Originally posted by the Alternative Information Center(AIC) at http://bit.ly/iA2mYK
On 15 May, thousands of Palestinian refugees attempted to return to Palestine. What pushed thousands of young Palestinians, born and raised as refugees outside of Palestine, to such actions? What does being a Palestinian refugee mean? What does the right of return mean for refugees both inside and outside of Palestine?
A Palestinian child carries a key, the universal symbol of the Palestinian right of return, during a march to commemorate the Nakba (photo: Marta Fortunato)
On Sunday 15 May, on the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, thousands of Palestinian refugees attempted to cross the Syrian, Lebanese, West Bank and Gaza borders to return to Palestine. They were primarily young people, the grandchildren and even great-grandchildren of the 1948 refugees, a generation that, even if has never seen Palestine with its eyes, proved itself prepared to die in order to reach the land. Fourteen of these refugees were killed by gunfire of the Israeli army.
What pushed thousands of young Palestinians, born and raised as refugees outside of Palestine, to such actions? What does being a Palestinian refugee mean? What does the right of return mean for refugees both inside and outside of Palestine?
The Palestinian right of return is not simply a problem of Palestinian refugees but is a wider political, human and global issue. Every day in Palestine there are new refugees, Palestinians expelled from their homes, their villages, due to construction of the Separation Wall and expansion of the settlements. The right of return is also a human and international issue because Palestinians are the population with the largest number of refugees, some 7.5 million scattered throughout the world.
Nassar Ibrahim of the Alternative Information Center examines the right of return not only as an issue of international law and its implementation but also from social and cultural perspectives, beginning from the change in the Palestinian way of living and behaving before and after the Nakba.
Ibrahim explains that during the first half of the 20th century, Palestine was relatively an economically developed country if compared to other Arab countries, especially agriculturally. It was linked to the other Arab countries through a modern network of transport that made it an important trade centre. The heart of this reality was the village. Palestinians developed a special relationship with their land, the primary source of livelihood, while the socio-economic unity in the villages was represented by the extended family. The traditional Palestinian family was constituted by three or four generations living in the same neighbourhood and collaborating in the main domestic tasks and economic responsibilities. Inside this unit, there was a social hierarchy at the top of which was the elder father and other males, responsible for the economic well-being of the family, while the mother and other females cared for the children and domestic tasks. A primary characteristic of the Palestinian extended family was the interdependence of its members and the social protection it provided to its members; the family unit was responsible for everything. Inside the village, as well, relations among the inhabitants were based on trust and cooperation, such that villages comprised compact socio-economic units.
In 1948, with the forced expulsion from Palestine of more than 750.000 Palestinians by the Israeli Zionist militias, these solid bonds of trust and cooperation were destroyed and families separated and scattered in different countries. Thousands of Palestinians were forced to leave their houses and lands, escaping to Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Palestinians found themselves in a completely different and new reality, living as refugees in camps lacking the pre-existing family and social bonds, and where the physical and psychological spaces were different. The extended family system disappeared as families were separated and there wasn't sufficient space for new members, who were anyways less dependent on the family. At the same time the hierarchical structure inside the family was modified: women in the refugee camps shared the same living conditions of men and all together, husbands, wives, sons and daughters, had to join the efforts to survive.
Even the Palestinians’ perception of space was modified. In the refugee camps everything was shared and space was no more private but social. According to the words of a girl living in a Syrian refugee camp, “our window was the window of our neighbours”. The space was delineated and it had precise borders, unlike the villages where lands had no borders and where everyone was able to find his/her own space without invading the space of the other. From 1948 “the time of crashes” (Kanafani) began; it has been a period in which space, together with the social bonds that existed before the Nakba, have disappeared and Palestinian refugees no longer have a determined social role in a well known society.
How has living as refugees influenced the behaviour of Palestinians?
Before coming to Palestine I got in touch with this land through the eyes and stories of the Palestinians who live in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria. In their minds Palestine is a beloved and desired land, a sort of paradise from where they were expelled and to where they long to return.
The Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus is a reality completely separated and different from the Syrian one, it is like entering a limbo, in a state non-state, waiting for the ascent to Paradise. My friends are young, they are the grandsons of the 1948 refugees and have never seen Palestine but through photos, videos and stories. Nothing more. Maybe they don't even know that their villages have been destroyed and that now large Israeli towns are built on the ruins of their homes.
“When you arrive in Palestine, kiss her land. Do it for me” asked me 'Ali, a refugee from the Nahr al-Bared camp (Lebanon), when I told him that I would go to Palestine. “If I die in this camp, I want my ashes to be brought to the land that I love, to my land”. Nahr al Bared is a place-non place at the same time. It is a physical and geographical place where refugees try daily to restart their lives, but it is mainly a non-place, far from the Lebanese reality and further from the Palestinian one.
Inside Palestine, reality is different: there is a daily struggle against occupation, against Israeli soldiers, against construction of the Separation Wall. Palestine isn't the Paradise that refugees imagine and dream of, but a place of daily conflict, of oppression. Palestinians in this land are more interested in particulars, to every single reality, they fight for every single centimetre of land. They have a wider political consciousness than the refugees outside Palestine, as they were born and have grown up under occupation, have been arrested, beaten and abused by the Israeli army and witness and experience daily human rights violations and physical and psychological humiliations.
Palestine represents a model, an idea, for the Palestinian refugees living outside. “What's the homeland?” Ghassan Kanafani asks himself in his book Returning to Haifa, “Is it the house that we were expelled from?”. No, it's not: it is an idea, something sacred, a dream, an issue to struggle and die for. As happened 15 May, when 14 people were killed by Israel at the Syrian and Lebanese borders.
“They shot live fire at us” related Mohammed, a 21 year old Palestinian living in Yarmouk, “three martyrs were living in my camp”. These young people died while they were running after a dream, an idea of Palestine that exists in their minds and has no connection with reality.
For the eldest, the 1948 refugees, Palestine has become an Idyllic land they lost, a land where the social and familiar bonds were strong and where cooperation amongst village residents was the main socio-economic strength.
Palestine becomes the perfect woman, the mother that Palestinian refugees have been separated from and to whom they desire to return: “I long for the bread of my mother, for the coffee of my mother, for the touch of my mother”(Mahmoud Darwish, To my mother).
Return is not something that is touchable and material but becomes an abstract idea, the idea of Palestine that we have always imagined in our minds. The key itself, that many children raised above their heads during the Nakba commemorations earlier this month symbolises their status of refugees, doesn't represent the material means to enter their old houses but has become a sacred image, a relic to keep and worship. The concept of present and past breaks: present is what doesn't exist anymore and what has never existed but in the minds of refugees; the present is Palestine, the hope of returning.
“I thought that the house was more beautiful than the road to reach it, but it's the contrary” (Darwish). In fact the majority of Palestinian refugees don’t have a house to remember; their Palestine is just a matter of fantasy, it's an idea projected to the future, with no links with reality. In this contest the return becomes the way to return to Palestine.
The Palestinian right of return evolves beyond a political issue to a social and cultural one. It represents an idea, a dream and this is why Palestinians will never renounce it.
~ Sofia Smith