in Motion

Umm Marwan al-Assar:
Rise of the Fellahin

Umm Marwan — A Nakba survivor and mother of a martyr, Tamam Nassar led a women's movement in Gaza's Nuseirat refugee camp.


According to Palestinian tradition, parents are given titles after the names of their first-born sons.

So, while she was long known by her birth name, Tamam Nassar suddenly became Umm Marwan when her son, Marwan, entered the world (Umm Marwan means "mother of Marwan," in Arabic).

A few years later, her second child, Kamal, arrived, and the family's love was plentiful when a third son, Jamal, came next. Each child was born in the same refugee camp in Gaza that Nassar and her husband, Mahmoud, called home: Nuseirat, in the central part of the coastal territory.

Q:What does it mean that Gaza is under siege?

Read the answer

A: Both Egypt in the south and Israel in the north a control the movement of people and goods in and out of Gaza. As a result, the strip has been under an economic and human blockade since June 2006. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

While a baby boy typically brought prestige to Palestinian families, especially those in the Palestinian peasant class, known as the fellahin, Tamam always dreamed of having daughters. She knew that desire was likely tied to the hole her mother Hamda's death left in her life long ago, and an unfulfilled longing to have sisters of her own.

Tamam prayed for girls, and God soon granted her wishes: she gave birth to three girls next - Iman, Asmahan, and Manal. The babies were each born one year apart, and Tamam finally had all she dreamed of.


Tamam's memory of Joulis, the Palestinian village where she was born and raised until her fifth birthday, is hazy at best.

When she was born, the British had already been the colonising power in Palestine for decades, and the few memories she can recall involve chasing after British military convoys to beg soldiers for candy.

On one such occasion, as she returned to her family's mudbrick home with an entire chocolate bar in her hand and a triumphant smile on her face, her older brother, Salim, snatched her prize and claimed it as his own - a childhood cruelty only older brothers can inflict.

Had it not been for Ismail, the eldest of the three siblings, Salim would have devoured the treat in the blink of an eye.


in Motion

Read Ahmad's story

Ahmad al-Haaj comes from a long line of Palestinian peasants, forced from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948.

The children's father, Yousef, spent most of his days labouring on the family's land or offering to work for other local landowners when his small plot grew depleted of the mainly wheat and barley crops it grew, year after year.

Their mother, Hamda, never shied away from shouldering some of her husband's gruelling work, while also taking care of the children, and doing every other household task.

Back then, the young Tamam did not remember encountering any Jewish neighbours.

Q:How many Jews lived in Mandate Palestine by 1948?

Read the answer

A: By the 1948 war and the expulsion of most of the Palestinian Arab population from Palestine, Jews made up about one-third of the population in Mandate Palestine. This was largely due to massive immigration of Jews from Europe. By comparison, in 1922, a British census showed that Jews represented only about 11 percent of the population.
Source: Jeremy R. Hammond. Foreign Policy Journal.

But perhaps she did, since Jews and Arabs in Palestine were largely indistinguishable - and in any case, she could not tell the difference between them, nor did she care to. People are just people, she thought. Jews were their neighbours and that was all that mattered.

The Palestinian Jews often lived behind walls, fences, and trenches. While they lived among the fellahin, Palestinian peasants, shopped in Palestinian markets, and sought their help in farming, the fellahin were the most adept at speaking the language of the land and decoding the signs of the agricultural seasons.

Tamam's house was made of hardened mud (mudbricks) and had a small front yard, where she remembers spending long hours, confined alongside her brothers, as British military convoys roamed the village. Pretty soon, while these convoys would become more frequent, the promise of chocolates and candy that once sweetened their young lives was only a memory.

The war

The 1948 war changed everything.

The battle - which pitted Zionist militias against local Palestinian fighters and their allies from neighbouring Arab states - quickly crept up around Joulis and showed little mercy. Some of the local fellahin who ventured beyond the borders of the village were never seen again.

To make sure the same fate did not befall her children, Hamda told them that a ghoul lived in a nearby orchard. Terrifying them for their own good, she made them promise they would never walk to the dirt road on the outskirts of Joulis.

Crossing that path would be too great a risk, Hamda knew. But Tamam never met that scary ghoul: at the age of five, she left the village with her family as the fighting in Joulis intensified.

Q:Will Palestinians' homes and land be returned to them?

