Ever since the emergence of the Palestinian cause, art has been the visual expression of the Palestinian struggle for liberation. Most visual production of Palestinian artists has been strongly tied with the political conditions that Zionist settler-colonialism brought in, shaping every facet of the Palestinians’ daily life. Palestinian artists are not exempt from these conditions. Palestinian art has mostly – but not only – reflected the Palestinian people’s suffering and state of loss and exile that the traumatic events of the 1948 Nakba caused.
The well-known Palestinian artist and art historian Kamal Boullata raised some questions regarding Palestinian art that I will try to offer a humble answer for through my drawings.
“How does one create art under the threat of sudden death and the unpredictability of invasion and siege? More specifically, how do Palestinian artists articulate their awareness of space when their homeland’s physical space is being diminished daily by barriers and electronic walls and when their own homes could at any moment be occupied by soldiers or even blown out of existence? In what way can an artist engage with the homeland’s landscape when ancient orange and olive groves are being systematically destroyed? When the grief of bereaved families is reduced by the mass media to an abstraction transmitted at lightning speed to a TV screen, what language can a visual artist use to express such grief? (Boullata, 2004)”
This piece will be a personal reflection on my life journey through the lens of my art that was mainly inspired from experiences instilled in my memory from my life in the Gaza Strip, Palestine.
Palestinian art as a narrative instrument of resistance:
Palestinian art, from the twentieth century up until now, has always been a visual reflection of the Palestinian struggle that aimed to depict the reality of the Palestinian people, their hopes and aspirations, their suffering, coupled with resistance. It is also a visual self-representation tool that aims to provide a counter narrative to the hegemonic Zionist misleading narrative of the Palestinian reality, to raise political awareness on the Palestinian issue and urge for mobilisation at an international level.
Speaking of narrative brings to mind the words of Edward Said, the late Palestinian exiled academic and writer, which reminds that, “no clear and simple narrative is adequate to the complexity of our experience” (After the Last Sky 1986: 6).
“To be sure, no single Palestinian can be said to feel what most other Palestinians feel: ours has been too various and scattered a fate for that sort of correspondence,” Said eloquently stated. “But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile” (After the Last Sky 1986: 5-6).
Certainly, Palestinian art has served as a narrative instrument that is used to challenge the hegemonic Zionist narrative which has been tirelessly trying to erase them. Zionism’s existence was fundamentally based on the negation of the very existence of the Palestinian people, a fact that is implicit in Israel’s fourth Prime Minister, Golda Meir’s infamous quotation that, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed” (Matar, 2011, p. 84).
Among many other forms of expression, art for many Palestinians was seen as a way to visually participate in writing their own narrative, to express their identity, to empower the Palestinians’ voices, and to move beyond the victim circle to become actors who actively, critically and creatively engage with their surrounding matters.
Over the course of the Palestinian struggle, the Palestinian people increasingly regarded every piece of art that came to reflect their living conditions in the Israeli grip as a means of resistance. Many Palestinian paintings displaying the ‘forbidden’ colors of the Palestinian flag have been confiscated, and many artists faced interrogation or even a prison sentence due their art that was perceived as ‘an act of incitement’. Let us not forget the late Palestinian influential exiled artists Ghassan Kanafani and Naji Al-Ali, whose art and literary production led to their murder.
Reflections on my artwork
The majority of Palestinians have become politicised due to their complex and intense political reality that shapes every aspect of their lives. I am no exception. Art for me was an expressive tool in which I found empowerment to my voice. It served as my humble tactic to overcome the state of siege and occupation imposed on us, to escape the feeling of helplessness that can be easily felt in such suppressive and oppressive life conditions that the Palestinian people endure which I was born within. It was also a tool that I used to engage politically and socially with the harsh surrounding. While living in Gaza, my art was an attempt to connect not only on an internal level as a part of the Palestinian community, but also internationally through online social networks that I used as a bridge that connects the international community with the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation, which should be addressed as a central global issue.
