By Karma Nabulsi, Thursday 19 May 2011
It was the moment for which we had all been holding our breath for decades – for 63 years to be precise. Palestinians everywhere watched the unfolding scene transfixed and awed. The camera followed the movements of a small group of people advancing from the mass of protesters. They were carefully making their way down a hill towards the high fence that closed off the mined field separating Syria from its own occupied territory of the Golan that borders historic Palestine, now Israel.
They were mostly young Palestinians, drawn from the 470,000-plus refugee community in Syria: from Yarmouk refugee camp inside Damascus, from Khan el-Sheikh camp outside it, from Deraa and Homs refugee camps in the south, from Palestinian gatherings all over the country.
Slowly, and in spite of the shouted warnings from the villagers from Majdal Shams about the lethal landmines installed by the Israeli military right up to the fence, these remarkable ordinary young people – Palestinian refugees – began to both climb and push at the fence. We were going home.
It was a profoundly revolutionary moment, for these hundreds of young people entering Majdal Shams last Sunday made public the private heart of every Palestinian citizen, who has lived each day since 1948 in the emergency crisis of a catastrophe. Waiting, and struggling, and organising for only two things: liberation and return.
What made this moment and others like it across the region so radical in gesture, democratic in purpose, and universal in intent? It brought the entire world suddenly face to face with the intimate and immediate in the very human struggle for freedom of each Palestinian, whether refugee or not. Sixty-three years ago the entire body politic of the people of Palestine was violently destroyed and dispersed. All Palestinians, whether refugee or not, share that terrible history – it is what unites us.
This is the shared experience we commemorate every year on Nakba Day: the year-long expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians that began in 1947 and continued straight through 1948 into the terrible snowstorm winters of 1949, creating what is now the world’s largest refugee population.
On Sunday, this moment of return was enacted simultaneously in Haifa and among Palestinians displaced inside Israel, on the borders of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, and Gaza, in the West Bank near the Qalandia refugee camp – wherever the more than 7 million stateless Palestinian refugees now live, very near their original villages and towns. Just out of sight, over the hill, across the border.
This basic injustice has yet to be addressed by any of the schemes currently on the table to solve the Palestinian issue. For this is not about the reconciliation of political parties, the search for a state or the establishment of two, negotiations or the lack of them, the enfranchisement of a third of our people over the disenfranchisement of the rest.
Indeed, what happened on Sunday was not the plan of Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, nor that of Fatah or Hamas; it most certainly wasn’t the American, European or Israeli plan for dealing with the Palestinian people. Like the rest of the Arab people who have taken their fate into their own hands – and in doing so provided lessons and models in the meaning of democracy and citizenship to the rest of the world for years to come – the Palestinians have demonstrated, quite perfectly and with great courage, what it is to be fully human, and how to hold on to one’s humanity in spite of more than six decades of violent oppression.
Activists living in Majdal Shams had not been expecting them, and were completely surprised to see the dozens of buses pull up on the other side of the valley. Organised largely on the phone and internet, many of these young Palestinian refugees, mostly university students, didn’t even know each other.
They certainly didn’t know what was about to happen to them. Israeli soldiers fired live ammunition at the protesters, who were armed only with the deeds to their property, or ageing photographs of their parents’ farms. One young man carried his grandmother in his arms.
Qais Abu Alheija (from Houd, Haifa district), Bashar Ali Shahabi (from Lubya, Tiberias district), Samer Khartabeel (from the town of Tiberias), Abadah Zaghmout (from the village of Safsaf, Haifa district – an effort to save his life at the clinic of Golan for Development in Majdal Shams failed): all died on Sunday in the Golan, walking home. The Palestinian spring has certainly arrived: this is just the beginning, and summer is on its way.