Read the answer

A: Under United Nations Resolution 194, Palestinians are entitled to return to their homes and villages from which they were expelled. The resolution describes three aspects of the right of return: repatriation, restitution of property and compensation for the losses incurred from Palestinians’ inability to use their property, and the psychological suffering they experienced. General Assembly Resolution 3236 also describes the right of return as “inalienable”.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

She sat on the back of a cow with Salim, as Ismail and her parents left their home behind and walked to the village of Al-Majdal, about 15-20 kilometres away. Believing they would return once the war ended, they stopped in an orchard along the way to hide their valuable harvest; they could retrieve it upon their return to town, they thought.

But what the Nassars hoped would be a temporary exile to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, like that of many other Palestinian families, quickly assumed a state of permanence.


Life in Gaza was never easy for the Nassars, especially in the beginning. The strip was a cold and unfamiliar place when they first arrived, and the family sought shelter wherever it could, pitching a meagre tent supplied by the United Nations.

Following the war of 1948, Gaza fell under the military control and administration of Egypt. That change was initially welcomed by the local people, many of whom believed that Egypt and other neighbouring Arab countries would be quick to liberate Palestine and send the Palestinian refugees back to their ancestral villages.

Q:What is the right of return?

Read the answer

A: The Right of Return refers to Palestinian refugees’ right to return to the homes from which they were displaced in 1948.
Source: American Friends Service Committee

But it soon became clear that the only true defenders of Palestinian interests were the Palestinian fedayeen, freedom fighters, who secretly crossed back into the newly established Israeli state to confront soldiers along the border with Gaza.

Many such fighters lost their lives, but they were celebrated in Gaza as martyrs, their funerals a procession of coffins and the now-seminal chant, "With our souls and our blood, we shall avenge our martyrs".

But despite all the symbolism and nationalist sentiment, all that Yousef, the Nassar family patriarch, wanted was for his children to survive.

And that proved increasingly difficult when the 1956 War broke out between Egypt and Israel, which had the support of the UK and France, following the Suez crisis. Israel briefly occupied the Gaza Strip after an Egyptian retreat from the territory, and the political situation was rapidly changing.

The only constant for many Palestinians in Gaza was the will of the local fedayeen, who continued to challenge the Israeli army.


in Motion

Read Samaa's story

In 1981, after her father's death in Rome, Samaa Abu Sharar began a long journey from anger to reconciliation.

A battle in Khan Younis, a city in southern Gaza just a short distance from Deir Al-Balah, on November 3, 1956, would be remembered by generations of Palestinians, who celebrated the valiant bravery of the local fighters. But when the Palestinian fedayeen were crushed in Khan Younis and the nearby town of Rafah, the Israeli army moved in.

Reports circulated at the time about Israeli forces executing Palestinian men in their homes and lining young men and children up against walls before shooting them. The men fell like dominoes. The war of 1956, known as the Tripartite Aggression, all took place from late October to its abrupt end in March of the following year.

Just before the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in February 1957, the Nassar family's 16-year-old middle child, Salim, attempted to flee the area. He was hoping to cross Israel to find safety in neighbouring Jordan.

Q:How many Palestinians hold refugee status?

Read the answer

A: The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) provides services for an estimated five million refugees. Nearly one-third of registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million people, live in 58 recognised Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

But he disappeared after last being seen in a local orchard. He left behind no footprints and very few clues; rumours swirled around his whereabouts, with some saying the teenager had been put into a secret prison, located somewhere deep underground.

Salim was not a freedom fighter; instead, he regularly filled journals with his observations about daily life in the refugee camp his family called home. Perhaps, they thought, it was his humble attempt to remember the childhood and the world he left behind in Joulis.

No one knew whether Salim was alive or dead, and Tamam grew old searching for him.


Tamam says she was married five or six years after Salim disappeared, the date is unclear in her mind. She married her cousin, Mahmoud al-Assar, while her heart was still mourning her brother.

The young bride refused to dye her palms with henna, as local tradition dictated, still overcome by her grief

When Tamam first met Mahmoud, he was a soldier with the national guard, wore a mismatched and aged army uniform and carried a rifle, and his most prized possession, a single bullet that he kept in his right pocket at all times.

The Al-Fatiha was read out loud by representatives from both families to officiate the agreement, and a modest, but happy, wedding party began. Several trays of couscous, smothered with cooked vegetables and meat, were cooked to perfection and shared, as was customary at weddings in Gaza

The newlyweds lived with Tamam's in-laws for a little over one year, during which time she gave birth to Marwan and became pregnant with Kamal. Her father, Yousef, then bought the couple a new home not far away from Umm Marwan's in-laws.

