'So close but unable to return': Ambassador Husam Zomlot reflects on growing up in a Gaza refugee camp

'So close but unable to return': Ambassador Husam Zomlot reflects on growing up in a Gaza refugee camp
Palestinian ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot was born in a refugee camp in Gaza in 1973 – the cruel consequence of a Nakba he wasn't alive to see.
3 min read
14 May, 2023
Husam Zomlot (pictured) was born 25 years after his father's village, Simsim, was ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba [Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty]

"As a child, it hits me that it took us only 45 minutes to drive back to our home," says Husam Zomlot, 49, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK.

Tragically, this trip to his father's village of Simsim would only be a visit. Husam was born in a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973 – the cruel consequence of an expulsion he wasn't alive to see.

"I was asking questions at the time: 'Why shouldn't we stay?', 'Why shouldn't we rebuild?', 'Why shouldn't we return?'" he tells The New Arab.

"That really shapes who you are. The level of injustice. Not only driving you out of your homes. Not only replacing you with newcomers.

"Not only creating such a culture of racism and denialism but actually making you so close to your own home but unable to return. That is exactly the grave injustice that I have experienced as a child."

Like many other towns and villages, Simsim was depopulated during the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of more than 750,000 Palestinians with the state of Israel's establishment.

Nakba means "catastrophe" in Arabic, an appropriately emotive term given the massacres, rapes, home demolitions and expulsions that took place.

Simsim's lands are located in modern-day Israel. Husam's father took him there soon after buying his first car – in the days when travel from Gaza, now heavily restricted, was much easier.

"My grandfather and father wanted to show me my original home," Husam says ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Nakba on Monday.

"That was the first trip [back] for my grandfather. He couldn't locate his home because… the whole village, like more than 500 villages and towns, was completely destroyed.

"He identified his home by a tree that was just outside… a fig tree, to be precise."

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To this day, millions of Palestinian refugees, including the descendants of those forced out, long to realise their right of return.

Husam, too, still has the same questions he had as a child – why shouldn't he stay, rebuild, and return?

"That's why the journey should really be towards redress of what happened in 1947–49: the Nakba," the diplomat says.

This year – for the first time – the United Nations will on Monday mark Nakba Day, the anniversary of the ethnic cleansing visited upon the Palestinian people three-quarters of a century ago.

"That's a major step in the right direction," Husam says.

But many argue the Nakba never stopped. In 1967, around 400,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed in the Naksa, meaning "setback" in Arabic, which came with the Third Arab-Israeli War.

Today, Palestinians are threatened with expulsion from the Masafer Yatta area of the occupied West Bank.

They're at risk of being killed by Israeli bombs dropped on Gaza and raids on the cities of Jenin and Nablus.

The Nakba can be seen in the "aggression on our holy places, everywhere", Husam says – from Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in occupied East Jerusalem to Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque.

"It is continuing in every sense, and the biggest example of this continuation is the illegal colonial settlement expansion," he adds, mere months after it was reported settlers now number over 500,000 in the West Bank.

"What began 75 years ago is still ongoing until now and still unresolved… and that's why we call it an ongoing Nakba."

The catastrophe continues.