestinian people to never end the struggle for real justice. We will carry on the fight, and we will achieve the aim you sacrificed your life for: “Freedom, justice, and equality for Palestine.”
1- The article I wrote for Vittorio in his first birthday after his loss reflecting upon his birthday that we celebrated together the year before.
2- The article I wrote five days after his murder.
“The ruins of my homeland”
“We didn’t cry during farewell!
For we didn’t have time, nor tears, Nor was it farewell
We didn’t realize that the moment of farewell was farewell
So how could we cry?”
Said Taha Muhammad Ali, one of the leading poets on the contemporary Palestinian literary scene, describing his expulsion from his homeland. He was 17 years old, old enough to remember the gloomy day when he was ethnically cleansed from his original village, Saffuriya, together with most of its inhabitants and more than 600,000 Palestinian from 512 other village, during the 1948 Nakbha. But in 1949, Taha returned to Nazareth, making it his home.
However, my grandparents and hundreds of thousands couldn’t. They had fled to Gaza. They thought that it would be a matter of two weeks and then they would be back. But ever since then, they lived and died in Gaza’s refugee camps.
Ethnic cleansing has continued in many forms. On March 30, 1976, more Palestinian land in the north was confiscated so that Jewish settlements could be built on its ruins. But Palestinian people rebelled against the Israeli occupation and confronted its forces. A popular uprising took the form of marches and a unique general strike that provoked the Israeli occupation forces, causing their murders of six heroes, together with the wounding or detention of hundreds of other people. Their only crime was that they refused to give up their land and protested non-violently, but powerfully, against dispossession.
It is significant as the first time since 1948 that Arabs in Israel organized a strong response to Israeli policies as a Palestinian national collective. That’s why this day was etched in the history of the Palestinian struggle and ever since, Palestinians have commemorated March 30 as “Land Day”, to emphasize our embrace of Palestinian land and our rejection of the criminal occupation and its illegal settlement.
We are about to observe the 47th anniversary of Land Day. As I welcome this immortal day, a flood of memories flows through my mind. I can’t remember my grandfather well, as he died when I was very young. But I can very clearly recall my memories of my grandmother, who played a key role in forming the person who I am.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,
How I wonder what you are!
Up above the world so high,
Like a diamond in the sky! ”
Only when I got older did I learn that lullabies are songs sung to kids until they fall asleep. I never slept to a lullaby. Yet I can’t count the times I slept while listening to my grandmother telling her favorite, most touching story, the story of Nakba, the story of her raped lands. Unlike other kids around the world, the Nakba was my lullaby.
“Behind every great man there is a woman.” This proverb could not find a better example than my father. He always said, “I have God in the sky and my mother on the ground.” She had been always his role model and the reason he embraced resistance as his choice during his youth. Now his resistance is centered on planting his patriotic values and his love for the homeland in his children, in us, so we, the third generation, carry on demanding our people’s stolen rights.
I vividly recall how her steady, wide eyes struggled with tears every time she narrated that story. She must have repeated it thousands of times, and I am sure she would never have stopped if she were still alive. My siblings and I heard it many times. And, every time, her wrinkles evoked the same feeling, her voice shook the same way, calmly flowing with memories, then suddenly rising in anger as she said the same proverb: “The homeland is ours and the strangers fire us.”
“Your grandfather used to go every day to a high hill in north Gaza called Alkashef,” I remember her saying. “People used to see him sitting on the top, pondering his raped homeland, Beit Jerja, and crying.” Their wound was too deep to be healed or forgotten.
In Beit Gerga, my grandparents were farmers, living for the glories of the land as the majority of Palestinians did then. Every single day after their expulsion, they said, “Tomorrow we will return.” They were simple and uneducated people who didn’t understand the political games of Israel and its allies. They died before smelling their precious sand again.
The generation of the Nakba is dying. But another revolutionary generation was born, the generation of Intifadas, to which my parents belong. My father has always described his resistance, and his 15 years of youth inside Israeli prisons, as “the price of homeland and the cost of freedom and dignity.”
I love sitting with elderly people who witnessed the Nakba to listen to their stories, even if they are mostly alike. They remind me of my grandmother and my memories of her, which I cherish very much. Jabber is another example of a man born from a great woman’s womb. He is my father’s friend who was released in the same 1985 swap deal. He devoted his life to raise awareness about the daily human rights violations committed by the Israeli Occupation against our people, and he now heads the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and always prioritizes the political prisoners’ issue.
I met Jaber’s mother once in a festival for the prisoners released in the Shalit exchange. His mother does not know her own date of birth, but assumes she is in her 80s. I heard her telling the story of when her son Jabber was sentenced to two lifetimes. She described how she stood, proudly and strongly, and confronted the Israeli court for being unfair to her son, then started singing for Palestine, for resistance. “I didn’t cry nor scream,” she said. “If Netanyahu is hardheaded, we are even more so. We’ll never stop resisting. Resistance will continue until we restore out rights. I had four sons in prison at that time, and I walked to prison every day for 15 years hoping to meet them.”
She made me proud to be the daughter of a Palestinian mother when she said, while pointing to her breast, “My milk was fed to my sons, the milk of our homelands.” She continued firmly, “As long as there are Palestinian women giving birth and bringing up new generations, we will breastfeed them the milk of our homeland, we will breastfeed them with toughness and resistance.” Then she smiled and said that she told a CIA officer the same thing while looking at him in the eye, adding, “The land of Palestine is for her people, not for you!”
Palestinians have spent more than six decades sacrificing, paying the price of freedom for themselves and their lands that were stolen by the Zionist entity. You can rarely find a Palestinian family from whom none were killed, or have experienced imprisonment or deportation, or have had their houses demolished or lands confiscated. Not only people have paid the price for the freedom of the lands, but even the trees, stones, and even sands.
Israel continues to build more and more illegal settlements on what is left of our lands. They openly violate all international agreements, but no agreements, nor human rights organizations, can limit Israel’s daily violations and crimes against Palestinians and their lands. That’s why the Palestinian resistance will never die. Many more Land Days will happen, and they will be celebrated in one way or another, every day of every coming year, inside or outside the occupied lands, until we restore our stolen rights.
For this 46th anniversary of Land Day, I’d like to share a poem with you. I wrote it last May, speaking for every Palestinian refugee whose nostalgia grows with every passing day. This is to emphasize our spiritual attachment to our stolen lands, from which our grandparents were ethnically cleansed, and to stress our right to return.
My village, in which I didn’t live a single day
Has been living inside me everyday
Since I was born, I grow and my nostalgia
Grows more and more till it tears me up
It wasn’t me who chose to live far away
And neither my grandparents did
They were beaten, cleansed and dispossessed
Into tents of exile their souls were left
Gone with their olive groves and citrus fields
Leaving a wound to never be healed
Since my grandparents fled away
They thought they would return the next day
They died, but no need to sigh
As, their heritage, their songs and memories persist
They say that elderly people die
And after that the young will forget
But no way
Until return, Palestinians will resist
Our tears of hope will never dry
And when we return to our homelands
From ashes, trees will rise high
And white doves will over fly
And we’ll caress with our bare hands
Every precious berry of sand
This dream might not happen soon
But it absolutely will one day
If you didn’t read Part 1and Part 2 of my story, kindly press these links!