It was a single, mudbrick room, with no toilet or kitchen, and cost him 54 Egyptian pounds.

Mahmoud spent most of his days breaking boulders near the Gaza valley and selling them to a local quarry at day's end. At night, he joined Umm Marwan in fashioning mudbricks, and slowly adding to their modest home, which was quickly being outgrown by their growing family.

As their young family began building a new life for themselves, Israel moved back into Gaza, and unbeknownst to the local population, this time, the Israeli authorities would stay for decades.


When Israel defeated the Egyptian army in 1967 and took control of the Gaza Strip and Egyptian Sinai, most of Umm Marwan's refugee camp was levelled.

Q:Who took part in 1967 war?

Read the answer

A: The Israeli, Jordanian, Egyptian and Syrian armies were the main players in the war. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

The Israeli army needed a way to widen the roads in the camp so that its tanks could navigate the streets unhindered to hunt down the remaining fedayeen. They also wanted to be able to immediately subdue any potential Palestinian rebellion among the refugees.

Demolishing hundreds of Palestinian homes in the camp was the army's way to make that happen, with little regard for how the destruction shattered the lives of the camp's impoverished residents.

Q:How many Palestinian villages have been destroyed since 1948?

Read the answer

A: For the state of Israel to become a reality in 1948, Zionist militias attacked major Palestinian cities and destroyed about 530 villages. Approximately 13,000 Palestinians were killed in 1948. More than 750,000 were expelled from their homes and became refugees - the climax of the Zionist movement’s ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Source: Palestine Remix

The roofs of the camp's houses were made of grey tiles. In the winter, they were draped in large sheets of plastic held down by small sandbags to prevent the rain from seeping in.

When the War of 1967 ended in victory for Israel, Mahmoud sought to escape to the Gaza Valley and Umm Marwan took her children to an orchard known as Izbat Al-Majanin - "Orchard of the Crazy People" - between the Gaza towns of Nuseirat and Deir Al-Balah.

Q:How did Israel win the 1967 war?

Read the answer

A: Israel used its superior air power, planning, and the lack of any serious defence to win the war. The Palestinian population in West Bank and Gaza was also totally unarmed, so when the Jordanian and Egyptian armies withdrew, Israel took over Palestinian areas in record time. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

Alongside thousands of others, she waited, with little food and water, and tried her utmost to protect her children. The war was unfolding before their very eyes, and they desperately sought news from beyond the tree tops.

But there were few positive developments to be reported or observed.

First, Egyptian military vehicles rolled by expediently, as if in a state of panic, on the route south towards Sinai. The fedayeen followed, fleeing in all possible directions; many were bleeding, screaming, or crying out, befuddled by a crisis that would later be named Al-Naksa, the setback.


in Motion

Read Samah's story

Theatre provided a valuable outlet for Samah Sabawi, who lived most of her life in various forms of exile after the 1967 war.

The Israeli air force had all but won the war - which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, and local Palestinian fighters - when it blew up 17 Egyptian air force bases before a single aircraft could even take off.

When Umm Marwan's family was finally reunited in the camp, the first task was to dig a large hole in the ground of their dirt home that would serve as shelter for the kids. The adults feared the conquering, Israeli army might blow up their homes, or kill local residents.

Q:Were the Palestinians expelled or did they flee?

Read the answer

A: The question of how or why Palestinians left historical Palestine is inconsequential under international law. What is important is that they are allowed to exercise the right of return, as stipulated in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Gender Rules Redefined

Eventually, Mahmoud (known, too, as Abu Marwan, or "Father of Marwan") joined many thousands of hapless Palestinian refugees who returned to Palestine (by this time, the area was known as Israel) as cheap labourers.

Some tended to the same land that was once theirs, worked as manual labourers in factories, or as janitors, street cleaners or other forms of menial work. With most of the Palestinian men working in Israel, Palestinian refugee women rose to meet the demands of everyday life in Gaza.

They took care of household chores, raised children, mended raggedy clothes, lined up to collect meagre supplies from UN feeding centres, scuffled with Israeli occupation soldiers, ensured their children were doing their homework, upheld fellahin traditions, and celebrated, danced and cried.

For Umm Marwan, the hardships of life turned her into the strong woman she became, while her husband existed largely on the periphery of their family's complicated existence. He provided an income, and occasional guidance and discipline for the children, but not much more.