Since my birth in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, the biggest and most densely populated refugee camp in Palestine, I have never known what life is like without occupation and siege, injustice and horror. Like the child depicted in Figure 3, growing up in Jabalia refugee camp was the window to understanding the Palestinian reality under occupation. Art has been the way I naturally sought since a very early age to describe what I felt was indescribable.
In the context of Palestine under which people endure unbearable living conditions, creativity is a necessary tool for survival and a way towards less depression and better physical and mental health.
Personally, observing the Palestinian children being born in a difficult reality that subjugates them to terror and trauma at very young age was the most painful. Thus, most of my drawings are of Palestinian children whose innocent facial expressions I find most telling. Check Figure 3, 4 , 5, 6 and 7 in the slideshow below:
An ongoing Nakba:
My generation, the third-generation refugees, was already blueprinted with the traumatic events of the Nakba, which for Palestinians, is not only a tragic historical event that resides in the past, only to be commemorated once a year with events that include art exhibits and national festivals among other things. “It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say asserting that it was never a one-off event that happened in 1948. The Nakba is experienced instead as the uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination that was given continuity by the 1967 occupation, and which every aspect of daily Palestinian life is affected by. Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before, the dispossessed lands that most would never see again, has formed the collective memory of the Palestinian people. My grandmother described a peaceful life in green fields of citrus and olive trees, the tastes, the sounds, the smells that remained only in her memories in our village Beit-Jirja which was violently emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages.
As Boullata described, ‘Today, memory continues to be the connective tissue through which Palestinian identity is asserted and it is the fuel that replenishes the history of their cultural resistance’ (Boullata, 2009, p. 103). Palestinian art has been always perceived as a cultural form of political resistance which often addressed issues related to collective memory, memories of the Nakba, and the lived reality of injustices and oppression endured by Palestinians under the on-going occupation with an emphasis on the people’s resistance in the face of Israel’s brutality as coupled with hope, which in itself is resistance. Art has served as a basic mobilization tool that was gradually perceived, not only by the Palestinian public, but also by the Israeli forces “as emblematic of a collective national identity and crucibles of defiant resistance to occupation” (Boullata, 2004).
Several drawings of mine, such as those featured below, were an attempt to emphasize this hope through the continuity of the struggle from one generation to another. They were my response to several Zionist leaders who assumed that time will make the Palestinian refugees forget about their right to return. The drawings come to assert that they were absolutely wrong. The old will die and the young will keep on holding the key, embracing their legitimate right to return. The key is a symbol of the undying Palestinian hope that return is inevitable. The young generation is perceived as those who will carry the burden of the cause and continue the struggle that the previous generation started until freedom, justice, equality and return to the Palestinian people. Thus, Palestinian children became the symbol through which “We nurse hope” as Mahmoud Darwish said (Darwish, 2002).
From an early age, drawing was not only a tool of expression, but also a way to convey a political message, to call for mobilisation in support of the Palestinian struggle. The power of art lays in the fact that is a universal language to communicate the unspeakable that many people in safety zones cannot fully understand. With the availability of online platforms, it became possible to reach beyond borders and checkpoints to a wider audience.
I was only nine years old when my parents noticed my drawing skills that were limited to black warplanes, pillars of smoke in the sky and crying eyes. This coincided with the eruption of the second intifada in September 2000 when I used to accompany my mother and aunt to the martyrs’ funeral tents to offer our condolences. I used to hate the green colour, as it was associated in my memory with martyrs’ funeral tents, which were disturbingly visible in Jabalia refugee camp’s landscape. The first poem I ever learned to memorize by heart was one by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish entitled, “And He Returned …In A Coffin”. As a nine-year old girl, I stood in front of everyone sitting along the benches in the marquee, looked into the people’s tearful eyes, and in a powerful but shaking voice, I recited,
They speak in our homeland
they say in sorrow
about my comrade who passed
and returned in a coffin
Do you remember his name?
Don’t mention his name!
Let him rest in our hearts.
Let’s not let the word get lost
in the air like ash.