The long hours of waiting inside the bus without moving gave me a backache, but I couldn’t complain with many elderly and sick people surrounding me. An old woman sat to my right. I could read many stories of struggle and suffering in her wrinkles, her traditional Palestinian dress, and her tight eyes. She wore a brace around her neck. I could hear her muttering prayers.
Due to Israel’s apartheid checkpoints, it took us a day to reach Jericho, which is roughly one hour from Allenby Bridge. I waited eagerly, imagining myself walking around the old city of Jerusalem before heading to Gaza. We wasted over four hours waiting for the Israeli soldiers to let us pass through their checkpoints. Being from Gaza made my crossing procedures even more complicated. I spent the whole trip to Jericho counting minutes and hours. The more time we wasted, the less likely it became for me to tour Jerusalem. The time limit that Israel imposed by closing Erez at 7:00 pm made me stressful.
At sunset, I finished all the crossing and security procedures. I hurried to the exit to find my taxi driver sweating, standing by his parked car next to the door waiting for us. He rushed me inside the car, saying that he had to drive me to the District Coordination Offices (DCO) right away to get a permit to leave before it was too late. People from Gaza get permits to cross through Erez back to Gaza there, and people from West Bank get permits to enter Jerusalem and other “Israeli” territory.
On the way to Jordan, I tried my hardest to stop in Jerusalem and visit the Odeh family, whose son Loai was deported to Gaza after his release in the Shalit swap deal. Loai and I became close friends as soon as we met. Before I left Gaza, I promised him that I would do my best to visit his family and give them a hug on his behalf. I couldn’t on my way to Jordan. But I was persistent to make it happen when I returned.
I endured a stream of silence and frustration. Then my telephone rang. It was our travel coordinator from Gaza.
“Listen carefully,” he said in a very serious tone. “The DCO closes at 4:00 pm, and now it’s 5:30 pm. You won’t be able to go home tonight. You’ll have to stay at a hotel, or at a relative’s or friend’s house in Jericho. Keep in mind that you’re only allowed to move within Jericho. No one but you will pay its price for anything outside its limits.”
I said nothing in response and acted as if I was taking his words seriously, but smiled, because only then did I sense how lucky I was. I hung up, turned to the driver excitedly, and said, “I won’t go home tonight. I’m supposed to stay in Jericho, but I’m not going to fear anyone. This night will come once in a lifetime, and I’m not going to spend it restricting my footsteps and worrying about Israel’s racist rules or anyone’s orders.”
He smiled and said, “I’m dropping you in Jericho.” I screamed, refusing to accept what he said, but he interrupted me, raised his voice, and continued, “This is what ‘they’ will assume, but not what will happen! I’ll pick you up from Jerusalem tomorrow morning to go to the DCO.” I made sure he meant it before I got too excited, then I burst into screams and tears of happiness. We drove toward Jerusalem while singing one of my favorite Fairouz songs, about Jerusalem: “For you, the city of prayers, I pray.”
The driver warned me of the dangers I might face if I entered Jerusalem. We knew there were risks, but we decided to take them . The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Jericho was the problem. No car can enter Jerusalem without going through it. If we passed it without being stopped by Israeli soldiers, then we were safe.
We put sunglasses on and began chatting and laughing as if everything was normal. We passed without the soldiers noticing anything “wrong”. When the checkpoints disappeared from sight, we shouted, “We made it!” The first person I called was Loai. “I’m now heading to Jerusalem, to meet your family!” I screamed with happiness. “Let the driver drop you at the Jerusalem Hotel, where my brother Obay is waiting for you,” Loai said laughing.
I couldn’t be more grateful to a person than the driver, who put himself at risk to make my dream come true. He dropped me near the hotel, made sure that I was safe, and left me to enjoy the rest of my time in Jerusalem, before the next morning when my adventure would end.
I had never met Obay, but I felt like I already knew him. We talked briefly once when Loai was in Egypt. He introduced us on Skype. Loai had told how special their relationship was, especially after they were reunited in prison. They shared a cell together for over two years before Obay, who was detained in 2002 as a child at the age of 17, was released in 2006. They met again in Egypt last January. I could see many similarities Obay shared with Loai – appearance, behavior, way of thinking and even their expressions – that made me feel closer to him.
The first thing we did was take a walking tour inside the old city of Jerusalem. I can’t describe how good it felt to be there. I took a short noon tour there last June, but the city is even more magnificent at night. I could hear history, authenticity, and solidity narrated by every stone, every wall, every street, everything. But at the same time, I recalled how Loai once described his city: “Jerusalem is a sad town.” It’s true. I could touch the anger, the sorrow, and the challenge everywhere while wandering its ancient alleys.
The people who remained in Jerusalem suffer the most from Israeli occupation and apartheid. While wandering around, we saw many people sitting outside their homes chatting. I passed by a group of girls in a courtyard. They were very welcoming and loving when they learned I came from Gaza. I asked them about the occupation, with which they interact daily. “We will never leave our homes even if it costs us our lives,” one of them replied. “Israel offered to buy these old, small houses with unbelievable amounts of money, but we never gave them up and never will. Our resistance is to stay here, despite all the mocking, humiliation, and violations of our rights.”
I was thrilled by her answer. A young girl among them grabbed me to introduce me to her family. I was shocked to see how narrow her house was. They had only one room, where nine people, including her parents, live.
I kept walking. I could see Hebrew graffiti on the walls and Israeli flags. It’s not only a sad city, but also an angry one. I could sense its anger shaking the floor beneath me, as if it was saying, “My tongue is Arab and my identity is Palestinian.”
In the old city of Jerusalem, it is easy to tell where Palestinians and settlers live, even without Israeli flags flying on roofs or Hebrew written on the walls. The Palestinian homes are very old and narrow. They’re not permitted to be renovated. Electrical wires are uncovered and tied to the ceiling. Israel tries every way to pressure Palestinians to leave their houses with the neglect of the civil services and the increase of taxes. On the other hand, the settlers’ homes appeared to be in good shape and enjoyed good electricity and other public services. Settlers are allowed to extend and refurbish their houses.
I followed Obay wherever he went. We climbed snaky stairs until we reached a roof, where an Israeli soldier suddenly came outside to ask why we were there. Obay answered calmly, “Just to see the city from the top.”
I didn’t know exactly where I was, and the soldier, who was monitoring screens connected with cameras spread all over the city, made me nervous. Then Obay pointed. I turned to where his finger stopped to discover that the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque were right in front of me. I opened my eyes wide and sighed. The exceptional beauty of the golden dome glittered and lit up the dark sky.
