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.
Edward Said once eloquently wrote,
To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feel: ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence. But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile.
This shared state of suffering and exile has started since 1948 when the Zionist state of Israel waged its so-called War of Independence, which Palestinians call al-Nakba. Then, the series of Palestinian tragedies of uprootedness, dispossession and state of permanent temporality of the exile began; more than 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their villages and currently number more than six million Palestinians dispersed within the Occupied Territories and in exile, mostly in the neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
As Palestinians are commemorating the 67th of Nakba, my grandmother, whose no longer present in my life, feels more present in my thoughts and closer to my heart than any other day. As children, my grandmother brought up my siblings and me while my parents went to work. The more I became aware of the challenging life she led, the more I admired her. She was truly a fighter. The picture above was shot during the first Intifada when Jabalia Refugee Camp was under curfew and no one was allowed to enter the camp. This picture was printed on the front page of Al-Ayyam, a local magazine with a caption reading “Palestinian women arguing with an Israeli soldier at the entrance of the camp”. Armless as she stood without any fear, shouting powerfully at an armed-to-teeth Israeli soldier who ironically seem scared of her. She was filled with anger for being prohibited to enter and go to her home where my grandfather was dying. Dad saved the picture in spite of my grandmother’s rejection. She was frightened of this picture as she thought, “the Israeli occupation can do anything. A picture can make you a convict”.
My generation, the third-generation refugees, was deeply blueprinted with the traumatic events of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event that resides in the past, only to be commemorated once a year with events that include demonstrations, clashes with the Israeli forces, art exhibits and national festivals among other things. The memories of the old days in our green villages were our day and night stories that we were brought up hearing, our lullabies that always put us to sleep. I am no exception.
Since Nakba, my grandmother led a life of exile, which Edward Said described as, “the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home”. It always felt to me that she was incomplete, torn in between her physical place Jabalia Refugee Camp, and the place that she was dispossessed and exiled from Beit-Jerja. Nevertheless, my grandmother embraced the dream to return to Beit-Jerja until the last day of her life. She made sure her grandchildren memorize the stories she always repeated of the old days without any boredom as if stressing, “Never forget!”
“It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that it was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. The Nakba is experienced instead as the uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given continuity by the 1967 occupation, and which every aspect of daily Palestinian life is affected by. Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus and olive trees, the tastes, the sounds, the smells that remained only in her memories in our village Beit-Jirja which was violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages. My grandmother, then, was a pregnant mother with a 2-year-old boy when she lived the trauma of the Nakba, a fact that made her deliver her second child before time as she was in panic making her way to northern Gaza.
At the beginning, she thought it would be a matter of few weeks and in no time, she would return and harvest the crops of olives, grapes and citrus fruits that they left behind. But they never did, or – to keep the hope alive – let’s say they didn’t return yet. Though illiterate, she understood the aim behind the United Nations’ ‘humanitarian’ work, which, she argued, wasn’t to ‘solve’ the problem of the displaced people back them, but to sentence them to a life-long refugee status. She could foresee that the aids that the UN provided were part of a systematic process aimed at making Palestinian refugees forget about their political rights and strip them from their past, a deliberate process that seeks to get them locked in the moment waiting to receive some help or charity to survive.
Similarly, the Palestinian intellectual Jabra I. Jabra, who was born in the same year as my grandmother in 1920, reflected on his memories of Nakba and in a very bitter language he wrote, “the dislodged population was to be deliberately called ‘refugees’” and that “the horrific political and human issue would be twisted that the maximum response it might elicit from a then weary world would be some act of charity, if at all”, and “we would be lumped together with them (the Second World War refugees), at worst another demographic case for the United Nations”, and the systematic destruction and ethnic cleansing of Palestine would be “soon to be hailed by hack novelists and propagandists in America and Europe as a heroic ‘return’”. Then the victims, who paid a devastating price for a crime committed in Europe, will be told: “You’re refugees, don’t make a nuisance of yourselves: we’ll do something about it. Refugee aid after a few months will trickle in: you’ll be numbered and housed in tattered tents and tin shacks. And try and forget, please. Hang on to your rocks wherever you are, and try to forget”.
Zionism has been clearly concerned about the Palestinian refugees whose negation is the most consistent thread running through Zionism. It has desperately attempted to erase them from the dominant narrative that reduced the settler-colonial Zionist project to a ‘heroic return’ and a mere ‘re-claiming’ of a land originally promised to them by God. Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir who notoriously once said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed”, assumed that time will make the Palestinian refugees forget about their right to return: ‘The old will die and the young will forget’. Similarly, Ben-Gurion once bluntly said, “We must do everything to ensure that they never do return!” However, Palestinians, generation after generation, have demonstrated that forgetting was deemed just impossible and unthinkable. Thus, it is no wonder that the issues of the Palestinian refugees, as well as the Palestinian citizens of ‘Israel’ are the ones that electrify Israel the most.
As Jabra I. Jabra once stressed, “The Palestinian may still be an exile and a wanderer, but his voice is raised in anger, not in lamentation”. Currently, Palestinians, including intellectuals, artists, journalists and activists, are dispersed everywhere, doing every thing possible to make the issue of Palestine reclaim its centrality in the world’s political arena. The Palestinian struggle for liberation has become a global struggle thanks to the collective efforts of justice believers around the world. This anger shall keep resonating as long as Palestinians keep enduring the injustices that were brought to them due to the existence of the Zionist state of Israel, regardless of their geographic location. Countless examples of Palestinians have constantly demonstrated that even if the elderly die without returning, the young will keep on holding the key, embracing their legitimate right to return.
