When I was 12, I returned to Gaza for the second time in my life. I’d lived there for about 8 months when I was 4 years old, but have no memories from that experience, so I made sure to memorialize every day of my trip as a teen. During our car ride from El-Arish in Egypt to the Rafah border in Gaza, I remember looking out the window and feeling a sudden, palpable sense of tranquillity settle into my heart—a heart nostalgic for an abode my mind did not recognize.
Since their forcible exile from the city of Majdal and the village of Julis in 1948, multiple generations of my extended family have lived clumped within the Gaza strip. The territory is often called the world’s largest open-air prison because it’s difficult to enter and equally difficult to exit. Israel and Egypt restrict imports and exports to Gaza, and overcrowding in cities and refugee camps increases stress on social and medical services.
Even with these difficulties, Gaza is full of love. I remember arriving at my paternal family’s small residential building only to be smothered with warm hugs, smiles, and affectionate gestures. I was told that all these people were close relatives, including a few I only half-recognized from photos or the occasional video calls. It was a bizarre, emotionally binding experience. In that month, I celebrated my uncle’s wedding, visited my grandfather’s grave, and spent many nights on the roof with my cousins shelling sunflower seeds.
It soon dawned on me that my entire bloodline is contained within this 365 square kilometre tract of land. The legacies that brought me into this world, built me up, and shaped me into the person I am today come from Gaza.
That very land just spent 11 days blanketed in heavy Israeli shelling, subjecting my ancestry to the threat of complete wipeout.
May 15, 2021, marked exactly 73 years since the Nakba, otherwise known as the “catastrophe.” In 1948 Israel declared independence and displaced over 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. More than 400 villages were destroyed. The exact Palestinian death toll is unknown, but historians estimate that hundreds, if not thousands of people were killed.
This was the most influential event in the collective memory of Palestinians. Settler colonialism and violent forced expulsion in Jerusalem and the West Bank, as well as mass killings in Gaza, prove we’re witnessing the continuation of the Nakba before our very eyes.
For many Palestinians living around the world, watching from afar is a different kind of trauma.
In the last few weeks, every Palestinian in the diaspora has been glued to their phone and sucked into an all-consuming whirlwind of social media updates. I’ve been following Palestinians on the ground and refreshing Twitter nonstop in the wake of the atrocities committed against my people.
I remember helplessly watching live videos on Instagram, seeing members of the Israeli police harass Palestinians during worship in the Al-Aqsa mosque—located in Jerusalem—on a particularly sacred night of Ramadan for Muslims. Police used rubber bullets and stun grenades in and around the mosque, and many worshippers were injured and violently arrested.
Al-Aqsa holds immense historical and spiritual significance. Seeing attacks on Palestinians in that holy compound felt not just inherently wrong and suppressive, but jarringly sacrilegious.
Without realizing it, I turned nocturnal to make sure I’d be awake during the nights of heavy Israeli airstrike attacks on Gaza. Gaza is densely populated and close to 50 per cent of its population are children. Each night, dark because of rolling electricity blackouts, Gazans were running around barefoot with their panicked children, uttering their last words.
I was too afraid to go to sleep and wake up to the news of injured or martyred family members. Over the last few weeks, the messages I received from my relatives left me at a loss for words. A few of my cousins told me they felt strong pain in their legs because of how violently bombs shook their homes. Their bodies have been shaken up with fear, too.
On May 14, parts of northern Gaza, where one of my aunts and her family lives, faced extremely heavy bombardment. I felt paralyzed and overtaken with anxiety. My immediate family and I, living in the comfort of our own home in Canada, are overwhelmed with survivor’s guilt and distress over the fates of our loved ones.
As a Palestinian in the diaspora, I have to witness the violence of Israel’s settler-colonial regime from afar. Even worse, I have to watch Western media channels share false narratives with disingenuous headlines or manipulative lines of questioning.
Adding to this growing frustration is the risk that comes from speaking about this issue or advocating for Palestinian human rights.
Far too often, supporters of Palestine are accused of anti-Semitism simply for standing up against Palestinian oppression by Israeli military forces. That discourse not only serves to deflect from the rise in awareness but to silence young activists. To express any hatred towards the Jewish community, many of whom have been avid supporters of our struggle for justice, is unacceptable and highly condemned in the Palestinian movement for liberation.
People who support the Palestinian cause could also lose academic opportunities or employment. They’re at risk of getting blacklisted online or banned from social platforms. Just last week, a young Jewish reporter in Arizona was fired from her job with Associated Press after social media posts she’d written in college criticizing Israel circulated online.
When non-Palestinians are afraid to speak out, it makes Palestinians even more vulnerable to these repercussions. That’s why it’s all the more important to push for solidarity from relatively privileged non-Palestinians, particularly in positions of power.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve seen a talking point repeated on social media, especially from Zionists. They tell their followers that if they don’t have personal connections to the people in the areas affected, they shouldn’t be talking about it. I believe these statements are often used to diminish our movement by silencing non-Palestinians from engaging in and supporting our cause. The only connection one needs to condemn the violence in Palestine is human morality and an aversion to injustice.
As someone who does have a direct, tangible stake in these events—as someone whose entire extended family is in Gaza—I urge everyone, Palestinians and non-Palestinians alike, to stand with us against the killing and displacement of Palestinians we are witnessing at the hands of the Israeli state.
I turned 22 a few days ago, and my parents insisted on carrying out our corny candle-blowing traditions despite my refusal. While I blew out my candles, all I could think about was the Gazan children losing the parents and guardians who were their source of that overbearing kind of love, comfort, and protection.
I’m constantly reflecting on the numerous ways that my life parallels theirs, whether in regards to family, food, environment, safety and shelter, or health. It’s the small, otherwise taken-for-granted details that give way to heightened empathy.
I see a Palestinian child in my brother and every kid I watch walk down the street or play safely in the park. I utter the remembrance “Praise be to God” countless times as I go to bed without donning a headscarf, unlike many Gazan women worried about their modesty in case they die from an airstrike in their sleep.
The practice of sincere gratitude fuels my compassion, which then fuels anger, which then fuels a greater drive and action towards justice.
These recent events remind me of a particular line from my favourite novel, Mornings in Jenin, by Susan Abulhawa. She writes, “toughness found fertile soil in the hearts of Palestinians, and the grains of resistance embedded themselves in their skin.”
We saw the fruits of these grains in Palestinians trying to protect Al-Aqsa from state-sanctioned violence, in Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah protesting the illegal theft of their homes, in Palestinians in Gaza facing bombs and toxic gases, and in Palestinians in the diaspora sharing, tweeting, educating, and marching for liberation.
Ultimately, I feel immense pride in coming from a people that personify resistance, teach life, and instill hope.
A. Alqahwaji is a Palestinian-Canadian graduate from Western University with a degree in Health Sciences. She is passionate about writing, community service, and health research. When she’s not working or studying, you can find her sipping on mint tea and reading fiction, exploring different forms of arts and crafts, and volunteering her time with local organizations often focused on youth and mentorship.