My distant cousin, Sobhi Abu Shammala, was killed in July by Israeli forces while irrigating his small palm trees in the Mawasi area of Khan Younis. A refugee, his story covers the sweep of Palestinian history from the Nakba, or catastrophe of our dispossession in 1948, to the most recent Israeli pretext for exercising overwhelming military force against Palestinians. He is not alone. More than 1800 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed by the latest Israeli war crimes, an assertion I believe investigations will soon bear out.
Expelled from Beit Daras in 1948 at age 11, Sobhi’s family took refuge in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip. Today, the Israeli military is attacking the very people and their offspring that early Zionists (and militia terror forces) expelled into the Gaza ghetto – a tiny strip of land 25 miles long by six miles wide – 66 years ago. All these years later, however, they, like many other refugees still retain the deed to family land in Beit Daras, just a few miles outside of Gaza. But our private property is unreachable, and we believe it is now given over to Israeli farm animals. In the Holy Land, at least at present, there is no such thing as equal rights – just possessor and dispossessed, occupier and occupied, Jewish Israeli and Palestinian.
Equal rights are a great advancement for Americans from a variety of religious and racial backgrounds, but they are absent in Israel and the territories. Legalized discrimination is the law of the land for anyone with eyes to see. Already under bombardment by American weaponry – F-16s and new provisions of ammunition supplied by the Obama administration – how are we Palestinians to understand that at least two American Jewish militants were among the first wave of invaders this month? By what right do Americans participate in the war crimes and subjugation practiced against Palestinians? Why leave a land with equal rights for all to exercise superior rights over Palestinians? This practice should not be authorized by the US government.
Though Zionist forces took almost everything from Sobhi’s family, my family, and the other 750,000 Palestinians expelled in 1948, there were values and practices Palestinians were able to convey to their children, and their children to their children, that Israel and the American extremists fighting for it have failed to take. Beyond dignity and steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds and the shocking blunt force brought to bear by the Israeli military against men, women, and children, the most important of the practices Palestinians convey to our children is respect for the importance of education.
Today, Sobhi’s children hold different positions: a director at the European Hospital in Gaza, principal at an UNRWA school, and a teacher, and they have relatives throughout Gaza in professional positions. One day, perhaps soon, Americans and the world will hear Sobhi’s story and wonder, Why was I never told of this? What has Israel wrought all these years with American weapons in the Holy Land upon Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike?
Perhaps these Americans were taught Israel was to be a “light unto nations,” but there is no light brought to the children of Gaza, only dark despair and terror as incredible military might rends the night air, punctuating the eerie buzz of the drones that are seemingly always overhead. The destruction below destroys small bodies and threatens the fabric of our society even as we cling all the more tightly to one another and what little remains to us.
United Nations schools were unable to cope with the hundreds of thousands of people, around 245,000 newly “refugeed” refugees – one in seven Palestinians in Gaza – who were forced out of their homes and into UN facilities. Tens of thousands more took cover in private homes of other Palestinians. Perhaps one in four Palestinians were internally displaced. People in my refugee camp offered shelter and food to these victims, some of them displaced for the third, fourth, or perhaps even fifth time in life. My sister’s apartment on the fifth floor in Gaza City had no electricity and little water but a strong passion to help by hosting two families. Similarly, my cousin Wejdan and my other neighbors in Khan Younis camp hosted dozens of displaced and shared the thin resources they have. Most of Gaza went back to candlelight.
My late relative, Anis Abu Shammala, the mayor of Bureij, was doing the same, giving shelter to other families when his home was hit – killing him, two of his sons, and five other refugees he was hosting.
My neighbors are cooking and sending food for the displaced people. People ran from funeral to funeral, from shock to shock, from tragedy to tragedy in a deeply connected community. Yet there is no time for grief and no time for tears. They are living in impossible conditions – made worse by the lack of electricity and lack of support from governments around the world, notwithstanding the fact that popular support is clearly on the side of the Palestinian people – and doing the undoable all while expecting death at any moment.
The resilience of Gaza’s people and Palestinians in general is extraordinary. We do not submit, we do not bow, and we do not give up in the face of extraordinary military might. Why? Because principle and right are on our side.
Gaza and Palestinians generally are striving for freedom, human rights, equal rights, and dignity. From southern Rafah to the most far-flung refugee camp in Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan there is a collective memory and will to uphold our rights, principal among them the right to return home and show the world that we are no better and no worse than the Jews among whom we would live, whether that is in Beit Daras or Ashkelon, which we know as Al-Majdal, or hundreds of other places long since overgrown to which we long to return.
This resolve, however, is one that western media rarely show because informing viewers of the justice of our cause to return home is not a priority. Many anchors may not even know this history of dispossession. Instead, too frequently, views of Palestinians remain jailed in the ugly stereotypes invented over the years about Palestine and its people.
Nonetheless, Israel complains of losing the immediate public relations war over the images emerging from Gaza. The Israeli concern with the public relations battle is terribly misplaced. What of the waste, what of the horror, what of the despair of the young parent shrouding the body of a dead child torn apart? What I have seen in social media these last weeks, the stories I hear from my family and friends, and the images of the dead and the grieving I see will be with me and every Palestinian forever.
Israel’s approach shows no hope of a future reconciliation. The father and child who have seen family members blown apart in their own homes as they sit for iftar to break the Ramadan fast – 19 children from the nearby Abu Jamei family pulverized in pursuit of one target – what are they to think after such carnage? Surely, survivors will push all the more strenuously for Palestinian freedom. Today, more than ever Palestinians’ longing for freedom is strong and we are ready to pay a heavy price. I only arrived back in Gaza on August 10, but every person I meet, young or old, man or woman, refugee or long-time Gaza resident, displaced in the UN centers, scattered in hospitals, or still in their homes has one message to Palestinian negotiators in Cairo: This inhumane siege, the longest in history, has to end now and we are ready to pay the price to regain our dignity.
Sobhi spent a lifetime building himself and his family from nothing only to be struck down by the Israeli military at age 77. We will not forget. We will persevere as we always have toward freedom, return, and a dignified life as equals. But until that day, I hold to the hope that one day one of Sobhi’s children will testify in the International Criminal Court to put away the commanding officer who thought it acceptable to fire on this beloved father, an old man, irrigating his trees in a land he was forced into decades ago by the forebears of the reckless Israeli military now laying waste to Gaza and its people.