'We need to isolate Israel'

26 September 2014
Nick Everett

In April, Palestinian student Sameeha Elwan arrived in Perth, with her husband Ayman Qwaider, to take up a PhD scholarship at Murdoch University. “It was a long held dream for me to continue my studies”, explained Sameeha, who grew up in Gaza City.

Sameeha (26) and Ayman (27) are part of a new generation of Palestinian youth who have grown up in the occupied territories in the period of the Oslo Accords. Both have fought the Israeli authorities to secure exit permits to leave the open air prison that Gaza has become so as to take up education scholarships abroad.

Their home, the Gaza Strip, is home to 1.8 million Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are refugees. Some became refugees as a consequence of the ethnic cleansing of their towns and villages in 1948, when Israel was established. Others became refugees following Israel’s 1967 invasion of Gaza. Last month’s Operation Protective Edge has swelled the numbers of refugees yet again: one-quarter of Gaza’s population are now internally displaced.

Born in 1986, one year before the outbreak of the first intifada, Ayman grew up in the Burij refugee camp, in the centre of the Gaza Strip. “In 2000, when the second intifada broke out, I was in middle school”, explained Ayman. His school, located near the Israeli border, saw many clashes between Palestinians and both Israeli occupation forces and settlers.

In 2004, during his high school years, Ayman moved to a new school in Gaza City. “The road closures and checkpoints created difficulty for me to get to school from the refugee camp where I grew up. I remember many times where Israeli tanks shut down the roads and I had to stay at home. Many times Israeli troops would shoot at us.”

Sameeha, who grew up in Gaza City, described to me the hardships her family experiences living under occupation: “My father lost his job [in Israel] after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000. My brother got employment with the Palestinian Authority as a police officer. It was his only chance of getting employment after high school.”

“Until I was 16 I was not political”, said Sameeha. “I was likely any other girl. And then the ‘normal’ became very abnormal; things started to change.”

In August 2005, 8,500 Israeli settlers began to be evacuated from Gaza under Israeli prime minister Sharon’s “unilateral disengagement” policy. “Palestinians believe that it was the resistance that kicked the settlers out of Gaza”, explained Ayman. “At the time we did not know the consequence that would follow the settlers’ exit from Gaza. We did not know about Israel’s plans to have more settlers in the West Bank.”

Palestinians in Gaza soon found themselves the subject of a draconian land, sea and air blockade imposed by Israeli occupation forces.

The impetus for the blockade was the Hamas victory in the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election. Sameeha explained: “To Palestinians [the election outcome in January 2006] was a product of the frustration they had with the Palestinian Authority and the ‘peace process’. I think it was viewed as a way of punishing the PA.”

After the elections, “the atmosphere was very tense”, according to Ayman. “Almost 300 people were killed [in the conflict between Hamas and Fatah]. Fatah wasn’t willing to hand over the Palestinian Authority to Hamas, because they had invested 20 years in building up a security apparatus of 70,000 staff. I remember the Fatah security forces entered the university and they burnt out the main library.”

“In 2008 and 2009 everything changed dramatically”, said Sameeha. “Now everybody became a target for the attacks [from Israel]. It wasn’t safe walking in the streets. A car could blow up next to you while you were walking.”

“There was no [longer any] direct contact between you and the occupation”, she continued. “There was nothing you could do but stay home and pray that you would survive. We felt very helpless. The electricity would be cut off all day long; there were no food supplies; you had to survive by whatever means you could.”

Both Sameeha and Ayman described to me the nightmare of living through Operation Cast Lead. “I remember walking all the way home [from the Islamic University]”, said Sameeha. “I felt like I was going to die any second. It took me an hour to walk home. My mother was trying to call me to make sure I was still alive. On the TV there was news of the shelling of the Islamic University. It was horrific.”

“I was in the heart of Gaza City at that time”, said Ayman. “All of a sudden the bombardment started. I remember seeing young school children screaming and running out of the schools like a flood, trying to escape. Then I passed Al-Shifa hospital. I saw two cars coming towards the hospital full of people – people lying all over each other. I saw bodies, legs. I saw five people in security uniforms – only one was alive under the dead people.”

“After that I was political; everyone was political”, asserted Sameeha. “This generation is more frustrated than any other generation because unlike our fathers we were unable to enter Israel or cross borders... I used to have so many arguments with my father about how peace could come about. I knew there could be no peace under this occupation.”

In 2012, Sameeha left Gaza. “I obtained a scholarship from the Palestine Education Trust, initiated by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign of Durham with the support of the Durham University. I started to travel around the north of England meeting with people to discuss the situation in Palestine. I realised how the occupation has affected not only our psychology; our minds are colonised too. I realised how Israel was seeking to dismember our national identity.

“Being with activists who participated in activities like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, I started to become involved in actions and I started blogging too. I started writing about politics.”

I asked both Ayman and Sameeha what role the BDS campaign could play in international solidarity with Palestine.

“I believe in BDS because it’s a Palestinian call”, said Sameeha. “It’s also a tool that can contribute to the struggle that would give people from outside some concrete way of practically helping the Palestinians. It is a form of political action that can change the course of events.”

“Its three main objectives are based on international law”, explained Ayman. These are: “to end the occupation; the right to return [of Palestinian refugees]; and an end to the racial discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. It is based on equality justice and freedom.”

“Israel has to be disarmed”, asserted Ayman. “It is the only entity in the Middle East with weapons of mass destruction; more than any Arab state. Look what is happening: the blockade of Gaza hasn’t been lifted; they are firing at fishermen. In the West Bank there has been more expropriation of land; imprisoning of Palestinians.”

“Governments have failed us many times”, said Ayman. “They are not even silent about the conflict, but are rather sustaining the occupation. They are backing up Israel as we have seen in carrying out their apartheid and genocidal policies. We need to put pressure on governments to isolate Israel.”

Both Ayman and Sameeha expressed their hope in the future of the solidarity campaign. “The Palestine solidarity movement is growing globally”, Ayman told me.

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