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For the Love of Gaza

When I first arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 24, 1994, I was both scared and torn by guilt. My fears were not merely those of any new immigrant trying to start a new life in some other place. As a Palestinian, the United States, as a political entity, has always been a hostile place for me.

My guilt, on the other hand, was related to the fact that I had left my family behind, living under perpetual siege. Since then, some of them have died, including my father, who was denied access to proper medical care—like countless other Gazans still living under Israeli occupation. In the ongoing war on the Gaza Strip, I have lost literally hundreds of members of my immediate and extended family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances. My guilt, back then, was fully justified. It still is.

That July morning, when I handed my laissez-passer to the US immigration officer at JFK, he looked perplexed. He adjusted his polarized sunglasses repeatedly as he flipped through the strange document. “What does it mean that your nationality is ‘undefined’?” he asked. I understood the question, but could neither find the words—nor the courage—to answer. I saw my face reflected in his shiny lenses and felt embarrassed. I did not look like the brave Gazan taking on the world, as my father and neighbors back home expected me to be.

“Always remember, you are from Gaza,” my father had told me, as he stood in the predawn morning with my younger brothers and a small cluster of neighbors and friends who insisted on bidding me farewell before the taxi taking me to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport arrived. My mother had died many years earlier, during the first intifada (uprising), but her kind eyes still stared at me gently, one last time, from a framed photo in the living room.

The look on my face as I confronted my first American obstacle was hardly one of bravery. I cannot be sent back, I thought to myself, amid a rush of other thoughts I couldn’t articulate in that moment. I wanted to tell the officer that I am “undefined” because Israel refuses to acknowledge my nationality, my roots, my history, and my present, let alone my humanity. I wanted to tell him this is the only term they could find to avoid simply acknowledging my identity as a Palestinian; that Israel’s dehumanization of me and my people does not begin or end with language; and that I am a refugee from a place called Gaza, whose people have been forced into an internal exile within Palestine itself, and that those Gazans, like me, are, in fact, considered lucky for having a document with a name and a face.

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Other officers joined the man in the mirrored glasses, some investigating the unusual paper, while others examined me—a strange, spectacled creature with blue jeans and navy blue T-shirt with an alligator logo. After much deliberation, they decided that I could proceed with my journey to Seattle. They did not manage to successfully decipher my nationality, but ultimately deferred to the valid visa I carried from the US Embassy in Tel Aviv.

Thirty years later, I have done much with my life. I have studied, raised a family, and, at least in my own estimation, contributed to US society through my books, papers, articles, media engagements, and more. My children—who now seem poised to achieve more than I ever have—are undertaking their own journeys to find ways to “make a difference,” a calling repeated many times in my household.

Yet I still feel “undefined,” not only by Israeli standards, but also by the standards of the country that should have—at least in theory—become my own.

Denial 

The story of the passport is, of course, a political one. We, Palestinians, obviously do exist. I am not Russian, Moroccan, Brazilian, or a member of the Māori people—although I feel a particular affinity with the latter group given our shared struggle against settler colonialism and cultural erasure. But I do not exist as a contrast to anyone else, including Israelis. Palestinians are as old as—and even older than—recorded time.

“Palestine was the name used most commonly, consistently and continuously for over 1,200 years,” Palestinian author, historian, and academic Nur Masalha wrote in his seminal 2018 book, Palestine: A Four Thousand Year History.

Yet in 1969, then Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir—an iconic Israeli leader in the eyes of many Americans—insisted “There were no such thing as Palestinians,” in an interview in The Sunday Times of London. “It was not as though there was a Palestinian people in Palestine considering itself as a Palestinian people and we came and threw them out and took their country away from them,” Meir continued. “They did not exist.”

That infamous interview coincided with the second anniversary of the 1967 war. In Israel and the West, it’s known as the Six-Day War; for us Palestinians it is the Naksa (“the setback”). The latter term must be distinguished from the Nakba (“the catastrophe”), which was coined shortly after Zionist militias—which would later coalesce into the Israeli Defense Forces—gutted out a whole nation from its historic homeland to build a state on its ruins. Amid many massacres, more than 500 Palestinian villages were destroyed by these militias between December 1947 and July 1948. This is how most Palestinians became refugees, as nearly 80% of our people were forced out.

We never found safety elsewhere. Those who were internally displaced in the West Bank and Gaza by the Nakba were then caged in by Israeli military occupation in June 1967. Many Palestinians and Arabs had hoped that the 1967 war—which involved Egypt, Syria, and Jordan against the US-backed Israel—would reunite refugees with their long-destroyed villages. Instead, the Naksa resulted in nearly 400,000 more Palestinian refugees, added to the original 750,000 refugees from the Nakba.

