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Sarah Ali, Gaza, Monday 14th May 2018

With her back turned to protesters behind her, facing instead the protesters still arriving, she crouches on damp grass, indifferent to her surroundings, entirely engrossed in gathering poppies and green chickpea stems. The little girl is the first child I notice as I arrive with Alaa and Lina, my cousins, on 30 March at around 11:30 a.m., at the Tal Abu Safia area in the Northeast of Gaza, for the Great Return March, as several Palestinian organisations have dubbed it. The little girl I saw collecting poppies and chickpea stems was just of one of hundreds of children who joined their parents and families on the first day of the march. People of all ages and all backgrounds gathered on that Friday to demand freedom and liberation.

The protests that started on 30 March, Land Day, are supposed to continue until 15 May, Nakba Day, two iconic dates in Palestinian history. On 30 March 1976, six Palestinians were killed by Israeli police during protests across the Galilee region against Israeli expropriation of Palestinian-owned land. Nakba Day commemorates the original Palestinian catastrophe, when around 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from or forced to flee their lands in 1948, in the run up to the establishment of the State of Israel. The march, which commemorates both dates, calls for the return of Palestinian refugees to their lands and for the end of the eleven-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the Gaza Strip.

As one of my cousins and I walk ahead closer and closer to the infamous ‘buffer zone’ (flat, sandy farmland that is not farmed), we see more young men and fewer women and older people. Noticing this, we come to a careful halt. The crowd in front of us is still hundreds of meters away from the line of Israeli snipers hunched over their gun-mounts along the top of the border’s man-made dunes. People around us hold Palestinian flags which flap left and right in the gentle spring breeze.

Some people chant raj’een, raj’een (‘We’re coming home; coming home’) as they stand facing the Israeli soldiers, but it is generally quieter here than in the tents erected for sit-down protesters back behind us. Many of the young Palestinian men are silent though, standing perfectly still, staring at Israeli snipers. Several Palestinians have been injured already and were rushed to the hospital. I see a man with a bleeding leg being carried past on a fold-up stretcher. Sounds of an ambulance leaving, another arriving, mingle with the intermittent chants. The electric fence in front of the protesters seals Gaza off.

Next to my cousin and myself, two young men are talking about closed borders. My cousin relays the snatches she hears in whispers to me. One of the guys has been waiting to cross the Southern Rafah border for a year now to pursue his education. ‘Master’s degree apparently, some scholarship,’ she reports.

Here, then – I think to myself – is where the political becomes the personal; here is where the political is the personal. The story is interrupted, though, and we never get to hear what happened with the young man’s scholarship. An Israeli drone starts hovering above us, dropping tear gas canisters on the protesters. We run. People cover their eyes and noses as they cough. The crowd is momentarily dispersed, only to gather again after a few minutes.

We hear the news of the first Palestinian killed in the protests in East Shijaiyya, another location for the march along the borders. State violence, uniformed and high-tech, is later justified. Killing is rationalised with all the usual words: ‘security’, ‘defense’, ‘legal right to’.

‘We know where every bullet landed,’ the IDF twitter account announces in a tweet which is later deleted. More evidence shows the murders are premeditated. Cameras capture a video of an eighteen-year-old Palestinian boy, carrying a tire and dodging the gunfire, until he is finally shot dead by Israeli snipers in broad daylight and in his last sprint for cover.

My cousin and I walk back to the larger crowds in the rear. We take shelter in a huge, open tent. We find a space on the ground to sit, and before long a fierce-looking woman, probably in her mid-sixties, starts chatting to me. There is no introduction, just a sense of strange, sweet familiarity.

Under a heavily wrinkled brow, her hazel eyes sparkle as she tells me about her grandsons and granddaughters, and how well they are doing at school. ‘They’re such good students! Top of all their classes!’ she says proudly.

A young girl in blue jeans and a black jacket, not older than fourteen, walks towards our tent, her left hand tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. With her right, she carries copies of Quranic verses printed on small sheets of paper which, smiling, she hands out to the women.