“It doesn’t matter if he goes to Gaza,” said Zahra Sharawna, Ayman Sharawna’s mother. “To be freed is the most important thing.” I understand how these words could come from a mother who fears for her son’s life. She, driven by her motherly emotions, simply wants him to live, even if many Israeli apartheid checkpoints separate her from him. But I must question was that actually the victory that Ayman Sharawna’s hunger strike aimed to accomplish, to get out of prison alive regardless of release conditions? I don’t think so.
A Palestinian’s fight has never been about oneself. It has always been a collective resistance of different forms, for the sake of collective justice for all Palestinian people. Some national principles identify our struggle for freedom. Every Palestinian revolutionary should be armed with them. One is embracing our right to return as the most sacred and ultimate goal.
“One whose hands are in water isn’t like one whose hands are in fire.” This traditional saying always comes to mind when I encounter a complicated situation many people would find it easy to judge superficially. I am not in a position to imagine the kind of inhumane pressure to which Ayman Shrawna was subjected. However, being a daughter of a former prisoner who served 15 years, and having intensively read and heard many ex-detainees’ prison experiences, makes me better able to guess.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights condemned Israel’s expulsion of Sharawna to Gaza calling it a “forcible deportation” which is a violation of international law. As such Israel alone is responsible, and we must consider that Sharawna is not acting of his own will.
But still, I was shocked to hear that the man who remained steadfast for nearly eight months of hunger strike, who tolerated all the pain and pressure attached to it, succumbed to such blackmail, to be expelled to Gaza for at least ten years in exchange for his release. This wasn’t the victory of which I personally expected to hear. I reacted to the news with a shocked face and stony eyes, unable to shed a single tear.
Emotionally, I could celebrate and agree with Ayman that “both are my people, whether in Gaza or Hebron.” But I can’t help listening to my inner worries. I believe that our emotional reactions and stances will only serve the Israeli occupation’s long-term goals: turning the Gaza Strip into a ghetto isolated from Palestine, and expelling as many people as possible from the occupied territories in the West Bank and ‘48 Palestine. My fears that this will open the gate for Israel to intensify its systematic policy of ethnic cleansing against more Palestinian political prisoners left me unable to taste the victory in Ayman Sharawna’s release.
These worries flooded my mind, but Samer Issawi’s statement on deportation lessened my stress and cultivated hope instead. His opinion was just what I expected, wonderful and strong from a stubborn man of dignity and poise, who continues his hunger strike of nearly seven months and doesn’t give up his principles for the sake of his own physical relief. He is aware of the long-term aims behind the inhumane practices of the Israeli occupation. He believes that his detention, a violation itself, cannot be fixed with a further violation.
According to him, this hunger strike isn’t a personal battle; rather, it’s a collective one. He refuses to be released with the condition of deportation, even within our historic Palestine.
Fawwaz Shloudi, a Palestinian lawyer, managed to visit Samer Issawi after many attempts and asked him whether he will ever agree to be deported to Gaza in exchange for his freedom. Samer answered:
Regarding the Israeli occupation’s offer to deport me to Gaza, I affirm that Gaza is undeniably part of my homeland and its people are my people. However, I will visit Gaza whenever I want or feel like it, as it is within my homeland, Palestine, which I have the right to wander whenever I like, from the very north to the very south. I strongly refuse to be deported to Gaza as this practice will just bring back bitter flashbacks from the expulsion process to which our Palestinian people were subjected during 1948 and 1967.
We are fighting for the sake of the freedom of our land and the return of our refugees in Palestine and the diaspora, not to add more deportees to them. This systematic practice by Israel that aims to empty Palestine of Palestinians and bring strangers in their place is a crime. Therefore, I refuse being deported and I will only agree to be released to Jerusalem, as I know that the Israeli occupation aims to empty Jerusalem of its people and turn Arabs into a minority group of its population. The issue of deportation is no longer a personal decision, it is rather a national principle. If every detainee agrees to be deported outside Jerusalem under pressure, Jerusalem will eventually be emptied of its people.
I would prefer dying on my hospital bed to being deported from Jerusalem. Jerusalem is my soul and my life. If I was uprooted from there, my soul would be uprooted from my body. My life is meaningless away from Jerusalem. No land on earth will be able to embrace me other than Jerusalem. Therefore, my return will be only to Jerusalem and nowhere else. I advice all Palestinians to embrace their land and villages and never succumb to the Israeli occupation’s wishes. I don’t see this issue as a personal cause that is related to Samer Issawi. It is a national issue, a conviction and a principle that every Palestinian who loves his homeland’s sacred soil should hold. Finally, I reaffirm for the thousandth time that I continue my hunger strike until either freedom and return to Jerusalem or martyrdom! (original translation by author)
International law prohibits the expulsion and transfer of people in occupied territories, be it deportation to another country or forced relocation within the occupied territory. Security Council Resolution 607 “calls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “strongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But these words, as history proves to us, are merely words. We have experienced enough empty words and conventions and “international human rights laws” that do NOT apply to us, as if our humanity is in question.
If the United Nations and the all the world’s governments keep of taking this submissive stance on Israel’s crimes and watch, reacting only with silence, we should NOT normalize their violations even if it costs us our lives. People like Samer Issawi teach us how to stand firm and not compromise our rights. Thank you, Samer, for teaching us how meaningless life is without freedom and dignity.