For a majority of the more 72,000 ( some estimates this morning exceed 100,000 because many refugees and supporters traveled south independently and did not register or use provided transportation) arriving in more than 1200 buses & vans, and many on foot, from all the camps and corners of Lebanon, it was their first sighting of their country. Lebanon law has long prevented Palestinians from coming anywhere near the blue line to even look towards their stolen homes and lands or to cross the Litani River north of Tyre. This year, for one day only, the Lebanese authorities reluctantly decided not to interfere with this human rights endeavor.
For the teen-agers on the crowded bus I rode on from Shatila Camp, their parents and grandparents stories and descriptions of Palestine on the Internet was what they talked about.
As we approached Maroun al Ras, some of them were anxious, others silent and reflective, and some, like many teenagers from my generation about to see the Beatles or Elvis were giddy and squealing as the bus rounded a bend in the road south of Aitayoun and we looked to the approaching hills. "Is that my country Palestine over there?," Ahmad, a graduate in Engineering who was born in Shatila camp asked. "Nam Habibi!" ("Yes Dear!") came the reply from the microphone of our "bus mother" gripping her clip board and checking the names to keep track of her flock. This bus seemed to inflate with delirium as we all smiled and shouted. Some of the passengers had prepared signs that read: "People want to return to Palestine," inspired perhaps by the slogan made famous in Egypt and Tunisia, "People want the fall of the regime."
The esprit was reminiscent of a Mississippi freedom ride James Farmer of CORE used to tell us about and I thought of Ben Gurion's boast from 1948 that the old will die and the young will forget Palestine. The Zionist leader could not have been more mistaken. The old, many still vital and those who departed this life, continue to teach and inspire the young from their still remembered stories, guaranteeing that the dream of every Palestinian shall never die.
The organizers from the camps did a tremendous job, but no one could have anticipated the huge numbers who would participate in this truly historic and likely region changing event.
All the Palestinian organizations and factions were united for this project.
Hezbollah kept a low profile so as to keep the focus on the Nakba. However, when the organizers discovered a shortage of buses last week Hezbollah arranged for more, even bringing them in from Syria who themselves used more than 800 buses yesterday to take Palestinians from Syria's 10 Palestinians camps, including Yarmouk, to the Syrian Golan border with occupied Palestine. At certain points along the narrow and winding village roads in South Lebanon the convoy would pause and Hezbollah members would appear and distribute bottles of water, fresh croissants and large chocolate filled cookies. They also did traffic control work and provided civil defense and medical services as needed. One imagines it was their guys who erected the nifty new road signs throughout the South that showed the distance to Palestine with an arrow pointing toward Jerusalem. Whenever the buses would pass one of the signs that read in Arabic and English, for example, "Palestine: 23 km", our bus would erupt in cheers.