Return to Gaza
April 30th, 2011

Return to Gaza started in the Christmas of 1992 when Israel expelled 415 Palestinian men from Gaza into the no man’s land of Marj az-Zouhour in South Lebanon. They had been deported there by Israel, accused of being activists for Hamas and the other Islamic organizations born during the first Intifada (1987 to 1993).

In spring 1993, I flew out to Lebanon from Switzerland with Swiss reporter Andreas Dietrich. For almost two weeks, we stayed with these displaced Palestinians in the camp at Marj az-Zouhour. Among the tents, we discovered exiled academics who had started up a regionally recognized university, a prominent import-export businessman turned grocer, a doctor and fertility researcher, a lawyer and an imam.

At the end of 1993, some of the deported men returned home. The rest followed in the summer of 1994. It was a historical point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s triumphantly returned to Palestine to head the new Palestinian self-rule authority in July 1994, Israel had for the first time accepted the return of expelled Palestinians.

In 1995, Andreas and I travelled to Gaza to cover the second part of these men’s story: their return to Gaza.

Seven days in Gaza showed us that Hamas was an important voice to be heard, one that would soon become a force to be reckoned with. In our reporting, as well as the book and exhibition that followed, we reflected this.

We invited the world to listen to Hamas, to consider a different point of view from the one presented by the PLO of Yasser Arafat.

It was a difficult project, both because of dealing with Islamist militants and being accused of defending terrorists in Europe and USA, but 11 years later, our prediction finally came true. Nowadays, some of the activists who returned to Gaza from Marj az-Zouhour have become important figures in Hamas.

Fadlalah Abu Taylakh, in charge of security at the camp in Marj az-Zouhour and whom I photographed with his daughter after he returned to Gaza, is now head of the police in Gaza. Mahmoud al-Zahar, then spokesperson for the Marj az-Zouhour exiles to the media, is now Minister of the Interior. Khaled Mash’al, another one of the exiles who was the exiles link to Syria and Hizbollah, never returned and is now Hamas representative in Damascus. Ismail Haniyeh, still a young doctor at the time of his exile, is now Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip.

Besides telling a story of exile and return, one that touches on the destiny the Palestinian people, Return to Gaza also witnesses the beginnings of this rise to power.

Samer Mohdad


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