No Checkpoints in Heaven

I still vividly remember my father’s face — wrinkled, apprehensive, warm — as he last wished me farewell fourteen years ago. He stood outside the rusty door of my family’s home in a Gaza refugee camp wearing old yellow pyjamas and a seemingly ancient robe. As I hauled my one small suitcase into a taxi that would take me to an Israeli airport an hour away, my father stood still. I wished he would go back inside; it was cold and the soldiers could pop up at any moment. As my car moved on, my father eventually faded into the distance, along with the graveyard, the water tower and the camp. It never occurred to me that I would never see him again.

I think of my father now as he was that day. His tears and his frantic last words: “Do you have your money? Your passport? A jacket? Call me the moment you get there. Are you sure you have your passport? Just check, one last time…”

My father was a man who always defied the notion that one can only be the outcome of his circumstance. Expelled from his village at the age of 10, running barefoot behind his parents, he was instantly transferred from the son of a landowning farmer to a penniless refugee in a blue tent provided by the United Nations in Gaza. Thus, his life of hunger, pain, homelessness, freedom-fighting, love, marriage and loss commenced.

The fact that he was the one chosen to quit school to help his father provide for his now tent-dwelling family was a huge source of stress for him. In a strange, unfamiliar land, his new role was going into neighbouring villages and refugee camps to sell gum, aspirin and other small items. His legs were a testament to the many dog bites he obtained during these daily journeys. Later scars were from the shrapnel he acquired through war.

As a young man and soldier in the Palestinian unit of the Egyptian army, he spent years of his life marching through the Sinai desert. When the Israeli army took over Gaza following the Arab defeat in 1967, the Israeli commander met with those who served as police officers under Egyptian rule and offered them the chance to continue their services under Israeli rule. Proudly and willingly, my young father chose abject poverty over working under the occupier’s flag. And for that, predictably, he paid a heavy price. His two-year-old son died soon after.

My oldest brother is buried in the same graveyard that bordered my father’s house in the camp. My father, who couldn’t cope with the thought that his only son died because he couldn’t afford to buy medicine or food, would be found asleep near the tiny grave all night, or placing coins and candy in and around it.

My father’s reputation as an intellectual, his obsession with Russian literature, and his endless support of fellow refugees brought him untold trouble with the Israeli authorities, who retaliated by denying him the right to leave Gaza.

His severe asthma, which he developed as a teenager was compounded by lack of adequate medical facilities. Yet, despite daily coughing streaks and constantly gasping for breath, he relentlessly negotiated his way through life for the sake of his family. On one hand, he refused to work as a cheap labourer in Israel. “Life itself is not worth a shred of one’s dignity,” he insisted. On the other, with all borders sealed except that with Israel, he still needed a way to bring in an income. He would buy cheap clothes, shoes, used TVs, and other miscellaneous goods, and find a way to transport and sell them in the camp. He invested everything he made to ensure that his sons and daughter could receive a good education, an arduous mission in a place like Gaza.

But when the Palestinian uprising of 1987 exploded, and our camp became a battleground between stone-throwers and the Israeli army, mere survival became Dad’s new obsession. Our house was the closest to the Red Square, arbitrarily named for the blood spilled there, and also bordered the ‘Martyrs’ Graveyard’. How can a father adequately protect his family in such surroundings? Israeli soldiers stormed our house hundreds of times; it was always him who somehow held them back, begging for his children’s safety, as we huddled in a dark room awaiting our fate. “You will understand when you have your own children,” he told my older brothers as they protested his allowing the soldiers to slap his face. Our ‘freedom-fighting’ dad struggled to explain how love for his children could surpass his own pride. He grew in my eyes that day.

It’s been fourteen years since I last saw my father. As none of his children had access to isolated Gaza, he was left alone to fend for himself. We tried to help as much as we could, but what use is money without access to medicine? In our last talk he said he feared he would die before seeing my children, but I promised that I would find a way. I failed.

