'Our unwavering determination to return one day': Displaced Palestinians keep hold of keys to Gaza homes like their Nakba ancestors

5 min read
01 May, 2024

The significant act of holding on to the keys of their homes has become a powerful testament to the resilience of Palestinians in Gaza amid Israel's brutal war. 

Throughout Palestinian culture, art, and activism, the key of return is prominently featured as a symbol of resistance and a reminder of the ongoing quest for justice and peace.

It is also a testament to the enduring connection with their homeland, regardless of geographic distance or political circumstances.

“These keys, passed down through generations, represent not just physical properties, but also the cherished memories, identities, and aspirations of displaced families,” Dr Hisham Ahmed, a Palestinian anthropologist at Michigan State University specialising in peace and conflict studies told The New Arab.

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According to Dr Ahmed, “the key of return" holds profound significance in the Palestinian narrative and symbolises the longing for the right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants displaced during the Nakba —  the mass violent exodus of at least 750,000 people from Palestine in 1948. 

Now, history is repeating itself, as a staggering 85% of the total population of Gaza — 1.9 million civilians — have been forcibly displaced amid Israel’s war since October 2023. It is uncertain if they will ever be allowed to return.

And so, the current act of Gazans keeping hold of the keys to their houses serves as a tangible link to the past, evoking memories of lost homes and shattered communities displaced during the 1948 Nakba, many of whom still hold their keys in their possession. 

Hope of return 

Before Bou Adnan and Um Adnan were displaced from the South of Gaza to a Rafah refugee camp with their four children. The family insisted on taking the keys to their home with them.

"We must hold onto our hope and our dignity, these keys are not just for our house; they symbolise our unwavering determination to return one day, to rebuild and reclaim what is rightfully ours,” Um Ahmad told The New Arab.

"The key is our symbol of resistance against occupation and oppression with the hope that one day we will reclaim the rightful of return to our places"

Amid the devastation of the war, the key of return represents a collective aspiration for a just and lasting resolution, one that recognises the rights and dignity of all Palestinians, including those living in Gaza.

“The key is our symbol of resistance against occupation and oppression with the hope that one day we will reclaim the rightful of return to our places,” said Bou Ahmad.

For Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the simple act of holding onto their home keys goes beyond material possession as it connotes a connection to their lost homeland since their displacement.

These keys to the homes passed down through generations, carry the weight of memories, longing, and resilience.

“My mother would often recount tales of her childhood spent playing in the courtyard, of the fig trees in her family's garden, and of the warmth of family gatherings that filled every corner of the house, of the Palestinian neighbours, food, weddings and traditions,” Said Mahmoud Hammami, a 56-year-old Palestinian refugee who lives in Lebanon’s Burj Brajneh camp.

“She tells us we are too young to remember the home we had never known, but we always listened to her stories, with our eyes alight with curiosity,” Said recounted.

To them, the keys represent not only the promise of a physical home but also the hope for a return to their homeland.

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In the face of adversity and the passage of time, these keys serve as silent testaments to the determination of the Palestinian people to preserve their identity and heritage, even in the most challenging circumstances.

“The keys represented the hopes and dreams of past generations, the struggles and sacrifices that had shaped my family's journey through displacement and diaspora,” Said added.

Despite the hardships they’re facing, the scarcity of food, the fear of airstrikes and the uncertainty of tomorrow, some families in Gaza are still holding onto their home keys with the belief in the right of return, where they reclaim their homes and rebuild their lives.

“For those individuals, their home keys are not just simple metal objects, they show the strength of a population who dared to believe that amidst the chaos of war, the promise of home would always endure and for Palestinians who were displaced in the past, the keys are a reminder of where they came from,” said Sarah Al Omari, a Jordanian researcher and expert on Palestinian refugees who has extensively studied the issue of the right of return for Palestinian refugees.

There are institutions, museums, and cultural centres in various locations, including Lebanon, that have showcased or highlighted artefacts symbolising the Palestinian experience, including keys symbolising the Nakba.

The Memories Museum is located in a hidden alleyway in Beirut's Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. It is home to several hundred objects brought by the Palestinian refugees in 1948, which were later donated to the museum's originator, Muhammad al-Khatib.

The museum contains ancient clay cookware, decorative jewellery boxes, quaint wooden combs designed with caricatures from antiquated times, muddied wheat cutters once owned by Palestinian farmers, and a dozen ruined keys meant for dilapidated Palestinian homes.

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“The Memories Museum plays a vital role in preserving Palestinian heritage, it is proof that this is our land and we were once there,” said Sarah.

In the Occupied West Bank, giant keys can be seen in various locations as a symbol of displacement for refugees there.

This artistic expression serves as a visual reminder of the Palestinian narrative of displacement and dispossession, particularly in areas where Palestinians are confronted with physical barriers such as the Israeli West Bank barrier often referred to as the "separation wall" or the "apartheid wall, according to Sarah.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London covering Lebanon

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462