By Vacy Vlazna
To enter the lost city, go through me.
Through me you go to meet a suffering
unceasing and eternal. You will be
with people who, through me, lost everything. —Dante’s Inferno
“It is a painful experience to be a refugee. You exist and you don’t exist” — Olfat Mahmoud
The burden of alleviating the misery of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon lies heavy behind Olfat Mahmoud’s dark eyes which have seen, both as a child and as a dynamic adult, 50 out of the 67 years of Nakba exile. Her children are fourth generation refugees.
During a recent tour in Australia, Olfat spoke intensely of the desperate situation of the Forgotten Palestinians stuck in a stasis of statelessness. The responsibility to her people was self-imposed in 1993 when she founded and directed the Palestinian Womens Humanitarian Organisation (PWHO) funded mainly by a Swedish NGO and APHEDA
PWHO is driven by Olfat’s dynamic sumud and vision and by a staff of intelligent dedicated women who maintain essential projects such as Early Childhood Education, Children’s Mobile Activity Centre, Women to Women Program, Protecting Children from Post-War Trauma Syndrome, Youth Leadership Training program.
Olfat’s NGO focuses primarily on empowering women because they bear the brunt of families suffering the endemic depression and relentless stress from overcrowding, unemployment, crippling poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, and the traumatic insecurity of refugee status. For the women of the camp, PWHO provides a refuge from the day to day purgatory of camp survival.
Olfat’s identity has ancient roots in Tarshiha (Tarshe) a village in the district of Akka where she is prevented by Israel to live or visit.
Beneath Tarshiha’s levels of history lies a Canaanite village from which a lineage of families have cultivated on its fertile land, citrus and olive groves, grapes, tobacco, grains, produced cotton, and tended goats and beehives.
In Tarshiha, for centuries Muslims and Christian Palestinians lived side by side respecting the call of the muezzin and church bells of the other. On any given day, women accompanied their menfolk to work in the fields, children’s voices could be heard from Tarshiha’s two schools, donkeys laden with produce left and returned from the markets of Akka, and the comforting smell of bread baking in stone ovens mixed with the aroma of coffee and arghilas enjoyed by old men sitting in the Galilee sun.
These time-worn scenes of village life was the norm until – 1948.
Typical of refugee stories (only the village names are different) from the camps in Lebanon, Olfat’s grandparents were expelled forcibly along with 4500 of their fellow survivors, after the massive aerial bombing by B-17s and C-47s that preceded Operation Hiram’s violent ground offensive on their village. The brutal Oded Brigade fielded by the Haganah massacred villagers and systematically looted the homes emptied of terrified occupants.
With Israel’s dismissal of the Palestinians’ right of return to their villages, the temporary shelter in the camps gradually metamorphosed from tents to concrete ghettos in stifling open prisons.
Olfat’s PWHO is situated in the hell-hole that is the Bourj el-Barajneh camp near Beirut airport. There, 27,000 refugees are crammed into less than a square kilometre maze of sub-standard dwellings pitted with bullet holes from Israeli wars. The narrow sunless alleyways strung densely with dangerously, and often lethal, exposed electric wiring promote vitamin D deficiency and heavy rain turns alleys into canals of sewerage.
And now, with the influx of 10,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing war and starvation in Syria to be with relatives, the camp is buckling with the strain on its pitiful resources: undrinkable water, electricity cuts, the almost non-existent health facilities, UNRWA funding cuts – and emotional trauma;
“Resentment competes with empathy in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps, where, despite their shared history, tensions are rising between recently displaced Palestinians from Syria and established residents.” Daily Star
There is a tragic irony in the flight from Syria where Palestinian refugees, unlike those in Lebanon, could hold passports, own property and get jobs. Lebanon’s inhumane denial of civil, social and political rights has sentenced generations of Palestinian refugees to unbearable lifetimes of social isolation, poverty and mental torture.
Olfat passionately voiced her moral indignation at the humiliating treatment of refugees that leads to such despair that a child no longer treasures life and says death is better than being a refugee. The rank hopelessness of the young make the camps hot for ISIS recruitment.
This despair underlines her distain for the indifference and the neglect of the international community to resolve the legal limbo of the forgotten Palestinians for it is only the inalienable Right of Return , guaranteed by Resolution 194, that sustains the fragile hope of the refugees.
And yet, anomalously, this life-giving hope is being abandoned by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the ‘peace’ negotiations with Israel. Al Jazeera’s Palestinian Papers revealed that ‘Abu Mazen offered an extremely low proposal for the number of returnees’ and the status quo will continue with the Arab solution:
“Two months later, in a meeting between Qurei and Livni on 27 January 2008, Qurei appears compromising on the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, by suggesting – in line with the decades-old Israeli solution of the issue – that Arab countries host them for good.
Qurei: As for the refugees, if the Arabs will be part of the solution there will be no problem in this issue. We’ve to engage countries that host the refugees directly or indirectly.”
In September 2011, the Palestinian ‘ambassador’ to Lebanon made strange contradictory remarks while asserting the ‘sacred right of return’,
The ambassador unequivocally says that Palestinian refugees would not become citizens of the sought for U.N.-recognized Palestinian state, an issue that has been much discussed. “They are Palestinians, that’s their identity,” he says. “But … they are not automatically citizens.”
Then in 2012 President Abbas announced on Israeli TV that he has no territorial demands on pre-1967 Israel and, insulting the heroism of Nakba resistance, stated he has no right to live in Safed, the village of his birth in Galilee that put up strong resistance to the superior Haganah and Palmach forces. Over 12,000 residents fled when the village fell on May 11, 1948.
In a recent article, ‘Excluding the right of return from the Palestinian discourse,’ Dr Qasem criticises the fundamental flaw in the negotiation process,
And instead of looking for arrangements for the return of Palestinian refugees, the search was focused on how the Palestinians must provide security and military services to Israel.
Mercifully, the PA has no authority to give away the right of return, just as the UN had no authority to give away more that half of historic Palestine.
Determination to achieve inalienable rights under international law, the will to resist betrayal, the sumud of love to care for suffering brothers and sisters as Olfat does, and the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement will inevitably liberate the forgotten Children of the Nakba and their children’s children’s children to return home and live the sky, sun, stones and soil of Palestine.
Tarshiha is waiting.
– Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.