No matter how long I meditate on this magnificent view, my eyes will stay thirsty. But we had to leave. Obay had a nice plan to make use of my only night there. I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard that our next destination was Jaffa. It was always a dream, but one in the back of my mind, which I thought would be impossible to reach. We headed there in the car. Being in Jaffa increased my longing to return to Beit-Jerja, my original village, where my grandparents were ethnically cleansed in 1948. The refugees’ return is a right, not just a dream, and it will be fulfilled someday.
The first thing we did in Jaffa was have dinner in a restaurant that overlooking the beach. We were starving after an hour driving and over two hours wandering around Jerusalem. In Gaza, the last thing I would order is fish, as even it is imported. The Israeli Navy occupies our sea and prevents fishermen from going farther than three nautical miles, cutting down Gaza’s wealth of fish. In Jaffa, I didn’t hesitate for even a second to try the fish of our Mediterranean sea, and I didn’t regret it! I can’t tell you how succulent it tasted.
Immediately after we finished eating, I ran toward the seashore in my bare feet to wet them and feel the warm waves. I kept walking, paying no attention to time or distance, while breathing Jaffa’s pure air and collecting beautiful seashells to keep as souvenirs. It felt so harmonic and spiritual. I never stopped thinking about my people in Gaza, who were very near, but could never reach this side of the Palestinian beach.
I wished I could watch the sunrise there, but we had to go back to Jerusalem a little earlier, as Loai’s father was worried about us. I couldn’t complain about anything. I received more than I expected. I repeatedly described how happy I was this way: “I am afraid I will die from too much happiness.” I hoped for at least an hour in Jerusalem, and unexpectedly, I had a whole night in both Jerusalem and Jaffa. Alhamdullah, God was very generous to me.
It meant a lot to be at Loai’s house. His pictures hung everywhere, even in the garden. I caught only two hours of sleep before I had to leave the house to get a permit from the DCO. Before I said goodbye to Loai’s family, I took pictures of every corner of the house to show Loai the place where he was raised, since he had almost forgotten its appearance after ten years of detention. I also picked two branches from a beautiful tree in their garden. He was very happy to receive these photos and branches.
All these adventures felt like a dream, one so happy that I never wanted to wake up. But my return to Gaza was obligatory. I spent seven hours in the DCO, waiting for the Israeli soldiers to issue my permit to return to Gaza through Erez. As I arrived in a Gaza blackout, I was welcomed by a very loud bomb that exploded near Beit Hanoun. I was scared at first, but then I burst out laughing and shouted, “Welcome back to Gaza!”
If you didn’t read the first part of my story, kindly press this link to read it first.
I left Gaza at 10:00am and arrived in Jordan by sunset. The weather was freezing. I couldn’t wait to climb into the warm taxi that would drop me near the Marriott Hotel, where the reunion was held. I wrapped my body with my kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, and slept. The hour-long drive passed without my notice. When we drew near to the hotel, the driver woke me up. I rose quickly to the window and took in my surroundings. The place exceeded my expectations. I was truly tired, and very sleepy and hungry, but as I saw the beauty around me, I felt refreshed and excited once again.
As I entered the lobby, my first glances fell on my friends, who were the main reason I decided to attend the reunion. I spent all my time in the US with them. Seeing them again filled me with happiness. After an hour of greetings and exchanging stories, the time came to check into my room. A hotel worker helped me with my luggage and showed me my room. Once I got in, I left the responsibility for my luggage to the worker and eagerly hurried to the balcony.
I stood motionless, with my eyes wandering around my surroundings. I had ever seen a landscape that so deserved to be painted. I was captivated by the beauty of the big garden behind the building. Dim lights spread nicely amongst the colorful trees, flowers and swimming pool. Behind the beautiful backyard, the Dead Sea lay peacefully. It was cold and the sky wasn’t very clear, so more beauty lay hidden behind its dark clouds. I had never seen the Dead Sea before then, but my parents had told me many times about its breathtaking beauty. They used to tease me and my siblings, since they had gotten to swim there and walk on Jericho’s beach, while we couldn’t. The movement restrictions got more intense during the latest couple of decades of the Israeli Occupation. I smiled while remembering these memories and wished they were there.
The next day, during our break, everyone else preferred to stay inside to avoid the cold winds. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back from meditating on the beach of the Dead Sea. So I put my jacket and my kuffiyeh on and eagerly went to the closest point to the shore. As I got closer, my gaze grew longer and my heart beats got faster. I lost my breath as I saw the wind forming small waves, tenderly wetting the golden sand, and hitting the rocks, colors and sizes, that lay on the shoreline.
It was a bittersweet feeling to be on the other side of Jericho. I could see Jericho’s hills in the horizon line. I was so close yet so far away, since Israel’s apartheid regime deprives me as a Palestinian from Gaza from reaching it.
The reunion schedule was very busy. We had tasks to accomplish and workshops and lectures to attend. One was about democracy, which is not my favorite to discuss. I was obliged to sit and listen to a professor whom I didn’t like. I argued with him once, about Israel and Palestine, when I briefly met him after he defended Israel’s crimes and illegal existence and occupation by saying, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist.” I remember our heated discussion about that, which left him trapped. Then he became mad and tried to get himself out of the debate by raising his voice. After his speech about “democracy,” we were given a chance to share our points of view and tell stories of democracy in our homelands.
I had been waiting anxiously for the moment to speak up, so I raised my hand. “In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said angrily. “We had a democratic election, which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”
The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I don’t think democracy exists in reality. There is no such thing. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionaries with HYPOCRICY.” He interrupted me by saying that I should give others a chance to speak. I stopped, but could no longer listen to more hypocrisy and left.
On the fourth day, we had an exhibit. Posters by all participants, briefly describing the projects they were planning to implement in their home countries to seek change, were hung on the walls. Having a passion for art, I decided to focus on artists in Palestine. For more regarding my project, you can see me presenting about it here.EQxqnvWhnGQ
That was basically the end of the reunion. Only then did I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Dead Sea again. The weather became a little better, but was still cold. A single day was left for me in the Dead Sea, and this opportunity might not come again. Therefore, I joined a group of my friends who decided to challenge the weather and swim for the same reason. We encouraged each other to go crazy and take the plunge. I dyed my skin with the famous Dead Sea mud -— it looked scary. Then I slowly and carefully got into the water. It was torture before my body adjusted to the coldness of the water. Suddenly I found myself floating and oh my God! It felt like heaven. It seemed like I had no control over my body. But I felt safe and peaceful in the bosom of nature.
I was scheduled to leave the hotel on March,5 to Amman. I enjoyed its archeological sites that speak of the history and culture of the Roman Empire. I went to many interesting places like the Roman theater and the citadel. I had a great time with my friends there, but I also felt homesick, especially after I heard about the Israeli attacks on Gaza that had resulted in 15 martyrs by then. Watching these attacks from outside is different than being inside. I felt so much panic. I was very worried about my family and my people, and wished I could be there, sharing their difficult times.
11 March is the day when my permit in Jordan went invalid. Thus, my awesome Jordanian friends offered to drop me at Allenby bridge to go through more checkpoints on the way back to Gaza.
My journey in Jordan ended like that but another journey, or risky adventures, inside the occupied lands started. To read more about come tomorrow!
