By Joharah Baker
For Israeli Jews, this week was all about celebrations, barbecues and oversized blue and white flags fluttering in the spring breeze as their country celebrated the 59th anniversary of its independence. For Palestinians, this was one more year enduring an open wound, one more year to remember the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people almost 60 years ago and the enormity of the problem it created.
To Palestinians, Israel’s Independence Day is called Al Nakba, the “Catastrophe”, which represents the displacement of some 800,000 Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 War, who were never to return and would soon comprise one of the Palestinian leadership’s most pressing and most complicated predicaments – the refugee problem.
According to the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, UNRWA, there are more than 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees throughout the world, many of them still living in the squalid and sprawling refugee camps originally set up for them in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian sources put this number at 6.5 million, taking into consideration that a percentage of these refugees are not registered with UNRWA.
The story of how the Palestinian refugee problem was created has been told, interpreted and recounted many times over, of course with significant discrepancies between the Palestinian and Israeli narratives. However, solid facts remain the best proof of what actually happened over half a century ago. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in a wave of massacres and killings carried out by Jewish gangs and later the Israeli army. Others fled in fear for their lives, believing they would return in a matter of days to their homes.
Obviously, this did not happen, and scores of Palestinians found themselves homeless, stateless and penniless, with only their children and a few precious belongings left as reminders of a home they would never again set eyes on.
In the months and years that followed, approximately 400 Palestinian villages in the area that would become the state of Israel were annihilated, their inhabitants ethnically cleansed and new Jewish immigrants brought in to take their place. In stark contrast to the low, grey stone homes hundreds of years old, newly built and polished settlements were built atop what were once vegetable fields, fruit orchards, schools and mosques. In many places today, the only indication that a Palestinian village once existed are the tenacious cactus plants that would designate the village borders.
All Palestinians, refugee or otherwise, were born and raised on the story of Palestine and have been nurtured with the nostalgia of days gone by. So, while the Palestinian refugee cause has certainly been kept alive and well in the hearts of all Palestinians, young and old, an actual solution to this problem remains severely lacking.
There have been several reasons attributed to this ongoing predicament. First and foremost is the Israeli mentality towards the refugee right of return. Israel, from the get-go has vehemently rejected any return of Palestinian refugees to their original homes, or at least to those that still remain standing, under the pretext that such a large influx of Palestinians would harm the Jewish demographic makeup and would thus undermine the Jewish character of the state.
Given this obstinacy, which also stems from Israel’s denial of any historical injustice done to the Palestinians during the 1948 War, the Palestinians’ demand that refugees be granted the right of return has mostly fallen on deaf ears. Even the United Nations, which issued Resolution 194 in December 1948, has been disregarded. The resolution stipulates, “…that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”
The international community has followed suit, shoving the right of return demand aside in all international forums debating a final peace settlement for the Palestinians. While the UN, the United States and the world have thrown themselves into the refugee situation in Darfur, and earlier in Bosnia, the Palestinians have yet to have the spotlight shown on them in the international arena.
Even UNRWA, which was originally set up as a temporary agency to offer basic humanitarian services to the displaced Palestinians, has become a permanent facility in Palestine and neighboring countries where refugees continue to reside.
This is not to say the Palestinian leadership has not made its fair share of blunders where the refugees are concerned. When peace negotiations were officially launched in Madrid in 1991, the refugee community was excluded from representation. Then, a few years later, when the Oslo Accords were signed and the Palestinian Authority established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the refugees were snubbed once again. None of the Palestinians in the Diaspora were given a say in the legislative or presidential elections or in the actual running of the PA. Of course, the leadership at the time did and still does pay lip-service to the cause, insisting that a “just solution” be found to the refugee problem. But, to use a common cliché, action speaks louder than words.
Still, what is done is done, and the leadership is again at a crossroads. While it will always be bound by the restrictions imposed on it by the Oslo Accords, it is never too late to set priorities straight. If the government is truly representative of its people, it must embrace its entire people without exception.
The refugees have been dealt a bad hand for far too long, but not long enough for us all to forget. Whether or not refugees or their descendants choose to return to their prior homes, to the West Bank or Gaza Strip or make their homes someplace else, it is their inherent right to make this choice.
If the right of return is not addressed properly by the leadership and the international community, no truncated peace agreement, settlement or solution will ever stand. Just as injustices in the past have been righted, with universal vows of “never again,” so must the horrendous injustice done to the Palestinians.
-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.