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Will Palestine refugees really go back home?

April 24, 2018 at 9:46 am

Palestinian children hold model keys symbolizing the houses which Palestinians left as part of the Nakba, during a demonstration marking the 69th anniversary of Nakba, also known as Day of the Catastrophe in 1948, Ramallah, West Bank on 15 May, 2017 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Thousands of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been marching near the nominal border fence for the fourth consecutive Friday with their eyes on their lands and homes which were occupied by Jewish militias in 1948. Up to 700,000 indigenous Palestinian residents were forced out of their villages, town and cities during the Nakba, more than 500 of which were then wiped off the map by the Zionist gangs with the establishment of what is known as the state of Israel.

Men, women and children take part in the Great March of Return every week. From every corner in the Gaza Strip, they gather peacefully at five points along the border. Hundreds have been there since 30 March, and they intend to remain there until 15 May, when its organisers say that the protest will reach its peak.

These are largely peaceful demonstrations; the attention of the world is attracted by burning tyres, flying kites and balloons, and holding cultural events. Traditional food is prepared, marriages are announced and commemorative events take place, but will this march, during which almost 40 people have been killed by the Israelis and more than 4,000 have been wounded, achieve its goals?

“I will raise the flag”

Nakba Day 1948 - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Nakba Day 1948 – Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

According to Mahmoud Abu Ibrahim, 64, from Al-Majdal, he will return to his home inside occupied Palestine — Israel — whatever the obstacles may be. “Certainly,” he told me, “we must go back home.” Abu Ibrahim was born in exile just a couple of kilometres away from his family’s home town; he believes that his return to Al-Majdal is only a matter of time. “I am going back to Al-Majdal very soon, if God wills,” he said while noting that the Palestinians are doing their best through the Great March of Return protests.

Last Friday, the organisers moved the tents of the protest camps set up prior to 30 March a mere 50 metres closer to the border claimed by Israel. For people like Abu Ibrahim, this was highly symbolic. “It was a good sign that we are getting closer to our homeland,” he insisted.

Abdul Nabi Al-Saleebi is 70 and a refugee from Deir Esneed, adjacent to Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip. He too is hopeful that he will return one day to the house where he was born. He was alongside the dozens of young demonstrators who pulled at the barbed wire placed near the border fence. “I am from Deir Esneed and I am going back home now,” he said, while he was walking towards the fence. “I will remove the wire, go to my home and raise the flag.”

Of course, Al-Saleebi’s family home is probably no longer there. His village was occupied by the Israelis, people like the late Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who destroyed Palestinian homes and built a dairy farm in their place. Al-Saleebi said that his was six months when his mother carried him and fled to the Gaza Strip. She died two years later and he was brought up as an orphan.

Lethal force

Abdul Nabi al Saleebi during the Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip on April 2018 [Motasem A Dalloul/Middle East Monitor]

Abdul Nabi al Saleebi during the Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip on April 2018 [Motasem A Dalloul/Middle East Monitor]

Israel has responded to the Great March of Return with lethal force, despite the fact that the protesters are unarmed. Several human rights groups, as well as the UN, have described the Israeli crackdown on the peaceful protesters as illegal, given that the unarmed civilians pose no danger to the Israeli troops.

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov criticised Israel on Friday for the killing of an unarmed boy. “It is OUTRAGEOUS to shoot at children!” he wrote on his twitter account after the Israeli occupation forces shot dead 14-year-old Mohammed Ayoub. “How does the killing of a child in Gaza today help peace?” he asked. “It doesn’t! It fuels anger and breeds more killing.”

READ: 1 in 4 young Jewish Israelis support Palestinian right of return, new poll finds

Israeli officials claim that the demonstrations are violent because of the protesters throw stones at the soldiers and burn tyres. Waleed Al-Agha, an expert in international law who spent 13 years in an Israeli prison, insisted that, “Throwing stones is not a justification for Israeli soldiers to use lethal force.”

He pointed out that the stones do not pose any danger at all to any Israelis because they get nowhere near them. “The closest distance between the protesters and the Israeli snipers is between 250 and 300 metres. It means that even if the stone throwers are miraculously strong, their stones will never touch the Israeli soldiers.”

Is it effective?

Organisers and participants in the Great March of Return are convinced that they are winning this battle and will achieve their goals because the Palestinians are united in this activity and the model of such a peaceful struggle brought about the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

READ: Thousands of Palestinians in Israel participate in March of Return

Sami Naim during the Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip on April 2018 [Motasem A Dalloul/Middle East Monitor]

Sami Naim during the Great March of Return in the Gaza Strip on April 2018 [Motasem A Dalloul/Middle East Monitor]

One of the organisers, Sami Naim, said that we are witnessing the most effective unity among the Palestinian factions. “This is the first time that I can see real unity among the Palestinian political powers, which have merged with the people,” he explained. The engineer is a senior official of the Baathist Arabic Front.

Professor of Linguistics Asaad Abu Sharekh from Al-Azhar University in Gaza is another organiser of the protests. “This,” he noted, “is a typical copy of the South African experience against the apartheid regime.” Abu Sharekh stressed that the people are not seeking to achieve miracles or anything unreasonable. “After all, we are seeking to achieve rights recognised by the international community based on UN resolutions… We are sending a message to the world that we are determined to regain our rights and go back to our homes.”

Israel’s leaders have to understand

The academic asked me to wait until 15 May to see what will happen when the demonstrations reach their peak. However, even if the Palestinian refugees are not able to cross the border and go to their home towns and village by the anniversary of the 1948 Nakba, they will at least have shaken up the world’s blind support for Israel.

Nakba journey - Palestinians fleeing during the Nakba in 1948
More than 1 million Palestinians were displaced in 1948
Relive the journey of Nakba refugees

“The protests were envisaged as a grassroots nonviolent campaign to remind the world that Palestinians whose families were driven into exile during the establishment of Israel consider their right to return inviolable,” said Britain’s Guardian in an editorial. “The subjugation of Palestinians erodes Israel’s standing internationally and damages its democracy at home… Hollywood stars like Natalie Portman have understood the dangerous turn Israel is taking. It would be a good idea if the nation’s leaders did too.”

Israel’s leaders understand all too well what is happening, which is why they respond with lethal force. They know that the dubious legitimacy of their state is built on lies and falsehoods, and that they cannot expect to bluster and bully the world community forever. The Palestinians in Gaza may not be going home just yet, but their time will surely come.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.