Umm Omar was eight years old when Irgun and Stern Gang terrorists violently expelled her family from their farm in the village of Jusayr in May 1948 during the creation of Israel. This week, she, along with millions of Palestinians, are marking 70 years since 750,000 indigenous Palestinians were driven from their land to make way for the creation of Israel. For Palestinians, this is the Nakba (catastrophe); for Israelis, it is 70 years of independence.
“We used to grow wheat. I remember going out with my parents in the wheat fields when I was a little girl. We never saw another happy day after we left,” says the 78-year old great-grandmother.
The family then fled to al-Majdal, a Palestinian town that is now the Israeli city of Ashkelon. As Zionist terrorists continued to ethnically cleanse Palestinians, the family was forced to move to the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip.
Her father returned to Jusayr to check on their land. “He saw that everything was OK. It was just like we left it.” But on the way back, Umm Omar's father was killed when he stepped on a landmine planted by Zionist militias.
Denied the right to return to their original villages, the refugee camp in Gaza became permanent for Umm Omar and thousands of others. Today, 70 percent of Gaza’s population are refugees, meaning they or their parents or grandparents fled or were expelled from areas that became Israel — without their permission. They have never been allowed to return, despite United Nations Security Council Resolution 194 guaranteeing them the right to return to their homes.
Not surprisingly, the movement to return home has started in the besieged Gaza Strip. Known as the Great Return March (GRM), thousands of Palestinians have engaged in protests at the Israel-Gaza border fence since March 30. Makeshift tents, symbolising the right of return for Palestinian refugees, have been erected 700 metres away from the unilaterally-imposed Israeli military buffer zone. Protesters are also calling for an end to the decade-long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip that has strangled the economy and life of Palestinians.
Since the protests began, 50 Palestinians have been killed and over 5,000 injured from Israeli live ammunition and tear gas. There have been no Israeli casualties.
“With the Great Return March, Palestinians are demanding a life of dignity,” explains GRM spokesperson, Ahmad Abu Rtemah. “Nothing about life in Gaza is normal. The Nakba is not a just a memory, it is an ongoing reality. We accept that we all must eventually die. But in Gaza, the tragedy is that we don’t even get to live."
It’s not just Palestinians in Gaza who long to return to their land.
Abu Arab was 13 years old when Zionist forces bombed his family’s home in Saffuriya in July 1948. He is now an Israeli citizen but cannot return to his village, located less than two kilometres from Nazareth where he currently lives.
As Israeli troops occupied the village, the family was forced northwards towards Lebanon, eventually ending up in a refugee camp there.
His father made the dangerous journey back and found the village gone. Saffuriya had been fenced off and declared a closed military zone. Anyone entering risked being shot by Zionist terror groups.
“We had nothing. Everything had been taken from us,” he says. The family hid in a friend’s house in the nearby town of Nazareth, and eventually settled there.
Israel has built an exclusively Jewish community over the village of Saffuriya, and given it the Hebrew name of Tzipori. Where the houses once stood is a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) — an environmentally-friendly way of erasing the Palestinian presence there.
The Israeli government refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return home simply because they are not Jewish. Palestinians are viewed as a “demographic threat” to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. This is why Israel has not allowed Palestinians to return to their own homes, and they continue to be forgotten in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
While Palestinians are a threat, Jewish identity is celebrated and welcomed in Israel.
For instance, a South African Jew who has never lived in Israel can automatically gain citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, while a Palestinian refugee whose family lived in Palestine for generations — and who still hold the key to their home — is unlikely to obtain even a visitors’ visa, let alone the right to return there to live.
“We’re not calling for removing anybody from existence or displacing anybody from their place, explains Abu Rtemah. "We’re simply calling for justice,. Our weapons are our rights and UN resolution 194, and we’re hoping that the international community will recognise our just cause."
“I still hope that I'll die in my home town. I may be using a walker to move around today. But if they told me I can go back to Jusayr, I’d run all the way,” Umm Omar says animatedly.
Abu Arab is equally determined. “I am sure one day I will return," he says. "If not me, then my son — and if not my son, then my grandson."
Like Umm Omar and Abu Arab, the makeshift tents of the Great Return March are standing firm against an Israeli regime that has tried to break the spirit and erase the presence of Palestinians.
Seven decades after the Nakba, Palestinians want nothing more than to return to their land and live in dignity.
Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network in Johannesburg. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo