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“We want to return to our land”

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Umm Omar was eight years old when Irgun and Stern Gang terrorists violently expelled her family from their farm in the village of Jusayr in May 1948 during the creation of Israel.

This week, she, along with millions of Palestinians, are marking 70 years since 750 000 indigenous Palestinians were driven from their land to make way for the creation of Israel. For Palestinians, this is the Nakba (catastrophe); for Israelis, it is 70 years of independence. “We used to grow wheat. I remember going out with my parents in the wheat fields when I was a little girl. We never saw another happy day after we left,” says the 78-year old great-grandmother. The family then fled to al-Majdal, a Palestinian town that is now the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

As Zionist terrorists continued to ethnically cleanse Palestinians, the family was forced to move to the Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip. Her father returned to Jusayr to check on their land. “He saw that everything was OK. It was just like we left it.” But on the way back, Umm Omar’s father was killed when he stepped on a landmine planted by Zionist militias.

Denied the right to return to their original villages, the refugee camp in Gaza became permanent for Umm Omar and thousands of others. Today, seventy percent of Gaza’s population are refugees, meaning they or their parents or grandparents fled or were expelled from areas that became Israel – without their permission.

They have never been allowed to return, despite United Nations Security Council Resolution 194 guaranteeing them the right to return to their homes. Not surprisingly, the movement to return home has started in the besieged Gaza Strip. Known as the Great Return March (GRM), thousands of Palestinians have engaged in protests at the Israel-Gaza border fence since March 30. Makeshift tents, symbolising the right of return for Palestinian refugees, have been erected 700 metres away from the unilaterally-imposed Israeli military buffer zone.

Protesters are also calling for an end to the decade-long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip that has strangled the economy and life of Palestinians. Since the protests began, 50 Palestinians have been killed and over 5000 injured from Israeli live ammunition and tear gas.

There have been no Israeli casualties. “With the Great Return March, Palestinians are demanding a life of dignity,” explains GRM spokesperson, Ahmad Abu Rtemah. “Nothing about life in Gaza is normal. The Nakba is not just a memory, it is an ongoing reality. We accept that we all must eventually die. But in Gaza, the tragedy is that we don’t even get to live,” says Abu Rtemah. It’s not just Palestinians in Gaza that long to return to their land. Abu Arab was thirteen years old when Zionist forces bombed his family’s home in Saffuriya in July 1948.

He is now an Israeli citizen, but cannot return to his village located less than two kilometres from Nazareth where he currently lives. As Israeli troops occupied the village, the family was forced northwards towards Lebanon, eventually ending up in a refugee camp there. His father made the dangerous journey back and found the village gone. Saffuriya had been fenced off and declared a closed military zone. Anyone entering risked being shot by Zionist terror groups. “We had nothing. Everything had been taken from us,” he says. The family hid in a friend’s house in the nearby town of Nazareth, and eventually settled there. Israel has built an exclusively Jewish community over the village of Saffuriya, and given it the Hebrew name of Tzipori.

Where the houses once stood is a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) – an environmentally-friendly way of erasing the Palestinian presence there. The Israeli government refuses to allow Palestinian refugees to return home simply because they are not Jewish. Palestinians are viewed as a “demographic threat” to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. This is why Israel has not allowed Palestinians to return to their own homes, and they continue to be forgotten in refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. While Palestinians are a threat, Jewish identity is celebrated and welcomed in Israel.

For instance, a South African Jew, who has never lived in Israel, can automatically gain citizenship under Israel’s Law of Return, while a Palestinian refugee whose family lived in Palestine for generations – and who still hold the key to their home – is unlikely to obtain even a visitors’ visa, let alone the right to return there to live. “We’re not calling for removing anybody from existence or displacing anybody from their place, we’re simply calling for justice. Our weapons are our rights and UN resolution 194, and we’re hoping that the international community will recognise our just cause,” explains Abu Rtemah. “I still hope that I’ll die in my home town.

I may be using a walker to move around today. But if they told me I can go back to Jusayr, I’d run all the way,” Umm Omar says animatedly. Abu Arab is equally determined. “I am sure one day I will return. If not me, then my son – and if not my son, then my grandson,” he says. Like Umm Omar and Abu Arab, the makeshift tents of the Great Return March are standing firm against an Israeli regime that has tried to break the spirit and erase the presence of Palestinians. Seven decades after the Nakba, Palestinians want nothing more than to return to their land and live in dignity. Suraya Dadoo is a researcher with Media Review Network in Johannesburg. Find her on Twitter: @Suraya_Dadoo

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Three months more

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INTERCHANGE WORKS: Work at the Boatle Interchange continues as the entire project nears completion set for April

Following numerous postponements, the dual carriageway between Game City in Gaborone and Boatle near Ramotswa will be opened for full use in April this year. Currently motorists are using the newly-constructed half of the four-lane stretch as work on rehabilitating and reconstructing the old side that will form the western carriageway continues.