I should have been filled with eagerness to join a reunion of the leadership program I attended in the United States, and once again gather with my friends from there and all over the Middle East and North Africa in Jordan.
But something inside made me want to stay in Gaza. When my friends asked me if I was excited to leave, I hesitated to answer. Part of me was certainly thrilled to travel, especially since if I missed this reunion, I didn’t know if there would ever be another chance to meet my friends I met in the US. Simply put, I have no control over my movement. Israel occupies our land, sea and air, and even occupies our footsteps. But thanks to the US’ alliance with Israel, the American embassy could guarantee permission for me to leave.
“You deserve a break” — my friends told me this frequently, trying to convince me to make the most of my travel. Yet I couldn’t separate myself from the harsh circumstances my people are bound to live in. My hesitance came from a feeling of guilt about leaving the Gaza Strip amidst the tension my people suffer due to the continuing blackout, the fuel crisis and the unstable political situation under the constant threat of more Israeli attacks.
I applied for a permit to leave on 23 February, but the Israeli occupation was only generous enough to allow me to cross through Erez on 1 March, not even a day before my reunion started. Only Israel decides when I should leave.
It was my third experience crossing Erez, so I was familiar with the humiliating procedures Palestinians are subjected to at the checkpoint. One of my worst memories is attached to this place. Many people have no idea about how we are humiliated, how badly we are treated, as if we are less than human beings.
Imagine how deep the pain feels when you go through nude inspection. I went through this psychological torture, but thankfully I was strong enough to keep my pain inside, hold my head held high, and go on. But this memory sticks in my head, which made it difficult for me to imagine that I might go through this again.
I prayed that my third crossing would be less difficult. Thankfully, it was. I could pass without being forced to take off my clothes, but there was no way I could pass without having my suitcase turned inside out. I was ready at around 10am to continue my journey through more checkpoints and the Allenby crossing between the occupied West Bank and Jordan.
Mustafa, a taxi driver originally from Jerusalem, was waiting for me on the Israeli side of Erez. When I discovered that he was sent by the American embassy to take me to Jericho, my smile became very big.
Last June, on my way to the US, I crossed through Erez for the second time. After considerable nagging, I managed to convince the taxi driver, who was Mustafa’s uncle, to let me walk in Jerusalem. Mustafa accompanied me for my first tour inside the Old City of Jerusalem, and I kept him walking for an hour and a half. I hoped that I would get to have another tour, especially since we crossed with relatively little waiting.
I thought I was a very good nagger, but I actually failed that time. I felt bad, but he felt worse for leaving me disappointed, since the US embassy’s orders were too strict for him to disobey.
I knew that it would take triple the time actually needed to arrive in Jordan due to barriers that Israel puts in our way, hoping to humiliate us and make us feel low. They never succeed.
I witnessed the degrading treatment of an old woman from Nablus, who lives in Balata Refugee Camp. She wore a jilbab, a long, loose-flowing dress that devout Muslim women wear. She stood in front of me in line. When she passed through the door, the alarm started ringing, since she had forgotten some coins in her pocket. Then she stepped backward and set them aside. She tried again and passed without the alarm sounding. However, the Israeli soldiers called her out of the line and ordered her, with loud voices, to go back through and take off her jilbab. She tried to argue with them, but they left her no choice.
She stood and fixed her eyes full of anger straight at the soldiers, took it off, and kept walking with pride. When I told her that I was sorry for what she had been through, she replied, “Don’t be sorry, darling. Those Israeli soldiers should be sorry for themselves. They think they humiliate us, but they actually remind us of our passionate desire as Palestinians for dignity and freedom. We’ll go on resisting and giving birth to heroes. Israel’s end will be at their hands. No matter how long the oppressed people remain oppressed, one day they’ll be victorious!”
This is the typical Palestinian woman, whose role in the popular resistance is without limit. They believe that the struggle is cumulative. If one doesn’t witness the impact of his or her sacrifice, the following generations will feel it, and enjoy its resulting victory. Their core role is to raise strong leaders, who will carry the responsibility for bringing freedom and dignity to Palestinians.
After meeting with this inspiring and strong woman, I felt more determined than ever to continue my peaceful resistance against the tyranny and oppression of the Israeli occupation. I also sensed how large my duty to my homeland will be as a Palestinian mother.
She impressed me, and her strength inspired me and put a smile on my face. I stayed with her to help her with her luggage, then rode the last bus to take us to our final destination, the Jordanian border, where our tiring travel through checkpoints and crossings ended.
Come back tomorrow to read about my journey in Jordan.
My tribute for Vik in his first anniversary
As I realized today’s date, the 4th of February, a stream of memories flooded into my mind. Today, last year, marked my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni’s last birthday I spent with him.
I remember it was a nice, rainy Friday. I felt happy to be rich, having just gotten my $1,000 share from YouthSchool for my work on the Gaza 2011 calendar “All I Want Is Peace”. My best friend Adie Mormech, an English activist who spent a year in Gaza working with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), reminded me that it was Vik’s birthday. That day, Vik missed the Friday lunch, to which he always looked forward. I knew about Vik’s stress regarding his father’s deteriorating health, and that it was a reason he didn’t join us for lunch. He would always say “Zaki”, delicious, as his gentle but funny way of thanking Mum for the food that was fondly ranked by “his majesty” as the best in Gaza.
Having not seen him, and being worried about him, I decided to surprise him by going to the ISM office where he and the other ISMers (Adie, Inge, Vera, and Silvia) were gathering. It was already night when I left home for Mazaj, the cake shop Vik preferred, and it was raining heavily. But it was worth getting wet for the sake of Vik’s smile and the fun I expected to have when I arrived at the office. I got the cake and hurried with excitement to meet Vik and my other friends. I couldn’t wait to tell him about the greetings that his friends from Italy had told me to send him, and to put the smile on his face that always sent warmth and happiness to everyone around him.
Vera, an ISM activist from Germany, welcomed me as I knocked on the door. When she saw the excitement on my face and the cake I carried, she whispered, “It’s not the right time for a party now. Vik is sad.”
My happy features turned sad. I left the bag by the entrance and went to look for Vik. He sat in the living room alone as Vera had told me. The curtain that separated the two sitting rooms, which were open to each other, was pulled down. I felt like even the house looked sad. I wanted to check on Vik, though. After asking him if I could come in, I sat next to him on the purple couch for a couple of minutes of silence. “I hope you’re OK,” I said while pressing his hand. “I’m worried for my father,” he said. “He’s going to have an operation that might reveal a terminal illness.”
He knew that if it did not go well, his father would not have long to live. As I remember this, I think of how ridiculous and unpredictable this life is. Back then, who would have ever expected that Vik would die before his father did?
Vittorio was torn between two concerns at the center of his life: his attachment to Palestine, and his father and family’s need for his support. Each thought was more pressing than the other. Then suddenly, “Strong Vik” could no longer control his tears. I couldn’t believe that I was seeing Vik cry. Vik has been always a symbol of strength, humanity, and inspiration for me. He always will be. At the time, I felt confused and didn’t know how to act. With spontaneity, I hugged him, as I thought getting a hug in such difficult times might help more than my words. I cried along with him, too.
