Author visits the “informal village” of Palestinians with no basic rights – not even official refugee status.
Neither Gezirat Fadel village in Sharqiya or its people are officially recognised by the Egyptian government [AP]
While Palestinians commemorate the 1948 “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine – the Nakba – the “catastrophe” neither started that year nor has it ended. The Palestinian people have suffered for generations. Today, they continue to be treated as second class citizens in their own homes, denied basic rights of mobility and secure livelihoods in the occupied Gaza Strip and the West Bank and live precariously in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
The Egyptian role in Palestine has historically differed from its Arab neighbours. In 1948, Egypt was the only country to close its borders to Palestinians, out of a principled interest in keeping Palestinians within their nation. The policy was in some ways long-sighted, as many of those who fled in 1948 have not been allowed to go back. It has often been suggested that the relative dearth of Palestinians in Egypt, or the higher socio-economic status of this group, could be attributed to this policy.
Palestinian refugees in Egypt
Recently, however, Arab activists have stumbled upon a sizeable group of 1948 Palestinian refugees in Egypt. A few months ago, a group of four Palestinian and Egyptian friends came across the mention of a mass exodus of Palestinians from Bir il-Saba’ village in 1948; the refugees were said to have gone to Egypt. The friends found it strange, as they and others had persistently inquired about the existence of Palestinian refugee groups in Egypt at the Palestinian embassy and organisations in Cairo. They called on others to help them locate this community, which they eventually tracked down.
A few hours north of Cairo, in the Nile Delta governorate of Sharqiya, is the village of Gezirat Fadel. It is aptly named “Gezira” – island – because of its physical isolation at the time of its foundation, and Fadel after the name of one of the founders of the village. For the past 65 years, this village has been almost completely off the radar, by choice or ignorance, of any institution – whether be it the Egyptian or Palestinian authorities, non-governmental organisations or activistsNeither the village nor the people are officially recognised by the Egyptian government, and thus the informal village is left with no infrastructure or public services, and the people with no basic rights – not even official refugee status. Since locating the village, the friends have visited it several times, gathering information on its history and current conditions, and have been lobbying Arab and Egyptian media to shed light on the neglected community.
For the anniversary of the Nakba, they called on other activists to join them to visit Gezirat Fadel, to commemorate the occasion and convey the simple message that this community of refugees would not be forgotten. As Syrine, a Palestinian activist from Jerusalem, put it: “These people, the refugees, are the biggest victims of the Nakba. They are the ones we should commemorate it with.”
I joined over 80 activists, who were predominantly Egyptian and Palestinian, but included Swedes, French, Iranians and others. On an early Friday morning, the buses drove out of Cairo, past the lush Delta fields, through the busy Sharqiya capital of Zaqaziq, and on to a dirt road that eventually became too narrow for the buses to continue.
The activists descended from the buses with dozens of Egyptian and Palestinian flags in hand and a banner that read:
“In memory of the Nakba, Gezirat Fadel will no longer be forgotten.
As we walked towards the village, the path, filled with rubbish and lined with mud brick walls, was an indicator of what lie ahead. After a 20-minute walk, clay houses and Palestinian flags waving from hay rooftops appeared. The villagers, overwhelmingly young children, were excited by the news of visitors and lined the streets, Palestinian kufiyas draped from their necks and greeted us in their mixed rural Palestinian-Egyptian dialect.
While the trip was primarily humanitarian in purpose – the group came with toys for the children and doctors who paid house visits – the political nature of it was effusive. Though the organisers insisted upon the independence of the initiative, the identity of involved activists as core actors from the ongoing Egyptian revolution was belied either subtly or quite explicitly as it appeared on the banner. The ideals of the Arab uprising – ones that insist uncompromisingly on freedom and social justice – translate very directly into political stances which in the case of Palestine not only oppose Israeli forces’ brutality, but also reject intermediaries and facilitators of ongoing occupation and displacement, Palestinian authorities included.
Mired in poverty
In Gezirat Fadel too, politics was palpable. It became starkly apparent throughout the day that the isolation of this village has nothing to do with geography or ignorance, but rather has been constructed by Egyptian and Palestinian authorities and beneficiaries.
