Right of return is the heart of Palestine’s struggle
6 September 2016
No leader can surrender Palestinians’ right to return after 68 years of exile. (Tijen Erol)
A friend of mine recently shared an image meant to show solidarity with Palestine. At first glance, I thought it was nice: it depicts a heart that is outlined with the word “Palestine,” is filled with the names of many Palestinian cities and is decorated with the colors of the Palestinian flag.
Naturally, I tried to find the city of Safad, which is near the birthplace of my grandparents. I couldn’t find it, but I also couldn’t find other nearby cities such as Akka, Haifa or even Nazareth. Then it became clear: none of the Palestinian cities seized by Zionist forces during the 1948 Nakba were included in this Palestine heart.
As a descendant of Palestinians from a village in what is now known as Israel, the barrage of Israeli propaganda attempting to bury the history of our existence is not surprising. One can expect no less from a state that was created through the expulsion and subjugation of an existing population.
Discrimination against Palestinians is not perpetrated solely by the Israeli state; it is endemic to Israeli society itself. A recent Pew survey indicates that almost half of Israeli Jews believe that Palestinian citizens of Israel should be expelled from the country and 79 percent believe that Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.
Yet the heart image, which ignores a key injustice perpetrated against Palestinians, presumably originated from a supporter of Palestine. It is just another picture among millions being shared online, but it serves as a reminder of how the plight of Palestinians dispossessed in 1948 has in many ways been forgotten, even by those who are supportive of the Palestinian cause.
A non-negotiable right
The right of return, a cornerstone of the Palestinian struggle, is the principle that Palestinian refugees have an inalienable right to return to their homeland. This includes those who fled or were forced to flee in 1948 as well as in 1967, along with their descendants.
The right of return is also enshrined in international law. The UN General Assembly in December 1948 adoptedResolution 194, which called for the return of Palestinian refugees to their homes. In June 1967, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 237 calling on Israel to facilitate the return of refugees, thereby including those forced out by Israel’s seizure of land days earlier.
Israel continues to violate its obligations under international law. It has no intention of correcting or addressing the historic injustices that created the Palestinian refugee problem, and the right of return has been one of the main issues preventing a just settlement of the conflict. In the rare instances that Israel even considers Palestinian statehood, it regards the right of return as out of the question.
Although the original refugees of the 1948 ethnic cleansing are declining in number, their descendants number more than five million. Even if a fraction exercised their right to return, this could potentially upset the balance of power within the Israeli political system in a dramatic way. Considering that Israelis have long been warned of the “demographic threat” to the “Jewish state,” and that the entire Zionist project relies on maintaining Jewish demographic domination, it is no surprise that they are unwilling to accept the right of return.
As a result of its entrenched political, economic and military power, Israel has no incentive to accept responsibility for its crimes or make any reparations. On the contrary, the Israeli propaganda machine actively tries to normalize the country’s dark history and its ongoing oppression of Palestinians.
In other words, the expectation is that repeated human rights violations, including ethnic cleansing and dispossession, become accepted as normal if given enough time. This normalization influences the perceptions of international audiences, the Israeli public and even Palestine supporters who have become disheartened by the poor prospects for a fair resolution.
Game of patience
The first conference of the Zionist movement took place more than 50 years before 1948; the colonization of Palestine has long been a maneuver of patience, backed by overwhelming violence and international complicity.
This is still the case today, 68 years after the Nakba. Israel is likely betting that after the first-generation refugees die off, the following generations will gradually forget their claims to historic Palestine.
In the meantime, the trees planted by the Jewish National Fund will continue to grow and conceal the evidence of Palestinian villages destroyed by Zionists.
It is imperative that supporters of Palestinian rights never forget the refugees of 1948. Palestine solidarity movements continue to call for the right of return, but for strategic reasons much of their activism focuses on issues such as settlement activity in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israeli aggression against Gaza.
The Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement calls for the boycott of “all of the Israeli companies and institutions that are involved in its violations of international law,” but it acknowledges that the most prominent campaigns target companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Campaigns against settlement activity in the so-called Occupied Palestinian Territories are simply more likely to gain broad international support than those calling for the right of return.
This reality of what powerful nations — and even some activists — will support is a testament to the persistence and effectiveness of Israeli propaganda. Despite uprooting hundreds of thousands of people in 1948, occupying their lands and subjugating those who remained, major world powers view Israel as a legitimate state, a “bastion of democracy.”
To them, Palestinian lands captured in 1948 are not perceived as occupied in any way. The “Occupied Palestinian Territories” refer to the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip, and Israel’s official position is that they are “disputed,” not occupied. History is written by the victors here.
Furthermore, supporters of Israel are notorious for answering valid criticism of state policy with accusations of anti-Semitism. They equate the Palestinian right of return with the denial of Jewish self-determination and this discourages others from speaking out.
The core issue here is that the Zionist founders of Israel expelled the native Palestinian population and seized their lands. Israel’s very foundation rests on occupation and oppression.
In Lebanon, stateless Palestinians continue to live in overcrowded and underserved refugee camps with few rights, while Israelis — effectively squatters — live comfortably on the lands of these Palestinians’ parents and grandparents, only tens of miles away. Their rightful homes and lands are undoubtedly occupied.
No peace agreement can ever void this right of return because individual rights cannot be abrogated by any peace deal. Israel arrogantly claims sovereignty over the Palestinian lands that it stole in 1948, and it would like nothing more than to receive official sanction of this claim. Any Israeli willingness to recognize Palestinian statehood would be contingent on that.
In the meantime, Israel will continue to methodically malnourish, stunt and limit the caloric intake of Palestinians in Gaza and suppress Palestinians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in the hope that protracted suffering and humiliation will lead them into submission.
The Palestinian people have remained steadfast in the face of such Israeli tyranny. Sixty-eight years of displacement and repression have not broken their will and resilience.
But as Israel’s propaganda continues to distract from the truth of its foundation, and when even the supposed chief representative of Palestinians indicates his willingness to cede his claims to his hometown, it becomes more important than ever for Palestinians and their supporters to reaffirm the right of return. Otherwise, the true extent of the occupation of all historic Palestine will be forgotten.
Mohamed Mohamed is the Finance, Grants and Development Associate at The Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center in Washington, DC.