Then Vik learned about the cake I brought. He didn’t want to disappoint me and all my plans. He reached deep inside himself for strength to bring smiles back to the faces of his friends, smiled at me, then shouted to all the others, “Yalla, let’s have some cake”. That’s how caring Vik was; he always wanted to be a reason for everyone to smile, but never for anyone to cry. He could easily shift the atmosphere from gloomy to so happy, so much that I didn’t want to go back home.
I remember my memories from your birthday last year and oh, dear Vittorio, you can’t imagine how much I wish I could tell you how much I miss you and joke with you like we used to do. I miss you even though I strongly feel your presence with me, like you never left us. Every Friday that has passed without you, I’ve wished you would come for lunch, your smile lighting the room as you walked through the door.
I wish you could see my drawing that’s dearest to me. It’s your portrait that you always nagged me to make, but never got to see. I am certain that no matter how many more drawing I have produced and will produce, yours will be my favorite. Not only because of my skill, and the love that I put into it, but because, somehow, part of your beautiful soul attached itself to this painting.
As you look down from paradise, on all of us here, I offer you this drawing. I hope it brings you as much joy as you always brought us. I miss you Vittorio. I love you, Vittorio. You will live forever in my heart and in the hearts of all Palestinians, who owe you so much. We’ll keep celebrating your birthday every year and you’ll continue to inspire us, adding more humanity to the world. Rest in Peace, dear Vik. Stay human!
Palestinians’ tribute to Vittorio Arrigoni , Onadekom ( Calling You ) – DARG Team
After all the difficulties I had been through in order to get myself out of the big prison of the Gaza Strip, I made it to USA.
I spent the first week of the program in Gaza against my will. My hope of leaving had gradually been fading until I received a call informing me that I would be leaving through Erez on the 26th of June after a whole week of pain trying to pass Rafah border. I was in Gaza physically but not mentally. My mind was constantly with the people who would become my second family soon after my arrival. I was daydreaming of life in USA and I couldn’t wait till I arrived there. I thought I was so unlucky that I missed a week in my life there but in fact I was such a lucky girl. What had been waiting for me was beyond my expectations.
At 8 am, on the 26th of June, my adventure had started. I had passed through Erez and Jerusalem, and somehow I was able to convince my driver to take me by the old city. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bus till I arrived Allenby Bridge in Jericho, but my driver had sympathy for me and he allowed me to have one hour there even though he took a risk by doing that. I actually exceeded the limited time I had as walking in the old streets of Jerusalem and visiting all the holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stole my mind. I was jumping in the streets and singing out loudly like a nut. Can’t blame me for that! I had to go back to where we agreed to meet in order to get dropped off by Allenby to complete my way to Amman, while wondering why it must be so difficult for me to go to my capital city and why I have to go through all these complex procedures in order to travel.
I had arrived in Amman by 6 pm and had stayed with a very nice woman whom I knew through Facebook as she was supporting the sales of my calendar, Gaza Calendar 2011. I spent a short but unforgettable time in Amman. My plane was scheduled to leave at 5 pm on the following day. I had to travel to Dubai’s airport and then to Washington DC.
I couldn’t believe myself when I took my first step out of the plain in Washington DC airport after a 12-hours-non-stop flight. I was even more excited knowing that only a couple of hours separated me from joining the MEPI family. But I should learn that excitement sometimes works in the wrong direction. I was walking the airport with a look full of excitement, smiling to everyone I encountered, and ended up sitting in a gate that I thought it was the right one, but realized had been the wrong one two minutes after my flight to Philadelphia took off. It was actually kind of funny. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I guess for someone who had taken a 12-hour non-stop flight, sitting between two elderly people who kept snoring the whole trip, it is normal to run out of batteries. My flight was rescheduled for me. It was by then a bit sad as almost nothing remained to meet my MEPI family, but it turned out to require four more hours of waiting. Then I cried like a baby until I fell asleep, only to wake up just as my flight started boarding and return to the same excitement I had before.
“Nothing happens without a reason” – this is something that I started to believe in very deeply. I met wonderful people on that flight that left an impact on my vision for my future. Some of those people belonged to a church group who were volunteering in Zambia fighting hunger and poverty there. By the end of the trip, it felt as if I was one of them. They didn’t leave me tell they made sure that I got my luggage and everything was ok with me. Soon after, they formed themselves as a circle and held each other’s hands and included me. Then they made a prayer with their eyes closed to give thanks for their safe arrival. I am Muslim but I joined them while they were doing their prayer and it felt good to me. I believe that religions shouldn’t create gaps between people. To whatever religion we belong, we are all humans at the end of the day and what we share is more than how we differ from one another.
As I was walking toward the exit expecting to see somebody to drive me to Newark, Delaware, I saw the coordinator of MEPI program in the University of Delaware, waiting for me and holding a paper with my name written on it. After glancing at him, I ran to him and I hugged him as if I knew him already. I was just so excited about starting my journey. He drove me to Delaware where my MEPI family was waiting for me excitedly.
Meeting my MEPI family was so special to me. Thinking of them constantly before the time came and following their Facebook posts from Gaza made them already a part of me, even before I met any of them. That made it easier for us to get along. We were together all the time. We used to leave each other at bedtime, only to dream about the next day. Every day made us more connected and more caring about each other. I felt a real family overwhelmed with love, passion, and care around me. We would laugh together and cry if anyone started to shed a tear. They maybe didn’t know to what extent each one of them affected my personality, but at least I know that they will keep their own place in my heart forever. My colleagues were from 14 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We had many differences but those differences didn’t keep us apart, they only made our family more interesting. We had fun laughing at each other’s accents and sharing our cultures. The loveliest part was the staff members. They are such great people who accompanied us all the time to make sure that every day would be better than the previous day. They were there to educate us, to help us doing our homework, and to cheer us up whenever we felt down. They dedicated themselves to supporting us in every way they could. Such giving and loving people are rare to find. They have left an enduring impression on me. I feel so proud having had a chance to be close to such wonderful people with amazing characters.
The real wealth is not measured with money but with how many close relationships you form. Therefore, I consider myself to be very rich as I have many real friends that I can trust for the rest of my life.
Apart from making friends, for a Gazan, who got used to seeing gray all around and not much green, it is delightful to see some views of nature. This is another thing I loved about America. I never got bored wandering around in the streets as the huge trees with fireflies that seemed like Christmas tree lights made me full of joy and inspiration. I would go for a walk ifI felt rough, but that was never a way for me to relax in Gaza. I never minded long drives, too. My head would keep swinging from one window to another in order not to miss any views. We would pass by huge lakes that took my breath away, or a group of geese, or sometimes we would see deer standing by the woods.
I felt so fortunate had having a chance to let my eyes enjoy pondering nature there and meeting many interesting people, some of them were great professors who are so passionate about the Palestinian cause. They became excited about setting up a meeting with me as soon as they know I am a Palestinian living in Gaza.