As we entered the village, we were greeted by a village head, the “omdeh“. One of the few educated members of the village, he works in Cairo and dressed in a suit that contrasted with a population where village elders were donned in traditional Palestinian dress and others in simple, often tattered clothing.
Standing on an elevated veranda before the villagers and visitors, the omdeh proceeded to warmly welcome the activists and referred to the Nakba as a celebration, a marker of the day that Palestinians will return to their homes, with all the embellishments of Arab oratory. The omdeh described the village in shining terms, claiming that villagers earn decent incomes and thanked for the support from Palestinian authorities and the Egyptians who have welcomed them as “guests”.
The performance stood in stark contrast to the private interactions of the omdeh with organising activists and with the realities of village life. The refugee audience was markedly acquiescent as the omdeh spoke. Among the crowd, an event organiser spotted an employee from the Palestinian embassy in Cairo.
The activists had brawled with the employee days before in Cairo, over the embassy’s persistent denial of the existence of a Palestinian refugee community in Egypt, despite evidence that the embassy had direct ties with the village omdeh and that the ambassador had himself paid a visit to the community. The activists have also had a turbulent relationship with the omdeh since first visiting the village; the omdeh had initially threatened the activists, telling them that he would inform Egyptian intelligence services if they returned to Gezirat Fadel.
The omdeh‘s remarks were incongruent with observations of village life. The conditions in which the Palestinians of Gezirat Fadel live are nothing short of appalling. The village is home to over 3,000 people. Other than a “guest building” – which consists of a large room that is used for community gatherings and is internally adorned with a banner thanking Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for his contributions to the community – the village contains literally no public services. To say that the village was marked by poverty would be an understatement – on the way to the village, I spotted a young boy retrieving a tattered shirt from a pile of garbage and sewing it together to wear.
While the Gamal Abdel Nasser government had extended state services to Palestinians in Egypt, making it possible for Gezirat Fadel villagers to use state institutions at the same free or highly subsided prices offered to Egyptians, these rights were revoked in the Sadat era. The refugees must pay international fees to access most basic services; they have no right to property ownership.
A majority of the villagers are employed as day labourers on large tracts of land owned by Egyptian companies or families, as mechanics or in small shops in neighbouring villages, or collect and sort garbage. Donia, a 12-year-old refugee who walks for two hours each morning to join a reading class in a neighbouring village, said she aspires to work “for anyone who will employ me”.
While some mentioned the lack of legal rights, they were quick to thank Egypt for hosting them for so long. The hardships of their present lives were masked with evocations of their lost homeland. While most villagers have never laid eyes on Bir il-Saba’, even the youngest children describe it vividly, adding illustrative accounts of the night their grandparents were bombarded by Israeli fire in 1948, listing the death of relatives and recounting the journey to Egypt.
“We are Palestinian guests in Egypt, and will one day return to Bir il-Saba’,” was an unprompted phrase echoed by villagers of all ages. Eight-year-old Samih offered to show me his grandfather’s olive tree seeds, which he definitively told me that he will one day plant outside his family home in Bir il-Saba’.
Manipulation of power
While the population of many Egyptian villages may suffer from stark inequality and poor services, it seems particularly exasperated in the Palestinian case.
Basic rights for Palestinian refugees have often been presented by Arab officials as a contributor to resettlement, counter-productive to the right of return. What is apparent, though, is that these same institutions, while loudly touting their nationalism and dedication to the Palestinian cause, are largely removed from daily hardships experienced by the refugees.
One activist from Ramallah lamented the irony in the statements of Gezirat Fadel refugees who linked any hardships to a greater national cause and expressed pride in PA President Abbas, while in his home city political elites live relatively luxurious lives.
The link between personal interests and political institutions is a phenomenon that continues to have a real impact on people’s livelihoods in the Arab world. In the case of the Palestinian refugees, this is often intense, as in addition to community dynamics and Palestinian leadership, host countries add a layer of complication.
In the context of the Arab uprising, people are recognising and openly rejecting this manipulation of power. Despite the omdeh‘s threats, activists returned to Gezirat Fadel, openly challenged his statements in front of villagers and refused his monopolisation of the story of the refugee experience.