Since then, Palestinians have been caught in a seemingly endless circle of dispossession that, with time, extended beyond the boundaries of both historic and occupied Palestine. When Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990, Palestinians, already refugees from earlier conflicts, were mostly pushed out of the country. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were exiled from a place that they helped build. Following the discovery of oil sometime in the 1960s, Kuwait needed Palestinians as much as Palestinians needed Kuwait. However, Kuwaitis viewed Yasser Arafat’s political stance—also adopted by his Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)—as supportive of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. As Iraq was forced out of Kuwait, so too were the Palestinians.

Palestinians, many of whom were Kuwaiti government workers and teachers at educational institutions, were collectively fired from their jobs and asked to leave the country. This sad scenario was repeated in Iraq, almost immediately following the US invasion in March 2003. Then, too, Palestinians went on the run, thousands of them trapped in desert refugee camps on Iraq’s borders with Jordan and Syria. While some found refuge in Jordan, others ended up in South America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Scandinavia, and the US.

OPINION: Nakba resurrected – How the Gaza Resistance ended segmentation of Palestine

The so-called Arab Spring—which failed to bring freedom, democracy, or justice to Arab nations—once again made Palestinians run for their lives. Some were fleeing war-torn Libya following another disastrous US-NATO intervention, while others fled from Lebanon, overburdened with economic hardship, foreign meddling, and the Syrian refugee crisis. But the largest number of new Palestinian refugees originated from Syria itself.

Yet in Gaza, where we lived under Israeli occupation, surrounded by military bases and opulent Israeli Jewish settlements—all built illegally on our land—we perceived Palestinian refugees in Iraq and Syria as the most privileged of all refugee communities. Palestinians living in Iraq were relatively economically prosperous, and those in Syria had access to quality education, which we lacked in the Gaza refugee camps. Access to health care facilities and other basic services were things that both groups had learned to take for granted. In Gaza, we did not. But all of us, regardless of location, were cursed with bizarre travel documents that served little purpose and generated confused looks from inquisitive immigration officers at various borders, whose typical verdict was “Access denied.”

Palestinian refugees had—in fact, many still do—travel documents issued by Egypt and known as wathiqa, which severely restricted the movement of their holders, essentially requiring a visa to go anywhere, including Arab countries. Though, in 1995, the Palestinian Authority issued new travel documents to Palestinians in the occupied territories; Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East continued to use the restrictive old wathiqa. Countries that allow Palestinians to visit or work differ from year to year, and from one political context to another, though those from Gaza (as well as Lebanon) remain the most rejected of all Palestinians. Those of us who lived under Israeli occupation had an additional and equally useless document, the laissez-passer (French for “let them pass”), which was issued by Israel to distinguish between occupied Palestinians and Israeli citizens, who had full travel rights. The Israeli document, however, never lived up to its name—it served to restrict our movement, rather than facilitate it.

These documents were meant to be used only outside the borders of occupied Palestine, or Palestinian refugee camps scattered all over the Middle Eastern Diaspora. In Palestine itself, the system is far more complex and dehumanizing.

Kafkaesque Reality 

On Sept. 13, 1993, the unwise PLO leadership signed the Oslo Accords. The agreement granted the PLO—not the Palestinian people—recognition by Israel. In exchange, the Palestinian organization, which had ceased to meaningfully represent Palestinians, recognized Israel’s right to exist. The latter move may seem innocuous, but it was not. Aside from the philosophical legal argument that states are political creations and have no inherent moral right to exist, Israel’s existence is taking place at the expense of the erasure of the Palestinian people—our political rights, our culture, our language, and more.

That agreement essentially certified that Israel had the right to exist on top of the very Palestinian villages that were ethnically cleansed during the Nakba. It forfeited, with the stroke of a Norwegian pen and a US stamp of approval, the rights of the Palestinian refugees to their original homeland. Palestinian proponents of the agreement at the time argued that fundamental issues such as refugees, water, borders, and the status of Jerusalem were all to be resolved by the end of 1999. To date, no such discussions have occurred.

Instead, the West Bank was consequently divided into three distinct territorial zones, each to be governed by different military ordinances. Israel never truly respected the zoning system it crafted to corral Palestinians behind ever-growing settlementsapartheid walls, fences, and bypass roads. Israel invades any region, in any zone, at any time, at will; it carries out arrestsassassinationshome demolitions, and the uprooting of trees, mostly ancient olive groves. But for Palestinians, the zones still matter, as each zone includes additional checkpoints, cutting off communities and families from one another, separating farmers from their land, students and teachers from their schools, and so on.

