I was born in the Rafah refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. My parents are from the city of Ramle, in what is now known as Israel.
Like most Palestinian refugees, I heard the stories from my older family members about being expelled from their homes and land during the establishment of Israel 70 years ago. Israelis celebrate this as independence. Palestinians know it as the Nakba — the catastrophe.
No matter how many decades pass, they are never able to forget the horrors they witnessed during their dispossession and all the violence and pain that came with it.
May 15 commemorates the eviction of Palestinians from their homes and land and the creation of Israel in 1948. The exodus of 50 000 to 70 000 Palestinians from Ramle and Lydda is also known as the Death March. But the displacement started much earlier and continues today.
I have never seen my family’s home in Ramle, and my two children, aged two and seven, have never seen anything beyond the confines of Gaza and the siege. They do not know a reality beyond the sound of bombs, the darkness of night with no electricity and the inability to travel freely — or the fact that nothing about life in Gaza is normal. The Nakba is not just a memory; it is an ongoing reality. And, although we accept that we all must eventually die, in Gaza the tragedy is that we don’t get to live.
Over the past six weeks, tens of thousands of protesters in Gaza have breathed life into a place that is slowly being depleted of it. We have come together, chanting and singing a song we have all longed for: “We will return.” We are bringing all that we have left in an attempt to reclaim our right to live in freedom and justice.
Despite our peaceful marches, we have been met with clouds of teargas and live fire from Israeli soldiers. This is not new to Palestinians in Gaza.
Since the beginning of the siege almost 11 years ago, the task of simply surviving each day is a challenge. To wake up and have clean water and electricity is now a luxury. The siege has been particularly hard on young people; the unemployment rate is 58%. What’s worse is that all of this is a result of Israeli policy, which can be changed. This harsh and difficult life does not have to be the reality for Gaza.
It is as though displacing us was not enough. It’s as if the entire memory of Palestinian refugees must be contained and erased.
For the past six Fridays, we have stood firm against all the powers telling us to break and die in silence. We are marching for life. This is the protest of a people who want nothing more than to live in dignity — an end to the siege and the right to return to our homes.
I have worried for our safety as we came out in the thousands to what Israel deems a “no-go zone”. I have thought about the consequences. As I stood with my family near the Return March square in eastern Khan Younis, we were all teargassed. It was painful to see the innocence of childhood being tainted by such a traumatic experience.
But what many people fail to recognise is that, whether we are in our homes or protesting in the fields, we are never truly safe in Gaza, nor are we truly alive. It is as though our entire existence, and dreams of ever returning home and living in dignity, must be hidden in the dark.
But this year, after United States President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the possibility of making what he called the “deal of the century”, Palestinians have felt an imminent threat to the legal right of refugees to return, despite being enshrined in United Nations Resolution 194. It is a collective worry that our rights as refugees are in serious jeopardy and we must resist in an innovative, unified, revolutionary way — one that exists outside the parameters of negotiations and factionalism — to place pressure on Israel to reclaim our rights.
Israel would have the world believe that we Palestinians willingly left our homes and chose this life of degradation, without basic human rights, and that we brought it on ourselves.
Today, the Palestinians of Gaza are attempting to break the chains that Israel has tried so hard to force us into. We are unarmed demonstrators confronting armed soldiers with peaceful protest. As a result, it is difficult for Israel to smear us and justify its brutal violence, and the world is faced with the reality that innocent civilians are being killed for exercising their right to protest peacefully.
The excuses Israel uses to justify its policies toward the Palestinians are slowly losing their effectiveness, as people around the world are increasingly realising that the true face of Israel is that of a brutal apartheid regime.
With the Great Return March, Palestinians in Gaza are stating loudly and clearly that we are still here. For Israel, it is our identity that is our crime, but we are celebrating the very identity that Israel tries to criminalise. People from all walks of life are joining the march. Artists are contributing with the traditional dabke dance, intellectuals are organising reading circles, entertainers are dressing as clowns and playing with children. What has been most striking is the children — living and playing, their laughter the greatest protest of all.
The UN has warned that Gaza may be uninhabitable in just two years. Resisting the fate that Israel has planned for us, we are fighting back peacefully with our bodies and our love for life, appealing for justice.
Ahmad Abu Rtemah is an independent Gaza-based writer, social-media activist, and one of the organisers of the Great Return March