Two years have passed since the Great Return March protests were launched. Although the protest has been suspended, the cause behind it hasn’t been resolved. In fact, 72 years have passed and the Palestinians have been waiting for their right of return as per UN resolution 194. When I look back to the first day of the march, March 30, 2018, I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia. When the people of Gaza took to the protests, they were driven by a powerful sense of hope and a new beginning. They saw glimpses of their stolen land from afar. Maybe because seeing is believing, at that moment, we truly believed that we were so close to regaining our lands. Tens of thousands of families gathered in a festive atmosphere to declare that we shall return.
As the second anniversary of the GRM approaches, my feelings haven’t changed and I can’t say that the protests have failed. My people have realistic hopes. They realize that their right of return may not be achieved through a weekly protest, yet, the GRM can’t be undermined in any way. It can’t be undermined despite the 300-plus number of martyrs and 19,000 injured. The GRM is one of the phases of the Palestinian struggle that deserves to be recorded in history; a history we are proud of.
With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the events planned to mark Palestinian Land Day will not stop. They will be different in that they will mostly be launched through virtual platforms to amplify our voices and say that we will never lose hope in regaining our land. No amount of time or oppression can steal hope from our generations, young and old. The GRM will continue to be remembered every year with Palestinian Land Day. There will be many stories of heroism and sacrifice to be told about those who participated in the GRM. The world has yet to learn about the martyrs, the first responders, the photojournalists, the protesters, the ambulance drivers, the public figures, the children, the mothers, and even the elders who have all become iconic figures of the GRM. Their stories of valor and sacrifice are a beacon that will continue to light our way toward liberation.
After attending the first protest of the Great Return March, little did I know or expect that all my upcoming Fridays would be officially booked– booked for the weekly GRM.
On the first Friday, as I packed light snacks and water and set out with my family to the encampment area east of Gaza city, I didn’t know what to expect. To any typical Palestinian living here, the word border triggers fear and images of combat. Gazans in particular have had an ample share of attacks being launched against them– three aggressions in a span of six years. It’s a place where resistance is stationed to protect the Gaza Strip from Israeli occupation incursions. The first Friday of the Great Return March was the first time for my family and I to see the separation fence which separates Gaza from the rest of occupied Palestine.
As I set foot in the encampment area, an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia took over me. I could see from 700 meters away the separation fence and the green expanse of nature that lay behind it. A spine tingling moment brought back memories of my one and only visit to Jerusalem in the year 2000. Seeing hundreds of people all standing there gave me a physical feeling of being locked up in a big cage. It was true after all; Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world with 2 million people serving their time. I suddenly remembered the novel written by Emma Donoghue, “Room” and how the five year-old believed that his whole world was that tiny dreary miserable room. Our children are no different except that they live in a big open-air prison where their lives and movement are dictated by occupation forces and they can’t imagine that other forms of life exist outside Gaza. They watch documentary films about other countries, and sit there trying to fathom that those beautiful places are actually real.
Despite all the mixed feelings, I didn’t want to spoil the moment for my children, so I pointed to the fence and said with yearning and emotion: “See, that’s our land. That’s our country behind the fence.”
It was heartbreaking and mind-boggling for me as a mother to realize that this journey to the protest was the first and only type of field trip I could offer them. They’ve always studied about Palestinian cities in their dull school textbooks and revolted, “Why can’t we go visit Jerusalem?”, or “I don’t want these pictures of the cities. I want to go see them for real!” And the biggest question that challenged my parenthood: “Mom, are we in Gaza or Palestine?”
I tried to appease my children to the best of my motherly powers, but I couldn’t hide the facts about occupation from them. I was obliged to feed them the harsh facts in bite-size pieces they can understand.
Every Friday of every week, I see the same images, yet it’s never the same. My eyes are fixed on the bordering area where masses of people are fixed holding up the Palestinian flag. I walk down the path and see they’ve relocated the field hospital tents further down the path to save the ambulances time in reaching and trying to save lives. The burning tires dominate the scene again, but have become an integral part of the protest. The black smoke is mixed with white gas which penetrates it as it is shot down at the protestors. The tear gas is shot through two ways. One is by an Israeli army jeep which fires a handful at once with some revolving apparatus connected to the jeep, and the other is through a drone which rains them down on the protesters. If it lands on any person, it could kill. One boy was targeted in the face and died from the injury.
Yet, what enthralled me on the fourth Friday of protest and all the Fridays onward was the dozens of people lined up to the farthest area allowed in the buffer zone. Looking from a distance, they seemed like trees planted in the soil and completely unruffled by the proximity of their position. Despite being sniped down, the protestors in that area have not been deterred from standing on their land holding up the Palestinian flag.