While for 65 years the right of return has been, and will continue to be, the essential demand of the Palestinian refugees, there is an evident need for an extension of basic rights to a community that suffers exponentially due to the politicisation of its identity. Arab governments’ hypocritical lip service to the Palestinian cause has long been transparent; Arab activists are now determined to bring it to an end.
Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt. She is currently a graduate student at the Center of Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
The “land swaps” rhetoric is designed to protect the large Israeli settlement blocks and their buffer zones.
By Samah Sabawi
Published on AlJazeera
Hailed as one of the best spokespersons for Palestine, veteran diplomat Afif Safieh impressed many during his four-city tour in Canada, earlier this year.
Safieh – the author of The Peace Process: From Breakthrough to Breakdown – is also the Palestinian Authority’s roving ambassador for special missions.
But while the messenger was admirable, the message was disturbing.
Safieh’s high degree of eloquence and refined diplomatic skills were not enough to conceal the current pathetic state of political stagnation and bankrupt strategic thinking that inflict the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA).
Safieh stressed his personal view that international intervention is needed for any peace agreement to be reached with Israel and repeatedly referenced international law as the basis for the demands the Palestinians are making. But his message was greatly compromised by the limitations of his official status as representative of the PLO.
In response to threats made by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird that the PA would face great “consequences” if it decided to make a case against Israel at the International Criminal Court, Safieh assured the Canadian government and the public that the Palestinian leadership has no “immediate plans” to pursue Israel at the ICC.
This is disappointing to say the least, given that high level PLO/PA officials also assured the Palestinian people that once they secured member state status at the United Nations – which they did in November 2012 as an observer state – they would be able tohold Israel to account for war crimes that have so far gone completely unpunished.
So what is the plan for moving forward?
If Safieh’s interviews with Canadian media are anything to go by, the plan is apparently to save the peace process, even though it has led nowhere for 20 years.
He insisted that the fate of the peace process depends “on ending Israel’s settlement building”. This phrase has been repeated in PLO/PA official statements during the past several years with emphasis on “ending” settlement building or “freezing” the settlements, and no mention of dismantling the settlements and returning Palestinian land to its rightful owners.
To understand the implications of this language we only need to listen carefully to a key sentence Safieh repeated in various interviews while in Canada:
“There would be some territorial land swaps containing Jewish settlement blocs with Israel in exchange for an equal amount of land from the Israeli side.”
But this idea of land swaps began during a different era, before Israel colonised large amounts of land in the West Bank. In fact, it was first brought up in 1990 in Italy at a meeting jointly arranged by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace and an alliance of Arab academics and intellectuals.
Land swaps were brought up again at the Camp David Summit in 2000 and have continued to be part of the discourse. The problem is that while negotiations went on over the past two decades, settlements grew and today the settlements and their system of roads and infrastructure consume more than 40 percent of the West Bank. So how exactly do we envision land swaps today?
Safieh told the Canadian public and media that Palestinians would exchange their territorial land for equal amount of land from the Israeli side. But according to documents from the Palestinian Negotiation Support Unit leaked to Al Jazeera, the last land-swap proposal made by Israel in 2008 gave the Palestinians smaller, less significant patches of land that are of lesser agricultural quality. Moreover, this exchange excluded Jerusalem.
Safieh’s media catch phrase that the Palestinian leadership is being “unreasonably reasonable” is not accurate. The correct phrase should be that the Palestinian leadership is being unreasonably suicidal.
The “land swaps” rhetoric is designed to protect the large Israeli settlement blocks and of course their buffer zones, settler-only roads and infrastructure – all built on prime agricultural Palestinian land, from being included in any Palestinian state.
As PLO representatives parrot the parlance of “land swaps”, they need to remember that these settlements they are protecting are responsible not only for destroying Palestinian livelihood, but also for theft of Palestinian resources most important of which is water.
Today, the PLO/PA has been boxed into an Israeli-American framework. Not only are they unable to realise that Israel has created the irreversible reality of a single state on the ground, they are not even capable of imagining a situation where they would change the mantra of direct negotiations with Israel to a call for international arbitration or a referral to the International Court of Justice.
