A local Gazan tells his story about living under siege and why he participates in the weekly march to the border.

When the Great Return March started on 30 March, I was really excited to take part in the protests, and for the first time to be so close to our occupied lands.

I prepared my backpack, charged my phone and camera to take some photos. Before I left my house, reports about Israeli snipers shooting the peaceful protesters and showering them with tear gas started to emerge. My family stopped me from going.

The march itself was well planned. Even the ‘tent city’ that was formed wasn’t arbitrary, it was a reminder of the past, of how Palestinians were forced to live after being expelled from their homes during the Israeli seizure of Palestinian land in 1948. This was a creative and remarkably fresh approach for Palestinian refugees to exercise their legitimate right of return to their pre-1948 homes and land.

Life for a Gazan

The people of the Gaza strip have been struggling under a brutal siege for the last 12 years, deprived of basic rights and everyday necessities. 

We suffer regular power cuts, 4 hours of power a day has shaped our lives in a way where just 8 hours of electricity is a distant dream for us. The power cuts have destroyed our livelihoods with unemployment for young graduates touching 53 percent, one of the highest on earth.

Reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas matters not, because in the end, Israel is in control of borders, electricity, and the import and export of goods. Our life.

The Great Return March appeared as a glimmer of hope for change, as we would be able to project our voice to the world.

For me, I suffer like any other Palestinian in Gaza, and as an activist who tries to tell stories from his own experiences, I wanted to be part of the protest. I wanted to tell the truth about the peaceful and just protest. The resistance that “struggles to find its way” into western media outlets.

My biggest challenge was to convince my family of letting me go, which was nearly impossible after they had seen the horrible videos and pictures of Israel’s crimes against the protesters. 

So, I decided to go without telling anyone. I felt like I was leaving the safety of my house. Going to a protest against Israel was like heading towards certain death – which I don’t fear as much I fear the idea of being crippled for life.

Return to the march

On the sixth Friday of the protests, I left my house before Friday prayers and headed to Khuzaa, a town in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. I shared a car with a few other people, it wasn’t their first time.

“Are you a photojournalist?” one of them asked when he saw my camera, “Kinda, but it will be my first time going there,” I answered.

I asked them if it is it is safe, one of them answered, “it’s not safe but this is our right to protest, we don’t fear them and they can’t stop us from coming here every week.”

Another chimed in, “You’re a photojournalist, you should be the first one there, it’s your duty to convey our message.”

During that conversation with the guys, I tried to convince them that the protest will not help our cause, and we’re just risking our lives. They told me that the life they’re living, either way, is not a "life". 

Most of them are unemployed, and if they’re lucky to have a job they probably don’t receive salaries due to the sanctions imposed by the Palestinian Authority.

The taxi dropped us near the protest and the first thing I noticed was the presence of Israeli forces along the borders, military jeeps, and a conspicously high sandy hill for snipers.

I entered the “tent city” at prayer time. The Friday prayer sermon started and it was ordinary with a focus on the protests and our right of return until people started covering their noses. That was the first time I ever inhaled tear gas. We stayed put, and continued the prayer.

After prayer, Israeli occupation forces started intermittently shooting tear gas resulting in numerous gas inhalation injuries and people being treated both inside and outside the tent, depending on the severity of the injury.

I realised how dangerous the situation was, and had to keep running from tear gas while at the same time trying not  to faint. Medics and journalists’ tents were attacked, as well as the praying area where mostly elderly women were staying.

Medics did their best to prevent protesters from suffocating. I was exposed to tear gas more times than I can count, my entire face felt like it was burning, especially the eyes and nose and the only way to reduce the pain is to get your face sprayed with vinegar by one of the medics – if you’re lucky to have one near you.

Entire families were attending the march, young and old, men and women, citizens and journalists. All of them have a noble dream, a dream to live a better life. Many of them were deprived of their beloved brothers, colleagues or friends after being shot and killed by Israeli snipers. 

Many of the journalists there were friends of Yasser Murtaja and Ahmed Abu Hussain. They come every Friday to follow in his steps, not fearing the fate the Israelis threaten them with.

At 5pm I decided to go home, exhausted, severe headache, eyes, nose and face burning after being exposed to the tear gas fired by Israeli forces. The pain lasted all night, which made me think of the children and how severe the effects would be on them.

After being there, with the protesters, I realised how they think, and I witnessed the Israeli forces using lethal force against poor people whose only crime was to dream of a life of peace.

The protests will continue, Palestinians will, peacefully, demand the right of return and the right for a better life; a life not controlled by an erratic electricity schedule, one with unrestricted traveling for studying or medical treatment, the free export and import of goods, being able to sleep at night without the buzz of Israeli drones.

We’re not demanding a life of luxury, we're only demanding our basic rights.

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