Not Just Another Day
On the morning of the second Sunday of May 2011, Beirut was sluggishly waking up. Nothing seemed unusual or special, apart from some intruding grey clouds leftover from the harsh winter of that year. Clouds or not, it was a warm spring weekend where the most pressing issue for Beirutis was to get their shopping done before noon for a grand Sunday lunch.
Elsewhere, on the margins of Lebanon’s reality, in concealed pockets known as Palestinian refugee camps, the date 15 May 2011 was not just another lazy Sunday. At gathering points around each camp, Palestinian refugees packed lunch baskets, got dressed in their finest fashion, and decided that on that day, everyone would sport the same colors. Palestinians of all ages held flags of Palestine as they hopped into buses and readied themselves for a day that had been months in the making. Some called it a picnic at the Maroun al-Ras park in south Lebanon, but the majority of those riders called it the Day of Return.
Thousands of Palestinians in Lebanon across twelve refugee camps, and many “informal gatherings”, moved in sync with their brethren in camps in Damascus and Amman on 15 May 2011. Buses were packed with Palestinians as they rolled in one direction. Their destination: Palestine.
I woke up early that day, disturbed by a brutal headache from revelry the night before, where some of us had gathered at a street corner, chatting till dawn, intoxicated and euphoric about the return on which we were about to embark. This, however, didn’t stop me from getting ready to join the bus I was assigned to catch by Mar Elias camp on the outskirts of Beirut. Before I left my apartment I made sure my red kuffiya was wrapped around my neck. To remedy the monstrous hangover, I chugged a substantial amount of coffee then ran out to catch the return buses heading south.
There were no signs or hints in Beirut on that Sunday morning that would indicate the grand day of return that was being thoroughly organized and put into action. Outside Mar Elias camp, there was eight buses and a sea of people that would require at least eight more buses. The organizers didn’t expect the turnout to be so disproportionate to their plans. Buses filled with their maximum capacity started to drive away, many of us fidgeting with anxiety fearing there wouldn't be any spaces left for us to ride and we might get left behind. More buses arrived and I quickly slipped in to reserve my seat. As I sat down and looked around I remarked that this bus was a mixed basket - my ears registered so many different Arabic dialects. There were not just Palestinians, but Bahrainis, Yemenis, Syrians, Egyptians and some Lebanese. Everyone became a Palestinian going home. A home we had never been able to inhabit physically; rather it was constructed lavishly in our collective memory and forever rooted deeply in our collective unconscious.
The bus driver was playing a mix-tape of revolutionary songs from the '80s mixed with oldies from the time of the Grand Palestinian revolution. The sound system blasted on. Some energetic morning-people shouted their singing over the system and I personally wished I had an Arab-Rap mix-tape on me. It was the first half of 2011, a time when Arab Rap emerged to become the genre of the Arab revolutions that were raging in the region all around Palestine. Inside the bus, a buzz ensued; intense conversation bounced backward, forward, and side-to-side, people getting to know each other, and imagining how it was going to be once we reached the border.
On the wide highway between Saida and Sur return buses raced, honked horns, and people flashed victory signs and waved flags out of the windows. Each time one bus zoomed by another, young Palestinian boys and girls flashed their best smiles, joyful eyes met and locked, conversing without words they said, “Yes! This is finally happening we are going back home, fuck the camps!” When we reached the final road that leads to the border, our bus slowed down. All we could see ahead of us was a long chain of bumper-to-bumper buses moving sluggishly. It was now one o’clock, the southern sun above us was blazing and there was no way people would be confined inside these buses. Impatiently people started pouring out of their buses to the green fields dotted by yellow daisies. We followed suit, one by one hopping out of our bus and trailing behind a long human chain that went down the valley then up the hill, walking through narrow streets of southern border villages until we reached the hill overlooking Palestine.
While trailing up the hill brushing through wildflowers and daisies I slowed my pace at one point to listen to an old Palestinian man leaning on a cane. He was walking with his grandson, no older than 10, and telling him the story of the time he was forced out of Palestine and had to carry his nine-year-old sister while escaping to Lebanon over these very same mountains and paths. The old man spoke to his grandson of the beauty of Palestine and described how their home looked. This same story that became the Palestinian Nakba was retold throughout the march to the border that day. Finally, as we gradually drew closer to the border, he told the young boy, “Soon you will go and see Palestine, the most beautiful country I have ever seen. It’s where we come from. It’s our land.”
