How my grandmother stood up to Israel’s occupation

My grandmother confronts Israeli soldiers imposing a curfew in Gaza. (Al-Ayyam)

Edward Said once wrote: “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. But there is no doubt that we do in fact form a community, if at heart a community built on suffering and exile.”

This shared state of suffering and exile started in 1948 when Zionist forces waged their ”war of independence,” which Palestinians call the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe). Then, around 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their villages.

Today, those Nakba survivors who are still alive and their families are dispersed between the occupied West Bank and Gaza, present-day Israel, neighboring countries like Jordan, Syria and Lebanon and, in some cases, further afield. 

My grandmother, Tamam, was one of those displaced in the Nakba. She died in July 2006 but I have been thinking about her a lot lately.

When we were children, my grandmother took care of my siblings and I, while my parents were at work. The more I became aware of the challenging life she led, the more I admired her.

She truly was a fighter.

The photograph accompanying this post was taken during the first intifada when Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza was under curfew and no one was allowed to enter the camp. This picture was printed on the front page of al-Ayyam, a local publication with a caption reading “Palestinian women arguing with an Israeli soldier at the entrance of the camp.” 

This picture captures my grandmother’s bravery. Without any weapons, she confronted an Israeli soldier who was enforcing a brutal occupation. The bitter irony of the situation is that the heavily armed soldier seems afraid.

My grandmother was filled with anger for being stopped from entering her home, where my grandfather was dying. 

Dad held on to this picture, even though my grandmother didn’t want him to. She was worried that the Israel might use it to incriminate her — despite how it was Israel, not her, that was behaving in a criminal manner. 

Unbearable rift

I belong to the third generation of Palestine’s refugees. As children, we constantly heard stories — both during the day and at night-time — about the green villages that our grandparents were forced to leave. Those stories were like lullabies.  

The life of exile my grandmother led was described by Edward Said as “the unbearable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home.”

It always felt to me that my grandmother was incomplete, torn between her native Beit Jirja, the village she was forced to leave, and Jabaliya, where she took refuge. 

Nevertheless, my grandmother kept dreaming to return to Beit Jirja until the last day of her life. She made sure her grandchildren memorized her stories of the happy days before the Nakba. Her message appeared to be one of ”never forget!”

“It was never one Nakba,” my grandmother used to say.  She meant that the Nakba was not a one-off event that happened in 1948.

The Nakba is not something to merely mark once a year with protests, exhibitions and festivals. 

The catastrophe facing Palestinians is not in the past. Rather, we have faced an uninterrupted process of Israeli settler-colonialism and domination for many decades. That process was intensified with the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which now affects every aspect of daily Palestinian life.

Growing up hearing our grandmothers recount the life they had before the Nakba, celebrating the land 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.

Our village Beit Jirja was emptied of its inhabitants and razed to the ground in 1948 like hundreds of other villages. My grandmother had a two-year-old boy then and was pregnant with another child. Her baby was born premature as she made her way to northern Gaza in a state of panic. 

Anger, not lamentation

At the beginning, she thought she would be away for a matter of few weeks. In no time, the people of Beit Jirja would return and harvest the crops they had left behind.

But they never did. Or — to keep our hopes alive — let’s say that they haven’t returned yet. 

Though illiterate, my grandmother understood the aim of the United Nations’ “humanitarian” work, which, she argued, wasn’t to “solve” the problems facing the displaced people back then, but to sentence them to a life-long refugee status. She could foresee that the aid provided by the UN was part of a systematic process aimed at making Palestinian refugees forget about their political rights and strip them from their past.

It is a deliberate process that seeks to lock refugees in a dependency on help or charity to survive.

The Palestinian intellectual Jabra I. Jabra, who, like my grandmother, was born in 1920, wrote of how Palestine’s “dislodged population was to be deliberately called ‘refugees’” and how “the horrific political and human issue would be twisted [so] that the maximum response it might elicit from a then weary world would be some act of charity, if at all.”

According to Jabra, Palestinians were “lumped together” with refugees from the Second World War and considered “at worst another demographic case for the United Nations.” 

Palestinians, wrote Jabra, were told: “You’re refugees, don’t make a nuisance of yourselves: we’ll do something about it. Refugee aid after a few months will trickle in: you’ll be numbered and housed in tattered tents and tin shacks. And try and forget, please. Hang on to your rocks wherever you are, and try to forget.”

Zionists have desperately attempted to erase Palestine’s refugees from the dominant narrative. Israel’s fourth prime minister, Golda Meir, notoriously said, “There was no such thing as Palestinians, they never existed.”  

One of her predecessors, David Ben-Gurion, said, “We must do everything to ensure that they never do return.”

But, generation after generation, Palestinians continue to insist on the right of return. It is of central importance to our struggle. 

As Jabra once stressed, “The Palestinian may still be an exile and a wanderer, but his voice is raised in anger, not in lamentation.” 

The Palestinian struggle for liberation has become a global struggle thanks to the collective efforts of ordinary people around the world who believe in justice. Our anger shall keep resonating as long as Palestinians keep enduring the injustices that have been inflicted on us by Zionist forces and the State of Israel. 

Even if our elderly die without going home, the young will keep on holding the keys to our homes. One day, we will return. 

We still have the keys of the homes that our families had to flee. (Illustration by Shahd Abusalama)


Shahd Abusalama

Shahd Abusalama's picture

Shahd Abusalama is a Palestinian artist from Gaza and the author of Palestine from My Eyes blog. She is a PhD student at Sheffield Hallam University, exploring Palestinian cinema. She can be followed at @shahdabusalama.