Agilely, the girl finds her way through the crowded tent, bending down to give a copy to each woman. My neighbour and I each take a sheet. As the young girl turns to leave the tent, my elderly companion leans over and whispers, ‘What does it say?’, holding the sheet upside down. Given Gaza’s high literacy rate, it takes me a moment to realize the woman cannot read. ‘Sadaqa Allahu Al-Atheem’ (‘Allah Almighty has spoken the truth’), she routinely comments as I read the verses. ‘I’ll give it to my eldest grandson,’ she nods, sliding her copy into her bag. ‘He recites the Quran beautifully.’

In the midst of this, Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza, find themselves trapped in reductionist binaries as the discourse surrounding their struggle is increasingly problematic. On the one hand, there are the pro-Palestinian social media sites. They represent Palestinians as either voiceless, helpless victims – a patronizing misunderstanding that ignores the long history of Palestinians’ struggle for freedom and the ongoing resistance to Israeli aggression – or as some sort of invincible heroes, forever steadfast, eternally resilient in the face of unspeakable injustice – a romanticized portrayal that naively overlooks the grim, daily reality of the poverty and crushing personal and collective disappointments that come from living under the Israeli siege and occupation.

On the other hand, Zionist and pro-Israeli online groups continue to depict Palestinians in Gaza either as pawns controlled and manipulated by Hamas with no agency of their own, or as barbaric terrorists fighting the whiter-than-white democratic state of Israel – perpetuating all the old Orientalist stereotypes of the chaotic East and the irrationally violent Arab. In all of these representations, Palestinians are ultimately dehumanised.

The Israeli forces killed at least 16 unarmed Palestinians during that first Friday’s protests. Most mainstream media outlets in the West described what happened as ‘clashes’ and ‘confrontations’. The silence of so-called ‘world leaders’ like Donald Trump shows yet again that, from their point of view, the problem with Palestinians is not the way they fight back; it is the fact that they fight back at all.

Palestinians in Gaza have called the second Friday protests ‘The Friday of Tires’, referring to hundreds of tires that were placed along the borders to be set on fire. The smoke is meant to blur snipers’ vision and minimise casualties among Palestinian protesters.

On that second Friday I saw no little girl with poppies and chickpea plants. I saw a young man dressed as a clown to entertain the children in the march, who gathered around him in a full circle. Closer to the burning tires, however, faces were more serious and more determined.

Following the Friday of Tires, political pundits expectedly started to question the methods Palestinian protesters use. Commentators referred to the dangers these tires pose to the environment, and to Gaza itself (perhaps they are unaware Gaza will be unlivable by 2020 because of the crippling siege). Some started to lecture the oppressed on the ‘proper’ way to fight their oppressors, asking all the wrong questions and never addressing root issues.

Today, just one day before the 70th anniversary of the Nakba, Israeli forces killed 52 Palestinians in Gaza as Ivanka Trump celebrated with Netanyahu the ‘inauguration’ of the US embassy in Jerusalem. Over a thousand Palestinian protesters were injured and lie in Gaza’s deteriorating hospitals. The American administration continues to support Israel with millions of dollars and the world is largely oblivious. Words fail. Words cannot measure the pain, the disappointment and anger that we feel. Nonetheless, Palestinians in Gaza refuse to surrender. And we march, knowing that we only have ourselves to depend on.



Sarah Ali is a contributor to Gaza Writes Back (Just World Books) and the upcoming Nakba + 100 (Comma Press, TBC). She did an MA at Durham University as part of their Palestine Scholarship and is a teacher from Gaza.

One thought on “Gaza Writers: Poppies and Chickpea Stems – Sarah Ali

  1. Sarah! You’re brilliant! This is a fantastic piece. You’ll have no problem doing another one for me and the book about Gaza and education that I am trying to assemble. We had a good vigil in support of Palestine yesterday in the Market Place. See my note about it on the Palestine Solidarity Fb page. Keep going! We think about you and everyone else a great deal. With words as powerful as those that you can write, you’ll win.

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