On 30 March, 1976, forty-five years ago today, Israeli occupation forces killed six Palestinians as they were protesting against the government’s expropriation of Palestinian land. The events on that day have been remembered ever since as Land Day, and are commemorated annually. The day has come to symbolise the struggle of the Palestinian people for their legitimate rights to their own land, homes and property; indeed, their legitimate right to their homeland.
Palestinians and their supporters around the world commemorate Land Day. In Brazil, where solidarity with the Palestinians is a regular feature of life, whenever Land Day is mentioned, it is synonymous with one person: the Chairman of Santa Catarina Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Khader Othman.
The 82-year-old Palestinian refugee was born in Beit Ur Al-Tahta, Palestine, in 1939. He lived through the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe), when Israel was created in occupied Palestine. In November 1966, he felt obliged to leave his home and seek refuge in Brazil. He was 27 years old.
“I had to leave Palestine because the situation was so bad due to what the Israeli occupation authorities were doing to us every day from 1948 onwards,” he explained. “It was very difficult in Brazil at the beginning, having a new country and a new language and culture to learn. The plan was to make some money and then return to my home in Palestine, but the 1967 Six Day War destroyed that dream.”
Othman’s story is exemplary of the patience of Palestinian refugees, and their success in exile. Neither the trauma of homelessness nor the pain of their loss has broken their spirit.
“We did not have the freedom to travel when we chose to do so or make other such decisions,” he told me. “My friends from Lebanon and Greece could visit their countries whenever they wanted, but as a Palestinian I couldn’t.”
This confirmed his decision to work for Palestine from Brazil. He established a small team in the city of São Paulo, and founded the solidarity committee in Santa Catarina. It was 1997 before he was able to visit Palestine, since when he has been able to visit every year. “I bought a house to sit there, meet people, talk and help each other. I also built a technical school in Palestine and named it after my father, Mahmoud Ahmad Othman.”
Three crucial dates in the Palestinian calendar keep the exiles in Brazil busy: Nakba Day on 15 May; the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on 29 November; and Land Day on 30 March. Othman and his colleagues and friends plan events in various Brazilian cities to keep the Palestinian issue alive among the refugees and raise awareness in the wider community. Such programmes also help to build stronger links between the communities.
This year, Land Day events are online due to the coronavirus restrictions. When I called Othman to interview him, his wife was in a critical condition due to Covid-19. Nevertheless, he was preparing to commemorate Land Day. Along with other activists, Othman helped to launch a book by Ahmad Jaradat, called Hebron, the City of the Impossible. The book tells the story of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron with the history of Palestine and details of the writer’s visit to the city. Other texts have been translated into Portuguese and are also being used at events such as those held on Land Day.
For Palestinians, Land Day presents an opportunity not only to mark a past event, but also to think about the future, and more ways to resist Israel’s occupation, colonisation, and theft of their land.
“I have lived a comfortable life here in Brazil,” said Othman, “but my political, social and cultural connection is still with Palestine.” Such connections remain strong as Palestinians struggle to exercise their legitimate right to return to their homeland.
This is the legal right of all refugees, not just the Palestinians, but Israel has denied them that right for more than 70 years. Moreover, the settler-colonial state makes every effort to erase Palestinian identity and presence in the land.
Khader Othman is undeterred. “The old will die, but the young won’t forget,” he concluded. “And they will be stronger and will continue the struggle.” We will indeed.