< HOME  Monday, June 14, 2010

Pain of Gaza exile endures after 43 years


The horror of life in what was once our home fuels bitter feelings of injustice.

In the Arab world, 1967 is known as the year of the setback - al-Naksa. A year of lost hopes, dreams, land and freedom. It was also the year of my birth. My parents had been married for almost seven years and had three children with a fourth on the way - me.

They lived in a modest home with their extended families in the poor district of Toffah in Gaza. They had a garden where they grew chillies, tomatoes and herbs, and had lemon, sycamore and pomegranate trees as well as jasmine vines.

My father was a schoolteacher by day and a writer and poet by night. My mother carried on with her traditional tasks of caring for the children, cooking, sewing and cleaning.

Gaza had been under Egyptian occupation since the war of 1948, but in 1967 things were simmering like never before. There was great unrest in the refugee camps, as Palestinians who had been removed from their towns and villages in 1948 to pave the way for a Jewish state were still denied their right to return.

Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was delivering fiery speeches promising the end of Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes, Arab unity and hope. My father and many other young men joined the Liberation Army - Jaysh al-Tahrir - that served under the Egyptian military.

Nasser did not deliver on his promise of liberation. The war of 1967 was lost and Israel expanded and occupied Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights of Syria. More Palestinians were made refugees by the war.

Two months after the war, and one week after I was born, Israeli soldiers began searching homes in Gaza looking for men who fought in the Liberation Army. Someone had told them about my father and they came looking for him.

He jumped the fence to a neighbour's garden and went into hiding. The soldiers left a clear message for him: stay and be put in jail forever or leave Gaza forever.

My father knew if he were to be jailed, our family and his extended family would starve as we all depended on his salary. He had no choice but to leave and find work elsewhere.

A part of him felt he was a coward for leaving, but another part of him was the one that fought for his family's survival. At the Jordan River bridge checkpoint, an Israeli soldier ordered him to sign a document saying that once he left, he would never be able to reside in Gaza again.

My father still remembers the blood running cold in his veins. He froze as the reality of the occupation began sinking into his heart like poison. At that moment, he understood the Israelis had no intention of complying with the UN resolution calling for them to withdraw from territories they occupied, including Gaza. At that moment, he understood that the occupation would last for a long time.

My father gave the soldier what he asked for and more. He placed his fingerprint in the square, he wrote his signature on the dotted line and he dropped a bitter tear on the cold document. Two weeks later, my mother packed all four of us, said her goodbyes, and she too turned her back on the only home she had ever known.

Forty-three years have passed since then. We lived in a refugee camp, moved into the Arabian Gulf and later migrated to Australia. My father's parents both died without him being able to be by their side.

The situation in Gaza has deteriorated with every passing year. As the population grew, gardens were replaced by more buildings. The occupation never ended; Israel's grip tightened with the years.

We are lucky to no longer be stateless refugees, but today there are still more than 4.5 million Palestinians living in UN refugee camps. They make up the largest refugee population in the world and their question is the longest standing at the UN. In Gaza, the 1948 refugees make up the majority of the population, and endure horrific lives in constant terror of Israeli missiles, sonic booms and drones.

More than half of Gaza's 1.5 million people are children living in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. They are walled in and besieged in what is now often referred to as the world's largest jail. Most Gazans live on less than $2 a day with deteriorating health and malnutrition, and up to 80 per cent depend on humanitarian aid to survive. The modest homes, like the one my parents lived in, with the herb garden and trees are no longer part of Gaza's landscape; in their place are ruined buildings, graffiti, rubble and bullet-riddled walls.

My parents have settled well in Australia with seven children and more than 20 grandchildren. We are proud to be a part of this country but we will never forget Gaza.

When we talk to our loved ones who are still trapped there, we see the results of 43 years of Israeli policies. We hear of houses destroyed, lives lost, fields burnt, trees uprooted, stunted growth in children and malnutrition in babies, and we feel that bitter poison of injustice that once ran in my father's veins as he crossed the Jordan River bridge and altered our lives forever.

Samah Sabawi is an Australian-Palestinian writer. She is co-author of Journey to Peace in Palestine and a former executive director of the National Council on Canada Arab Relations.