There is a depth of sadness in the deep brown-eyed gaze of Islam Asalya that makes the observer uncomfortable, because you just know that there is a tragic story unfolding in there somewhere. Sadly, this young Palestinian student comes from Gaza, so his penetrating stare is all too familiar among those who live in the besieged enclave.
Like many living in the Gaza Strip, Islam continues to resist the brutal Israeli occupation against overwhelming odds, the same odds faced by other Palestinians living in besieged Nablus and Jenin and other hard-pressed communities in the occupied West Bank.
Israel is currently forming a new government that will, no doubt, include open advocates of mass murder and ethnic cleansing. Other governments in other countries have carried out such crimes, of course, but none will be seen to have been as quite as brazen as the latest batch of far-right extremists filling the Knesset. Indeed, all Israeli governments have murdered unarmed civilians, but they have generally been careful to deny it in order to save the blushes of their friends in Washington, London, Berlin and Brussels. No wonder that so many Palestinians are now engaged in legitimate resistance against Israel's brutal military occupation.
Such courage is admirable, and Israel's tired "self-defence" narrative was discredited long ago, but what we sometimes forget as we look at the carnage that the occupation state inflicts on the people of Palestine is the high price that extraordinary Palestinians pay for their heroic resistance. Behind Islam Asalya's sad eyes, for example, lies the fact that more than 30 members of his family have been martyred, and it is a miracle that he has survived to bear witness to that loss.
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Speaking from his wheelchair in quiet defiance of Israel and its hegemonic posturing, Islam Asalya recently addressed hundreds of delegates at an international conference about Israel's brutal occupation, savagery and powerful arsenal, including nuclear weapons. Among those listening intently to the young man from Gaza were the parents of the heroic paramedic martyr Razan Al-Najjar and the father of Mohammed Al-Durrah, the 12-year-old boy murdered by an Israeli soldier in full view of the world's media in September 2000. Razan was just 21 when, as a volunteer paramedic in 2018, she was shot by an Israeli sniper as she helped wounded Palestinians. One week later, her mother and sister were on the front line in the same role. Heroism indeed.
With trademark Palestinian defiance, Islam assured the hundreds of delegates at the Al-Aqsa International Conference held in Karbala, Iraq — organised by the Global Campaign to Return to Palestine — that despite Israel's savagery and powerful weapons, Palestinians in Gaza are strong in their determination to resist. Among those listening in silence was Mick Napier, one of the co-founders of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
"I am Islam Asalya, from the Gaza Strip, Palestine. I am in a wheelchair and 34 years old. I studied until the secondary school stage in Gaza. I was injured three times by the Israeli occupation forces. I was wounded by bombing from the planes, and most of my family casualties were caused by the repeated Israeli bombing. Some of them were martyred by sniper fire from the tanks. My last injury was in 2008, following which I went for treatment to Egypt and then to Turkey, where I received support because of my being an orphan."
Islam didn't focus solely on his hardships. He illustrated his tremendous will to live and defy the occupation.
"I completed a Masters in political science and international relations at Yeditepe University in Istanbul in 2017," he continued, "and I am studying there now for a doctorate, which — God Willing — I hope to complete by 2024."
Returning to his narration of his family's awful situation in Gaza, Islam explained that the Israeli occupation army bombed his home in 2006. More than 30 members of his family have been martyred at the hands of the Israelis in just 21 years.
"Among these martyrs is my brother. Martyrs in Gaza walk the earth. Every individual awaits martyrdom. As our Lord says in the Qur'an, they wait for martyrdom, and they remain true to their words. Every household has a martyr, a veteran or a prisoner; this has become an absolute part of life for us. Every house has paid a high price for Palestine."
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After the speech Napier told me, "Islam Asalya, Sabreen Al-Najjar and Jamal Al-Durrah embody the profound truth that in an anti-colonial struggle, indeed in any popular struggle, it is not the brutes who do the most killing with the latest high-tech weaponry who inevitably win. It is the oppressed and violated who can absorb that insane cruelty and carry on resisting. With sons and daughters like these, the Palestinian people will one day win their liberation."
Here in Britain, we still turn out every year on Remembrance Sunday in early November because of the high price paid by the heroes of two World Wars. Most of us would struggle, though, to find any family whose human losses ran into double figures.
Islam Asalya has lost 30 members of his family to Israeli bombs, shelling, air raids and missile strikes, and he is confined to a wheelchair. He gave MEMO photographs of some of these martyrs so that we can see the high price that the Asalya family has already paid for Palestine. We should salute and honour them every bit as much as we honour our own family members who sacrificed so much for us.
I am not surprised that there is a sadness in Islam's eyes, but it is a sadness that can be found in almost any family in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. So how much longer are we going to sit back and let these heroic people pay such a high price for their country and legitimate rights? How much longer is our government in Westminster going to pay lip-service to human rights and justice while continuing to support the murderous Zionist regime in Israel? How much longer before sanctions are applied to the apartheid state? Apply sanctions today and end the Israeli occupation tomorrow. It's the least we can do.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.