Two months in the home Israel has denied me

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I returned to my homeland in Palestine to see and experience what I had only heard from family stories.

Tears started rolling down my cheeks as soon as the bus crossed the Rafah border and reached the besieged Gaza Strip. After a grueling two-and-a-half-day journey across the Sinai desert in the summer heat, and a lifetime’s worth of waiting, I finally arrived home.

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On the other side, I was greeted by my cousins ​​and later by the rest of my family, all of whom were very similar to me and my siblings.

It was the first time I had met my family in my 23 years of life. Up to this point, our relationship had been limited to WhatsApp voice messages and Skype calls on special occasions or during Israel’s regular military attacks on Gaza.


Like many Palestinians living in the diaspora, I have never had the honor of visiting my homeland, Palestine, due to the brutal Israeli military occupation, and the illegal Israeli siege in the context of Gaza, which denies our right of return .

However, like many Palestinians living in the diaspora, I find that distance has only made my heart yearn for my land and my yearning for return has been at the forefront of my activism.

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Since I was a child, growing up in the city of Seattle, United States, my father instilled in me and my siblings the stories of his childhood, the heritage of my grandmother Zerefa, whose name I inherited, and the Palestinian The complex reality of what it means to be.

The story of my family is like the stories of many Palestinian families: a story of eviction, exile, isolation and struggle.

In 1948, my grandmother Zarefa was forcibly evicted from her home in Beit Daras, 30 km (20 mi) north of Gaza, along with her entire family, in an ethnic cleansing campaign known as Al Naqba, the Disaster. Zionist militias attacked the town, and like many other Palestinian villages, towns and cities, razed it to the ground. Its land now lies barren with only the ruins of Palestinian houses and the two lone pillars of the mosque of Beit Daras bearing witness that our ancestors once lived there and tended their land as peasants – farmers.

At only six years old, Zarefa and her family found refuge in Gaza’s Burez camp, where she grew up, fell in love with my grandfather, and raised her family in the neighboring Nusirat camp.

As a result of the eviction in Nakba, Zarefa’s family fell into extreme poverty. He and his siblings were forced to work from an early age to support their family and were unable to attend school. She died illiterate, but she was the smartest person, my father always says.

Nearly 33 years after my grandmother passed, I finally visited her resting place. I replayed in my mind the story of her sudden death, my grandfather, father and her siblings carrying her body to be buried amid the chaos of the Intifada. The Israelis imposed a curfew, confining people to their homes and banning gatherings. A permit is required from the Israeli military to leave the home and gather to bury a loved one.

An Israeli soldier points his gun at Palestinian women during the First Intifada, February 29, 1988 [File: Reuters]

As I retrace his steps among the strewn and battered mausoleum, I remember my father telling me how Israeli soldiers opened fire to disperse the large crowd of mourners who were waiting for their beloved. Had come to bid farewell to Zarefa. That night two children were shot in the legs. Palestinians were even denied the right to mourn a loved one in peace.

While living in Gaza, I also visited my father’s refugee camp, Nusiret.

I walk down the street where he used to play soccer with his brothers and where his childhood home used to be, now replaced by an apartment building destroyed by an Israeli missile during Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza was turned into rubble.

It is also the place where, as a child during the First Intifada, he was brutally treated and some of his friends were killed at the hands of Israeli soldiers, who were allowed by then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin to break the bones of Palestinians. who rebelled against it. Israel’s occupation and colonization.

I visited his school, Nusirat Elementary School for Boys. I was wondering which entrance the Israeli soldiers use when they regularly raid the school. I remember my father telling me about Israeli soldiers firing tear gas into the school yard, and how the older children, in an attempt to impress the younger ones, would run up to the canisters and point them in the direction of the soldiers. Used to bring back ,

But I also visited places that had fond memories of my family. My dear aunt Soma and cousin Yazan took me to the famous Gaza beach. We sat in cabanas decorated with Palestinian flags and drank fresh mango juice as the sun went down. I saw young couples playing with their kids and enjoying their Friday.

I thought of my grandparents who took walks on this same beach with my father and his siblings – happy moments preserved in some of the hazy and worn photographs in our family photo album. They would take their donkey cart every Friday to buy a fresh watermelon from the market and spend the whole day basking in the gorgeous Mediterranean sun.

Although there was much pain and trauma on that beach, it was clear to me that the sea brought joy to the people of Gaza, as it had for my grandparents years earlier.

I also spent time with my cousin Lamis and her beautiful baby boy Tamim, who was already a huge personality just a few months into his life. In Lamis’s lovely apartment, we talked for hours, looking through family photo albums over several cups of coffee and playing with Tamim amid Gaza’s regular blackouts.

I walked the streets of Jabaliya, Shujiya and other neighborhoods in and around Gaza City with my good friend Gaida. We shopped for tatriz (traditional Palestinian embroidery), ate falafel and struggled to keep track of each other in the bustling streets. The streets were alive with vendors, selling sweets and spices, and children riding donkeys selling produce from their family farms.

A boy sells vegetables at a market as Palestinians ease coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, in a refugee camp in Gaza City, June 15, 2020.  Reuters/Mohammed Salem
A boy selling vegetables at a market in Gaza City on June 15, 2020 [File: Reuters/Mohammed Salem]

After spending two months in Gaza, I left having developed an unbreakable bond with my family. Through the stories I’ve been told since childhood, I’ve made many beautiful new friendships and experienced new places and people.

The day after returning to Seattle, I woke up to the paralyzing news that Gaza was being brutally bombed and that Palestinians were being killed and wounded. The Israeli army launched another brutal offensive on Gaza, which killed 49 Palestinians, including 17 children, over three days.

In a panic, I immediately started messaging my cousins ​​and friends. Thankfully everyone survived, but once again not without trauma.

Baby Tamim, who used to keep his mother awake during his early fussiness, was now asleep in terror of the loud explosions just outside his apartment building in Gaza City. He had suffered his first war at the age of five months. Before his first tooth came through, he had most likely experienced more trauma in his entire life.

In Gaza, I saw the raw effects of US-Israeli security cooperation in the remains of bombed-out apartment buildings, businesses, media offices, growing refugee camps and overflowing cemeteries. These scenes have affected me deeply, not only as a Palestinian, but as an American who directly, albeit unwittingly, contributed to that destruction.

My return home not only helped me understand what it means to live under Israeli siege and occupation, but also renewed my commitment to the Palestinian cause and increased my pride in my people and my country.

Today, I dream of the day that Gaza and all of Palestine will be liberated and my entire family and I will be able to return to our ancestral land in Beit Daras. On this holy day, we, the Palestinians, will collectively begin to rebuild what was brutally stolen from us and make Palestine a comfortable, peaceful home for future generations.

Palestinians carry a boy after an Israeli airstrike on a house, amid Israel-Gaza fighting, in the northern Gaza Strip on August 7, 2022.  Reuters/Mohammed Salem
People carrying a boy out after an Israeli bomb hit a house in the northern Gaza Strip, August 7, 2022 [File: Reuters/Mohammed Salem]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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