BOOK REVIEW

Standing tall and fighting back: Palestinians tell their own story

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As the number of slain and injured Gazans mount during the Great March of Return and ensuing Friday rallies, Ramzy Baroud’s new book, The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, is painfully well-timed. It reveals, through the voices of the most afflicted, why the Great March happened. And indirectly, it speaks to the plight of today’s multitudes of refugees, displaced from their homelands but resistant to the barbarism of imperialist powers and their regional cohorts.

For Palestinians, refugee status is nearly a century long. But ask any Palestinian, at whatever age, where they are from and you will hear, “I am from the village of so and so in Palestine.” Born and raised in Gaza, Baroud asked many Palestinians of several generations about their lives, long-hidden by Zionist fictional history books and mainstream news that dominate Western newspapers.

Refugee life. Baroud’s first story is of Marco who lived in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, just outside Damascus. Formed in 1957, over 100,000 Palestinians once lived there, many supportive of the Syrian revolution that started in 2011. But they were besieged by the Assad regime and ISIS fundamentalists during Syria’s counterrevolutionary inferno. Marco was among those who escaped Yarmouk, eventually joining other refugees — “Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — united in the belief that a quick death at sea was better than the continued insecurity of life in the shadow of eternal wars.” The Yarmouk camp is now, in July 2018, completely destroyed. No longer a refuge for anybody.

The second story comes from Ahmad, a fellahin (peasant) who joined the armed struggle in 1948 against Zionist colonizers and militias that were unleashed by British withdrawal and the creation of the State of Israel. This was the “Nakba” (catastrophe), which resulted in numerous Arab village massacres and terrified, fleeing residents — 750,000 of them. It was the very definition of ethnic cleansing, this time by the Israeli military and right-wing settlers. Palestinian fighters were hopelessly outgunned. “When a permanent truce was eventually reached,” writes Baroud, “Palestine was no longer Palestine. … The first generation were assigned the ‘refugee’ title and were forced to keep it until most of them died in exile.”

Ahmad, the one-time fighter, became a teacher in Gaza. But he was jailed by Egypt twice for three long years each, for his political opinions. And jailed by Israel when its army occupied the Gaza Strip twenty years later. He still talks about his village — “Al-Sawafir and its barefooted fellahin, who were pure and true socialists because they shared tea, lentils and ragged clothes.”

Unknown heroines. The author salutes the women of Gaza. One of them was Umm Marwan, his mother’s friend in the Gaza refugee camp. Like most of the women, Umm Marwan preserved the community while the men were off working as cheap laborers for Israel. Women raised the young, persevered in crowded and impoverished camps, and developed their own and new generations’ rebel hearts.

The 1987 intifada broke out in Gaza as thousands of third-generation, refugee-camp-born fellahin took to the streets in reaction to Israeli killings and abuse. Hundreds were killed by the soldiers. This spawned the “birth of a movement from the women’s collective power for the first time since they became refugees,” writes Baroud. And it was led by Umm Marwan whose son was a teenage revolutionary. She led groups of women in her own camp who plunged physically between their children and the soldiers who regularly lined up kids to break their bones and smash their faces against the sidewalk.

And when another camp nearby was being starved out by an army blockade, it was women from Umm Marwan’s village marching at the front of a huge rally to break the blockade. The stunned military encampment didn’t fire a shot. The trapped villagers walked out.

 Truth told. This book provides genuine history, through living people. From the Palestinian exile girl born and raised in Australia whose Jewish teacher shocks the first grader with, “There is no such thing as Palestine.” To the battle-scarred, Palestinian Bedouin who fought in pre-Israel Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria; now, white-haired and still rebellious in Gaza, he presses Red Cross offices to help locate his family, still lost in Syria. To the U.S. supporter who risked his life helping the wounded in Gaza during the 2014 massacres, infuriated with his own government for contributing to Israel’s murderous policies.

Baroud relates several more stories. All of them make it possible for the rest of the world to learn Palestinian history “as told by its tenacious victims, not barefaced aggressors. It documents the lives of a people who stand tall and fight back.” Their example is a gift to the rest of us.

 

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