Home In Plain Sight
The moment we reached the final point of our destination on Maroun al-Ras a sea of people flooded the hill overlooking Palestine. Group selfies were snapped with Palestine in the background; with each new photo, more people joined the frame. What caught my attention was the river of people trickling down the steep hill pouring all the way to the dividing fence. The day of return, according to the organizers, was supposed to be limited to the premises of the park on the hill overlooking Palestine.
I joined that stream at the steep hill, thinking it was a crazy, dangerous descent. Around me I saw Palestinians of old age holding hands, determined while descending cautiously. At the sight of teenage boys and girls running down that slope showing no signs of hesitation, my body got over its inhibitions and pressed on ahead. At the separating fence, the whole idea of a symbolic activity of gathering at the border turned into a notion that had felt impossible up until that moment of confrontation with our homeland. Return became a real possibility. The whole idea of having to wait until the UN or the world would grant us “permission” to fulfill our right of return ended right then and there. Return to Palestine went from an imaginative “one-day we will go back” idea to a realistic feasible possibility that could be organized directly. With the homeland in sight, many people realized that return only seems impossible until it’s done.
And the return started to take place as the youngest went to the fence and started climbing it amongst shouts and screams of the roughly 2,000 people raging against the taunting Israeli soldiers on the other side. The crowd at the fence were struck by a multitude of emotions: the elders remembered, reminisced, and cried for being kept away for home for too long, and the young saw home for the first time. Some were petrified, others dumbfounded by how close home was. The bus drive had been only two hours away but how far it had felt from within the oppressive camps.
Clack clack. The sound bounced and echoed around us resulting in a momentary calm that shattered all the previous emotion and sentimentality. A moment later a body dropped to the ground, blood staining his shirt. He is not moving… “shaheed shaheed, [martyr]” came in roars: people went mad. A young boy from ‘Ain al-Hilwa camp next to the fence succumbed to the ground, the bullets of an Israeli sniper from the other side of the fence killed him instantly. I was about three hundred meters away from the fence when the first of six martyrs was killed on that day. As I took a minute to grasp what just happened I saw a pack of shirtless men surging out of the crowd and galloping in my direction, between them was a flimsy body soaked in blood. “Shaheed shaheed! Move out of the way,” they shouted as they carried him up to the paramedics stationed on the hill.
This system, the UN, UNRWA, the international community, call it what you want, was never meant to protect us or stop the occupation of our land and grant us justice by granting us our right of return.
The murder of this young returnee charged the whole scene. The Israeli way of murdering unarmed Palestinians provoked everyone into a fit of rage; the trickling stream of people coming down the hill turned into a furious river once the news reached the hill. The youngest ones at the fence were triggered, tossing volleys across the border, and using anything that could be found on the ground: gravel, stones, pieces of dry wood, and even when there was nothing to be found someone took off their shoes, aimed, and shot it across the fence. In the middle of this chaos, someone found a landmine and started digging around it to unearth it. At the sight of this weapon, more boys joined in digging it out with their bare hands. The landmine covered by rust was a relic left deep in the ground from times of Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. The angry young ones continued ravaging the earth, digging out the landmine, until stopped by others.
The 15 of May 2011 was a day that ended with blood. Six young Palestinians were murdered by Israeli snipers. That historic day would have lasted if it wasn’t for the Lebanese army forcefully ending it by shooting thousands of rounds above our heads scaring people to flee in a frenzy. On that day, the way to return to Palestine was demonstrated. People realized that this is how we’ll return, but most of all Palestinian refugees in Lebanon became fully convinced that there is no alternative to the inhumane life in the camps but the right of return. Going back to the camps after that day was a massive anti-climax; Palestine was in sight, home was felt, touched, seen, and smelled for the first time by a whole new generation who, since they were born, were breastfed the meaning of home, their imagination nourished by stories about the beauty of life in the villages and cities. This is the generation that experiences the calamity of displacement at every sunrise and spends sleepless nights shedding tears for the brutal injustices they endure, caused by the Nakba that started seventy years ago and hasn’t ever stopped.
In the weeks and months that followed, Palestinians buried their new martyrs and went into mourning again. In every camp, the possibility of return that they experienced on that day was told: reminisced and retold, retracing every detail of it. People finally concluded that it was a day that must be repeated, that their return and how it will happen is now lucid, imaginable, foreseeable, and inevitable.
