“Yumma, is this the way to Jerusalem?” An old woman in a traditional Palestinian dress sitting in a wheelchair looking up at passersby asked the question hesitantly. Yumma is the Palestinian word for “mum” – it is how children address their mothers. It is also a term of endearment that mothers use to address their children.
I looked at her, unsure of what she meant. We were on the corniche in Gaza, a day after a ceasefire had finally put an end to 11 days of brutal bombardment and rockets. A young man who might have been her grandchild pushed the wheelchair on a potholed, uneven pavement along the Mediterranean shore. He looked at me, slightly embarrassed, with the expression of someone whose child had just uttered an unexpected comment.
Behind them, the sun was setting on a day that most Gazans were relieved to treat as normal. Children splashed water and giggled, and grown-ups sat on the sand chatting and going over the violent events of the past several weeks.
I looked at the woman again, and thought she must be over 80, with deep wrinkles around her eyes, and age spots on her hands, which she folded tightly on her lap. “Yumma, is this the way to Jerusalem?” she asked me again.
Was her mind eaten up by grief or dementia? Or was she just trying to cope with the successive upheavals and traumas that annihilated the world she once lived in as a child, and in which she is seeking refuge now as an old woman? “Is this the way to Jerusalem?”, she repeated in a faint voice before sinking back into oblivion and her daze plunged into the sea.
I do not know what this old woman’s story is, but I know that most of Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants are registered Palestine refugees, people who lost their homes and livelihoods and remain forcibly displaced as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1948, when some 700,000 who were displaced later became defined as Palestine refugees.
To this day, those who lost their homes, their children and grandchildren describe orange groves, olive trees and a key. I once overheard a tourist in the Old City of Jerusalem asking her guide why there were so many representations of keys on sale in the bazar. The tour guide nonchalantly answered: "It's part of the visual representation here."
By then, I had long overcome an urge to volunteer information the way I had done in the early stages of my career in human rights and advocacy. But that day, the dismissiveness with which the tour guide brushed aside an entire narrative of a people whose symbol of dispossession was that key felt like a slap.
“It’s a symbol of wanting to return to a home, that Palestinians lost their lands in 1948 still hold to symbolise that the conflict is yet to be resolved and they are yet to find a place to call home,” I said while I walked past them in the bazaar.
During my formative years, I, like most Arabs of my generation, had a knee-jerk reaction of supporting Palestinians, without having truly delved into the details of how to support them. It is only much later that I came to understand the profound complexity and political controversy of the Palestine refugee identity, and the layers upon layers of events that have made them a people without a just solution.
I had grown up hearing stories about love and loss in Palestine. I later spent many hours working on concepts such as accountability, justice and equal rights, but discovered that these do not really resonate anymore outside certain niche think-tank and policy circles.
Even the slogans have receded over the past 10 years, with the Palestinian issue taking a back seat while the region underwent profound movements of protests, newer conflicts, counter-revolutions and more. Palestine is no longer a “cause” in the same way the Arab world had long embraced it, at least in the discourses that play out in venues such as the Arab League.
Human rights research and advocacy, on the other hand, has focused on the 2011 uprisings in the Arab world and their aftermath, thus largely allowing the Palestine-Israel conflict, the occupation, the blockade on Gaza and other issues to slip a few places down the priority research list. Western supporters of the Palestinian cause have been getting older and retiring from politics and policymaking. The cause has lost many supporters to age, retirement and, at times, to helplessness and cynicism.
There has also been an immense and successful effort to categorise “Palestinians” as controversial – a cause that is problematic, complex and impossible to tackle. This trend results today in the quasi-impossibility of discussing the rights of Palestinians in many societies without risking accusations of being controversial, politically incorrect or, at times, anti-Semitic.
The past weeks have reignited questions around the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian refugees. Protests by Palestinians living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and inside Israel over the threat of forced displacement of Palestinian refugee families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, and the incitement and violence by settlers and elements of the security forces against them have triggered marches and vigils worldwide from London to Chicago and many cities in between.
They have also triggered a war from and on Gaza that has caused huge destructions to the already-impoverished and blockaded strip. These developments combined were a stark reminder that events are related, and what happens in East Jerusalem resonates in Gaza.
It is not yet clear how events will play out, as observers hope for the ceasefire to hold. How telling that an old woman who has lost so much of her memory did not lose her broader sense of direction. In the absences of clues, she wanted to go back to a time and a place she could still remember.
She has gone back to a time before her most devastating loss, back to her roots, her hometown, Jerusalem. Every mental construct and defence mechanism she had built as a displaced person as she grew up experiencing one major loss after the other had crumbled. This was probably her last coping mechanism, and it is beyond heart-wrenching. On that wheelchair sat a child who, 73 years ago had a home, and who today was returning to it, at least in her mind.
Tamara Al Rifai is a humanitarian professional