This is an extract from my new book, ‘No Road Home’, just published in the U.K. by Abramis. It is an account of the rally held in Gaza on May 15th 2003 to commemorate the ‘Nakba’, or catastrophe, as Palestinians call the founding of Israel in 1948.
Rousing speeches and rebellious songs were accompanied by bursts of automatic gunfire – fired into the air by puny youths who fancied themselves as fearsome freedom fighters.The highlight of the rally was supposed to be a recorded message from Yasser Arafat, relayed over a telephone line from his compound in Ramallah. A few times the crowd was asked to be silent and the speakers hissed as if they were about to burst into life. When they did, it was to broadcast the sound of a phone ringing. You almost expected to hear it picked up by one of the Palestinian leader’s aides, who, unaware that a crowd of thousands was listening, would say that Mr Arafat was busy. Eventually, they got through, and the message began. It began by talking about the first Zionist Congress, held in 1897 in Basel. Mr. Arafat’s audience were then treated to a lengthy historical discourse. The sense of a great injustice suffered remained strong. At the demonstration, people held up cardboard keys with the legend ‘Right of Return’. School children had painted pictures which they carried as banners at the rally. They showed an idealized pre-1948 life where Arabs sat happily in their homes: old village homes of cool stone which protected them from the sun, not the shaky breeze block buildings which did not keep out bullets. In the schools of Gaza, the maps on the wall showed the whole of mandate Palestine as their home. The towns and villages had their Arabic names, and Israel did not exist. But they knew themselves that Israel really did exist, it had existed for 55 years, and that their old homes were gone. Knowledge did not mean acceptance. 88-year-old Yuda Abu Rukhba was among the most angry and animated members of the crowd. Age, the frailty which came with it, and the passage of time, had not calmed his fury. He spoke in broken English, old enough to have learned the language when British troops were the controlling power in Palestine, before Israel. He lived in the north of the Gaza Strip, near Beit Hanoun, so close to the site of his former village that he could see it. For Mohammed Saleh, the star pupil of Jabalya boys’ school, the beautiful farms of his forefathers existed only in dreams. Mr Abu Rukhba remembered the reality. ‘I am here for our troubles what happened in Palestine,’ he explained in a quiet corner away from the crowd. ‘Today is the first day of what happened in Palestine.’ He still wore the traditional Arab dress which was so rare among younger men. His clothes placed him in one of the idealized stone houses the schoolchildren had depicted in their drawings. This was where he dreamed of going back to, even more than half a century after he had left. ‘I want to go home to my country. Nothing more. I don’t need money, I need to go back to my country, to grow oranges and flowers on my land.’ He became even more agitated when asked more about compensation.‘Money, what I want money for? For nothing this money. Money is garbage bin.I need my land, my flowers, 150 dunams in Demra village! For me, not for Israelian! I have to go to my home, to my land not to stay in Gaza here. Why to say in Gaza here, for bad life we is in?’ Only when he could leave Gaza would Mr Abu Rukhba accept that there should be peace. For Mr. Abu Rukhba, as for the next generation, and even for two generations on from that, peace was not about a ‘two state solution: Israel and Palestine living side by side in peace and security’, as the ‘Road Map’ would have it. Peace meant an end to fences and borders, an army that kept them from the lands their families had lived and died on for hundreds of years. Peace meant the right to live where they wanted, and to get back what they and their families had lost. To settle for a ‘peace’ which offered anything less meant accepting defeat, and formalising the humiliation they had felt so keenly for more than 50 years. That was no peace at all. The ‘Road Map’s’ authors either knew this and chose to ignore it, or simply had little idea of how strongly the sense of loss and being conquered was still felt. Those who spent hours, days, and months drawing up the document in comfortable, climate controlled offices, should perhaps have spent just a few minutes in the dusty, hot, noisy alleys of the refugee camps.
Copyright Material ©James Rodgers 2013.