My first lockdown was during the first Intifada

Majed Abusalama

Al-Jazeera  /  May 9, 2020

Living under a lockdown in Europe has brought back memories of my childhood in Gaza during the Palestinian uprising.

On March 23, Germany announced nation-wide measures to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus. People were advised to stay at home and public gatherings were banned; restaurants and pubs were closed. Days earlier, schools were shuttered followed by gyms, cinemas, museums and other public places. And so life began under lockdown.

For many of my German friends, this was the first time in their lives they were experiencing such government-imposed restrictions. For me, the lockdown in Berlin, where I live now, brought back memories from the first Intifada.

I was just a baby when the uprising started in December 1987 in Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, my birthplace. By the time it ended, I was a school-age boy. Lockdowns, curfews and a variety of restrictions were all I knew for the first six years of my life.

The Intifada broke out after Israeli soldiers killed four Palestinians at a checkpoint at our camp. When crowds of Palestinians went out to protest against the deaths, Israeli soldiers opened fire, killing another Palestinian man.

The killings were just the spark; the real reason was the decades of brutal military occupation and apartheid my people had endured while watching our land being colonised by European and American Jewish settlers arriving from abroad.

The whole of historic Palestine erupted in protest. To Israeli tear gas and bullets, Palestinians responded with slingshots and stones. The Israeli occupation army and Israeli “civilians” killed close to 1,500 Palestinians, more than 300 of them children.

Facing a people-wide uprising that deadly repression could not put out, the Israeli government started imposing various forms of lockdowns to try to control the Palestinian population, which had launched a sustained grassroots resistance campaign.

The curfews would come and go. The Israelis would impose them for days, weeks, even months at a time. According to American scholar Wendy Pearlman, in the first year of the Intifada, the Israeli occupation army put various Palestinian communities under round-the-clock curfews more than 1,600 times.

During those curfews, we would not be allowed to go out. Sometimes, we would run out of food, and my grandmother and aunts would risk their lives to go outside and look for supplies to buy.

Food was scarce, as farmers were not allowed to go to the fields. Many crops lay rotting, with no one to harvest them.

Universities and schools were closed, leaving a whole generation of Palestinian children and youth falling behind on their education. We had no parks, no public gardens to go to and play in. The beach, too, was “closed” by the Israelis.

But the many restrictions, the constant harassment and persistent killings did not bring down the Palestinian spirit. All across historic Palestine, popular resistance committees were established which coordinated various activities to provide for the people. My father, Ismael, was involved in organising the committee in our camp.

Women grew food at homes and on rooftops and founded agricultural cooperatives which they called victory gardens, to create an autonomous Palestinian economy and enable the boycott of Israeli products. Trade committees organised strikes; health committees established makeshift clinics, educational committees set up underground classes. Everyone put in whatever effort they could to help their community and no one was left without communal support.

That, of course, angered the Israelis. I clearly remember, when I was four years old, Israeli soldiers broke into our home and started destroying our belongings. It was a punishment for my father’s political activities – one that so many families endured repeatedly.

My father was also often questioned and detained for weeks, sometimes months at a time. During one of these episodes, after an hours-long interrogation, an Israeli commander asked him if he had anything to say. My father answered he wanted to get a permit to be allowed to go to his bees. The commander laughed, saying, “You might go to prison now, and you are thinking of your bees?” My father responded that he must take care of them or they would die, and those bees fed his family. My father was detained that time for a week. The bees did not survive.

We became reliant on my mother’s salary. She was working as a nurse in an UNRWA clinic. She had to go to work every day even during curfew, so she had a permit to cross the Israeli checkpoints. She would treat many of the children who were beaten or injured by Israeli soldiers in our camp. According to Save the Children NGO, in the first two years of the uprising, between 23,600 and 29,900 sought medical help for injuries.

In the summer of 1991, my mother went into labour. As there were very few phones in the refugee camp at the time, we could not call an ambulance; besides, no ambulances were allowed into the camp under the curfew. As a result, my mother was forced to walk to the UNRWA clinic, a kilometre away. She made her way leaning on my grandmother, who was waving a white scarf, hoping the Israeli soldiers would not shoot at them.

Not far from our home, Israeli soldiers pointed their guns at them and made them stop. They started questioning my mother about why they were breaking the curfew, even though it was obvious she was about to give birth; she could hardly stand on her feet. “It was a frightening moment,” my mother would recall later. “I was trying to protect my belly away from their guns as the painful contractions came one after the other.”

The soldiers eventually let them go, and that evening my mother gave birth to my sister, Shahd. In the morning they braved the curfew again and walked back home. We were all happy to see them and my baby sister.

Life was extremely difficult for us, but my parents always recall the Intifada as a time of liberation, often saying, “We did not give up on our resistance. We did not become subdued victims.” Indeed, Palestinians set an example for a grassroots struggle rarely seen at that time.

And here I am today, three decades later, again under a lockdown – but a much different one. There are no rubber bullets, live ammunition or tear gas canisters shot at people walking in the streets; there are no checkpoints; no violent repression, the way I have experienced in Palestine.

Like my German friends, I too am anxious about the situation in Germany, but most of the time, my mind is wandering towards Gaza.

My family still lives in the densely-populated Jabalia refugee camp where social distancing is impossible. Our camp has more than 113,000 people living in an area that covers a bit more than half a square kilometre.

Already 17 people tested positive in Gaza. The local authorities and international organizations have warned of an impending catastrophe.

I can feel my parents’ worries, especially my mother, who is still working in the UNRWA clinic. She takes a big risk every time she goes to work, where she sees dozens of people every day. Gaza’s healthcare system has been damaged by years of a suffocating siege imposed by Israel and Egypt on the strip and by multiple destructive wars waged by the Israeli military against my people. It is extremely vulnerable and a major coronavirus outbreak would spell disaster.

Unlike Germany, where the government is already relaxing lockdown measures and talking about a return to “normal” at some point in the future, in Gaza, my people are preparing for the worst. The death and suffering this epidemic could inflict on Palestinians will be yet another entry in the long list of war crimes the Israelis have committed against us and it will weigh heavily on the conscience of the international community which has abandoned us.

These days I keep asking myself: Has the world forgotten us, having accepted our life in inhumane conditions? Or will it do something this time to hold Israel accountable?

Majed Abusalama is an award winning journalist, scholar, campaigner and human rights defender from Palestine