A Message from Gaza: ‘Palestinian Refugees Will Never Give Up Their Right To Return’
“Palestinian refugees will never give up their right to return,” said Yousef Aljamal, a 24-year-old Palestinian writer from the Gaza Strip.
On this week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure I spoke with Yousef while he was in Washington, DC, as part of the book tour for Gaza Writes Back, a collection of stories written by young Palestinians from Gaza in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli military assault that killed killed 1,400 people including over 300 children in December 2008 and January 2009.
The only way to end the conflict, says Yousef, is to “Give equal rights to all and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes.”
It’s not often that we hear directly from people who live in Gaza due to the Israeli siege by land, air and sea that cuts Gaza off from the outside world with the help of Egypt and the United States, which has turned Gaza into an open-air prison. Many of the Palestinians who contributed to Gaza Writes Back can’t even access a copy of the book because, like most basic everyday items, the book is prevented from entering the strip. The same goes for people. Despite securing a visa from the US embassy to accompany Yousef and two other writers on the book tour, contributer Sarah Ali was prevented from leaving Gaza by Israel. Such is life for those in the tiny coastal enclave, where Israel controls everything, even the number of calories Palestinians eat.
Yousef is a remarkable person who has lived a difficult life. Israel has taken the lives of two of his siblings, which he talks about in the interview.
Like 80 percent of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in Gaza, Yousef is a refugee. His family was expelled from the village Aqir in 1948 as part of a massive campaign of ethnic cleansing of indigenous Palestinians by Zionist colonizers. He and his family, like all Palestinian refugees, are banned from ever returning to their village simply because they’re not Jewish.
“I think [boycott, divestment and santions (BDS)] is the best way to help Palestinians,” he told me. “We are calling for equal rights for all people, Muslims, Christians and Jews. And I don’t think that anyone here in [Washington, DC] has a problem with equal rights. The problem is that we have some Israeli leaders who have a problem with equal rights. They don’t want to give Palestinians equal rights.”
Yousef has zero faith that the peace process can bring about a just end to the conflict.
“The peace process is used by Israel to further advance its colonial project and land confiscation and house demolitions and killings, airstrikes,” he said.
In the discussion portion of the show my co-host Kevin Gosztola and I talk about the white nationalist who shot and killed three people at a Jewish community center and an assisted living community in Kansas last week, the Bundy Ranch saga, Edward Snowden’s question to Putin and more.
Below is a transcript of my interview with Yousef.
RANIA KHALEK: You’re in DC right now as a part of the book tour for Gaza Writes Back. Can you tell me about the book?
YOUSEF ALJAMAL: Gaza Writes Back is a collection of 23 stories written by 15 young Palestinians from Gaza, Palestine, about occupation, life in Gaza, daily life in Gaza struggles, society, politics, love, hope and everything in between.
KHALEK: And how old are you?
AlJAMAL: I am 24.
KHALEK: And all these essays were inspired by Operation Cast Lead, right?
ALJAMAL: Right. Soon after the Cast Lead operation, the editor of the book, who was my teacher and who taught almost every single writer either at the university he teaches, the Islamic University of Gaza, or at other institutions creative writing, and he encouraged them to write about their reaction to Cast Lead operation 2008-2009. So students started writing.
I wrote a story about my oldest brother who was killed by Israel. Rawan Yaghi wrote about stories of children, a child stuck under the rubble of the destroyed house. Other students wrote about Israeli soldiers, they tried to get into the psyche of Israeli soldiers. Others wrote about Jerusalem and the West Bank and the wall. So the stories are from Gaza but they tell the story of Palestine from the river to the sea.
KHALEK: Your older brother was killed in Cast Lead?
ALJAMAL: No, my oldest brother was killed in 2004 when Israel invaded Nuseirat refugee camp on March the 7th. But I decided to write later on because I was a little kid then and I wanted to document the personal experience of my family under occupation.
I wrote about my oldest brother who was shot by Israel. I wrote about my older sister who was denied a permit by Israel to receive medical attention in the West Bank and passed away as a result. This was in 2007. And I wrote about other issues, for example I lost my cousin in the Cast Lead operation. He was found under the rubble of one of the buildings with his head cut off. I wrote about travel restrictions and how it took my mother 12 years to get a permit to visit her hometown in the West Bank and how her parents passed away in 2003 and 2008 but she was denied a permit to participate in the funeral procession in Jericho, which is just two hours drive away from our refugee camp.