Construction of the eastern plane of the Boatle interchange and bridges at Tloane and Metsimaswaane rivers has been completed and the entire eastern carriageway from Gaborone to Boatle is open for traffic.

The department of transport recently released a media statement confirming that completion of the road was at 77 percent and that the hope is that it will be fully completed by April 2019.
This will come as music to the ears of travellers who have been frustrated by the seemingly endless construction on the road and the slow movement of traffic particularly during peak hours just before and after working hours. The department has however cautioned that drivers should still remain vigilant, drive carefully and obey road signs.

Meanwhile, some motorists have complained that construction of the road has taken too long and that there is little order on the road. “These people are way behind schedule and we can’t see what they are doing. Also, there is no order on the road. Once you get to the side of Mokolodi, traffic comes to a complete standstill. They should try and push work at slow hours and not at peak hour,” said Mmoloki Obuditswe, who commutes between Lobatse and Gaborone daily.

He however expressed hope that traffic would ease near the Boatle junction as cars headed to Ramotswa would break off easily without delaying those headed for Lobatse. “The cars going to Ramotswa used to cause a headache because they are so many and the road was thin and in a bad state,” he said.

Another motorist, Kutlwano Seemo noted that while the opening of the road was a welcome development that shows progress, it would have been great if the dual carriageway went all the way to Lobatse.

“They should have fixed the whole A1 road and not a brief stretch. This road is terrible and it continues to claim many lives. Traffic has increased so we need wider and more sophisticated roads. I hope government prioritises investing in road infrastructure because we honestly don’t have good roads. Maybe this Boatle road will be a start.”

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U=U campaign packaging a headache for BHP, Ministry

Rachel Raditsebe

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TRICKY AFFAIR: Dr Joseph Makhema is still cautious on the matter of declaring the Undetectable to be Untransmittable

While there is no denying the proven science that an HIV positive person whose HIV viral load cannot be detected cannot transmit it to an HIV negative person, it is how that message is packaged and delivered to the public that is proving to be a difficulty.

This is according to the Chief Executive Officer of the Botswana Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership (BHP) Dr Joseph Makhema.Internationally, the Undetectable equals Untransmittable (U=U) campaign, has gained ground as scientific consensus has united around the concept that being undetectable means being unable to transmit HIV. The campaign has been endorsed by more than 350 HIV organisations from 34 countries, including leading scientific and medical organisations such as the International AIDS Society (IAS), UNAIDS, and the British HIV Association (BHIVA).

By taking HIV treatment consistently and on time, the HIV virus in the blood (also known as viral load) and other bodily fluids gets to undetectable levels. The drugs work by controlling the replication of HIV in the body by reducing the virus’ ability to make copies of itself.

“The drugs slow down the damage that the virus does to the immune system and allow people to live long, productive lives like everyone else without succumbing to the disease. These drugs are tremendously valuable in giving an excellent quality of life and preventing HIV transmission. There is absolutely no doubt that HIV treatment has revolutionised AIDS,” Dr Makhema explained.

However, he said for now BHP and the Health Ministry are still looking at the context and messaging of U=U and how to package it for the public. This, he explained is because, there are situations whether of illness, for example if someone has flu, they can get an exacerbation of viral rebound.

Or somebody gets a gastro intestinal disorder and they have diarrhoea or vomiting, they cannot keep the medication in their system. This would mean they are not fully able to keep the virus fully supressed and they can rebound.

“So we really don’t know at this point in time, we really need to have research done so that we are able to know how we are going to package and share the U=U messaging with the general public,” stated Dr Makhema.

According to Dr Makhema, the only time he would ever give anyone the go ahead to have unprotected sex is only if there was a test where before each sexual act, a person can check their viral load.
Until then he insists on condom use even with the other HIV prevention tools currently available like Safe Male Circumcision and more recently, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP).

“While we have got the tools to not only end the fear of HIV, but to end it as an epidemic, it’s important how we package that information so that our people really understand how they work,” Dr Makhema said.

Citing the condom as an example, Dr Makhema said that new infections are still high even though condoms are cheap, readily available and have been proven to be over 99 percent effective if used correctly at not only preventing HIV infection but also other sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.

Overall, Dr Makhema said there was need for clear guidance on how individuals should be advised on using “treatment as prevention” as a safer sex option and this should be combined with renewed efforts to encourage condom use.

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