“I always imagine the day that the camps will become empty. I ask myself, as we’re returning, will we feel sad for the camps?”
By Qassam Muaddi
“People from all ages, entire families with their children were gathering at the bus. It was a completely new idea and we didn’t know how was it going to turn out”. Huda Amer, 27-year-old from Gaza city recalls that morning in 2018 vividly, as if it just had happened. “ Buses came from all over the Gaza Strip towards the Eastern fence. People on the bus were excited. Some, the more innocent ones, were wondering to each other if they were really going to return that day”.
Every year on this date, Palestinians like Huda all over the world repeat one single word more than any other: Nakba. Arabic for “Catastrophe”. It refers to the mass expulsion of Palestinians from their home towns in 1948. And whenever the Nakba is mentioned, the opposite of it, the “return” is mentioned too.
“When we arrived at the fence, we saw the soldiers and their military vehicles on the other side” says Huda, as she brings back the first moments of the “Great March of Return” when Palestinians in Gaza decided to commemorate the Nakba differently. “I got emotional and couldn’t hold my tears, at the sight of people marching towards the fence. It’s our land, it looked so distant, and yet so close”.
The Great March of Return protests started on March 30, the commemoration of Land Day
At that exact same sight, through television and through the internet, millions around the globe were reminded, while others learned for the first time some basic facts about the Nakba: It happened at the same time the state of Israel was created. It left hundreds of thousands of refugees, who grew to millions, including three-quarters of the people of Gaza. It still is a major issue in the Middle East conflict, and, for some reason, even younger generations of Palestinians identify with it.
Before 1948, Palestinians were one cohesive society living in Palestine, with a growing diaspora of emigrants, especially in the Americas. Today, the Palestinian people are around 13 million, fragmented in different places and political contexts. In historical Palestine, near 6.4 million Palestinians are isolated, between the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Jerusalem city and the 1948 territories. Near 4 million are refugees in different Arab countries and the rest, scattered across the five continents. Lacking political unity, the memory of the Nakba is one of the elements around which millions of Palestinians everywhere, identify with each other as a people.
“The legacy of the Nakba follows you since childhood if you’re born as refugee”, explains 26-year-old Dina Fares from the Jalazon refugee camp near Ramallah, in the West Bank. “It’s a matter of consciousness. How to say where are you from when you’re asked? Am I from Jalazon or from Lydda? You need to identify somewhere and you know the camp is not home. You understand there’s a problem, very early on”.
The Jalazon refugee camp near Ramallah, in the West Bank.
This early consciousness is shared by Huda, who says that “even if we didn’t think or speak about it all the time, the Nakba was always around the corner”. For her too, it all starts at self-identification; “I never got used to the confusion when someone asks where I’m from until I decided to start answering that I’m from where my grandfather was expelled; Yafa”.
For others, the Nakba means to feel and to live as a stranger. “It’s like living with two personalities” says Aminah Al Ashqar, 26-year-old Palestinian from Burj Al Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon. “At school, I didn’t feel different, until my friend’s parents didn’t let come to my house, because I live in the camp”. Explains Aminah; “All the questions start to pop-up; How did we get here? Why aren’t we going back to where we belong? Why am I Palestinian and not Lebanese? You either deny your identity as a Palestinian or, for most of us, revendicate it even more”
One of the aspects of the Nakba is that it looks always recent, and always personal. One reason for that is that the geographical and political discontinuity of the Palestinians impacts almost every family. In fact, the different status that Palestinians have, depending on where they live, makes it difficult to overcome this fragmentation.
Aminah Al Ashqar, at Burj Al Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, Lebanon.
“Whenever one person can live, a family member can’t, and vice-versa”, Aminah explains; “For instance, the last time my grandmother saw her son, my father, was in 1993. She is in Lybia. We can’t go visit her, neither she can visit us. My finacé’s family hasn’t seen his uncle since 1991”. It’s common to hear that being Palestinian means having relatives all over the world. But for Aminah, it’s more than that; “The difference is that we, Palestinian refugees, don’t have the choice. If we get separated, we might not be able to reunite. It’s the lack of freedom of choice”.
That freedom of choice is shared by Dina; “Our family was entirely displaced into the West Bank. We have no relatives left back in Lydda, or elsewhere. Lydda is my place of origin, but I can’t relate to it. I’ve never been there and has certainly changed a lot since 1948”. She then stresses that “It’s not about our original hometown inv itself or about the physical connection to a specific place. It’s more about freedom of choice”.
Still alive …
“One of the things that the Nakba has made to the Palestinian people is fragmentation. It means to cut the natural connections between the different parts of a population” explains Dina, who works today as a legal researcher at Badil, the Palestinian center for refugee rights. She explains that “at Badil, we try to overcome that fragmentation, by reconnecting Palestinian youth from different places and educate them on their rights”. For many young Palestinians, acknowledging and educating about the Nakba is part of its legacy. “When I work on the Nakba and refugee rights, I don’t feel external. It’s my own story”, says Dina.
Huda, who works as journalist in Gaza, has a similar approach; “As a Palestinian, in general, not only as a refugee, I want to do a work that respects the Palestinian cause and advocates for it”. Huda covers news and edits stories, but she saves some time for more direct activism “I participate in media campaigns to advocate for the Palestinian cause, the right of return, the prisoners and Jerusalem”. Huda underlines that “ It’s not a charity, it’s a commitment. It’s about being consistent with myself”.
And Resist …
That consistency, Aminah thinks, is what lacks in the world today, when it comes to Palestine and the Nakba; “The fact that this is continuing, that an entire people are still living in a refugee, temporary status, seventy years on, is a ‘catastrophe’ in itself”. That is why Aminah participates in talking tours, especially in the US as a public speaker, to acknowledge the Palestinian cause; “I try to bring the topic of refugeehood and displacement from a Palestinian perspective. People in the US don’t hear it from our side very often, as Palestinian refugees, especially in Lebanon, rarely get the chance to travel freely and speak about their cause”.
A Palestinian perspective that includes also possible ends of the ongoing Nakba; “return, reparations, self-determination, that is the only way the Nakba can be over”, says Dina. “I always imagine the day that the camps will become empty. I ask myself, as we’re returning, will we feel sad for the camps?”, exclaims Aminah, “I like to call it ‘Day One’ because it will be the first day that we will have real lives and no longer be just refugees, but complete human beings”. Huda thinks that “we have no choice now but to hold to our narrative and pass it over, and hold to any form of resistance until we get our rights back”.
Those rights, according to the Palestinian official stand for the last 25 years, are to be reached through a political settlement, and the creation of a Palestinian state. However, this view isn’t shared by these Palestinian young women, as many of their generation; “Seventy years of politics have got us nowhere” insists Huda, “what we need to do is to resist”. Or as Dina puts it; “Statehood is a separate issue. Our rights are fundamental human ones, they should not be conditioned by political compromises”.