It was moments like these, during the tumult of the second intifada that fundamentally shaped my consciousness about the land and my place in it. Since childhood, the scenes of war, the faces of martyrs, the injured and detained people, the cries and weeping of the martyrs’ relatives over the loss of their beloved, have been chasing me day and night. These scenes pushed me to seek art as a way to express my emotions, to reconcile with my wounds, to reflect on my memories and experiences that many Palestinians share.
Humanising Prisoners’ issue through art
Moreover, being a daughter of an ex-detainee means I have grown a unique attachment to the plight of the Palestinian political prisoners, not only from a political perspective but also from a personal one. My father spent a total of fifteen years in Israeli jails, a part of his original seven life sentences. The stories of resilience, suffering and oppression that I grew up hearing from him about his stolen youth in Israeli jails have made me develop a particular passion to advocate for justice for Palestinian political prisoners who endure inhumane living conditions under the Israel Prison Service which denies them their most basic rights.
However, in spite of its importance, the issue of Palestinian political prisoners and their families who suffer immensely from the pain of longing and separation and are often denied their right to family visits is not given the deserved attention in the political arena. They are not only marginalized, but also dehumanized as whenever they are mentioned in the media discourse, they are mentioned as merely statistics or numbers. Through the drawings below, I attempted to humanize the prisoners’ plight and draw attention to their daily resistance in the face of the oppressive Israeli jailers that treat them as if they are not humans. I tried to depict their determination to break their chains, their resisting spirit in Israeli jails. I also tried to express their families’ pain as they are imprisoned in time, waiting for a day when their re-union without barriers in between will be possible again.
This drawing above was an attempt to show how waiting for a reunion between the prisoners and their families is in itself a torment. My mother experienced seeing my father being violently captured in front of her eyes from the middle of their house three times when the first intifada erupted in December 1987. She was a newly married bride expecting her first child, my eldest brother Majed, when he was re-arrested and forced to serve an administrative detention order, an arbitrary procedure that Israel uses against the Palestinian people to imprison people without charge or trial, usually based on secret information that neither the detainee nor his lawyer have access to. The experience was repeated when my elder sister Majd was born, and lastly soon after my birth. My mother has always described the torturous experience of waiting for my father’s release, how she spent days and nights staring at the clock, waiting impatiently to hear some news from him while her right to family visits was denied.
The imprisonment experience repeats itself hundreds of thousands of times across Palestine, regardless of gender or age. I have many family members, friends and neighbours who experienced unbearable conditions that range from physical torture to psychological torture to even sexual torture. Palestinian political prisoners have always resisted the brutality of the Israel Prison Service. They have no weapon but hunger to protest their inhumane living conditions and call for their right to proper medical care, the right to family visits and other basic rights under international law while imprisoned. “Hunger strike until either martyrdom or freedom” is a motto that many prisoners adopted. The drawing below aimed to illustrate the spirit of this motto.
Memories of War
The turning point of my life was at the age of seventeen, after witnessing the 22-day massacre that the Israeli occupation forces committed against our people in Gaza in 2008-09. During that dismal period when we remained in darkness amidst the continuous bombing, destruction and mass killing of Palestinians in Gaza, I had a terrible sense of being isolated from the rest of the world. The trauma of seeing such levels of brutality was intense. No one was certain if they would live for another day or not.
One of the most memorable moments is that when one night, I was sitting in darkness, surrounded by my mother and siblings in one small room of our house under one blanket. No voice could be heard, just heartbeats and heavy, shaky breaths. The beating and breathing grew louder after every new explosion we felt crashing around, shaking our home and lighting up the sky. Then suddenly, the door of our house opened violently and somebody shouted, “Leave home now!” It was my dad rushing in to evacuate our house because of a bomb threat to a neighbour. I remember that my siblings and I grasped Mum and started running outside unconsciously, barefoot. For three days we stayed in a nearby house, powerless as we sat, waiting to be either killed, or wounded, or forced to watch our home destroyed.
This merciless and inhumane attack killed at least 1417 men, women and children. I wasn’t among them but what if I had been? Would I be buried like any one of them in a grave, nothing left of me but a blurry picture stuck on the wall and the memory of another teenage girl slain too young? Would I have been for the world just a number, a dead person? I refused to dwell on that thought. Many drawings of mine, such as those below, were inspired from memories attached to this traumatic event whose memories always floated back whenever an attack was repeated. Most importantly, resorting to art was a necessary means that helped me preserve my sanity and overcome harsh traumatic events that I experienced throughout my life in the suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip.
