|Mohammed al-Saleh’s grandmother, Ghadnana, recalled her story of fleeing Palestine during the Nakba in order to escape the violence, never realising she would not be allowed to return [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
Seventeen-year-old Mohammed al-Saleh grew up in Burj al-Shemali refugee camp in south Lebanon, caring little about politics and more about football and FC Barcelona. However, when it came to Palestine, Mohamed’s 16-year-old cousin, also named Mohammed, described him as saying, “He would always say that Palestinians inside [under Israeli occupation] sacrifice a lot, and we also have to sacrifice.”
His sacrifice came on May 15, Nakba Day.
On that day, hundreds of buses carrying tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon travelled south to the border with Israel to stage a demonstration calling for the right to return. It was that same border that 63 years ago thousands of Palestinians crossed after more than 700,000 fled their homes fearing attacks by Zionist militias. On May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion announced the independence of the Israeli state, causing a snowball effect of violence in the ensuing struggle for self-realisation – Palestinians commemorate May 15 as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, memorialising their dispossession.
The protest was supposed to take place atop a small mountain in the village of Maroun al-Ras over looking the border and northern Israel, but as 42-year-old Mahmoud, a demonstrator from the Wavel camp in eastern Lebanon said during the protest, “there is no acting logically when someone sees his land for the first time.”
Thousands of refugees broke away from the planned protest site and marched down the mountain through minefields left by Israel’s 22-year occupation of south Lebanon and to the border fence where they continued their protest. Some threw stones across the fence at hidden Israeli soldiers well beyond a stone’s throw away.
“We’re going down [to the fence] because this is our land,” said 25-year-old Ibrahim, from one of the unrecognised “gatherings” (similar to refugee camps although with few services provided by the UN or the state) in south Lebanon. “If we want to return and achieve our rights, then this is the only way we can do it.”
Shots rang out from across the fence, and one by one the casualties were carried by other protesters back up the mountain’s steep incline and into ambulances. One of the first was Mohammed al-Saleh, killed by a single bullet to the side of his chest.
‘The weight of Palestine’
Days after the protest, posters reading “The martyr of Palestine and the right of return”, with Mohammed al-Saleh’s picture hung all over the Burj al-Shemali refugee camp.
In the al-Saleh family’s Burj al-Shemali home, Mohammed’s mother, Maryam, sat expressionless surrounded by her friends and family while Samah, her 16-year-old daughter, served coffee and dates to the guests. Maryam would only smile when relatives told anecdotes about Mohammed, whose picture she wore around her neck.
Her husband Samir passed away during heart surgery a year ago, leaving Maryam to take care of the couple’s three children: Mohamed, Samah and seven-year-old Jihad. Now, pictures of Mohammed have joined those of his father on the walls of the family’s home.
The room went quiet when Mohammed’s grandmother, Ghadnana, recalled leaving Palestine at the age of seven during the Nakba. She explained how they lived on a main road where they feared Zionist militias could easily attack, so they came seeking refuge in Lebanon on foot, never imagining they’d be unable to return.
On Nakba Day, younger refugees joked that climbing the hills to reach the protest site must’ve been similar to what their grandparents went through when they came to Palestine. Many young people offered assistance to the elderly, struggling to make the difficult climb.
Mohammed’s cousin, who shared his name, recalled when he reached the top, “When I saw Palestine, I felt I wanted my soul back. [I went down] and threw stones because I wanted to return the people of the camp.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Wael, a close friend of Mohammed who was beside him when he was shot just metres from the fence, explained that it wasn’t planned to protest so close to the border. “Had we known that we’d reach the fence, I would’ve brought a slingshot to shoot marbles because the rocks were too big to go through the fence.”
Mohamed’s uncle, Abu Ali, explained that the youth “aren’t military specialists, they’re just people who love Palestine. There was no plan to cross the border, just pure enthusiasm that drove them.”
Maryam, who also went to the protest that day but in a different bus than Mohamed, described the moment when she heard the news about her son, “I was walking with my younger son at the protest when some boys came up [the mountain] and told me news that Mohammed had been killed. They told me that they think it could be another Mohammed and not my son, I replied, ‘no, it’s my son’.”
Mohammed’s body was taken to a hospital in nearby Bint Jbeil. After hearing the news, Maryam went with a few close relatives to identify the body.
“There were many bodies at the morgue. We walked past each until we reached the last one,” explained one of Maryam’s sisters. “Before his mother could see his face, she saw Mohammed’s socks and was certain it was him. She didn’t cry, she didn’t scream. She’s strong, she carries the weight of Palestine.”
|Maryam al-Saleh, Mohammed’s mother, lost her husband during heart surgery last year and now must cope with losing a son to a bullet at a protest [Matthew Cassel/Al Jazeera]|
A bleak situation
Since the unprecedented protest at the border on May 15, organisers are again calling for similar actions in the coming weeks and months. However, special preparations were made on May 15, and the Lebanese army agreed to remove a chain of checkpoints that otherwise prevent Palestinian refugees in Lebanon from travelling to the south of the country.
After the Nakba Day protest carried on for a number of hours, protesters began chanting to turn the area next to the border into “Tahrir Square” – the iconic epicentre of the Egyptian uprising earlier this year – before the Lebanese army moved in and began firing non-stop in the air, sending protesters running back up the mountain. Palestinians who protested on May 15 are sceptical that the Lebanese army would allow future protests calling for the right of return along Israel’s border.
When 16 young men from Burj al-Shemali, including Mohammed al-Saleh’s friends, wanted to go to Ein al-Helwe and offer condolences to another protester killed on 15 May, they were stopped by Lebanese soldier at the main checkpoint to the camp. Wael described the process as “humiliating” as soldiers forced them to wait for more than an hour and subjected each one to a thorough search before allowing them to enter. Similar checkpoints are in place outside most refugee camps in Lebanon.
In the Burj al-Shemali’s al-Houla association, named after the region in pre-1948 Palestine from where many refugees in the camp originate, assistant director Kamal Msheirfih explained, “the future is bleak for Palestinian refugees because of their lack of rights in Lebanon.”
In Lebanon, Palestinians are prevented from working at more than a dozen professions and are often forced to work illegally and are subject to exploitation. Mohammed had left school at the age of 12 to find work and provide for his family. In recent years, he earned a modest wage painting houses in the camp.
“People are depressed in the camps. They study, and when they graduate they’re not allowed to work. It’s a difficult situation for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.”
With little rights in Lebanon, the desire to go back to Palestine is as strong as ever. Msheirfih explained, “We hold on to the right of return to Palestine and we’re willing to sacrifice for it. Even if it’s the children of our children that return, it would’ve been worth it.”