By Kathleen McQuillen, Iowa Program Coordinator 

Nakba (catastrophe) Day is observed by Palestinians around the world as a day of grief in remembrance of the forced displacement of 750,000 Palestinians as the Jewish state of Israel was created on Palestinian land. In Des Moines, AFSC organized an event on May 15 providing a forum for Palestinian-Americans to share their history and hopes for the future.

The Israeli Knesset passed a law in March creating financial sanctions for any government-supported institutions that observe this day. Israeli efforts to create a law criminalizing Nakba observance had previously failed. The March law is seen as a softer version previous attempts to prevent the passing on of memories and deny history. One Israel columnist noted, Trying to legislate history out of existence means losing touch with reality. Part of that reality is the true grieving that Palestinians experience even today. Though one apologist had said of the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing, “the old people will die and the young will forget,” reality has proven that wrong.

Demonstrations and marches throughout the West Bank, Gaza, and at Israel’s borders with Jordan and Lebanon demonstrate that people have not forgotten, and feelings and memories cannot be legislated away. While the world demands “nonviolence” from the occupied and displaced Palestinians, it stands quiet in the wake of Israeli tear gas and rifle shells that left at least 14 Palestinians dead and 80 wounded.

In Des Moines, the lie that the “young will forget” was laid bare in the person of Fayiz Abusharkh. Now no longer young, Fayiz remembers well. “I am,” Fayiz said, “the son of Palestine, where I lived on its land and ate from its goods.” He remembers being 13 years old when in 1948 “the Israeli air strikes began at 7 in the morning… The smell of death started spreading in my own town and the graves were filling with corpses.” The family left for Gaza City – believing they’d return soon. Fayiz recalls his losses – the playground, the beach, his bicycle but mostly his white donkey—“I loved my donkey.” In making way for the state of Israel, Fayiz remembers with some emotion, “They stole not only the land but also my childhood.”

Fayiz and his family became refugees again after the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip began in the wake of the six-day war in 1967. Fleeing to Kuwait, Fayiz again became a refugee and has never been allowed to revisit the land, the home of his childhood.

The memories are painful and his grief at the world’s indifference is palpable. “Why,” Fayiz asks, “is justice frozen when it comes to the rights of Palestinian people? Why do those with power overlook a whole nation?” Still he looks to the future with a hope. Noting the planned UN vote to recognize Palestinian statehood, he asserts, “This is a historical chance that will promise Palestine in September of 2011 a worldly recognition of a free Palestinian nation…” Continuing without a trace of bitterness, Fayiz goes on to say such “a historic step” offers the best hope for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to live together in peace.