I also enjoyed talking to people that I encountered by chance. Palestine was my favorite topic to talk about whenever I had a chance. It was funny as most times I spoke to anyone, she or he would ask me where I am from, and then I would reply with a smile on my face, “I’m from Palestine.” Then most people would ask, “Pakistan?” and I would say again, “no! PaLLLLestine” to make sure that I make the pronunciation of letter “L” as clear as possible. But this actually didn’t make any difference to some of them, as they would either ask “where is that?” or “what’s that?” My answer would be “Do you know Israel?” They would show all the expressions of confirmation they can and then I would say “well, Israel is in Palestine” to leave them with exclamation marks on their faces. And then they would be confused, which would be the responsibility that I enjoyed the most, to explain what I meant with history as my only evidence.
It was a bit sad that many people didn’t recognize my country. I say MY COUNTRY as I’ll never lose hope that it is going to be a country one day. Sometimes I got emotional seeing maps with Israel written in bold on the world map and not finding Palestine in the resources that were given to us for use during the leadership program. However, that only grew two things inside me: Knowledge of how hard I have to work to educate people about my country, and determination to make Palestine recognized by every human being on the planet.
Writing about my journey to USA can never end. Briefly and honestly, the five weeks I spent there made me much more mature and confident in my potential, and my ability to give as much as to take. I’m not such a different Shahd, but I can assure you I am a better Shahd after this interesting, eventful, and educational journey.
“Oh yes! I got the scholarship! I’ll be going to USA for a leadership program,” I said while jumping with happiness after reading the email with news of my approval। I thought I had passed the most difficult step. It wasn’t actually the step that I should have worried about. I realized later that I had rushed my happiness, and that it had been too early to feel like I was in control of everything.
When the time to book my tickets came, the American embassy gave me two options; either to leave through Egypt to the USA, or to go through Erez border to Amman and then to the US. I was confused. I had a flashback of being humiliated in the Erez border when I went to Jerusalem to get my visa for the USA. I thought that was enough of that, and there was no need to go through the same experience again. In the meantime, I had read articles and followed the news that announced the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing. So I quickly decided to go through Egypt, but didn’t know that it was a stupid decision until it was too late.
I was in the middle of a bunch of discordant voices which would eventually end up driving me crazy. Haha, welcome to confusing Gaza! First, I heard that it was not difficult any more to leave through Rafah, and that it was even easier for women. “All you need is your passport and you will leave very easily and quickly.” Most people agreed on that, relying on fake news reported by the media. Later, I realized that this was what should have been implemented, but not what had happened in reality. I had to go the Rafah border and reserve the date of 18th of June to travel. When I went there, I found people fighting because every date before the 22nd of July had already been taken. I was very depressed, thinking that my dream of visiting the USA wouldn’t happen because of a border, but was lucky enough to meet a man who liked me and sacrificed his reservation on the 18th of June for me. Then I thought that there was nothing more to worry about.
The 18th of June came. It was last Saturday. I was at the Rafah border by 7 am. I kept standing for long hours under the burning sun with dad and my friends Joe and Rocky from ISM. I had to beg people to help me. I saw old men and women crying. I realized then that wherever I went, I would get humiliated, and that I shouldn’t have paid attention to what I experienced at Erez, because no matter how hard that was for me, it wasn’t any harder than the humiliation I would face at Rafah. I went back home that day at around 4 pm. I forced myself to sleep to escape from the frustration I felt at having to get up the following day and make a second attempt at crossing. I didn’t only make a second attempt; I had a third, a fourth and a fifth, all for nothing! I used to leave home so early with my suitcase, torturing myself, my family and my friend to return with it after committing around 8 hours there. I’m still stuck in the horrible prison of Gaza.
It is, simply, pure hell at Rafah. Every day I went to the border was harder than the one before it. Every day, I just got more and more frustrated. “There’s only one way you’re going to leave: with a strong connection”- this is the system that the Rafah border follows. Every day I went there, I bled tears for the people who have been struggling to leave for weeks, but couldn’t. There was no mercy for anybody, whoever they were: old or young, sick or healthy, or whatever. It’s not like the movies: it is true drama, so sad and so miserable. For the past five days, I’ve been dying to hear a certain response from anyone working there. Nobody can bother to talk to you or tell you anything, you just have to try and try without stopping.
When people said that I didn’t have to worry anymore about crossing though Rafah, and that I could leave easily and quickly, it seems that they meant that you could leave very quickly, within at least two weeks. Oh, what a joke! But after I went though that hell, don’t think that I am going to surrender. No, I’ll keep going. Persistence is the only way to reach goals, and I’ll reach them eventually.
Why should my dreams be crushed at the Rafah border? Why, after I got a chance that a Gazan can have only once in a lifetime? Why should the media lie about reality? Why should they let us go so far with our dreams, then finally shock us with the reality? Where is the honesty of the media and where is the honesty of leaders, be they Palestinian or Egyptian? Who is responsible for all the suffering that Gazans face at Rafah? We are the victims of a web of lies.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
As I passed through the first checkpoint, the alarm bell rang. I started to feel worried but one of my friends told me that it was because my bag contained a laptop. Seeing some Palestinian men working there helped me to relax. One of them told me not to worry as this was normal. He took it from me and he asked me to enter the gate again. I did, with my heart beating fast. After that we were led to enter lots of gates, one after another.
My eyes waited excitedly to see the green lights. I reached one point where I had to stand in an exact way. I tried to show that I had no fear. I saw the green light and they allowed me to pass. I took a deep breath then, but I was so rushed! Unluckily, I heard some Hebrew through the speakers which were spread everywhere around. Then an old Palestinian man who was responsible to show the travelers where to go yelled loudly, calling me back. “I don’t know what the problem is with you, my daughter,” he said with his eyebrows high, showing surprise and worry. “Come back to the same gate and do as I tell you to do,” he continued. I couldn’t hide my panic anymore. I did as I was told but the signs of worry on my face were obvious. “Smile or else the photo will be dark,” the Palestinian man joked to make me less worried.
I wondered why everybody else was having fewer obstacles at passing than I, but I had no answer to my question. I thought that nothing could be worse than that when I passed that grim gate. I was mistaken again. They sent me to a special check point. I was ordered to go into an empty room with a window of glass and an empty chair, a table, and a microphone behind it. I was about to cry, but I tried to pull myself together because I believed that what would make them happy was seeing me fall. I kept standing and just waited. It was totally quiet and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Suddenly, while I looked around the place randomly, an Israeli female soldier sat in the chair.
“You have to do what I tell you exactly,” she said. “Take off your trousers,” she continued with that severe, intense voice. I looked at her with surprise, asking if she was serious. She repeated the same sentence in a louder tone. I could not summon any reaction but the same shocked look. “It is an order!” she shouted, and continued, “You don’t have to worry as only you and I are here.” I kept my head high and I took them off, insisting on making my dream of reaching Jerusalem reality. She ordered me to turn myself around and then pull my t-shirt up. I put my stuff inside a box to be checked as she ordered, and then got it back to dress again.
