Seeking a safe place to raise the Palestinian flag

Last April, I tried again to enter my Palestinian homeland in the West Bank from Amman, Jordan, but was denied access by the Israeli army. As I waited, brokenhearted, for the beat-up bus to take me back to the Jordanian border, I spotted the remains of a Palestinian flag that once wavered on the side of a building. It was torn to shreds, yet still stirred in the Jericho breeze. Above it, flew a large, brand-new Israeli flag.

Somehow, after the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Palestinian flag lost its meaning for me. The Israeli army finally allowed us to display our flag in any form, but I never did – because the four colors, no longer standing for what I adored, had faded. And many of the rights for which we fought, such as the removal of illegal Israeli settlements and the freedom of movement from town to town, were still missing.

As a first-grader at the Nusseirat Refugee Camp Elementary School for Boys, one of my early lessons was how to draw a Palestinian flag. It's easy to make as long as you have the right crayons: green, white, red, and black. But our challenge was much more than simply remembering which color went where. It was not being caught carrying our crayon-drawn flags on the way back to school, or during frequent Israeli army raids.

The Israeli army was not ambiguous about the consequences of carrying a flag, or anything that held those four colors in a way that resembled a flag. High school students were beaten, fined, and detained; middle- and elementary-school students were beaten, dragged to Israeli military camps, (across the street from our school) and released only once their families paid a heavy fine.

Despite the clarity of the unspoken laws, we did it anyway. The Palestinian flag always managed to stir strong emotions in me and my peers. The courage of lifting it and the cruelty it provoked could bring on a storm of tears. To us, the symbolism behind the colors of the flag went something like this: Green is for the land of Palestine, white is for the peacetime before we became refugees, red is for our blood spilled trying to liberate our land, and black is for our life under occupation.

My father and stepmother, whom I haven't seen in eight years, still live in the same old house in the central Gaza Strip, right beside the graveyard in the Nusseirat refugee camp. Across the way stands an old UN-constructed water tank with a tall ladder that leads to the top.

Sometimes, courageous souls would come, under the cover of night, to plant a Palestinian flag high up on the water tank. The mission was dangerous, and not just because the rusty ladder was unstable. Some youths were shot at while climbing the ladder to reach the top.

When I left the Jordanian border that day last spring, I began to remember the generations of children who had risked their safety and even their lives to carry their flag. And I felt the colors slowly come back to life.

Thousands of miles away from my homeland, I watched Israeli forces attacking President Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah on TV two weeks ago, declaring victory by raising the flag of Israel where the flag of Palestine once flew.

I rushed to my office closet, checked every box, and opened every drawer until I located a carefully folded flag. I took it out, and pinned it to my wall. Despite the wrinkles, it was breathtaking.

My three-year-old daughter, Zarefah, stormed the office, as she always does.

"Daddy, what's this?"

"It's the flag of Palestine."

"It's so beautiful. Can I draw it, Daddy?"

It was then that I realized that the flag of Palestine was more than a flag. It's part of us, no matter how far away we are from home.

• Ramzy Baroud is a Palestinian journalist and the editor of www.

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