I’m still writing but I focus on the personal experience of people who are struggling.
KHALEK: Is writing a form of resistance for you?
ALJAMAL: It’s resistance and it’s education and it’s therapy. Hopefully it will bring about change for those who read and learn about the situation in Palestine.
KHALEK: Where is your family originally from?
ALJAMAL: My family’s originally from Aqir village.
KHALEK: Where’s that?
ALJAMAL: Aqir is to the south of Ramle just to the middle of the coast of Palestine next to Jaffa. And the village was ethnically cleansed in 1948. Nowadays there is an Israeli colony called Kiryat Ekron.
KHALEK: And you can’t go back and visit there obviously. I mean, 80 percent of the people of Gaza are refugees.
ALJAMAL: I cannot visit. I cannot go back to this village. I even cannot go back to the other side of Palestine, to the West Bank, where my mother was born.
KHALEK: In the US I’m sure you’re aware there’s been several high profile academic organizations in the past several months who’ve come out in support of the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. And a lot of Zionists, what they say is that this is a violation of the academic freedom of Israelis. So you as a student and scholar, can you talk about what kind of academic freedom you have or don’t have in Gaza?
ALJAMAL: Palestinian students are denied the basic human rights. For example I cannot study in the West Bank universities and Palestinians in the West Bank cannot study in Gaza universities because Israel’s policy is to divide, to split Gaza from the West Bank.
Students in the West Bank have to go through unlimited number of checkpoints when they go to their school every day and they get humiliated and sometimes Israel sends them back and sometimes they do not arrive on time and miss their classes.
In 2008-2009, Israel destroyed one of the main buildings in my university, Islamic University of Gaza. And they destroyed dozens of schools and killed hundreds of Palestinian students and hundreds of Palestinian students are arrested. Israel also destroyed the [American International School] in Gaza in 2008-2009.
So academic boycott of Israel, cultural boycott of Israel, economic boycott of Israel, political boycott of Israel is extremely important to bring Israel accountable and force it to give Palestinians equal rights in historical Palestine.
KHALEK: In terms of Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 people and over 300 were children—obviously there was life before Cast Lead. How have things changed for you personally since that military operation?
ALJAMAL: Probably this was the largest military operation I have witnessed in my life. I was preparing to sit for my final exams and all the sudden hell broke out in Gaza. Almost 60 F16s attacked governmental buildings, police stations, some facilities here and there at the same time. When students were getting out of their schools—we have two shifts in Gaza so some students were going to their schools and some students were leaving their schools—the intensity of attacks, the number of people killed, seeing all these horrible massacres, losing friends, relatives, neighbors, having to be there under attack and waiting to what might happen next, you might be the next target, was really a horrible experience. But again, as Palestinians we never give up and this is our right.
For example my cousin back in November 2012 when Israel attacked again he was in Egypt but he chose to come to Gaza to stay with his family under attack. We seek life but when it comes to challenge occupation we are ready to be there and fight until the very end with the very little little support and hope we have.
KHALEK: After Cast Lead and since then there’s been other assaults, but also there’s a fuel crisis in Gaza where Israel won’t let fuel in and Egypt is helping, Egypt won’t let fuel in. And there’s others things too like shortages of medical supplies. Can you talk a little bit about those things and what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t access basic things like that?
ALJAMAL: In 2007, my older sister passed away because of the lack of medical equipment in the Gaza Strip. She was denied a permit by Israel. She applied to go to Jerusalem for surgery and she was denied a permit.
KHALEK: Why did they deny it, what did they say?
ALJAMAL: Security threat. And this was the same reason given to my 7-year-old sister when my mother applied to travel to the West Bank.
The siege makes it very difficult. Lack of medical equipment, lack of food, lack of gas, there is a gas crisis, fuel crisis.
I still remember when I left Gaza six months ago I used to spend sometimes an hour waiting for a taxi to go to my office. Imagine thousands of Palestinian students do the same.
KHALEK: And there’s no electricity either, right?
ALJAMAL: Well this is another issue. In 2006 Israel attacked the only power plant in the Gaza Strip, which is located less than two kilometers away from my parent’s house in Nuseirat refugee camp. And since then we have been suffering.
Sometimes we have eight hours of electricity shortage, sometimes 12 hours, sometimes 16 hours. And this is terrible to students, this is terrible to everyone, to social life, to economy, even sometimes patients die in hospitals because there is no fuel and they cannot run the generators.
So the situation in Gaza is terrible. People always look for alternatives and do their best to survive.