Farther away from the fence, I see some of my friends and acquaintances and I’m happy to run into them every Friday. As we shake hands, the unspoken words between us convey one message and that is: We will keep coming back to stress our right to our land. They were all eager to teach their kids something about Palestine and the right of return. The majority of people there are strangers to me, yet I feel a strong and sacred bond to them. I stop to let a man and his son pass through. His son, who is wearing a yellow shirt with: “Mish Khayef” which means “I’m not afraid” emblazoned on it in Arabic, is holding a big flag which is double his height and the father is telling him to: “Hold it up high.” The boy’s eyes look up to the flag as if he’s beholding something bigger than his world.
A friend’s 8 year-old son asked her, “Why can’t we go to our land?” His mother replied:” Because the Israeli occupation stole it.” The child’s innocent intuition prompted him to suggest: “Then we should tell the police.”
One of the most moving images I still see every Friday is beautiful young men who have become amputees from being sniped down by Israeli’s highly-trained snipers and who return to the protest every week. Their missing limbs haven’t crushed their spirits, yet as I gazed into some faces, I could see that the sparkle of life in their eyes abated. I remember how once upon a time when I was a child, my grandmother used to tell me the story of the one-legged man who may appear if I didn’t behave. But now, after so many Israeli aggressions and in the March of Return alone dozens have lost their limbs. They’re no longer a fearful childhood character; they are the heroes who marched to the separation fence demanding their legitimate right to return and to live in dignity.
The 19th Friday
A few hundred protestors at Al Shijaea encampment area. I could tell there were a lot of people from all the buses that blocked the traffic. Throngs of people gathered everywhere. Some lined up to buy juice, others walked down the dirt path with flags up high towards the tent where all the activities were held. And many more others gathered in groups or scattered about 50 meters away from the fence. Thick black smoke was rising up and wind blowing it in the direction of the snipers. Every now and then a jeep would rush by and stop to shoot tear gas canisters. But as usual, the protestors just stood there undaunted, unflinching and immovable. Someone standing watching from afar would mistake them for a static image. Ambulances rushed past me as I stood on a hilltop, splashing us with dirt. The minute you set foot on the encampment you have to be prepared to get dirty with sand and smoke. Some of the young men who set tires on fire actually have thick layers of smoke on their faces and bare arms.
The increasing numbers gave me a feeling of collective safety and solidarity as if we were all one.
100 days of protest
July 13, 2018 marked one hundred days of launching the Great Return March. I had mixed emotions and many questions in mind. Will the number of martyrs keep rising? I ventured close to where the brave hearted protestors go. I could see the soldiers fortified behind the sand hills. The protestors clearly pose no threat whatsoever to them. About 50 meters away to my right down near the fence the protesters gathered. Suddenly an ambulance swooshed by and dirt flew in our faces. There was a casualty. I saw a mass of people ebb and flow like a huge wave near the fence and return. They must’ve carried the person who was just shot. It’s amazing how when someone gets shot, people do not run in the opposite direction–They actually run towards the victim.
Later when I went home that evening, I learned that it was 14-year-old Othman Helles. He dared to try to climb the fence with his bare arms. He was just a kid. He wasn’t armed. He was just there. Other kids like him in other parts of the world spend their summers differently. People anticipate summer vacation, and have exotic plans. But here in Gaza, there aren’t many options for recreation and the protest has taken over the scene. Fridays are for protest. There are those who go to beach, others gather with families. But, there will always be protestors who know that they can never enjoy summers or winters without living in dignity and demanding their rights. Any amusement or joy with absence of rights is short-lived. That’s our reality.
The determination in the eyes of my people at the protest is unmatchable. Being a writer, my job requires looking at the tiniest details. Their faces are full of defiance and hope. I walk out of the tent where the speeches and dances are held, and walk a bit closer, 200 meters away, to get a closer look. Gunshots crack into the air, but with time, protestors get experienced from the sound of the shot and can tell if it’s only in the air or targeted at someone.
On the 23rd Friday, a group of women activists including the mother of a killed paramedic and an injured woman, all took our food and went to the encampment. We made traditional Palestinian dishes, including the famous maklooba. We sang old folk songs and imagined that we were actually having this lunch in our occupied Palestinian cities. Some commented: “Maklooba tastes so delicious near our land.” Spirits were high and elevated as always. One of the young girls who is a frequent protester was clapping and elated. I approached her and introduced myself and asked what her name was. To my surprise, she was a mute.
On the deadliest day, May 14 which was the day before the Nakba commemoration, I learn that on the other side of my occupied country, the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem is taking place. The dichotomy is too poignant to fathom. On that bloody Monday alone, some 60 people were killed across all the encampments along the Gaza Strip border.
Not all Fridays are the same. Sometimes I get depressed, at times excited, at times frustrated, at times saddened, but I know for sure that I never went home feeling defeated.
Originally published on Mondoweiss