When I saw the “rest in peace” posts on his Facebook page, I felt sick.
It was on social media where I first learned about the death of Palestinian community organizer Ahmed Aladini, a man from my hometown, Deir al-Balah, who, like me, lived in Gaza. Aladini was a human rights activist and community educator, and deeply respected by so many in my small town.
Like many other Palestinians, Aladini participated in the Great March of Return, a movement signifying a new episode of resistance against 70 years of refugee homelessness, 50 years of military occupation, and 11 years of brutal blockade. Starting on March 30, Ahmed protested every Friday for almost seven weeks before he was shot dead near the Gaza fence last Monday.
Aladini and I were part of a vibrant political conversation in Gaza. We agreed and disagreed, yet we all shared one goal: the freedom of our people. In our last conversation on Facebook, Aladini and I discussed the dream world we wanted to live in — a just reality, free of oppression and poverty. In his last words to me, Aladini said that “we [Palestinians] will keep paying the price until we are capable of producing the alternative, and then defend it until death.”
Aladini was killed before he lived to witness this “alternative.”
Deir al-Balah, where I grew up, is a small town 8 miles south of Gaza City. I moved to the US five years ago to start a PhD program in history, researching Arab and Palestinian intellectual writings on Zionism and anti-Semitism before the establishment of Israel. Like most expat Palestinians from Gaza, I lead a double life of teaching and working in the US while trying to stay up to date with news in Gaza on social media.
The march brought mixed feelings of pride, hope, pain, and sadness. Last Monday, 60 people were killed as Israeli soldiers opened fire at Palestinian protesters near the fence. The “bloodbath,” as Sarah Leah Whitson, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, described it, was the result of the “policy of Israeli authorities to fire irrespective of whether there is an immediate threat to life on Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza.”
Palestinians in Gaza have access to an average of four hours of electricity a day as a result of the unjust Israeli blockade imposed on Gaza since 2007. But in the brief time when they can plug in, Palestinians in Gaza have managed to turn social media spaces into vibrant platforms of political, cultural, intellectual, and even theological debate and discussion.
I have stayed connected with these debates and discussions to defy distance. Since I left Gaza to pursue my graduate studies in the US, I haven’t been able to return, visit, and see my family and friends. Traveling to Gaza through Israel is almost impossible, especially for young Palestinians like me, while the risks of getting permanently stuck in Gaza should I cross the border from Egypt are high.
The policy of Israeli blockade affects almost every aspect of people’s lives in Gaza. Traveling, even for the purpose of medical treatment or education, is almost impossible. Every day that passes in Gaza under the blockade is haunting. Unlike war, where violence is visible as bombs are falling, the blockade is like slow death. But siege and blockade take their toll: When people can’t have access to decent nutrition, electricity, clean water, and freedom of movement for political reasons, it’s no less violent than war itself.
Monitoring the social media produced by Gazans has been a difficult task since the march began. Scrolling through Facebook profiles has become devastating — people post goodbye comments on your friends’ last posts or on their Facebook walls. These were people I knew. Now they are memories. Thankfully, their words that articulate the dream of rights and dignities never fulfilled will stay alive on social media.
My neighbor Ahmed, like the rest of the participants in the march, knew that he might get wounded or killed every time he marched. Terrifying as this thought may be, it never crushes the spirit of uprising. And a brief sampling of what people in Gaza write on social media shows that they are aware of the consequences of challenging the might of Israel’s military machine. They are neither stupid nor suicidal, and they understand what could happen. But they also recognize that this is a battle that needs to occur for change to come.
The dehumanization of Palestinian protesters
The idea of the march has been part of the political discussion in Gaza for years, and I witnessed it evolve. Contrary to Israeli propaganda, which claims that the march is staged by Hamas, participation in the march transcended factional and ideological affinities.
The march was a product of Palestinian civil society efforts. In fact, grassroots organizers, young intellectuals, and activists struggled to renew Gaza’s confidence in peaceful and nonviolent mass mobilization as a tactic that would end their dehumanization by Israel.
Yet despite all these efforts, official Israel and US messaging focuses on few violent manifestations in the march — which amounted to a small group throwing burning tires, Molotov cocktails, and stones, according to the Israeli military — and try to cast the incongruous words of a few marchers as nothing but Hamas propaganda. Such an approach not only dehumanizes Palestinians, it also assumes that they are nothing but mindless pawns of Hamas with no agency over their destiny and lives.
Israeli demonization of the Great Return March is startlingly similar to the criticism of the American civil rights movement by its opponents in the 1960s. African Americans during the civil rights era did not (and still do not) all agree on tactics or a single ideology; some of them believed in armed struggle and even separatism while others were interested in electoral change. Does any of that take away from the validity and legitimacy of their central demand — freedom, equality, and justice? Are they not worthy of rights and dignity? Of course they are, and Palestinians in Gaza, who similarly advocate for a range of tactics and solutions, are trying to convey the same message.
Their message is that we are human beings. Despite 70 years of exile, 50 years of occupation, and 11 years of a blockade, we still can carry signs in Arabic, Hebrew, and English that say, “We are not coming to fight — we are coming to return to our lands!” Gazans who saw wars and blood, who lost relatives to graves and prisons, who have four hours of electricity, who are besieged and tired — these Gazans still have faith that the international community cares. Will the rest of humanity hear them?
Jehad Abusalim is a PhD candidate in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies and a policy analyst from Gaza. His writings have appeared in Al Jazeera English, Mondoweiss, and Palestine Square, and he recently contributed to a book on Gaza called Gaza as Metaphor.