Ahmed, you came to our attention when you were a guest of ICAHD Finland as you travelled there to speak about your life in Gaza and your involvement in the Great March of Return. We’d like to use this interview to allow more people to get to know you, what life is like for you nowadays in Gaza and your aspirations for the future.
1. Can we start with you telling us about your family background?
I’m a Palestinian refugee originally from Ramle village which is now in what is called Israel. I’ve never visited it, but my father did years ago when the situation for travel was better compared to what it is now. I grew up always hearing stories from my grandparents about life before 1948.
I was born in Rafah in 1984 and I’m one of the 2/3 of the citizens of Gaza who are from refugee families who were expelled from their villages because of the Nakba and the establishment of the state of Israel.
2. What was life like for you growing up in Gaza? When did you first have an opportunity to leave the Gaza Strip?
When I was a child, it was the First Intifada and I still remember the Israeli occupation soldiers that stormed the houses, including my house which happened in the middle of the night. This created a lot of fear in the children and in all the families. I still remember the long curfew that we were under in 1991. It lasted for two continuous months and during that time, we were only allowed to leave the home for a few hours from time to time to go out to buy necessities. If you left your house at other times, Israeli soldiers could shoot you without warning.
Another memory from my early childhood is when Israeli soldiers rounding up people and destroying houses of people because some of the residents were involved in the resistance activities of the First Intifada.
When the Second Intifada started, I was 17 years old, so I have clear memories of how the Israeli army stormed my neighbourhood in Rafah and laid siege to it. Israel’s Ariel Sharon was responsible for ordering thousands of homes to be destroyed, the lion’s portion in Rafah. I remember Rachel Corrie, the American girl who came to our area to show solidarity with us, but she was killed under an Israeli army bulldozer. Many scenes are still kept in my memory. This is the life in Gaza.
When I was young, I wasn’t able to leave Gaza even to go to Jerusalem or the West Bank. The first time I could leave here was in September 2005 after the Israeli government moved out the Jewish settlers. The border opened between Gaza and Egypt so I went a short distance into Egypt for three days but then the border closed again. The next time I officially left Gaza was in 2011 when I went back to Egypt. The first time I took a plane was in November 2018; I was 34 years. I visited Jordan and then flew to the United States to participate in a speaking tour about the right of return for refugees and Palestinian rights in general.
3. Who were your role models during your childhood and youth?
I think that the circumstances and events, including the massacre of people in Gaza, and the songs of the revolutionaries were important influences in forming me as a young man. After that I became an avid reader. I read many history books and novels which empowered me and made me feel that I can break the siege over us in Gaza. There are 2.2 million people who live here in what is an open-air prison that is only 360 square kilometres so it’s one of the most crowded places in the world. When I read books, I was inspired, and I felt that I was connecting with other human cultures.
4. Can you describe your education and how your career unfolded?
I studied at the Islamic University of Gaza. I began on an engineering course, but I didn’t finish it and instead I changed to media studies and journalism. I loved it and felt like was pursuing my hobby because I like reading and also writing which allows me to express myself. The people around me – friends and my school – liked my writings. Some told me that they didn’t know how to express their feelings, but they said that I was expressing what they felt. Their encouragement pushed me to continue in this way. I wrote a lot and started to write for websites. After that I started making films. It still feels like a hobby to me and not work even though journalism and media have become my career.
5. You were one of the founders of the Great March of Return that saw thousands of Gazans go to the border with Israel on a weekly basis for eighteen months. How did that come about and what was your original vision for this non-violent demonstration?
The March of Return started with a dream. As I said, we are living in an open-air prison, where freedom of movement is deprived. Also, Rafah is a city on the border with Egypt so every day I see a border which I cannot cross. The idea of freedom is always with me and since my childhood, I have longed for it. I keep dreaming about living without borders.
Martin Luther King is an inspiration to me. He talked about what it would be like if there were no borders between the peoples. I have relatives in Egypt and I know that there is no essential difference between us so why was there the need to create borders and obstacles between us? In my writings I asked what it would be like if we could be like birds that can move freely from one place to another without restrictions. In 20011 when the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt and Tunisa, hundreds of people who took part in the demonstrations inspired me personally and I wrote about it. I came to believe that people are stronger than the regimes who rule them. For us Palestinians, we have an essential cause: the right of return to our homes. That year I wrote an article and asked what it would be like if hundreds of thousands of Palestinians came out protesting, calling for our right of return. That idea spread amongst the people and in May 2011, refugees marched to the borders in Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. Later in 2018, Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip seemed like it was coming to a peak because we were slowly dying. I came up with an idea and wrote that as two-thirds of us are refugees, why not go the fence on the border with Israel to say we want to return to our home. I just put this out as a post on Facebook and then people responded saying that they liked it. The call was adopted and then it grew from there.
6. On reflection, what did the gatherings achieve?
When I look back, I think that the March of Return happened because we had no other choice. We had to do something because as I said, we were experiencing a slow death and we couldn’t stay silent. Sometime we should assess our successes and failures, but we made that choice because we live under colonization. Think of what it must be like when you put a person in a prison condition without food and water and he tried to break open a door. You can’t speak with him rationally because he wants to break free from the pressure of a slow death. Palestinians don’t have the choice of staying silent; if we do so, it will lead to even more deaths.
7. Much has happened since you visited Finland. At the time you expressed your dream of being able to live in one democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Since then, the weekly demonstrations stopped, the year 2020 came and went which was the year the UN had predicted that Gaza would be unliveable, and then this May, Israel again bombarded Gaza in its Operation Guardian of the Walls that resulted the death of 253 Palestinians, including 66 children, that destroyed 1000 buildings including homes, medical and educational facilities. Ahmed, you are living in a hellish situation and have faced death many times. What makes you want to wake up to a new day? What gives you strength? Do you still feel that the best solution will be to live in one state along with your oppressors?
Theoretically, I still believe in justice with one state. I believe that the suffering of the Palestinian people must end and that the right of the return which is the basic right for the Palestinian people, must be granted. What I believe is a moral and achievable. But the reality is that right now there are many obstacles. As Palestinians we are the victims, so we are not the party that bears the responsibility to give the solution. Many people from the West ask me what solution we want. We want to end our suffering and to get our rights. The two-state solution is an unfair idea. It means that if you’re from another (the wrong) religion or ethnicity you can’t be part of that country.
The one democratic state solution can’t be achieved in the current political environment because Israel has established an apartheid system. It has established Israeli supremacy so if you are a Palestinian you are subjected to discrimination and less rights, even for the Palestinians who live within ’48 Israel. I think that the solution is very simple but the world – the international community – tries to show us that the situation is very complex. It’s not: simply end Israeli apartheid which is based on Israel’s racist colonial system. Then the solution will be easy. I’m a part of the Palestinian people. There are million of victims; people still suffering, and their first demand is to end the suffering.
8. Do you have a final message for international activists who campaign on behalf of justice and freedom for Palestinians?
Don’t’ feel tired; don’t despair. It’s unacceptable for there to be racism in the world so keeping working on this issue. It’s unacceptable that Palestinians are being expelled from their homes in the West Bank and in Jerusalem because of Israel’s discrimination policies. Remember that our struggle is an international, global struggle. To my comrades from around the world I say that when justice comes to Palestine that ends discrimination and racism, this will result in a better world for everyone. Express solidarity with Palestinian civil rights. We should double our efforts to boycott Israeli goods.
We are people who believe in freedom, who long for freedom. We support the values of freedom and dignity and justice for everyone. We are stronger than the colonial systems in the world.