Life in Gaza, at least prior to the ongoing war-turned-genocide and famine starting on Oct. 7, 2023, represented a different kind of struggle. It was, in the words of current British foreign secretary David Cameron, who visited Gaza in 2010 in his capacity as prime minister, an “open-air prison.” Gaza is constantly surveilled by Israeli guards, who keep an armed, watchful eye from land, air, and sea.

This reality was not the only context behind the Oct. 7 attacks, but is certainly a main motivator behind the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip. It turned out that humans have a certain tolerance level to oppression and an innate desire to be free.

OPINION: Israel wants to destroy Gaza and annex the West Bank, but what do the Palestinians want?

No Right to Human Rights 

Little has changed in Israel’s rhetoric around Palestinian existence in the 55 years since Golda Meir insisted there was no such thing as Palestine. On March 19, 2023, Israel’s far-right finance minister Bezalel Smotrich said as much in a speech: “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” A day later, then US national security spokesperson John Kirby replied that “we [in the US] utterly object to this kind of language,” saying it does little to “de-escalate the tensions” in the region. Like most US officials, Kirby did not acknowledge Washington’s role in serving as the first line of defense against criticism or international sanctions against Israel, before or during the genocide. This diplomatic focus on language continues to obfuscate the brutal reality of an ongoing genocide—painstakingly recorded by South Africa’s legal team before the International Court of Justice at The Hague on Jan. 11, 2024.

But, in truth, we Palestinians also do not exist as far as US foreign policy in the Middle East is concerned. When the Trump administration began implementing its “Deal of the Century,” aimed at helping Israel “normalize” its relations with Arab countries without resolving the question of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, it did so with no regard to Palestinians and their rights, which are enshrined in international law. After Palestinian leadership boycotted Jared Kushner’s 2019 economic leadership conference in Bahrain, the son-in-law and senior adviser of former President Donald Trump called them “hysterical and erratic.” Trumpism remained committed to the same dehumanizing idea. Israel has to “finish the problem” in Gaza, Trump himself said on March 5, 2024, amid Israel’s genocidal war on the Strip.

“The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible,” Hannah Arendt, a German American historian and philosopher, argued in 1949. She was responding to the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948—incidentally, but also tellingly, the very year my people’s existence was being systematically destroyed in one of the greatest violations of the collective human rights of a single group in modern history.

Indeed, without political context and legal recognition, human rights on their own are of little value, a mere recurring subject of repeated press releases by the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW). Incidentally, both organizations, along with Israel’s own rights group, B’Tselem, have recognized Israel as a fully fledged apartheid state. In response to a 2021 report by HRW, President Joe Biden’s state department protested, “It is not the view of this administration that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid.” This attitude is typical. For successive US administrations, Israel’s actions do not matter. All that matters is the language, and only if it deviates from the US-championed political discourse. This remains unchanged even when well over 100,000 Palestinians have been killed or wounded in Gaza in a matter of months.

If the Palestinian struggle can be summed up in one phrase it would be a struggle against erasure. When Israel passed its so-called Nation State Law, it aimed at recognizing that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel.” This exclusivity immediately and irreversibly denies the rights of the native Palestinians to their own land, and thus the Right of Return to millions of Palestinian refugees expelled during the Nakba and the Naksa.

United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 insists that “refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date.” That was 76 years ago. The refugees, my family included, are still waiting for the “earliest practicable date” to actualize. For Israel, the mere demand is tantamount to calling for the eradication of Israel altogether.

The dehumanization of Palestinians has been taking place for many years and is a functional element of the settler-colonial structure. In 1983, former Israeli army Chief of Staff Gen. Rafael Eitan described Palestinians as “drugged cockroaches in a bottle.” In October 2023, Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Ron Prosor, said they are “bloodthirsty animals,” echoing the words of Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant who, three days earlier, had called Palestinians “human animals.” With time, however, this dehumanizing language serves other functions aside from racial discrimination. The genocidal language became a precursor for genocide.

Even before the latest war on Gaza resulted in the horrifying massacres of tens of thousands of mostly women and children, and the subsequent human-made lethal famine, the language of genocide has long been legible writing on the wall. Israeli heritage minister Amichai Eliyahu said in November 2023 that one of Israel’s options in the war against Gaza could be to drop a nuclear bomb, while Israel’s minister for the advancement of women, May Golan, said in March 2024 that she is “personally proud of the ruins of Gaza.” Euro-Med Monitor, a human rights group, even recorded evidence that Israeli forces “brought Israeli civilians to watch” Palestinians being tortured.