I am writing this to you feeling so low. Maybe some would think that I should not speak about this, but I must. People have to know how we are humiliated, how badly we are treated, as if we were less than human beings. What was the point of doing that? Obviously nothing! Why did they choose me in particular? For absolutely no reason! They just wanted to enjoy inflicting psychological torment on somebody, and the lot fell upon me. I tried to keep my strength, but this experience left a deep pain inside me.
All my friends passed earlier than me. They waited for me on the other side. As I joined them again, I felt so much better. I decided to live in the moment and not to let anyone ruin my happiness at finally reaching the bus of the American embassy that had been waiting for four hours to take us to Jerusalem.
I only needed to deeply breathe the fresh air of the lands on the other side of the Erez border to feel relaxed. It was such a special feeling. We got into the bus which drove us to Jerusalem. I kept looking through the windows at the places around us. I was amazed. I saw fantastic nature wherever I directed my eyes. They were so hungry for such views. I looked around wildly in order to not miss any of the beauty: the hills, sandy and rocky mountains, green fields, huge trees, and colorful flowers. On our way from Erez to Jerusalem, as I pondered nature, I sang Fairoz’s song about the streets of the old Quds, feeling so happy that I had made it, in spite of every difficulty I had passed through. The taxi driver, who is originally from Jerusalem, noticed my painting book and asked me about it. “I am an artist and I always wanted to draw the dome of Al-Aqsa mosque face to face one day. So I hope that this will be my chance to do so,” I said. “Do not be so dreamy. I have to drop you by the American embassy, and immediately after you all finish your visa interviews, I will take you back to the Erez border,” he replied. After I thought everything was going to be fine, I was mistaken again.
As I got inside the bus after picking two flowers planted in Jerusalem’s soil
I don’t blame him, as he just followed the orders issued by the embassy. I pity the situation though, living as a stranger in my homeland. As soon as I got out the bus and stepped onto the ground, I started jumping, feeling happy that I was standing on the Holy Land. Everything was perfect with the visa interview and thankfully I got it. I did not want to go outside the embassy as we would then get picked up to go back. Eventually, we had to ride the bus and I was lucky enough to take two beautiful red flowers with me.
They were so strict about taking us directly to Erez, but the driver sympathized with us and could understand what if felt like for Gazans who are in Jerusalem, for the first time in their lives, to reach it without seeing the Dome of The Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque. In the end, he said that he could only take a street which would allow us to see the view. I saw it from so far away just like it is seen in the picture, such an amazingly beautiful scene that my eyes could not stop gazing. It is like magic. Seeing that view, and the fact that we could not go closer, and even that we couldn’t open the window and put our heads out, made me very emotional.
“I have to move. I am sorry,” the driver said with a broken voice. I turned my head toward the dome until it disappeared into the distance, leaving behind a long silence. I went to an empty seat in the back of the bus and lay on it, closing my eyes and letting my soul fly over Jerusalem’s dome. With a mixture of feelings, I fell asleep. I woke up when I arrived at Erez, and now write to you about my trip to Jerusalem from my own room in Gaza.
It’s like a commitment for every Palestinian, and especially every Gazan, to make before leaving the borders of the Occupied Territories: a commitment to get insulted and humiliated and never say a word. Four hours of waiting to get permission passed like four years. The excitement I had didn’t make the situation any easier. I was sitting with my friends who have been approved for the leadership program in USA when a Palestinian who worked on the Beit Hanoun border told us to get ready to leave. No words could describe what I felt then. “Oh, thank you, God. Finally, we are passing!” I screamed. I simply went crazy and started to jump out of indescribable happiness, forgetting about everybody around.
My steps were too big and I could hardly breathe. All I could think about was that I wanted to get there as fast as I could. I didn’t know what was waiting for me after the long road that separates Gaza from Erez.
Last night, I went to bed at 11 pm, much earlier than I’m used to. I forced myself to stay under my blanket. The room was very dark and no sound could be heard but the sound of me moving in bed continually. I wanted to sleep so that 7 am today would come quickly, but all my attempts failed. Daydreaming in darkness conquered my mind. I dreamt about my travel to Jerusalem, the smell of its air, the view of its nature, its streets, and its people. My excitement to reach it kept me awake and I only managed to sleep at 4:30 am, then woke up again an hour and a half later.
Amidst this chaos and all the people around me who are chatting as an attempt to make time pass faster, I’m putting my headphones in my ears and listening to Fairoz, trying to live in my own world. I’m writing now from Beit Hanoun border or the so called Erez border. I’m sitting in a hall among lots of people, many of them patients and traders. Everybody has an excuse to go to Jerusalem and waiting to get permission to pass. My eyes are confused; one eye on the people around me and another on the fences that surround me from all destinations, laughing and sarcastically pitying the situation. Isn’t it funny that all of us here are waiting for hours to have a pass to go to our capital, Jerusalem? It’s not fair at all that I need an excuse to go there!
Now I’ve completed two hours of waiting and I don’t know for how much longer I’ll have to wait. While I was writing nonstop, an old woman sat next to me. Her traditional Palestinian dress lined by red embroidery attracted my eyes. The wrinkles of her face looked like she was bearing so many burdens that I thought she was older than only 66 years old. “Are you a refugee?” she asked. I smiled at her, nodding my head to confirm that. Then she said that she is too a refugee. That was the start of a very interesting conversation about our lands, which all Palestinian refugees were cleansed from in 1948. She was only three years old when her family was expelled from her original village, Acre. “I was the youngest of the family,” she said. “My parents and my old brother took turns carrying me,” she said. “They had to put a cover on my face to protect me from the hot weather on that gloomy day.”
Trying to make her laugh, I said, “No wonder why we met here. We are here to return back home!” I laughed. It wasn’t as funny as I thought. Her expressive face showed sorrow. “Oh, I hope so!” she sighed. And then she explained that she was accompanying her son’s twins who suffer from an illness. They sought a permit to cure them at Al-Maqased, a hospital in Jerusalem, and they managed to get it. I tried to change the topic, hoping to stop her from worrying about her grandparents for at least few minutes. I asked her if she knew where my original village, Beit Jerja, was located. While she was looking through the fence, trying to think where to point, her son came rushing her to to tell her get ready, as it was time for them to leave. She hugged me, wished me luck, and then left.
She left to let me return to the situation of depression I am going through, and to continue waiting to follow her to my lovely city that I have always dreamt of reaching: JERUSALEM.
Devastated. This is me since you passed away Vittorio. This utter shock won’t leave me alone. It’s the fifth day since your heartless killers cut your life short.
When I learned that you were kidnapped on the 14th of April, we were just welcoming Majed, my brother, home, after 10 months of traveling around Europe. One hour after his arrival, my dad received a call informing him that Vittorio was kidnapped turning the festive atmosphere into sadness. I didn’t believe what I heard and I shouted, “Impossible! This can’t be true. And if so, he would be joking with his kidnappers repeating his favourite word ‘mushkili!’” I laughed but quickly paused as I read concern on everyone’s faces. I hurried to call you and I found out that your mobile was still turned off. Then my heartbeats started getting faster and faster as I tracked back my memories from the day before.
