Middle East

In besieged Gaza,1948 refugees still cling tightly to right of return

BEIRUT: Every Palestinian refugee knows his or her town of origin, Naeem Matta, a resident of Khan Younes refugee camp in Gaza said. And “after 70 years,” he added, “the wait has been long.”

Like millions of Palestinian refugees in the region, Matta has inherited the memories of the people expelled from their homes and of entire villages razed by Jewish militias in 1948.

In the blockaded enclave, widely described as the biggest prison on earth, stories across Gaza’s eight overcrowded refugee camps are as old as the Nakba itself.

Matta was born in the Gaza Strip, 10 years after his parents fled their native coastal city of Majdal Asqalan, seized and annexed by Israel in November 1948. Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles facing his return to his ancestral city, he said, the resilience of the Palestinian people will lead the way.

“We have a mass consciousness of our inalienable right to go back to our lands and generation after generation, we keep on breaking Israel’s hope that when our elderly die, our youth will forget,” Matta told The Daily Star.

But with the rate of unemployment among Gaza’s refugees at a staggering 47 percent, Matta’s immediate concern is the economic situation in the camps and an educated youth with no work prospects that cannot have real ambitions outside the enclave because of the siege.

Gaza’s 1.9 million refugees, 72 percent of the strip’s population, are feeling the brunt of an economic crisis across the enclave heightened by the Israeli siege, a partial Egyptian blockade, cessations in salary payments by the Palestinian Authority and funding cuts to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees.

Matta spoke of a bleak situation in the basic aspects of daily life, where people have to buy expensive purified water because the water is undrinkable. The health sector in Gaza has suffered greatly from 11 years of blockade and a considerable number of medical cases need to be referred to Israel or the occupied West Bank.

“But Israel often uses its crossing as trade: collaborate in return for medical access,” Matta said, adding that the reality has been far worse than what he could describe.

“I don’t know what’s the bill we have to pay just because we’re Palestinians,” he added.

Although steadfast in their attachment and sacrifice to their rights, other refugees in Gaza also speak of the uncertainties surrounding their future.

For them, there is a considerable political maneuvering behind the scenes to eliminate the right of return by the Americans and Israelis.

“Trump’s Jerusalem decision and the opening of the American embassy in our historical capital [Monday] has increased the suffering of refugees and will most probably have a real impact on their dream of one day returning to their lands,” Jamal Abu Habel, the director of a popular committee for refugees in the Jabalaya camp, said.

But, he added, despite the demonstration of loyalty to Israel and trampling on international resolutions by the U.S., “Palestinians consider that Trump’s declaration does not change the facts of history.”

Abu Habel, originally from Barir, a village that was captured and depopulated by Jewish paramilitaries in May 1948, told The Daily Star that refugees in Gaza still feel like temporary residents who are not fully at home, even after decades of living in the strip and after a large number of “fathers and grandfathers have long passed.”

“Although Gaza is part of Palestine, the people are still holding on to their dream,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mazen Moussa, a member of the refugee committee in the Maghazi camp, firmly believes in the legality that UNRWA gives to the rights of Palestinian refugees.

“UNRWA’s creation was a legal and political embodiment of the international commitment toward refugees, to help and employ them until they return to their land. Its creation is based on the U.N. resolution 194 that ensures this right,” he said.

But with a $446 million shortfall, due to a major funding cut from the United States in January, he said, the organization has scaled back on a large number of services in Palestinian camps across the region. This reduction has had considerable negative impact on the livelihood of refugees in Gaza’s camps.

“The camps in Gaza today are suffering from a wide range of things: thousands of UNRWA jobs will be canceled, funding for education might be reduced, the camps are overpopulated in a horrible way, our doctors are unpaid, I could go on,” he said.

Moussa said the pressure exerted on the organization has a political objective for those who stand to gain from its collapse and “the elimination of the issue of the refugees, which has always been a point of contention for the Israelis for any political settlements with the Palestinians.”

“If UNRWA is finished,” he added, “ Israel and the U.S. think the chapter of the refugees will end with it.”

But Moussa struck a defiant tone and expressed his confidence that Palestinian refugees will overcome the pressure and the constraints they are under.

“If Palestinians didn’t have a determination of steel, they wouldn’t be here today, after everything they’ve been though,” he said.

Originally from the Palestinian village of Aqir – the site on which the Israeli town of Kiryat Ekron was founded after its depopulation in May 1948 – Moussa said the hardest thing in the enclave is “the human siege.”

“They put us in a big prison called the Gaza strip, with two vents that barely open: Rafah and Erez [the Egyptian and Israeli crossings]. They are depriving us from seeing the world.”

Safaa Salem, a 29-year-old graduate from the University of Al-Aqsa and resident of Khan Younes refugee camp, has been unemployed for nine years.

Despite a high number of female university graduates, the World Bank put the percentage of women in the workforce in Gaza at 19%.

“Women want to feel their weight and worth in society, at home and in front of their children but their situation in the strip and especially in the camps is very difficult, “ she told The Daily Star.

Her husband, a PA employee, has not been paid in two months, making the need to find work more pressing for Salem but the prospects are already slim, even worse for women.

“I kept seeking workshops and courses and now I have 13 certificates. I’m even willing to do volunteer work, anything but to stay inactive, but even that I can’t find,” she said.

A native of Jaffa city that was seized by Jewish forces on May 14, 1948, Salem said thinking of the Nakba made her sad.

“I wish to return to Jaffa all the time and to pray in Jerusalem. But I don’t see a solution. Palestinians have resisted for decades but a lot of people let them down, including the Arabs,” she said.

Gazans are bracing for the culmination of weeks of protests along the border with Israel as they mark the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, which they are expecting to be bloody. Israeli forces have already killed 54 Palestinians and wounded more than 2,000 others since the start of the protests on March 30.

“Gazans, natives and refugees alike, are protesting everything. They are protesting for a decent life, for their right of return, for the breaking of the siege and against Trump’s Jerusalem decision,” said Salem’s brother, Ahmad Moamer, a 24-year-old photojournalist.

He was covering the protests when he was shot in the stomach. He was among 14 journalists targeted by Israeli live fire while reporting on the march. Two of them died.

“As journalists who have been targeted, we clearly say that Israel is trying to stop us from performing our duty of relaying the reality on the ground to the world but despite this knowledge, we will not stop carrying [out] our mission,” he told The Daily Star.

Moamer, who says was wearing a press vest at the time of the shooting, was talking to his colleague when he suddenly felt what seemed like an “explosion” in his body.” In surgery, 16 pieces of shrapnel were extracted from his stomach.

“Nakba is not only a day in a year. It is a day carved in the memory of Palestinians and whether the protests achieve something or not, we will never forget,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 14, 2018, on page 8.




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