Rethinking the right of return

By Khaled Diab

Palestinians understandably dream of return, but focusing on the right of return is standing in the way of other, more vital rights.

Friday 18 May 2012

Nakba Day in Ramallah. Photo: © Khaled Diab

At this time of year, there is a sort of bizarre political yin-yang, though one that does not reflect harmony. celebrate their independence and the birth of their country, while Palestinians grieve over their dispossession and the loss of their land. Known to Arabs as the Nakba (catastrophe), it is scorched deep into the collective and private memories of Palestinians.

Perhaps few recall it better than my Palestinian neighbour, a sprightly great-grandmother who turned 90 this year. Born at the start of the British mandate to a prominent Jerusalem family, she gave birth to her second child just months before Israel's declaration of independence. At first, she and her family were determined to stay put during the civil war that broke out following the UN vote to Palestine.

Then the Deir Yassin massacre occurred, leading to general panic among the Palestinian population. Fearing for the safety of their family, my neighbour and her husband packed a couple of suitcases and sought temporary refuge in , then a tiny backwater of just 33,000 inhabitants.

The family has never managed to regain or be compensated for their house in West Jerusalem but, unlike many others, they managed to return to and settle just a few miles from their former home.

But one of the most painful consequences for her is how her family and friends have been scattered across the world. “Time has been hard on us Palestinians. Estrangement and exile is our lot,” she tells me over strong Arabic coffee.

Today, millions of and their descendants live in neighbouring Jordan, , Syria and Egypt, while significant Palestinian diasporas are found in Chile, the US, Honduras, and other countries.

Closely related to the Nakba is another political yin-yang: the Palestinian dream, and Israeli nightmare, of return. Palestinians, particularly the disenfranchised inhabitants of refugee camps, have clung on to their dream for the past 64 years. This is most poignantly symbolised by the keys to their former homes which many families have held on to. Politically, this longing has been expressed by Palestinians in their claimed “right of return”, which has been upheld by a number of UN resolutions, including Resolution 194 of 1948.

Over the past couple of years, the right of return has resumed a central position in Palestinian politics, with many describing it as the top priority of their struggle. This has been reflected not only in political sloganeering but also in last year's bold attempts by thousands of Palestinian refugees in the , Gaza, Syria and Lebanon to march across the border with Israel, during which numerous marchers were killed by Israeli forces.

But at a time when the dream of Palestinian return is perhaps more distant than ever, and more and more Palestinians are being pushed off their lands by , why are so many focusing on what to much of the rest of the world seems like a futile quest?

The reasons are complex and include disappointment and frustration at the crushing of the Palestinian dream of self-determination, on the one hand, and the cynical exploitation of identity politics as a substitute for real policies, on the other. Then there is the aggressive expansion of Israeli settlements, ongoing Israeli Nakba denial, as well as Israel's insistence on a law of return for Jews but no right of return for Palestinians.

However, the trouble is that this fixation on return focuses aspirations on a remote, distant and perhaps unattainable goal, while drawing attention and energy away from the very real issues facing Palestinians across the region. Not only does Israel disenfranchise and discriminate against the Palestinian populations under its control, especially in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians in many Arab countries are denied their rights too.

Perhaps the starkest example is Lebanon where, on the back of fears of upsetting the small country's fragile sectarian balance, some 400,000 Palestinian refugees, many of whom were born in Lebanon, are deprived of numerous basic rights – including citizenship, public healthcare and access to numerous professions – and forced to live in what are effectively ghettos, otherwise known as refugee camps.

Jordan has done more than others to integrate dispossessed Palestinians by granting most of them citizenship but, even there, Palestinians still face a certain amount of discrimination and some of them have been made stateless again.

Though the status of Palestinians in many Arab countries is partly a product of classic xenophobia and a reluctance, as they see it, to pay for Israel's crimes, much of this stems from Palestinian and Arab fears that integrating refugees would hurt their political quest for nationhood and the ever-elusive return.

But what this traditional equation overlooks is that a nation is not the land – which has been declared so “sacred” by both Israelis and Palestinians alike that any number of generations is worth sacrificing at its divine altar – but the sum of its people.

So this Nakba Day, 15 May, it is time for Palestinians to prioritise the people over their lost land, and to campaign, wherever they now live, for their full civil, social and economic rights and their cultural right to be recognised as a distinct community.

That is not to say that Palestinians should forget the Nakba. Just like Jews mourned their “exile” for centuries, Palestinians have a right to keep the memory of their dispossession alive, though this is likely to become more spiritual and symbolic with the passing of each generation.

And perhaps, counterintuitively for us today, as Palestinians cement their identity as a people without a land, they may, in a more tolerant and inclusive future, also start performing a kind of Palestinian version of Aliyah to a land with two peoples.

But, for now, “return” in any form is a highly improbable dream. So, instead, it is far more crucial for Palestinians to remember their present reality and the ongoing Nakba of their disempowerment and disenfranchisement. Though they may be stateless, the most important state the Palestinians need to fight for is a state of individual dignity, equality and self-determination.

This article first appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free on 14 May 2012.

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