I recently had a conversation with few friends from the Shatila refugee camp and I asked them if they still remember that day on the border and how much worse life has become in the last seven years in the camps. They told me, “We’ve stopped expecting anything that we could count on to further our cause or make our lives better from a system that has continuously failed us. This system, the UN, UNRWA, the international community, call it what you want, was never meant to protect us or stop the occupation of our land and grant us justice by granting us our right of return. When we return it’s going to be exactly as we did it in 2011: it’s going to be us Palestinians finding the right moment to leave these camps once and for all and go home. We must learn from our people in Gaza, how they are plotting their return and getting ready for when our turn will come.”
The Great Return March
Today, Palestinians besieged inside the Gaza strip are pushing for their right of return to the forefront, and with this, they are galvanizing the crushed souls of their brethren scattered in refugee camps around Palestine. The raging Palestinians in Gaza are sowing hope in a moment of history where hope seems irrational for people who have been deprived from justice while forcefully being kept out of their home for 70 years. It is also a moment in history for the Israeli occupation system to be aware of - the fact that the life they have built on the agony of the colonized Palestinians is now losing its assurance.
For at least seventy years, the Israeli colonization of Palestine has avoided no extremist tactic, be it terror or torture, but instead of being subjugated to this injustice, Palestinians have regrouped and revamped continuously. As the martyr Bassel Al-Araj has remarked, Palestinians have simultaneously identified a single enemy even as they are now besieged and forcibly dispersed, they still find in suffering a spiritual community that will give birth to yet another bastion of the Palestinian intifada. This is happening now!
The Great Return March is a forty-five-day protest along the border between Gaza and Israel. It began on 30 March, Land Day, which commemorates the 1976 killings of six Palestinians by Israel who had been protesting land confiscations, and ends on 15 May, the seventieth anniversary of the Nakba, the mass displacement, ethnic cleansing and occupation of Palestine during the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel.
While we scroll through our social media timelines we must pay attention to how Palestinians have been getting maimed and killed by Israeli soldiers, to witness how Israel is setting another precedent in murder and impunity while testing/marketing weapons and crowd control tactics. As of writing this, Israeli soldiers have killed 50 unarmed Palestinian protesters and not one Israeli has been killed or injured since March 30 2018. Five of those killed were children and two were journalists. Israeli sharpshooters fatally injured the vast majority of participants in protests. According to MSF, the unusual severe gunshot injuries, “...where the bullet has literally destroyed tissue after having pulverized the bone...” leaves most of these patients with “disabilities for life.” A method that Israel uses to stop people from protesting: you could be next.
Therefore, a terrifying murder style by Israel must be looked at closely to understand the method behind the kind of deliberate wounds inflicted on unarmed protesters in Gaza by Israeli soldiers. Such crowd control tactics will soon be deployed against other populations by their own governments, since Israel has been training the police forces of various countries from Asia, Europe, and America. Consequently, the Palestinian struggle for liberation becomes universal, again mediated through the bodies of Palestinians that, at this stage, function for experimenting new weapons and subjugation tactics to be exported by a predatory state to whichever regime is trying to contain their angry populations.
We must take note of how Israel continues to kill fathers, arrest mothers, and fragment families, resulting in scattered and innumerable orphans. Human beings at the start of their life are hit by a disturbing shock to their psyche when they become orphaned by military occupation forces and tend to develop a grim prospect about the meaning of life. In their quest to answer the why of what befell them, their life becomes centered on a daily struggle against their oppressors, so they remedy their bruised souls with a commitment to vengeance. Here our collective memory supplies us with many inspiring stories about orphans that grew up and rebelled against the oppression around them. Stories that stretch back all the way to ‘Issa the son of Mariam, to Mohamad, the prophet, to the revolutionary Husayn, his grandson, to al-Qassam, to Dalal al-Mughrabi, to now Bassel al-Araj and Amed Jarar, and many more tales of local heroes that inspire and indicate the way. This orphan turned hero is born again with each generation that has lived under Israeli occupation for more than seventy years. These children that Israel deprived of their childhood and innocence are yet another generation of a long series of resistance fighters. Like that day of return that took place seven years ago today, the Great Return March in besieged Gaza is another attempt in this ongoing anti-colonialist struggle that will be repeated again and again until justice and the return home are realized.