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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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BATTLE FOR MMADIKOLO

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University of Botswana students are bracing themselves for the Student Representative Council (SRC) elections. Contenders are fighting tooth and nail to appease the electorate. Three camps are in contention to fill the 13 council positions.

Umbrella for Democratic Change’s (UDC) Moono-wa-Baithuti has the onerous task of defending all the 13 seats which they hauled at the last elections of 2018. “As Moono wa Baithuti, we have lots of achievements. We are on the verge of getting the student bar open, so we need to go back and fix what we started,” said UDC’s Tumelo Legase who is vying for the position of Vice President.

He said they have advocated for student empowerment policies and are also proposing a third arm of student representation. “We have the SRC and the Judiciary, what we need is the student Parliament so that we have a large number of leaders who can independently attend to problems across the university.” The dark horse in this race is the University of Botswana’s Alliance for Progressive (AP) which will take another leap of faith despite their loss in the previous election.

They are rejuvenated and redefined. Candidate for Vice President Karabo Bokwe said central to their mandate is making the welfare of the student community a priority. “We want to help eradicate school policies that border on oppression, and through new polices call for initiatives that come with enterprenuership benefits to students.”

AP candidate for Information and Publicity, a first year Criminal Justice student Gracious Selelo said they are more united than other parties even at national level. “We don’t have internal squabbles within our party, we are more focused and can deliver our mandate easily,” she noted.

However the ruling party’s BDP GS-26 will come with all guns blazing after an embarrassing defeat in the previous elections. Preparations have been made and the GS-26 is looking to take the elections by storm.

According to their Presidential Candidate Boniface Seane, they come with the message of hope that addresses the current status quo at the University.“The university is not functioning so we drew three policies that embrace inclusiveness. We want to lead collectively with the students, through the student body meetings which the previous SRCs have failed to do. “We will consult with the students with no discrimination.”

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Healthcare system to improve

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The Health ministry has developed a seven-point programme to guide the country in improving the healthcare system, says Minister of Health and Wellness, Dr Alfred Rabashemi Madigele.

“The seven priority areas will serve as a roadmap and a guardian angel towards improving the overall healthcare system and increasing access to health care while fighting the burden of disease that confronts us,” said Madigele at Masa Square Hotel on Tuesday.

The focal areas include decentralisation; Universal Health Coverage, Tertiary Care, Strategic leveraging on the Private sector; Supply Chain; Research as well as Staff welfare and accountability.
Point-one of the seven priority areas according to Dr Madigele is about empowering the District Health Management Teams (DHMTs) and transforming them into fully fledged Regional Health Authorities.

“In this case, they will be rationalised from 27 to 18 and have the authority to hire A and B Scales, promote up to C1 and manage micro procurement,” he said. Point two is about improving the quality of healthcare services. “The main causes of mortality and their risk factors in Botswana are Primary Health Care issues,” Dr Madigele said.

He added that “Our efforts for the attainment of Universal Health Coverage should thus focus on: Prevention; Comprehensive screening; Early treatment; and Surveillance at the community.”
This he said, would require revamped grassroots efforts in which adequate numbers of community health workers through partnerships with the non-governmental sector will be deployed as necessary.

According to Dr Madigele, the top five causes of death in Botswana in 2017 were HIV/AIDS, Ischemic heart disease, stroke, lower respiratory infections and Diabetes. He said compared to 2007, NCDs among these had increased in burden by an average of 34%. The top five risk factors related to these causes of mortality were unsafe sex; poor diet; high blood pressure; alcohol abuse and tobacco use.

Improving the quality of care, Madigele said will also include the safety and security of patients; attitudes of staff as experienced by patients; time taken in queues either before seeing a health worker or receiving medication and the availability of drugs.

Meanwhile, the health minister revealed that the commissioning of Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital (SKMTH) is ongoing with the facility scheduled for opening on April 24th. “This will be a phased approach commencing with some services including paediatric oncology, internal medicine, rheumatology and endocrinology, diagnostic radiology, laboratory services and pharmacy”.

A phased commissioning of SKMTH will reduce overdependence on South Africa for referrals, reduce costs and also institutionalise provision of super specialist services within Botswana.

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