While living under conditions of ghettoization, occupation and military assault, a continuation of the Zionist domination of the Palestinian land that was dispossessed in 1948 for the ‘Jewish state’ to be founded, Palestinian artists continue to be driven to express themselves in paint, photography, and other visual media, with having the Palestinian struggle for liberation as the central theme for their artwork. Art has offered Palestinians a platform to engage with the politicaly complex reality and express the suppressed voice of the Palestinian people in visual forms that can communicate universally. It was also a way to humanise the people’s suffering that is usually dehumanised in mainstream media and reduced to a dry coverage of abstractions that present them as numbers and statistics. Palestinian art, therefore, has been perceived as a form of political resistance, a mobilization tool, a way to assert the Palestinians’ embrace of our legitimate political and human rights, such as the right to return, the right to self-determination, and the right to live in dignity and freedom.
Below is my translation of a powerful article Louay Odeh wrote about the relationship between our Palestinian people in Gaza and resistance. I thought it is worth reading.
“The full support of resistance demonstrated by the Palestinian people in Gaza has been the greatest and the most obvious since the first Intifada 25 years ago,” A friend of mine from Gaza who is responsible for centres which became refuge to tens of thousands of families who have become homeless since the start of the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
It is not surprising to see the clear popular support of resistance, its call upon them to continue until their demands are met, and the total willingness and readiness of the public to pay whatever price entailed. It is not only related to the political affiliation, but resistance has become an integral part of geographic identity. It is difficult to find someone in Gaza who is opposing resistance, regardless of her/his political affliction. This is neither resulted from a united political program or adopting one strategy that unites everybody. It is the outcome of a general awareness our people in Gaza acquired by experience.
Every person in Gaza has become more experienced that the most well-known military or political analyst on earth. Everybody inGaza recognises the fact that there is no other option. They believe that they cannot trust any project, except for resistance, as it is the only thing that is able to offer a dignified human life to them. This conviction came after they lost trust in the so-called “peace process’, and anyone who represents it. They also lost trust in the international solidarity and human rights organisations and its agendas. Above all, they lost confidence in the Arab governments which usually exploits their cause to serve their own interest, not them.
Our Palestinian people in Gaza have paid blood and years amidst unbearable life under a suffocating siege until they reached this outcomes. No one managed to open a single crossing or offer the least human needs for them, such as water, electricity and freedom of movement. There are many attempts by political analysts who graduated from the most prominent universities, and political experts worldwide to understand Gaza and the harmonic relationship between its people and the resistance. They failed as Gaza doesn’t bend to any equation, and no political, or social or economical rule can be applied to Gaza due to its uniqueness.
In Gaza, you can find the Fateh-affiliated people opposing their leadership in Ramallah and chanting for resistance. In Gaza, you will find Muslims and Christians, the poor and the wealthy people, the Communists and the Islamists, all standing hand in hand with resistance with one hope uniting them: The victory of resistance.
Gaza which celebrate as it bleeds has its own uniqueness. Even Nature rules, such as sunset and sunrise, cannot be applied to like in Gaza. Life there is organised according to the power-cut program. For example, the morning may rise at 10 pm and disappear as sun is rising. Moreover, only in Gaza, a car can be sold after 5 years of use with a higher price because of how much it costed its owner. In Gaza, which is complex despite its simplicity, everybody knows that the end of this crisis and its outcomes will contribute to change their lives at least 2 years onwards. They have strong faith that the resistance will impose the conditions of truce which are going to be related their day-to-day life such as electricity, water or opening of borders. Therefore, this leaves no other option to the people but supporting resistance no matter what the cost will be.