Worse, as is evident from Safieh’s Canada tour, missing from the PLO/PA public discourse today is any serious advocacy for the rights of the millions of Palestinian refugees or the inequality suffered by Palestinian citizens of the state of Israel.
It is as if we are somehow meant to believe that an end to occupation that may lead to a deformed state on tiny patches of undesirable agricultural land, where less than a third of the total Palestinian population lives, is all that is needed to bring about peace.
Finally, this talk of “land swaps” evokes memories of decades of colonial oppression and total disregard for the indigenous people’s rights, the people whose lives are affected with every line drawn on some sterile map by well-suited men.
For the PLO/PA to lend legitimacy to Israel’s colonisation of Palestinian land by accepting the principle of land swaps and for them to adopt the same language as their occupiers is unforgiveable. Who then speaks in a language that represents Palestinian aspirations, advocates for their rights in the refugee camps, inside Israel and in the diaspora and challenges the injustices suffered?
Samah Sabawi is a Palestinian writer and Policy Adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian policy network.
Follow her on Twitter: @gazaheart
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
Source Al Jazeera
By: Haidar Eid
Published Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The long walk to South Africa’s freedom is marked by two immensely tragic events: the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 and the Soweto Uprising in 1976, both of which led to the galvanizing of internal and international resistance against the apartheid regime. Ultimately, these events would lead to the long-called for release of Nelson Mandela and to the end of one of the most inhumane systems the world has ever seen.
Without Sharpeville and Soweto, among other landmarks towards victory over settler colonialism, South Africa would still be ruled by a minority of fanatic, white settlers claiming to fulfill the word of (their) God.
Palestine’s long walk to freedom has gone through similar harrowing events, beginning with the 1948 Nakba to the latest eight-day onslaught on Gaza.
In order to understand Gaza in 2012, one ought to trace its origin back to 1948. Two thirds of the Palestinians of Gaza are refugees who were kicked out of their cities, towns, and villages in 1948. In After the Last Sky, the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said argues that every Palestinian knows perfectly well that what has happened to us over the last six decades is “a direct consequence of Israel’s destruction of our society in 1948…”
The problem, he argues, is that a clear, direct line from our misfortunes in 1948 to our misfortunes in the present cannot be drawn, thanks to “the complexity of our experience.”
At 139 square miles, Gaza is the largest refugee camp on earth, a reminder of the ongoing Nakba. The inhabitants of Gaza have become the most unwanted Palestinians, the black heart that no one wants to see, the “Negroes” of the American south, the black natives of South Africa, the surplus population that the powerful, macho, white Ashkenazi cannot coexist with.
In 2008-9, Gaza was bombed by Apache helicopters and F-16 jets for 22 days, killing more than 1400 civilians. As if that was not enough, Israel decided to return to Gaza in 2012 and repeat the same crimes in eight days, this time killing more than 175 civilians and injuring 1399. These are massive losses for a population of just over 1.5 million people.
Israel’s airstrikes, which damage essential infrastructure and terrify the civilian population, are a form of collective punishment against the Palestinian people. Even more, they are war crimes forbidden under international humanitarian law, specifically the Geneva Conventions.
Yet Israel consistently gets away with war crimes. The official, government-based “international community” does not seem interested in the suffering of the native Palestinians. The much-admired, “better than Bush” American president, Obama, thinks that “Israel has the right to defend itself.” The same right does not apparently apply to Palestinians.
Likewise, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague believes that Hamas is “principally responsible” for the current crisis, as well as the ability to bring it most swiftly to an end. This is in spite of the deadly siege imposed on Gaza for more than five years, so much so that Israel even used calorie counting to limit the amount of food that entered Gaza during the blockade.
The fact that Palestinians in Gaza are not born to Jewish mothers is enough reason to deprive them of their right to live equally with the citizens of the state of Israel. Hence, like the black natives of South Africa, they should be isolated in a Bantustan, in accordance with the Oslo terms. If they show any resistance to this plan, they must be punished by turning the entire Strip into an open-air prison.