The Israelis, for once, are no longer expending much energy or time fending off accusations of genocide, which was accurately described by anti-Zionist Israeli historian Ilan Pappé as “the first-ever televised genocide in modern times.” Indeed, the masks have finally fallen, and the world is able to see the true face of Israeli settler colonialism in its ugliest manifestations.

Patrick Wolfe’s words continue to ring true. The late Australian scholar and historian argued that “settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event.” Genocide is an inevitable part of this domineering structure, as Wolfe explains that settler colonialism “…perpetuates the erasure and destruction of native people as a precondition for settler colonialism and expropriation of lands and resources.”

Although this understanding is becoming clearer to many in Western academic institutions, thanks to the relentless efforts of Black, Indigenous, Palestinian, anti-Zionist Jewish, and other intellectuals, it is hardly a subject of debate in the Global South. In my visits to South Africa, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, Hawai‘i, and my numerous interactions with Southern intellectuals, the intersectionality between the Palestinian cause and other Native struggles is neither an academic theory nor a debate. It is the only possible salvation to many nations that continue to struggle under the oppressive weight of marginalization and racism, within national frameworks, or colonialism and neocolonialism within an unfair, Western-inclined global system.

READ: After World Court ruling, Palestinians want action not words

We Do Exist 

Unlike my early years as a student in the US and a young academic in Western institutions, I am now far more invested in building connections with people who understand, and even share, my positionality: dispossessed, marginalized, and even outright oppressed.

This process, however, started with my own family, with my daughters and my son. Raising Palestinian children in the US was always difficult, especially for those who live in small, isolated communities. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, made it even more difficult. Fearing for my kids’ safety, I simply stopped speaking our native Arabic to them in public. Racism and violence against Arab Americans reached unprecedented levels. Eventually, we left the US, spending years in Malaysia, where my son was born. It was a needed respite. My greatest fears were that my kids would grow up hating themselves, abandoning their identities simply to “fit in,” or worse, seeing themselves as perpetual victims.

My hope grows stronger as I witness my people’s steadfastness in the face of genocide. I know that we will not be wished away by some Israeli politician empowered with US-provided weapons and emboldened by the world’s support or silence.

So their bedtime stories consisted of tales about two brave Palestinian girls, and eventually a boy, who traveled to Palestine to help liberate the people. With each quest, they learned about a new city or refugee camp. They learned about places, historic figures, and food. And each time, they flew over the sea to break prison walls, remove fences and checkpoints, always donning their precious kuffiyas, Palestinian traditional scarves. These stories, which we called “The Palestinian Warrior Girls Express,” helped them see themselves as fighters for a just cause, a legacy that continues to live with them many years later; one of them is a political activist with a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies, and the other is a health worker and future doctor, advocating for equal access to health care among marginalized communities in Washington state.

It took years for this to happen, a process that is shared by many Palestinian American families across the country, each developing their own tools to stay close to home. Wherever we are in the world, Palestine is now part of our existence. Our food, clothes, spirituality, values, and daily conversations are all deeply rooted in our culture. With time, we grew sensitive to any injustice taking place anywhere, putting Palestinian American activists, writers, lawyers, and the like often at the forefront of any just struggle in the US

My hope grows stronger as I witness my people’s steadfastness in the face of genocide. I know that we will not be wished away by some Israeli politician empowered with US-provided weapons and emboldened by the world’s support or silence.

I have a passport now, a US one, though such citizenship resolved very little of my quandary. Yes, papers had granted me, at least in principle, access and the right to have rights, but they did not, nor should they, grant me an identity. My identity is not a piece of paper with colored stamps, but is defined through my struggle as a member of a collective that is fighting and dying to preserve our sense of peoplehood, against a backdrop of untold, rooted, and continuing injustices.

Moreover, I no longer possess the laissez-passer of old. It was replaced by an alternative Palestinian Authority passport, which is, sadly, equally useless. Still, the new piece of paper, at least, declares that my nationality is “Palestinian” (although still a refugee).

It took me years to satisfy all the bureaucratic procedures, complicated by the distance and the Israeli occupation administration, to obtain similar papers for my children, who are also now proud “Palestinian refugees” from the Gaza Strip. It was important for me—and now, for them as well—that the bond between us and the homeland is never severed.

A piece of paper may grant you access, but identity is something you must seek for yourself. And in the case of my people, it is something we have to fight, and often die, for.