Umm Marwan's children grew up under occupation. They knew of a "Palestine" that they had never seen, yet aspired to return to that lost paradise someday. She loved her children dearly, but Kamal had a special place in her heart.

He was a rebellious, skinny and strange child, who always mumbled about socialism and a utopian world in which the fellahin were united, and successfully liberated their land from oppressive landlords and the armies that protected them.


When the First Intifada broke out in 1987, Kamal emerged from his own solitude. He loathed the smug, confident looks on the Israeli soldiers' faces as they walked through the refugees' humble dwellings, brandishing their guns, barking orders and harassing people.

He hated school, as well as his teachers. To him, they seemed so docile, adhering to the rules of the occupier which decreed that Palestinians not teach their own history.

As a young boy, he quickly learned that self-respect required one to defy orders and stand out from the rest. Yet, it was not until high school that his fighting spirit truly materialised.

With an unmatched obsession for reading and writing and a sincere persona that grabbed the hearts and minds of everyone he encountered, he was the obvious choice to lead the youth unit of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a leftist Palestinian political faction.

Q:How many political parties are in Palestine?

Read the answer

A: There are about 22 political parties in Palestine. Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Kids sat in total fascination when he lectured them about how the refugee camp was not their homeland and that the real Palestine was a land so fantastic and beyond anything they could possibly conceive.

It was now up to the fellahin to rise again, and redeem the sins of a generation that was dishonoured beyond redemption, Kamal believed.


Q:What is an intifada?

Read the answer

A: An intifada is a mass uprising. Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

The uprising did not start in Kamal's Nuseirat refugee camp, but in the Jabaliya refugee camp, in northern Gaza, in the afternoon of December 6, 1987. In response, thousands of youth took to the streets of Nuseirat and vowed to avenge the blood of the Jabaliya victims of the previous day.

They swung large flags made of silky fabric that swayed beautifully in Gaza's salty air and as the momentum grew, they became intoxicated by their own collective chants. They marched to "the tents", as the area was locally referred to, where Israeli soldiers were uneasily perched on the tops of watchtowers, hiding behind their binoculars and automatic machine guns.

Within minutes, a war had started and a third generation of refugee-camp-born fellahin stood fearlessly against a well-equipped army that was visibly gripped by unexplainable fear.

Rocks were hurled in all directions by the children, although most never hit their intended targets. In contrast, the Israelis shot live ammunition at the protesters, and several Palestinian children were killed.

Q:Do Palestinians living in the West Bank have access to Occupied East Jerusalem?

Read the answer

A: Before the Oslo Accords of 1993, Palestinians had general access to Jerusalem. But after 1993, and especially after a series of violent acts of resistance were carried out against Israelis, permanent checkpoints were erected. They forced every Palestinian wishing to enter East Jerusalem or Israel to obtain permission from the Israeli army. Source: Daoud Kuttab, Palestinian journalist and former Ferris professor of journalism at Princeton University

Within days Gaza was the breeding ground for a real revolution that was growing larger and more unwavering, and the chants of Palestinians in Gaza were answered in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and throughout historic Palestine.

The contagious energy was emblematic of children and young adults wanting to reclaim the identities of their ancestors that had been horribly disfigured and divided between regions, countries and refugee camps.

Kamal was in the streets of Nuseirat fashioning his own utopia.

Hundreds fell, dead or wounded, throughout Palestine in a matter of weeks. Yet their chants grew louder: "No east, no west, this is the uprising of the people."

Kamal was at home watching the news during one of the many military curfews imposed on the camp when the Israelis came looking for him with vengeance.

Women of Gaza Unite

The beating started as soon as he was in reach of the first soldier who had entered the house.

"Ya Ibn Asharmouta!" a soldier shouted, calling him a son of a bitch, as they began punching Kamal's emaciated face. One soldier twisted both of his arms behind his back, while another kicked him repeatedly in his genitals.

Kamal released sharp screams of unalloyed pain, as blood gushed from his brow and mouth.

His mother, responding to a natural instinct to protect her child, wedged herself between him and the soldiers in an attempt to shoulder some of the blows.

And suddenly, she was not alone; the seemingly powerless and illiterate women of their neighbourhood also found their calling in the desperate situation, which reflected the battleground of a war much bigger than them.

The women attempted to lessen the boy's pain, by absorbing as much of it as they could.

They yelled to God for mercy and He answered, as more and more women, both familiar and unknown, arrived from every direction. Despite his broken limbs and bruised body, Kamal escaped in the midst of the chaos.

