Tearing down Gaza’s iron wall

Palestinians crossing the boundary with Israel from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, 7 October 2023. (APA Images) 

I come from the village of Abasan al-Jadida, near the southeastern boundary of the Khan Younis governorate in Gaza.

My village is near the barrier wall erected by Israel, first in 1971, to tighten its grip over Gaza, and then fortified throughout the years, until its latest iteration, the so-called iron wall, completed in 2021.

Since the years after the 1967 war, Israel has prohibited all Palestinians from approaching the wall, shooting at anyone who comes near, be it a human or an animal.

During the Great March of Return in 2018, when Palestinians held massive protests near the wall, approaching the wall often meant death.

On the other side of the wall is historic Palestine: the land of our ancestors, with its mountains and rivers and churches. In our collective imagination, historic Palestine is our dream.

It means everything to us – our freedom and our lives.

My earliest memories of the wall are when I was 9, in 1988. My grandfather was a farmworker and he cultivated barren land near the separation wall.

He planted wheat by hand and harvested it by sickle when the stalks ripened.

I would ride in a donkey-drawn cart alongside my grandfather. My task was to gather the wheat stalks.

We started the harvest in the early morning hours and would take a break for breakfast and heat our tea over a fire. My grandfather made the best tomato stew.

Homeland in the distance

Those were beautiful times filled with warmth and joy.

However, there is another aspect to those memories that I can’t forget.

I remember green Israeli military jeeps conducting patrols near the boundary. Behind those jeeps, beyond the wall, historic Palestine appeared as beautiful green spaces.

My grandfather told me about the city of Jaffa and where he came from. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t bypass this simple wall and go there, why no one was allowed to approach it.

As a child, I would salute the soldiers in the jeeps when they passed by – just a child’s impulse to be friendly – even though I knew they couldn’t see me.

Every war or invasion of Gaza, we were pushed farther from the wall. The occupation forces increased the distance between us and historic Palestine.

Farms shrunk, and landowners grew afraid of cultivating their land that was close to the wall, understanding that they could be shot at any moment by Israeli soldiers.

As I grew older, I would imagine the wall collapsing, like the Berlin Wall. I remember the images of Germans tearing down the wall and crossing from East to West Germany.

It seemed a joyous moment of freedom.

However, the situation in our village is different.

Beyond the barrier

When the wall seemingly collapsed on 7 October, I watched videos shared on social media of people running past it, expressing their amazement at what was beyond the barrier.

It might be challenging for the reader to understand what it’s like to live behind a wall, and what it felt like for that wall to momentarily disappear.

But on that day, the wall did not mean death, at first. The wall had lost its purpose of containing us.

When our wall fell, what was there to prevent us from going to the other side? Many young men from my village did go to the other side.

They showed remarkable courage in overcoming that oppressive wall. They couldn’t resist the chance to see what was beyond the wall.

Those who crossed the wall and then returned to the village spoke proudly of their experience: “We crossed the wall, and we discovered the beauty of the towns behind the wall.”

Others did not return, as they were martyred.

Some did not return

Suleiman Abu Anza, 21, was an ambitious and bright young man.

In 2021, Suleiman traveled to Malaysia to pursue a degree in computer engineering. He was looking forward to his future as a computer engineer.

He shared these details of his life with his mother Abeer, dreaming of the day he would return to share his graduation and academic achievements with her.

After nearly three years in Malaysia, Suleiman returned to Gaza in September 2023 to pursue a master’s degree. Abeer dreamed of a promising future for her son.

He told her he had had a dream where he met the Prophet Muhammad.

Abeer felt that this dream meant that Suleiman would have a brilliant future in Malaysia. However, Suleiman’s story turned out differently than her expectations.

On 7 October, Suleiman seized the opportunity to cross the wall. His was merely an attempt to explore.

And in that crucial moment when restrictions and barriers disappeared, the joy turned into tragedy. Suleiman was shot and killed by Israeli forces.

He was made a martyr in a moment of potential liberation.

Abeer found herself in unbearable pain at the loss of her son. She returned to thinking about his dream of the Prophet Muhammad, and how she felt it held hope for his future.

The loss of her eldest son has left a deep wound in her heart.

Nawal Soleman Akel is a student of political science living in Belgium.

Editor’s note: A correction was made to this article after initial publication. Israel first erected a major wall around Gaza in 1971, rather than in 1967.