Armed struggle is no longer a political strategy or merely a means of resistance. Resistance has become a wide term that includes many things. It is life. It is the ability to travel, to study, to receive a proper medical care. Above all, it has become a symbol for their dignity and an integral part of their identity. We’ve never heard them chanting for opening the borders, as they already know that it much be included among the conditions of possible ceasefire. Opening the borders will be the axiomatic outcome of the steadfastness of resistance in the battlefield. It will no longer controlled by a human will related to the mood of neighbouring countries and their agendas. The fact that everyone is conspiring against this piece of land imposed a new definition of resistance on them which will be taught later in military sciences. Gaza has managed to formulate this new definition which has become a central part of this geographic identity. Yes, it is identity that its most important component is resistance, and anyone who believes in humanity should feel honoured to adopt it.
Free Palestine. Down with Zionism. Glory for the martyrs!
I have tried many times to write about my experience at the closed Rafah border crossing with Egypt that has left thousands of people in Gaza stranded. Every time I start, a deep sigh comes over me. Shortly after I feel paralyzed, and finish by tearing apart my draft. I have never found it this difficult to write about a personal experience. No words can capture all the suffering and pain our people in Gaza deal with collectively under this suffocating, inhumane Israeli-Egyptian siege.
As I write, I am supposed to be somewhere in the sky, among the clouds, flying to Istanbul to begin my graduate studies. But I could not catch my flight, as I am still trapped in the besieged Gaza Strip, sitting in darkness during the power cuts caused by fuel crisis, trying to squeeze out my thoughts during what is left of my laptop’s charge.
As much as I am attached to Gaza City, where I was born and spent all 22 years of my life, each day I spend trapped in it makes me despise living here. Each day that passes makes me more desperate to set myself free outside this big, open-air prison. Each day makes me unable to stand the mounting injustice, torment, brutality and humiliation.
Hardships and happiness
I have never experienced as many extreme ups and downs as I did this month. Despite the hardships throughout September, I also had some immensely happy moments. I think will remember them the rest of my life. This is life in Gaza: highs amid lows, everything in the balance, nothing secure from day to day, no plans, no guarantees.
At the beginning of September, I started the process to secure my visa for Italy. I am supposed to be there on 10 October to celebrate the publication of my first book, the fruits of my work over more than three years of writing. It is the Italian version of my blog, Palestine from My Eyes, which I started in May 2010. My book launched on 22 September. It was impossible for me to attend its release in Italy.
My blog was never about me as an individual. It is rather about a young Palestinian woman who grew up in the alleys of a densely inhabited refugee camp with an imprisoned father. It is about a woman whose awareness of her Palestinian identity was shaped in a besieged city under the brutal Israeli occupation. My blog is about our people, who are routinely dehumanized and whose stories are marginalized and unknown to the majority outside. It was about our Palestinian political prisoners and their families, whose lost and missing loved ones have become statistics, numbers which fail to communicate all the injustices they face under the Israeli Prison Service, which denies them their most basic rights.
The book, inspired by the harsh and complex reality we are forced to endure, makes me feel that my responsibility as a voice for our Palestinian people has doubled. Some amazingly dedicated Italian friends are fixing a busy schedule of events, book fairs, conferences and presentations in many different cities. My presence in Italy is very important, because I am sure few people there have met Palestinians. I am anxiously waiting for the Rafah border to open so I can be there for these events, to help my book spread as widely as possible.
I read on Reuters last Tuesday: “According to Abbas’s request, Egypt agrees to reopen Rafah border crossing on Wednesday and Thursday for four working hours each.”
My first reaction was laughter. Where was Abbas while the Rafah border was closed to thousands of patients seeking medical care abroad which they cannot access in Gaza, or students whose dreams to pursue their education overseas were crushed?
We are not only paying the price for the unsettled situation in Egypt. We have even become the victims of our own divided Palestinian leadership. It makes me furious to think that the opening of Rafah crossing, a lifeline for our people in Gaza, has come under the influence of the internal division between political parties competing to seek favors from our colonizers. The ruling factions seem to have become participants in the collective punishment we suffer.
The headline infuriated rather than relieved me. Opening the Rafah border for eight hours over two days was not a solution to the crisis caused by the complete closure of Rafah for more than a week.
