What does it mean?

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Let’s start with an easy question: What is your nationality?

Imagine if the answer was Palestinian. Suppose, for a second, you were born in Palestine. You were born on the land of your father and forefathers, since time immemorial. You were not an emigrant nor were you an alien to the land, a stranger to its people, or a settler, who came to the country. Your family and culture were rooted to its soil. Their homes and farms were their own. You planted your orchards. You established the mosques and the churches. The towns and villages were their toil and the sweat of your ancestors.

Your life all revolves around this one place. You love the land and its people. It might not be perfect, but it’s the place you call ‘home’.

To start with, at least. Maybe you work hard for education. (Maybe you don’t even get the chance to get an education.) Let’s say you go on to get a degree. You find yourself a well-paid job as a doctor or a teacher or an engineer.

You get married. You’ve got everything you ever wanted. The smart car, the nice house, maybe even a couple of fantastic kids. And then, suddenly, your entire life is ripped away from you.

Perhaps you were living in Jaffa and you remember the orange groves. It’s the city you can see but not return to. It is so near but yet so far, you’re now outside its borders, lost in a limitless exile.

Perhaps you’re a farmer. Your family have tilled the same soil for six generations. You’ve got a small herd of cows, some goats, a few chickens and a couple of fields that provide wheat for flour and straw for animal feed.

You’re afraid of the attacks and violence. You heard of what they had done in Qazaza, Sa’sa, Deir Yassin, and they continued in Lajjun, Saris and Tiberias. Your choice was between saving your life or dying. They targeted the whole area where you live for an ‘ethnic cleansing’ programme. Basically, this meant emptying the land of its people.

The neighbours were saying that they were going to do to us what they had done in Deir Yassin. They had surrounded the village and were about to enter it. You were frightened, terribly frightened.

You lie on your belly watching helplessly as scores of heavily armed men fan out across your field. They burn your wheat crop to the ground. They kill all your livestock. They take your sons captive and took them away. There were bodies scattered on the road and between the homes and down the side streets. No one, not even women or children, had been spared if they were out in the street.

They round up all the local men (those who aren’t killed defending their homes and families), drive them to the outskirts of town and shoot them into an open trench.

And then silence. Except for the sound of your own breathing. Your own heartbeat.

They went on towards town and village, systematically searching each and every home. Anybody they find was dragged outside, beaten and forced to flee.

It’s time to escape. You’re going to leave behind your home, your family, your friends, your career, your country. Everything you’ve ever known. Throw yourself on the mercy of some strangers in a far-off distant landéfar away from the violence, the murder, the destruction. By the thousands they fled: North to Lebanon and Syria, south to Gaza, east to Arab Palestine or on to Jordan. Your life was turned upside down. You were faced with disease, lack of food and water, life in unfamiliar places and overcrowding. All in all, you lost your homes, farms, family and lives. Many crowded into refugee camps in tents. Others lived in caves or in the open. All hoped that they would soon be able to return.

Perhaps you didn’t flee but stayed under occupation. Suppose you were a journalist. You write a newspaper article criticizing the oppression of your people. And you’re immediately branded a criminal.

The occupation forces kick down your door at 2 a.m. and arrest you. They take you to a cell where you are held for a week, without trial, without access to a solicitor, without the right to even one phone call.

How are you treated? Every four hours they beat you. Or maybe they whip you with electric flex wire. Or maybe they just won’t let you sleep. Or maybe they administer electric shocks to your lips, tongue, eyelids and genitals.

“What are the names of your friends?” You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You say there aren’t any. They don’t believe you. They torture you. You black out from the pain.

Or maybe, just maybe, your torturers decide to let you go. On one condition: You must report to the police station once a week. And once a week, when you show up, you’re beaten again. Or they pay somebody else to beat you up. Or they follow you everywhere. Or you and your family start to receive death threats, by post and phone. When does the torture stop? It doesn’t. They could kill you at any time, but they don’t. First they want to make an example of you. Torture you psychologically, terrorize your children, harass your family, threaten your friends. Make your life a living hell.

Even now, few people appreciate what the Palestinians have experienced or how reduced their prospects are compared with what they have lost. They know what home is. It’s the thing that is lost, the awaited return.

Home is not a map, nor a birth certificate. It’s, as Darwish wrote, “Your life and your cause bound up together. And before and after all of that, it’s the essence of who you are.”

The author is a Dutch-Palestinian political scientist, human rights activist and is affiliated to the the Palestine Right to Return Coalition (Al-Awda) and ElectronicIntifada.net

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