The disturbing incident also served a greater purpose: a women's movement emerged from the women's collective show of strength. It was the first since they had become refugees, and it was led by Umm Marwan herself.

Q:How many refugees are there?

Read the answer

A: The total Palestinian population is about 12.4 million people, according to Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics data from 2015. Of that, about half - 6.2 million people - live in historic Palestine (between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea). Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Being on the frontlines of the revolution brought Umm Marwan closer to her children and she relished in a newfound, personal strength. By wedging herself between screaming children and angry soldiers, she found her calling.

Thus, she led a group of women who looked for soldiers on the streets of Nuseirat, even during military curfews, because the presence of soldiers meant one thing: that children would soon be lined up and their bones broken.


Nuseirat extended from the sea to the highway and was divided into various blocks that each carried a number. The camp was squeezed between the Buraij camp to the east, the town of Deir Al-Balah to the south, and the Gaza Valley to the west; the sea, meanwhile, was a refreshing breath of hope, and much-needed respite, for the refugees.

The Israeli military encampment, which began with a few khaki-colored tents, and then morphed to 100 tents or more during the Intifada, was positioned at the midway point between Nseirat and Buraij camps.

When the army blockaded Buraij, leading to widespread starvation among its already-vulnerable residents, nearly all the people of Nuseirat organised a massive march to help their neighbours.

Umm Marwan was once again on the front lines, ready to shield the swaths of young activists, who carried flags and chanted for Buraij's freedom and freedom for all Palestinians. The Israeli snipers stood motionless, likely in awe of the sizeable crowd, which extended from the army tents to the sea.

Even if they wanted to fire, they didn't possess enough bullets to suppress everyone.

Trapped for weeks, the refugees of Buraij came out of their homes in disbelief when the masses arrived at the camp. Thousands of people - once strangers, now forever linked - embraced in the streets, as the siege was broken. A similar show of solidarity had never before been witnessed in the camps' histories.

As the Nuseirat refugees celebrated a symbolic victory upon their return home, Umm Marwan felt two arms embrace her from behind, and fold gently upon her neck and chest.

"Mother," said a voice that had grown hoarse from chanting, but which cradled her very being.

Kamal's cheeks were sunken, his head was shaved, and his skin was pale. To honour his mother's wishes, Kamal agreed to return home for one night. Yet on that very night, the soldiers returned - and from her room, all Umm Marwan could hear from the living room were Kamal's muffled screams, and the sound of fists landing heavy blows.

When Kamal regained consciousness, he was in a small cell, with thick, unwashed walls that felt cold and foreign. His blue jeans were torn, scuffed, and terribly bloodied.

Q:Does Israel arrest Palestinian children without charge?

Read the answer

A: At the end of August 2016, 319 Palestinian minors were held in Israeli prisons as security detainees and prisoners, including 10 administrative detainees. Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

Kamal spent years behind bars. He was transferred from one military compound to another, each time receiving a routine and vindictive dosage of humiliations and beatings. He was released for the last time just before Israel signed an agreement with the Palestinian leadership, an agreement that Kamal knew from the onset would not deliver his people the freedom they so long desired.

Death - and rebirth

Kamal died years later. He had just begun a graduate degree in economics in Amman, Jordan, when a routine visit to the doctor revealed that he had brain cancer. His body already weak and his health shaky from his innumerable times in prison, he was told he only had six months to live.

When Kamal died, sometime in the late 1990s, thousands of people from the Buraij refugee camp descended upon Nuseirat for his funeral. The massive crowd insisted on mourning him as a martyr and burying him in the Martyrs Graveyard, near the large water tower, and alongside the many fallen of the Intifada.

Q:Do Palestinian refugees want to go back?

Read the answer

A: The Palestinian right of return is an individual as well as a collective right. Resolution 194 grants every individual refugee a choice to remain abroad or return to the home or land from which he or she was expelled. The question is not if they wish to return, but rather that they be allowed to exercise this right if they so choose.
Source: Dr Daud Abdullah - Author and President of Middle East Monitor - MEMO

And despite her grief, Umm Marwan's rebellion never ceased.

She took every opportunity to spread her revolutionary son's message and continued to stand, unfailingly, in the front line at every protest and funeral for the camps' martyrs - all sons of the fellahin who believed that a utopia was still possible.


in Motion

From exile to resistance

What does it mean to be a Palestinian today?