We have almost 1,500 tunnels dug between Gaza and Egypt and they were used mainly to smuggle food and raw materials to the Gaza Strip after long years of Israeli siege. But sadly most of these tunnels were destroyed by the Egyptian military recently, just last year.
It is sad that Palestinians depend on tunnels to get access to their basic human rights. But again this is the only option and the responsibility of all people all over the world and all governments to end this cruel siege.
KHALEK: I also wanted to ask you about the political situation in Gaza. With Egypt right now things are really tough because like you said they destroyed the tunnels. I don’t agree with this opinion but people who are pro-Israel, Zionists, say that “Well, they elected Hamas and Hamas is a terrorist organization.” And you actually just showed me, you had your first academic article published and the title was about Hamas, specifically, is it a terrorist or liberation organization? So can you talk a little bit about that, what that means? Don’t the people of Gaza have a right to resist even if that means a violent resistance?
ALJAMAL: According to the UN resolutions all people who are subjected to military occupation have the right to resist the occupation by all possible means, by all means possible, including so-called violent resistance, so resistance with its forms.
Israel used to call Yasser Arafat a terrorist and later we have seen Yasser Arafat coming to the United States and signing peace agreement with Israel. Israel has always accused Palestinians of being terrorists.
Even in the ‘50s, those Palestinian refugees trying to go back to their original villages, they were killed, captured and they were called infiltrators and terrorists by them. And now again the same story happens with Hamas. The US designated Hamas as a terrorist organization. So does Israel. We have seen that Israel had to talk to Hamas to release its captured soldier in Gaza and they had to talk to Hamas indirectly through Egypt to reach an agreement.
So Israel labels any Palestinian “terrorists” just because he’s calling for his rights.
And the United States’ Jimmy Carter was in Gaza and the West Bank and he has said that the 2006 election were more than perfect and Hamas was elected and this is democracy. And according to democracy we should accept the results of democracy. If we want to change the elected leadership we have to wait four years and the only way to do this is elections not supporting militias and giving them weapons to topple the government as the US and Israel did.
KHALEK: People who are listening to this who want to help but don’t know how, how can people outside of Gaza help?
ALJAMAL: Well nowadays we have seen the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. I think this is the best way to help Palestinians. We are calling for equal rights for all people, Muslims, Christians and Jews. And I don’t think that anyone here in this city has a problem with equal rights. The problem is that we have some Israeli leaders who have a problem with equal rights. They don’t want to give Palestinians equal rights.
In Gaza we have different ID, West Bank different ID, segregated cities, towns. And Palestinians in Israel who have Israeli passport are treated as second-class citizens. Even some Jewish groups in Israel are being discriminated against. So the only way is to give equal rights to all people and to allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes. Otherwise the agreement, the conflict will not come to an end.
As a Palestinian refugee I live in a refugee camp, which is home to 85,000 Palestinians. And we have eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian refugees will never give up their right to return. And if they talk about being practical, this is the best way to solve the conflict. Give equal rights to all and allow Palestinian refugees to go back to their homes.
KHALEK: When you see the US and Israel talking about the peace process and the two-state solution, what is your response?
ALJAMAL: Kerry accused Israel and Netanyahu and blamed him for the collapse of peace talks. But, as a Palestinian, this doesn’t mean anything to me. This means that Israel will continue land confiscation in the West Bank and building more settlements and killing more Palestinians and erecting more checkpoints. The peace process is used by Israel to further advance its colonial project and land confiscation and house demolitions and killings, airstrikes. Just two days ago, the day before yesterday, Israel was targeting the Gaza Strip.
Again this is the only way to get out of this endless saga of violence, end the occupation.
KHALEK: Do you feel hopeful?
ALJAMAL: Yes of course. When I see people coming to support Palestine and I see many non-Palestinians involved in this justice battle here in the US and elsewhere in the world I feel more hopeful and I always have hope that our day will come as our Irish friends say.
KHALAK: Lastly I want to ask, have you received any media attention from big US publications? Have any reporters from the Washington Post or the New York Times or the Los Angeles Times spoken to you?
ALJAMAL: We have talked to the Philadelphia Inquirer. We have talked to Real News, Huffington Post. The problem is that mainstream media in the US is controlled by this Zionist narrative that doesn’t allow Palestinian voices to get there. But I think with the rise in social media and alternative media this narrative is being debunked every day and more Palestinian voices get out and this book Gaza Writes Back is just an example.