Both the US and the UK display deliberate and unconscionable ignorance in the face of the brutal reality caused by Israel to Gaza. As a result of Israel’s blockade on most imports and exports and other policies designed to punish Palestinians, about 70 percent of Gaza’s workforce is now unemployed or without pay, according to the UN, and about 80 percent of its residents live in grinding poverty.
But don’t Obama and Hague know this?!
As Hamid Dabashi put it:
Obama is fond of saying Israelis are entitled to defend themselves. But are they entitled to steal even more of Palestine, terrorise its inhabitants and continue to consolidate a racist apartheid state…? Was South Africa also entitled to be a racist apartheid state, was the American south entitled to slavery, India to Hindu fundamentalism?
The only option for Palestinians is to follow the same route as the South African struggle. The South African internal campaign aimed to mobilize the masses on the ground rather than indifferent governments around the world. What hope could they have gotten from the likes of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl? It was left to ordinary South Africans and global citizens to show their moral rejection of crimes committed by the ugly apartheid system.
In South Africa’s long walk to freedom, there was no compromise on respect for basic human rights. Apartheid’s attempts to point fingers at “black violence” and “intrinsic hatred” toward Western civilization and democracy, did not hold water.
Similarly, international civil society, and some governments, have seen through Israel’s propaganda campaign where the aggressor is turned into the victim. Across the years, Palestinians have been completely dehumanized. Instead of Reagan and Thatcher, we have Obama and Hague, blaming the victim and condemning resistance to occupation, colonization, and apartheid.
But South Africans did not wait for the American administration to “change its mind.” The global BDS campaign, steered by South African anti-apartheid activists, coupled with internal mass mobilization on the ground, was the prescription for liberation, away from the façade of “independence” based on ethnic identities. Similarly, the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions has been gathering momentum since 2005. Gaza 2012, like Soweto 1976, cannot be ignored: it demands a response from all who believe in a common humanity.
Gaza 2012 has, undeniably, given a huge impetus to this process by making all Palestinians inside and outside of historic Palestine realize that “Yes, We Can!” We are no longer the weaker party, the passive victim who does not dare bang on the walls of Ghassan Kanafani’s trunk in Men in the Sun, but rather Hamid in All That is Left To You, the Palestinian hero who decides to act.
Haidar Eid is Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Postmodern Literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University and a policy advisor withAl-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.
Original article appeared here https://talesofacitybytheseadotcom.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php
- Date 19.10.2012
- Author Tania Krämer / sms
- Editor Ben Knight
Though local elections are slated for the West Bank, Palestinians in Gaza won’t be casting ballots. Hamas, which controls Gaza, has boycotted the elections, leaving the 1.6 million people there in a difficult position.
Between piles of used spare parts and a container of motor oil, Munzer Al Dayya is working on a generator. The mechanic is a popular man in Gaza City, where power can go out for as long as eight hours a day, and he said he’s earning a decent living thanks to the blackouts.
“Every day that we get through is good, but no one knows what’s coming,” he said. “The only thing that’s clear is that the next day will be worse than the previous day. Why, how, and for what? Who knows? No one can explain what’s going on here.”
Al Dayya said getting an explanation for what’s happening in Gaza City depends on who you ask. But one thing is clear – Hamas controls the Gaza Strip and has expanded its control since taking power five years ago. Neither an Israeli blockade nor the US and European isolation policy has been able to change this.
Hamas, labeled a terrorist group by the West, has developed its own bureaucratic structures, ranging from an administration to an all-round security service. Various observers have noted that the political separation between Gaza and the West Bank has been widened by the separate governing structures in the two regions.
No local elections in Gaza
Local elections scheduled to take place in the West Bank on Saturday are expected to widen the gap. Hamas is not taking part in the poll, leaving voters there to choose between the Fatah party and some independent candidates.
“The elections cannot be transparent and fair,” said Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum. “Many of our Hamas leaders and members are in prisons run by the Palestinian Authority. These are Fatah elections – not Palestinian elections.”
JENIN, WEST BANK // Six years ago, a fierce Palestinian fighter laid down his weapons and helped found a liberal performing-arts theatre in Jenin’s conservative refugee camp. It was a remarkable turnaround for Zacharia Zubeidi, who fought for Fatah’s Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades during the second intifada, to exchange violence for what he called cultural resistance against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.