The same day, in the taxi heading home, I received a call telling me I finally got a visa to Italy. I was so happy I forgot the conservative nature of my society and started screaming out of happiness in the car. The visa process took shorter than I thought. I called my friend Amjad Abu Asab, who lives in Jerusalem and received my passport for me, since Israel prevents Palestinians in Gaza from visiting the city, urging him to find someone coming into Gaza via the northern Erez checkpoint on Wednesday.
This can be my chance to leave Wednesday or Thursday, I thought. My happiness didn’t last. “Erez checkpoint will be completely closed from Wednesday until Sunday, 22 September, because of the Jewish holidays,” Amjad said. “No express mail, and no person, can cross Erez to Gaza during this period.”
“What an absurdity!” I screamed. “When the Rafah border crossing finally reopens, Erez checkpoint closes. We have to deal with Israel from one side and Egypt from the other. How long will we live at the mercy of others? There must be some emergency exit.”
Life of uncertainty
“The definition of uncertainty in the dictionary is Gaza,” my fellow Electronic Intifada writer Ali Abunimah once told me. That describes in short my life at the moment, and the lives of our people generally: a life of uncertainty.
I had no choice but to wait for the Jewish holidays to end for Erez to reopen and to get my passport. But on Wednesday, I insisted on going to Rafah. I refused to sit at home, powerless, unable to do anything but wait. At Rafah border crossing, I saw a gate of humiliation. People crowded on top of each other, roamed the waiting hall, waited impatiently for some news to revive their hopes, and ran after policemen, asking for help and explaining their urgent need to travel.
I met many of my fellow students who were stuck as well. They came with their luggage, hoping they could leave, but ended up dragging it back home.
I stayed until 2:00pm, hoping that I could at least register. I did, I think. I explained my situation to a policeman at the gate. He took my scanned copy of my passport and returned after about five minutes, saying, “Your name is registered.” I am not sure what he meant, but he did not say anything else. I asked him if there was a certain date I could leave. His reply was, “Only God knows.” I wish someone could tell me when I will be able to leave so I can have a break from worrying. But no one knows anything, “only God knows.”
While doing an interview with the Real News Network that morning at the border, an elegant elderly man in a formal black suit and holding a black bag interrupted. “I would like to make an interview,” he said. “I speak English, and if you like, I can do Hebrew.” The old man looked very serious as we awaited his poignant words. “This border, all this area, was mine. They came and stole it.” As he continued, the Real News crew and I realized the interview was descending into farce. “I have bombs in this bag and I can explode the whole place in a second!” the man said. We started laughing and said jokingly, “Go explode, then. We’re standing by you.” Yes, this Rafah gate of humiliation must be wiped away so we, Palestinian people in Gaza, can have some breath of freedom.
The Rafah border crossing closed again after 800 persons left to Egypt on Wednesday and Thursday. I am sure this closure would be easier to understand if it was a natural disaster. But knowing that other human beings are doing this to me and 1.7 million other civilians living in Gaza, while the rest of the world looks on, is too difficult to believe. It is more painful and shocking to realize that our neighboring Arab country, Egypt, is joining our Zionist jailers and collaborating with them to tighten the siege.
This experience made me believe that human dignity has become a joke. International law is nothing but empty, powerless words printed in books. We are denied our right to freedom of movement, our right to pursue our education, our right to good medical care, and our right to be free or to live in peace and security. But no one in power bothers to act.
I spent September worrying about the border and my dreams which may fade away if Rafah remains closed. This takes a lot of my energy and makes me suffer from lack of focus and sleep, and makes it hard for me to sit and express myself in writing or with a drawing. Our people’s tragedy caused by the ongoing closure of Rafah border continues, and the crisis is deepening. Living in Gaza under these circumstances is like being sentenced to a slow death. Act and set us free. It is time for these injustices we face on a daily basis to end.
I left very early in the morning with my youngest sister Tamam, heading to the Rafah border crossing with her to give her as much moral support as I could. Having experienced what can only be described as the torture of waiting at the border previously, I know very well how much of a nightmare going there is.
