A Palestinian protester walks away from a barricade of burning tires during clashes near Beit El, in Ramallah, West Bank. (Photographer: Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg)

In Gaza Camps, Palestinian Dream of Return Still Burns Bright

(Bloomberg) -- At a protest camp near Gaza’s border with Israel, young men huddle around two plastic kites whose long tails end in tightly-wound rags. One dips the rags in a bucket of gasoline and lights them, another unspools string until the kites reach the Israeli border. Then he cuts them loose.

The kites, which have sparked fires in Israeli agricultural land, are the latest innovation in weekly “March of Return” protests that have seen nearly 100 Palestinians shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The campaign, which began March 30, is to culminate Tuesday with a march on the border that Israel fears will become a mass infiltration attempt. The army has pledged to resist such efforts by force.

The desire to return to homes they left in 1948 -- a displacement Palestinians remember as the Nakba, or catastrophe -- underlies the protests in the impoverished coastal strip, where some 2 million Gazans are hemmed in by Israeli and Egyptian fences on three sides and the sea on the other.

Ibtihaj Doula, 83, is one of the 30,000 or so Palestinians who can still remember life before Israel.

"Living together with the Jews was much better than this horrible life," Doula says. In her memory, Jaffa, now a neighborhood of Tel Aviv, is a place of peace where Jewish, Christian and Muslim children played together. Then came the 1948 war, when the family began a three-year odyssey to her grandmother’s native Lebanon, Egypt and finally to the Gaza Strip.

"From then until now we are living in poverty,” Doula says. "I wish I could go back to Jaffa -- not tomorrow, today."

Right of Return

Palestinian leaders say the refugees from the 1948 war, and their nearly 5 million descendants, must be allowed to return to Israel even if the Palestinians achieve their own state. Israel sees the demand as an attempt to destroy the Jewish state by demographic means.

"The March of Return means no one is renouncing his rights to all of Palestine, even after 70 years," Mahmoud al-Zahar, a member of the governing council of Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, said in an interview.

Palestinians accuse Israeli troops of firing indiscriminately at peaceful protesters who pose no threat. Israel says the army shoots only at violent instigators among the crowd, and says Hamas encourages the violence.

"What we’re doing there in Gaza is something we have to do," former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said in an interview. "Especially those who believe in having separation from the Palestinians, getting into a peace agreement, having borders -- you have to make clear that borders are respected."

Across Gaza the longing to return is palpable, broadcast from every side on billboards and sermons, discussed in homes and cafes lit by generators because of a severe electricity shortage. With Gaza’s unemployment rate at 44 percent, according to a recent World Bank report, Israeli officials warn dire humanitarian conditions could lead to an explosion of violence. The crisis is likely to intensify after Palestinians torched the border crossing through which Israel supplies fuel and sends hundreds of trucks a day into Gaza with food, medicine and humanitarian supplies.

Stone Vs Cannon

Not everyone shares a desire for confrontation. Along Gaza City’s seafront promenade life continues as normal: At night the sounds of feasts and weddings spill from the restaurants and event halls. Young men hang out of the windows of cars as they cruise up and down the main street, stereos blaring to celebrate a relative’s nuptials.

Karim Azhut, 17, a high-schooler who dreams of becoming a journalist, goes every Friday to prayers at the local mosque, where he says imams urge the people to fight Israel, but he leaves unconvinced.

“Every week I think, why not go?" he says. "But in the end I think it’s useless. A stone cannot confront a cannon.”

In the Al-Shati refugee camp on the Gaza seafront, Ibtihaj Doula reminisces about her childhood in Jaffa. Her son Mohammed, 55, spent nearly two decades working on construction projects next door to Jaffa, in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam.

"I never lived there, so I don’t have the same feeling about it as my mother does," he says in fluent Hebrew.

Now Doula fills her days knitting clothes for her great-granddaughter Amira, 4, and writing poems about the dream of return. As Amira hovers in the doorway, shyly eyeing a stranger, someone asks her where she is from.

"Jaffa," she says.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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