You texted me during the evening of the 13th saying, “I will be free at 16:00. Bring your drawing book to do my portrait. I have a bar of chocolate for you.” I called you multiple times since the morning of the 14th, expecting to meet you at Al-Salam Cafe, our favourite place at Gaza beach. It was turned off.
“You Italians beat Arabs when it comes to disrespecting time,” I remember thinking. I was planning to argue with you when I see you next or when you turn your mobile on again, thinking that you had cancelled on me. It didn’t come across my mind that there was any chance you could be in danger, here in Gaza where you always felt home! I am very sorry I misread the situation. You neither forgot about our meeting, nor my addiction to chocolate. And you wanted my drawing, until the day that I refuse to accept it being the last day of your life.
I’ve done your portrait, my dear, and I know you are smiling up there in paradise. With tears uncontrollably falling, I insisted to make it for you as I always promised. However, it breaks my heart that you weren’t able to see it. I wish I made it for you the moment you asked me to. I have to say that part of it was your fault. No. It was your humanity. You sometimes cancelled appointments with me so you go visit families of those who fell victim to the latest Israeli attack on Gaza, or to report on a new attack against fishermen by the Israeli Navy, or accompany farmers to their lands that Israel declared ‘a buffer-zone’.
You called me on the 7th of April on Friday to inform me that you delayed your travel to Italy because there were talks about another Israeli offensive on Gaza. You said then sarcastically, “Don’t worry. You have more time now to do my portrait.”
I sometimes think silently, “perhaps if you weren’t truly humane, and you didn’t care that much about the people of Gaza, this wouldn’t have happened to you, and you would be safe in Italy now.”
I know that I should not think in this way but it is my unspeakable shock over your loss that leads me to such thoughts. I went to your funeral trying to accept that you’re gone for good. I tried to be strong for you. I kept reminding myself that for a great hero like you, we shouldn’t sigh, but we should celebrate your life that you devoted in pursuit of justice for the oppressed, your courage and nobel cause.
On the third day of your funeral, your mother showed presence through a live call. Your mother is as great as you. The sorrow over your loss made Palestinians united, and your mother managed to make Italy and Gaza united, singing in one voice, “Bella Ciao.”After we finished singing “Bella Ciao” together, I spoke to your mother, assuring her that “revolutionaries never die!”
My dear Vik, I want you to know that you only left us in body but your soul will be living forever. I want you to be sure that everybody who believes in you and in justice for Palestine will keep on taking your path. I want you to know that you are our hero; you define humanity for us. ‘Stay human’ was the motto that guided every step you took. Dear Vik, you are the winner that you wanted to be. You are the dreamer who never gives up. So I hope now, my dear friend, you are resting in peace.
It hurts when I see the people I love bleeding tears. The only thing that comforts me is the fact, that we are Palestinians. Being a Palestinian means that we have strength in spite of injustice, hope in spite of the misery, and smiles in spite of pains.
Escaping from final exams pressure, I went to a wedding with my sisters. Everyone around me was smiling, clapping and dancing for the bride and the groom except for me. My smile turned into tears.
I incidentally met an old friend, from whom I had not heard anything since the ninth grade. We had been in the same class until I moved to another school. I was so happy to see her after five years. However, her situation made me feel sad.
As I greeted her, I noticed an innocent, cute child playing in front of us. “This girl is my daughter.” My friend said with a smile. “Are you joking?” I gasped. “You are only 18 years old!” I couldn’t believe my eyes. She was a mother of a two-year-old girl! I tried to pull myself together in order not to show how surprised I was. “When was your wedding? Are you happy?” I asked.
“Thank God, I am bringing up my daughter alone,” she said. I kept silent but I am sure my face’s features showed my astonishment. Many thoughts filled my brain. I was thinking if she had broken up with her husband, or if had he left her alone and travelled. I waited for her to continue because really I couldn’t speak then expecting bad news. Suddenly, she got out her wallet and showed me her husband’s picture. “Isn’t he handsome? He is not alive anymore; he was martyred,” she said proudly.
It took me quite long time to understand that she is a widow at such a young age. I didn’t say a word. I felt helpless because I was sure that her sorrow was too deep. Yet, she hid that behind the smile of pride. “How was he martyred?” I asked.
“Two years ago,” she answered with shining eyes, I felt the tears were trying to fell from her eyes but not a tear in sight. “He was in Biet_Hanoon, visiting a friend, when suddenly a rocket shelled an empty area close to him and he was one of the victims. Israel justified this with a trivial excuse as usual, seeing that the empty area is the place where resistance groups trained.”
Just looking at her red eyes following her daughter was killing me. I was bewildered. What was his fault to die in the age of twenty-three after a week of his daughter’s birth? And what is her guilt to deserve being a widow leading hers and her life alone with her daughter? I believe that it’s their destiny, but it’s really a hard one to accept. However, she had. She buried her sorrow and for her daughter, played both the role of mother and father.
I realized that the miserable Palestinian life has some good aspects. It creates iron people able to lead their lives no matter how tough the going gets. That’s why now; I am not surprised that I met my friend at a wedding. Israel has to know that we are strong enough to handle anything no matter how hard it is. In Palestine, Life goes on despite the sorrow.
I was watching a documentary report about Al-nakba Day, the day when my grandparents left their homeland by force in 15th of May, 1948. I was looking at my mother’s glittering eyes. “Are you going to cry?” I asked. “Your grandfather used to go every day to a high place in north Gaza called Alkashef Mountain. People used to see him sitting, pondering his raped homeland, Beit Gerga, and crying.” She said with that gloomy broken voice. My grandmother used to say a proverb sarcastically means that the lands are ours and the strangers fire us. She is completely right. I don’t understand how anyone could dare firing people from their lands.
Our poor grandparents thought that the immigration caesarean would be for a week or maximum two years. They were very simple and uneducated people that they didn’t understand the game that Israel and its allies played. Sadly, my grandparents died but they dreamed of return until the last moment of their lives.
I remember the times when I and my family were surrounding my grandmother listening closely to stories from her life. I used to ask her to tell us about Al-nakba every time. At first, she used to refuse complaining that she repeated that events millions of times to us. I am sure she never got fed up saying about that miserable day. She always did try to wag the nostalgia in us to our homeland which we have never seen.
When my grandparents were in Beit-gerga, their homeland, they were farmers, living for the glories of the land as every Palestinian that time. In Al-nakba Day, a ground invasion started. They became horrified. Many people from the north came running fearfully and barefoot. Huge numbers of victims died that day. One of them was my grandmother’s father. He insisted to remain home so they killed him. This was the fate of anyone who confronted them. My grandparents came to Gaza as refugees. Every single day they said “tomorrow we will return back,” but they didn’t. They died after leading that hard life and they never smelt the smell of sand again. My grandparents died but our dream of return has never died. We won’t stay refugees; we shall return.