Tamam returned home from Turkey after 9 months of studying Turkish Language there. About a year ago, she earned a scholarship to study for her BA in journalism in Ankara. After enjoying three weeks of her presence at home, the time had finally come for her to return to Ankara, as her summer vacation is about to end and she has to go through many procedures in order to register for the first semester of her undergraduate studies.
In fact, she was scheduled to leave through Rafah border yesterday. Hearing of the crowds who have been trying to cross in vain for days- if not for weeks, and the restrictions that Egypt imposed on Rafah border, led us to decide to stay at home. A few more hours of sleeping would be worth more to us than the hours we would have wasted if we had gone to the border. Yesterday the Palestinian side allowed five buses in but Egypt allowed only one.
Today we decided to go, hoping that she would be fortunate enough to cross the border. As we were pulling her luggage into the car, we started laughing while mocking the dark situation we have to go through, while knowing deep inside that we will eventually have to return back home. But we insisted to go and see the situation with our own eyes. It was hard to imagine to what extent the border situation and the travelers’ crisis is getting worse, especially during the difficult times that Egypt is going through.
My sister didn’t realize that a normal decision like returning home for a visit may threaten her to lose her scholarship and keep her locked inside Gaza. She didn’t know that she should have considered such a thought a thousand times before making up her mind. Such a decision is supposed to be normal in a normal situation, but not in our case, which is very far from being normal.
As we arrived at the hall where travelers gather in hope to hear their names called out so they can ride the bus that drives them inside the border, we were shocked to see the numerous people waiting already there. Some people had been waiting since sunrise and had been trying to cross for over a week. Most of them were students traveling for educational purposes or patients leaving for medical reasons.
The scenes of the children who were lying down and sleeping on chairs and those of elderly people who could barely stand on their feet were the most heartbreaking. Elderly people were shouting at the police which was forming a fence in front of the travel coordination offices. They were powerless and had nothing to say or do, but were trying their best to keep people’s anger and frustration in control and to maintain some semblance of discipline.
We were ashamed of complaining about anything, just sitting and watching people huffing and puffing. We met people who have been trying to cross for about two weeks.
At about 1 pm, the police said via speakers, “We ask everyone to return back home. We received a notice that Rafah border is completely closed and not even a single Palestinian will be able to cross due to the killing of 22 Egyptian soldiers in Sinai. We don’t know when the border will re-open. Keep following the Internal Ministry Website for more information.”
I expected people to rebel and break the police fence and turn the hall into chaos. But they just turned their backs, dragged their luggage and went home. I heard many saying, “at least they finally said something. At least we didn’t have to wait until sunset.” For many people this scenario has been happening for many days, so they expected the same to be repeated again and again.
My sister has expressed her experience in few moving words she wrote on her Facebook page. The following is my translation of her words.
“I dragged my luggage very early in the morning to Gaza’s only exit to the outside world, though I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to cross. Dad stood watching me from a distance and finally he stepped closer and uttered one sentence, “May Allah ease your way my dear”. I cried a lot. More accurately, we both cried. I wondered why I cried despite having a strong desire to leave this city after a 3-week visit which was more tiring than joyful, while worrying about Rafah border’s situation. This complicated city is becoming more choking. It makes us weep out of happiness and sorrow. It restricts our freedom. It forces us to learn to adapt to the inadaptable. At this point of frustration and thinking negatively, I can’t think of any reason why we’re so attached to this mysterious city. Nevertheless, one can’t but be always longing to return to Gaza.”
My sister’s flight is scheduled to leave from Cairo to Istanbul on Thursday. It is very likely that she will miss her flight, like many other Palestinians living in Gaza.
Why should Tamam or any other traveler living in Gaza pay the price for anything happening in the neighboring countries? How many dreams are going to be crashed or how many more patients are going to die before we have a permanent and a secure way to travel? Will we ever live a normal life? This situation is utterly insane and inhumane. Collective punishment policies must end.
“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands. Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.
The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.
Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.
About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”
Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”
Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.
The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”
We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.
Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”
“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”
Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”
Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”
My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”
Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”
“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”
“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.
Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”
The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”
I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”
Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.