Thousands at the border

Demonstrators carry a fallen comrade during a march on the Lebanese border with Israel, 15 May 2011.

Hassan Bahsoun Newscom

I grew up in Lebanon during the civil war and the Israeli occupation of the south. During that time a revolutionary song by Julia Butros, “Wayn al-Malayeen?” (where are the millions), was continually heard. But as a child I never understood what she meant when she sang “Where are the millions? Where are the Arab people?”

In 2006 during the Israeli war on Lebanon I heard the song again. I was 25; this time I understood what it meant and that line kept playing endlessly in my head throughout the 33 days of war.

Last Sunday, on the way to the border, the bus driver played that song. In light of the Arab revolutions that are happening at the moment, millions of Arabs have taken to the streets to demand their freedom, to demand their rights and to speak out for the first time (at least since I have been alive). On 15 May the same millions took to the streets, only this time to demand the liberation of Palestine: their freedom, their right.

That day at 7:30am we gathered in front of Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. There were five buses already full of people and on the street there were about a hundred others waiting for more buses. Finally, we learned there were no more buses and we would have to rent additional ones. I got into our rented bus full of enthusiasm and good vibes; the journey back to Palestine had started. The crowd on the bus was an interesting mix of people of different nationalities and as we sat down we were all Palestine, we were all Palestinian.

For weeks I had anxiously awaited 15 May, the Third Palestinian Intifada. Many people had started referring to it as such on social networks, and I myself loved the sound of it and so this is how I would refer to it every time I spoke about it. However, 15 May is the Nakba (catastrophe) commemoration; on this day we remember that more than 750,000 Palestinians were forced out of their homes, their land, to make way for a new country and people to be put in their place.

To me Palestine was and still is the central cause in the Arab world, and I always believed that the liberation of Palestine would not happen before the liberation of the Arab people from the corrupt ruling dictatorships. The west like to call them the Arab moderates but in reality this means Arab puppets. Today however the Arab world is changing and the Arab people are revolting, and while they are revolting they have not forgotten about Palestine or the suffering and occupation their Palestinian brethren are going through.

In closely following the Arab uprisings since the protests in Tunisia started, I have always seen at least one Palestinian flag among the protesters in every Arab country. Palestine has always been present during the protests. Palestine has always been present in the hearts and conscience of the Arab people. The “malayeen” or millions are speaking now and their united voice is hitting the sky. Yesterday, again, the Arab people spoke: the people want to liberate Palestine; the people want to return to Palestine.

The road to Palestine

The trip from Beirut took longer than it should along the coast to the south; hundreds of buses and cars displayed Palestinian flags, and on the sides of the roads big billboards read: “May 15th: the march to return.” I have never felt so delighted when looking at a billboard before.

On the windy road from Nabatiyeh to Maroun al-Ras, the endless line of buses continued, the windows full of people waving to each other and flashing the V for victory sign. We felt like we were really going back to Palestine. On the bus three Palestinian friends and I jokingly but sincerely started making plans about where in Jerusalem we were going to have a coffee, or should we just go to Haifa and enjoy the beach there, we teased, believing it somehow.

As the bus wound through the lush green valleys of the south, blooming with flowers and life, I couldn’t help but notice many buses with Syrian license plates. “Had these people come all the way from Syria?” I wondered. But no, I was told there were not enough buses in Lebanon, so some had been rented from Syria.

Contrary to our original plans, the bus had to stop in Bint Jbeil, a village a few kilometers away from our destination — the border at Maroun al-Ras. The village had been turned into a big parking lot for buses carrying people from a dozen refugee camps all over Lebanon and the many Lebanese that wanted to march to the border. We jumped out of the bus and without asking how we would get to the border, we found ourselves joining thousands of people walking through the green fields and climbing mountains as a short-cut to our shared destination.

It was an approximately five kilometer walk or more accurately, a hike. It was beautiful to see endless lines of people marching from different directions in the green land. Next to me were Palestinian families who had brought the young ones and dressed them up for the occasion. There were old women and men who struggled to climb the steep hills and there was a great spirit of solidarity among the people as everyone gave a hand, everyone offered to help, and everyone smiled.

My wife and I slowed our pace at one point to listen to an old Palestinian man leaning on a cane. He was walking with his grandson and telling him the story of the time he had had to leave Palestine and carry his nine-year-old sister while escaping to Lebanon over these very same mountains and paths. The old man spoke to his grandson of the beauty of Palestine and described how their home looked.

