Palestinians’ right of return kept alive through hope, resistance
World Refugee Day, observed annually on June 20, should not merely represent a reminder of “the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence,” as the UN states.
It should also be an opportunity for the international community to truly understand and actively work toward finding a sustainable remedy to forced displacement; for nobody should be forced to endure such a grueling, shattering and humiliating experience in the first place. Palestinians who have withstood the degradation of exile for more than 70 years embody the harshness of this collective experience more than any other group.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there arecurrently68.5 million people around the world who have been forced from their homes, with 25.4 million of them classified as refugees. Of theofficially listedrefugees, 5.4 million are Palestinians registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
For Palestinians, the grim reality of being a refugee is compounded by the absence of any political horizon capable of conveying a sense of hope that, 70 years after the genesis of their refugee crisis, a remedy is at hand.
Abandoned in their seemingly eternal quest for a homeland, Palestinians hold on to hope because it is that alone that feeds their sense of determination that neither time nor distance will stand between them and their right of return. This internationally honored right is etched in the hearts and minds of millions of Palestinians.
The archetypal images of a refugee — holding on to the pole of a tent, charting a path of exile to no specific place, imploring UN officials for help and the world for mercy — are, by themselves, not enough to deconstruct the complexity of that identity. To belong to a place that has ejected you, yet to seek an alternative home in places to which you do not belong, confuses one’s sense of being. The psychological trauma alone is shattering.
The joint Israeli-American 'vision' for the Palestinians basically means the imposition of apartheid and keeping them exiled.
While Palestinians continue to hold on to a sense of identity in their various spaces of exile — refugee camps across Palestine and the Middle East — their prolonged odyssey is seen as a “problem” to be haphazardly fixed, or entirely dismissed, in order for Israel’s Jews to maintain their demographic majority. The mere fact that the Palestinian people live and multiply is a “demographic threat” to Israel. This unmistakably racist notion is wholly embraced by Israel’s allies in Washington and elsewhere.
Israel and the US will do anything in their power to trivialize the centrality of the Palestinian refugee question and its relevance to any future just peace in Palestine.
Nearly a million Palestinians weremade into refugeesfollowing the establishment of Israel on the ruins of historic Palestine in 1948. Hundreds of thousands more acquired that dismal status in thesubsequent years, especially during the Israeli war and occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
The 5.4 million refugees registered with UNRWA are those original refugees and their descendants. Israel has never agreed to take responsibility for the consequences of its violent inception — the ethnic cleansing, the untold destruction of towns and villages, and the erasure of historic Palestine.
Even during the Oslo peace process, Israel refused to discuss the core issue of refugees, relegating it to the “final status negotiations,” which have not taken place and most likely never will. In the meantime, Palestinian refugees have been sentenced to subsist in this unfair status, neither here nor there.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the current war in Syria have taught us that Palestinian refugees with relatively good living conditions are not safe either. The small Palestinian refugee community in Iraq waspersecutedafter the invasion, to the point that they were forced to leave, en masse, to any country willing to take them. The same sordid scenario was repeated in Syria and will, tragically, be replayed elsewhere in the future.
Instead of remedying the crisis with a degree of moral and legal accountability, successive US administrations have tried to marginalize the importance of the right of return. Israel, on the other hand, has targeted refugee communities through wars and massacres, most notably during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the subsequent Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Israel and the US are now orchestrating even more sinister campaigns to make Palestinian refugees vanish, including through the destruction of UNRWA and by attempts to redefine the refugee status of millions of Palestinians. By denying UNRWA urgently needed funds, Washington wants to enforce a new reality — one in which human rights, international law and morality are of no consequence.
What will become of the Palestinian refugees seems to be of no importance to senior US officials. The Americans are now waiting to see if their callous strategy will finally bring the Palestinians to their knees and see them submit to the Israeli government’s diktats.
The Israelis want the Palestinians to give up their right of return in order to get “peace.” The joint Israeli-American “vision” for the Palestinians basically means the imposition of apartheid and keeping them exiled in a never-ending ordeal. The Palestinian people will never accept this injustice. The right of return remains a driving force behind their resistance, as the Great March of Return in Gaza, which started in March last year, demonstrated. All the money in Washington’s coffers will not reverse what is now a deeply embedded belief in the hearts and minds of millions of refugees throughout Palestine, the Middle East and the world.
Palestinian refugees may not top the Middle East’s political agenda at the moment, but it is their persistence, determination and undying hope that will keep their cause alive until international law is respected and their human rights are truly honored.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is “The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story” (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud