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My Father was a Freedom FighterA life in Gaza

Review by Peter Arkell

Mohammed Baroud was only ten when his family, in panic and despair, took the decision in 1948 to flee their home in the village of Beit Daras, near Hebron, in Palestine.

His son Ramzy Baroud remembers from his parent’s stories how the family, who had lived in Beit Daras for generations, packed up a few belongings – a sharpened kitchen knife for defence, the deeds to the house and land, and some food – and set off with their donkey on the dangerous journey south.

They had little option. The villagers had resisted bravely, dying in their hundreds in the fighting and the subsequent massacres, but they were no match for the trained militias. Their fields were burnt, houses blown up and the mosque razed with dynamite by the Israeli conquistadores.

The family had at first refused to leave. It was spring: “With apricots, almonds, oranges and lemons in full bloom, the perfume carried itself on the wind for miles”. But President Truman had wasted no time in formally recognising the state of Israel, while the British scrambled out of the country altogether, encouraging the Zionist forces at the same time. Egypt and some other Arab countries intervened far too late and with too few forces to make much difference. What was happening in Beit Daras was happening in hundreds of other villages throughout Palestine. World imperialism, now led by the US, needed a foothold in the Middle East.

The family, together with 200,000 others, fetched up in refugee camps in Gaza, a tiny strip of land about 1% of Palestine’s territory. When Mohammed “removed a dirtied blanket that served as a door to his family’s tent, the world outside was entirely different from what he once called home. There was little promise here, no lush farms in the distance, and no green meadows to serve as play-grounds. Instead an awesome and terrifying sight greeted him; tents scattered as far as the eye could see, and thousands of new anxious faces, neighbours he had never met, and a whole new reality with which he was hardly familiar. He was overwhelmed with fear and indecision...”. This new nightmare for Mohammed was to be his “true, everlasting reality... the age of the Gaza Strip.”

The camps, tent cities really, were fenced off from the adjoining orchards, fields and gardens. To enter this forbidden zone, full of fruit that would have made such a difference to the half-starving inhabitants, was to risk being shot by snipers who lay in wait for those who “dared to violate the new reality and break away from the open-air prison called Gaza, now assigned to them”. Many were murdered in this way.

The family, always hungry, had to scratch a living. Mohammed was assigned the job of begging, but he hated it, stubbornly refusing to carry on after a while and running away rather than face the wrath of the family. As a stowaway on a train, he was able to make out the debris of fierce battles in the Sinai desert. When the train stopped, north of the Suez Canal, in Sinai, he legged it, dodging the soldiers, and was fortunate to be taken in by an old sheikh and his wife who welcomed him as a son. He stayed a year. He got the job of reciting and teaching the Koran to the locals. When he returned to his family aged 18, with a confidence born of the fact that he had survived, he found he had earned their respect. They assumed he had perished and had held a funeral for him.

Ramzy Baroud sees the narrative of his father’s life as part of a tumultuous history of Palestine, the expulsion of the people from their lands, the refugee camps, the ever-present murderous threat from Israeli soldiers, the uprisings (intifadas), the divisions within the PLO and then between Fatah and Hamas, the scheming of the great powers and of the Arab powers too, and, of course, the brutal siege of Gaza beginning in 2006 by Israeli forces after Hamas`s election victory.

Mohammed takes on a kind of heroic stature when measured against this unyielding, endless and cruel conspiracy. He is helpless to change it, but rages against it and does what he can to oppose it, and more important still, to understand it. He does not become a hero in the usual sense of the word. Although he joined the Egyptian army for a year, he was not an active guerrilla fighter in Gaza. Naturally, he backed the fighters while trying to look after a wife and family in the most impossible circumstances – no work, no money, no medicines.

He was in the thick of it, but he refused to compromise with the Israeli occupiers and reached out to all who were resisting. In his powerlessness, he often reacted emotionally to his situation. There was no electricity in Gaza for much of the time, but he had managed to get hold of a small black and white TV set, powering it with a giant battery which he had to take to a car repair shop to re-charge every few days:

“Mohammed`s political commentary at the time was reduced to a simple mantra, which he often repeated while watching the news as he slapped one hand against the other: `We are lost. We are completely lost`. I also recall him swear every time he saw Anwar Sadat on the news: `You bastard; you sold out for a standing ovation`. His fits were often accompanied by throwing his worn-out shoes at the TV screen. Only then Zarefah (his wife) would interfere. `Stop, Abu Anwar, stop for goodness sake; will breaking the TV liberate Palestine?`”

He was an agitator, in contact with the mayors of the West Bank cities that were elected to office to the dismay of the Israelis. He called for civil disobedience and a boycott of the occupying forces and all their works, resulting in an interview with Israeli intelligence officers in which his family was threatened. Ramzy explores his father’s reactions to the unending conspiracy against the Palestinian people. His new home in Gaza overlooked the graveyard, a busy place where martyrs were buried, and where he had to bury one of his sons, Anwar, who died aged 2 of a fever, and later also his wife. Anwar was treated with aspirin, the only medicine available, and after his death a grief-stricken Mohammed realises that it was poverty caused by the occupation that had killed him.

On 25 January 2006, Mohammed put on his “finest outfit” to vote for Hamas in the elections, explaining to all who would listen that although he did not see eye-to-eye with the group ideologically, they deserved to lead the Palestinian struggle for freedom. Hamas of course won the election in Gaza fairly and squarely, but Israel and the great powers rejected the election result. Supported by most Arab regimes and by elements within Fatah, they began their boycott campaign to isolate Hamas. Gaza stood alone, as, tragically, did Mohammed. The power plant and the water supply were bombed by Israel so he could no longer use his radio, his fan or his oxygen pump. The supply of fuel was blocked and the pharmacies were empty. He had asthma and needed treatment, but his sons (including the author) could no longer send him money from abroad due to the Israeli blockade.

“There wasn’t a hospital bed to be found in Gaza, for nearly all the hospitals were converted to function as massive emergency wards. His neighbours and friends in Gaza took care of him and desperately tried to persuade the Israelis to grant him a permit to enter the West Bank for treatment, or at least to die in the company of his sons. Alas, it was determined that it was too great a risk for the security and the well-being of the State of Israel; he was sentenced to die at home with no treatment.”

Thousands attended his funeral.

Ramzy Baroud, at the insistence of his family left Palestine for the US as a young man to take up journalism as a career. He is editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com and a frequent guest on TV and radio programs.

This is a fine book, powerful, emotional, and beautifully written. The story of one man, the author’s father, is woven into the history of Palestine, so that they reinforce each other. They are parallel tragedies. The fate of the father is inextricably tied to the fate of the Palestinian people, scattered all over the Arab lands after the Catastrophe of 1948 when they were forced to flee for their lives by the Zionist militias. By the end of the book the reader is left to wonder how such injustice and misery could have happened – and indeed how it can be put right.

1 May 2010

My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s untold story by Ramzy Baroud. Pluto Press. Paperback £13.99

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