Finally, as we gradually drew closer to the border, he told the young boy, “Soon you will go and see Palestine, the most beautiful country I have ever seen; it’s where we come from. It’s our land.”

Shooting from the valley

We finally got to Maroun al-Ras, a public space on top of a mountain overlooking occupied Palestine. There were thousands of people scattered all over the mountain top and a big screen was broadcasting what was happening down in the valley. Before we could properly take in our surroundings I heard shooting, four or five shots from below us in the valley.

I told my wife the Israelis are shooting, and a minute after that, a person on the microphone called for the ambulance to bring down stretchers to the fence. I asked what was happening and people told me four martyrs had fallen and more than twenty were injured.

A wave of people stretched from the park on the top of the hill all the way down to the border fence. I found myself sliding on that wave, stopping every once in a while to catch my breath and wonder whether I should stay where I was or keep going down to the fence. I could not contain the desire to join the thousands on the fence already throwing stones across the border. From a distance, the stones looked like white birds diving to the other side.

I finally made it to what they were calling the second line, approximately 500 meters away from the border fence. There were ambulances parked nearby and the Lebanese army had formed a human chain to prevent more people from joining those at the border fence.

Many Palestinian young men and women kept insisting on breaking the chain the Lebanese army had made, wanting to join their brothers and sisters on the front line. Watching the faces of the Lebanese soldiers, all I could see was confusion and panic, but they were not losing any chance to threaten and intimidate the protesters with their raised batons and sticks.

All their guns were directed to the sky

Standing in front of the army were a few Palestinian men pleading with the raging people not to take it out on the Lebanese army. “This is not what we were here for,” they shouted over the chants. That did not stop the people, and even with the knowledge that the land between them was littered with mines, people kept breaking through the chain and sprinting to join the front line.

One group of courageous young women broke the chain of men and ran towards the front line and everyone cheered them on. All this time the Israelis were shooting, a burst of two or three shots rang out frequently, and every time they shot we saw the stretchers gathering new bodies.

At 4:00pm we decided to climb up the steep mountain and walk back to catch our bus. After a couple minutes of walking, I noticed the Lebanese army moving towards the front line, the fence; they reached the protesters who started loudly chanting “Palestine! Palestine!” As the army made their way to the very front it looked like they had decided the protest was over, and suddenly, with no warning, the Lebanese army on the front and the second line started firing thousands of rounds into the air.

All their guns where directed to the sky, but the amount of shooting terrorized everyone who was there. We all started sprinting up the steep mountain; a random man pulled my arm and dragged me up with him as I struggled to keep up on my feet. The firing intensified and there were the same waves of people this time running in panic. Next to me there were lost children, crying, wanting their parents; an old man ran out of breath, crouched down; I saw an old Palestinian woman running up the mountain with tears running down her face.

Looking back down to where the second line was, I could only see a line of soldiers with their M16 rifles to the sky, shooting nonstop. It was like something out of the movies. But something even more terrorizing happened in the middle of the shooting. As the Lebanese fired their guns I heard deeper shots coming from the Israeli side and bullets whizzed by me; I took a dive to the ground. The way the Lebanese army decided to end the event made me ask myself, who is the enemy here?

Nothing to lose but our chains

The march to return left at least ten persons dead in Lebanon and many others in Syria and Palestine, while in Egypt the people were prevented from reaching the border.

People who normally don’t care about Palestine and enjoy a life of apathy and consumerism asked me today, what did you achieve? What did you change? Was it worth it the death of tens of people?

My answer is the following: after yesterday, things will not be the same as before 15 May. Just like after Muhammad Bouazizi, things are not the same as before he shook the Arab world. The Arab people, us, the Arab youth, we are not going to let the status quo continue, we are not going to be humiliated by our own people anymore. We are not going to let Palestine and the Palestinian people be humiliated and tortured every time they breathe.

We are freedom-loving people and we won’t live anymore on empty promises from our corrupt governments who use Palestine as a pretext to repress us while they enjoy stealing from our pockets. We won’t let them continue to make sure Israel is safe and sound, enjoying the beautiful land of Palestine, while hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in inhumane conditions in the camps.

How do you expect a Palestinian refugee to see his land being enjoyed by the Israeli occupation and not react to that? We, the Arab people, the Arab youth, the millions, have decided that we have nothing to lose but our chains and that Palestine is our prize. I saw yesterday how much the people want to free Palestine, how much they want return to Palestine. The Arab people are here, the Arab rage is here, the malayeen are here.

Moe Ali Nayel is a journalist and fixer based in Beirut.