Waves of yearning: A Palestinian’s tale of dreams and the stolen sea
Photo courtesy of Abo Sam

As I return to memories of my school days, particularly during geography class, I remember a particular session focused on the geography of Palestine and its surrounding borders. It was illustrated on a map as follows:

– Palestine is bordered to the north by Lebanon and Syria.

– To the west, it is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea.

– To the south, Egypt and Aqaba.

– To the east, it shares borders with Jordan.

An Israeli border police officer directs Palestinians to a designated security checkpoint in order to be allowed to cross from the West Bank into Jerusalem at the Qalandia Israeli army checkpoint, near Ramallah, March 31, 2023. | Nasser Nasser / AP

Yes, this was the content of the textbook in school when I was 11. When I saw that there was a vast sea to the west of Palestine, my imagination began weaving beautiful dreams and thoughts of visiting the sea, playing on the beach, and swimming in its waters.

Even at that young age, I understood that there was an Israeli occupation, and this occupation claimed a significant portion of Palestine. However, as a child, I reassured myself, thinking, “The sea is vast, too vast. I don’t believe the occupier can take all of this sea and leave us with nothing!”

As I grew older, I realized that these were just dreams. The occupation had indeed seized the entire sea, but not only that, homes and lands as well. It dug its claws deep, uprooting the foundations of beautiful memories passed down through generations. The beautiful beach—surely a promenade for lovers, a sanctuary to lament and ease pain, a place where children’s laughter shaped the sands—was something we could never experience.

Perhaps those who do not live in Palestine do not fully understand the struggles Palestinians face simply in getting from one place to another. While it’s possible to travel between cities in the West Bank, predicting what one might encounter on the journey is impossible. Roads are filled with settlements, and Israeli checkpoints can halt travel for hours.

If a Palestinian wishes to visit a city in what the occupier says is now “Israel” but which was originally a Palestinian city, it is not an easy task. They must apply for a permit, similar to a visa, from the Israelis. There is a high chance of rejection, but if by chance it is approved, it’s often valid for just one day.

Imagine that as a Palestinian—I must seek permission from the occupier to visit my own country and homeland!

A woman in a wheelchair is ‘inspected’ by Israeli border police at a security checkpoint on her way from the West Bank into Jerusalem for Ramadan prayers at the Qalandia Israeli army checkpoint, near Ramallah, March 31, 2023. | Nasser Nasser / AP

Several years ago, Israel “allowed” Palestinians to visit some cities in Israel and to go to Jerusalem. However, passing through checkpoints and enduring humiliating inspections would be a required part of the journey.

Regardless, the decision was happy news for many Palestinians. They rejoiced and embarked on the trip, tolerating the challenging checkpoints. Their sole aim was to reach the sea and enjoy its waters—something many had not done in years. For others, they’d never been, never seen the sea which was so physically close yet, thanks to the occupation, so far away.

There were “crossing points or openings” that were unofficial, and I am sure the Israelis were aware of them. Some Palestinians used these “openings” to sneak into Israeli territories to bypass the humiliation and the threat of rejection. Everything usually went smoothly and peacefully for those who used them, unless of course they were caught by the Israelis.

One day, a friend persuaded me to go through one of these “openings.” The idea revived my childhood imagination. A childish smile adorned my face, and my heart raced with excitement. With a voice mingling with a sob, I said to my friend, “Can I go to Jerusalem, and can we go to the sea?” A tear rolled down my eye—a tear of longing, joy, and excitement.

However, there was a heartache in me. Why should I have to sneak into Jerusalem to pray? Why should I have to hide simply in order to get a glimpse of the sea? Why this humiliation and suffering? Nevertheless, despite all that, I was convinced, and I went with my friends.

When we reached one of these “openings” and crossed into the other side, “Israel,” the shock set in immediately. I instantly recalled Alice in Wonderland when she fell down the rabbit hole and found herself in a completely different world.

Yes, that’s what happened. I crossed through this “opening” and was surprised by how different the streets, buildings, and views were.

In an August 2009 photo, Israeli men enjoy a segregated section of the beach in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv. | Ariel Schalit / AP

We stopped to catch a bus, only to find that, unfortunately, reaching Jerusalem was not possible. Still, we could get to the town of Herzliya north of Tel Aviv, and I was excited because it was by the seaside. I imagined myself walking and reading a book at the beach.

The enthusiasm and joy were beyond description. We arrived at the beach and standing there, feeling the sand beneath my feet, the sea’s water striking them, filled me with joy. I closed my eyes, speaking to my 11-year-old self, telling him to keep those dreams he had because he would someday see the sea.

However, voices suddenly rose, overpowering the tranquility I cherished. I opened my eyes, and despite knowing that this area was under Israeli control, I did not expect it to be this challenging.

Wherever I looked, I saw Israeli families enjoying a beach trip or a group of friends playing together. Children were practicing surfing, and everyone was speaking Hebrew; they were all Israelis.

The whole world seemed to twist around me, and a thousand questions swirled in my head, accompanied by a deep sense of regret and disappointment. What’s happening here? I can’t comprehend it! Why are they happy like this? How can they find such joy on a land they stole from us?

I just sat with no energy, helpless and shocked. I refused to engage in anything, even as my friends enjoyed their time swimming. They asked me to join them, but I simply nodded my head, expressing my unwillingness to do anything.

The view of the Mediterranean Sea and the beach in Herzliya. | Ariel Schalit / AP

I wanted to return home immediately. I didn’t want to stay in this place. I was exhausted; I don’t know how I gathered my strength.

The few hours we spent there felt like years. I felt like a prisoner, experiencing fear, anger, sorrow, and sadness; so many emotions overwhelmed me at that moment. However, I was sure of one thing: I was not happy.

When I returned home, I cried. I couldn’t stop. It was the worst day of my life, one of the worst experiences I ever had.

After that day, I decided I would not go to that part of the country again until Palestine is free. Only then would I return, taking my children to play on the beach and walking with my wife on the shores. Sitting together, we will hold hands and gaze at the sunset in the liberated Palestinian sky, watching the sun as it gracefully descends into the expanse of the free Palestinian sea.

In the end, these aren’t merely aspirations; they are the steadfast convictions of a Palestinian yearning for the day when the stolen sea and skies are finally free. This narrative is a testament to resilience. It is a pledge that one day, the sun will set over a liberated Palestinian horizon, casting its golden hues upon a sea that rightfully belongs to its people.

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Abo Sam
Abo Sam

Abo Sam is the pen name of a People's World's correspondent who reports from inside Occupied Palestine, in the West Bank.