Since the siege on Gaza, my father’s life became impossible. His ailments were not ‘serious’ enough for hospitals crowded with limbless youth. During the most recent Israeli onslaught, most hospital spaces were converted to surgery wards, and there was no place for an old man like my dad. All attempts to transfer him to the better equipped West Bank hospitals failed as Israeli authorities repeatedly denied him the required permit.

“I am sick, son, I am sick,” my father cried when I spoke to him two days before his death. He died alone on March 18, waiting to be reunited with my brothers in the West Bank. He died a refugee, but a proud man nonetheless.

My father’s struggle began 60 years ago, and it ended a few days ago. Thousands of people descended to his funeral from throughout Gaza, oppressed people that shared his plight, hopes and struggles, accompanying him to the graveyard where he was laid to rest. Even a resilient fighter deserves a moment of peace.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Annie said on April 7th, 2008 at 7:33am #

    Thank you so much for sharing the story of your father.
    I am so sorry for your loss.

  2. DavidG. said on April 7th, 2008 at 4:55pm #

    This is a moving personal account yet, sadly, it is one that has been experienced by many Palestinians. That a group of people can have been so badly treated for so long is an indictment not only of Israel, the oppressor, but the rest of the Western World who allow Israel to do whatever it wants.

    I’m sorry that your father and your family has suffered so badly, Ramzy. And I’m sorry for the Palestinians who had the misfortune to become the victims of a group of cruel, anachronistic, religious crazies.

    May your father rest in peace.

  3. John Hatch said on April 7th, 2008 at 6:10pm #

    I think your father was a very great and courageous man.

  4. mary said on April 8th, 2008 at 12:56am #

    I concur with the above comments and add my condolences for the loss of your father who must have been proud of the stand you take and the work you do. I heard you speaking to Michel Chossudovsky recently on Global Research’s Newshour and you have a wide knowledge of what is happening in the Middle East and beyond.

    This morning on BBC Radio 4 there was a report about Professor Richard Falk, the next UNHRC representative in Israel and the ‘Occupied Territories’ and this is a report on the BBC website.

    ‘UN expert stands by Nazi comments
    By Tim Franks
    BBC Middle East correspondent

    Falk believes that Israel has been avoiding criticism

    The next UN investigator into Israel conduct in the occupied territories has stood by comments comparing Israeli actions in Gaza to those of the Nazis.

    Speaking to the BBC, Professor Richard Falk said he believed that up to now Israel had been successful in avoiding the criticism that it was due.

    Professor Falk is scheduled to take up his post for the UN Human Rights Council later in the year.

    But Israel wants his mandate changed to probe Palestinian actions as well.

    Professor Falk said he drew the comparison between the treatment of Palestinians with the Nazi record of collective atrocity, because of what he described as the massive Israeli punishment directed at the entire population of Gaza.

    He said he understood that it was a provocative thing to say, but at the time, last summer, he had wanted to shake the American public from its torpor.

    Israeli actions in Gaza are collective punishment, says Falk

    “If this kind of situation had existed for instance in the manner in which China was dealing with Tibet or the Sudanese government was dealing with Darfur, I think there would be no reluctance to make that comparison,” he said.

    That reluctance was, he argued, based on the particular historical sensitivity of the Jewish people, and Israel’s ability to avoid having their policies held up to international law and morality.

    These and other comments from Professor Falk comments are, if anything, even harsher than the current UN investigator, John Dugard, who himself has been withering about Israel’s actions.

    A spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that Israel wanted the UN investigator’s mandate changed, so that he could look into human rights violations by the Palestinians as well as Israel.

    If that were not to happen, the Israeli government may consider barring entry to the new UN investigator.
    In solidarity and for truth and justice for the Palestinians

  5. Rich Griffin said on April 8th, 2008 at 5:56am #

    I think taxpayers should withhold a percentage of their taxes that would pay for the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government. We should pay zero tax dollars to support this evil.

  6. hp said on April 8th, 2008 at 12:25pm #

    Rich, I not only agree, but I’m already there. Been there for a while and it feels pretty damn good, I must say.