This state could not have come into being without the taking of homes, land and personal possessions of those displaced or left behind. These individual acts are embodied in the act of the occupation of the entire Palestinian national home, the confiscation of its people’s properties and identity, and the destruction of over 531 communities and villages.
Since the beginning of the Nakba (Palestinian Catastrophe) in 1948, the notion of ‘Return’ has evolved from localized and community-based initiatives for raising awareness to a political force, represented and established worldwide. This evolution came as a response to the Oslo process; a process created to alienate the Palestinian people from their rights and their unified national liberation movement.
It is also the result of the natural evolution of the political consciousness of the Palestinian people, who have never ceased to develop creative strategies for claiming their rights and identity.
While the Oslo process addressed the two main groups of Palestinian refugees - the refugees, theirright of return, restitution and compensation as enshrined in UN Resolution 194, and Palestinians living as Israeli citizens in 1948 occupied Palestine – it was decided that the latter group would be treated as an internal Israeli issue, as if outside the mandate of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Displaced Palestinians in Israel were forced to assimilate and work within the Israeli system, as though their case was only a call for equal rights as citizens of Israel. This, although the original platform of the Palestinian national movement had considered Nazareth and Haifa as cities as Palestinian as Rafah, East Jerusalem and Jenin.
It also considered Palestinians displaced within Israel as an integral part of the Palestinian refugee question, i.e. one cause for one national home. The Oslo Accords were an inevitable manifestation of the disproportionate balance of power between the parties and the main factor that led to the loss of vision of the Palestinian national movement. In other terms, Oslo was a diversion forced on the Palestinian leadership, albeit “temporarily”, which destroyed the integrity of the Palestinian cause. Hence, the unbalanced nature of the Oslo Accords raised serious questions regarding the leadership’s desire for a just and peaceful solution.
Palestinian Israeli citizens were excluded from the negotiations, and therefore, marginalized from the national movement. Since then, however, a new consciousness has emerged which rejects this state of separation.
This consciousness also encourages people to be more independent from the Palestinian negotiators and work towards solutions for themselves. For Palestinians in Israel, this means that they have to defend their rights and prevent an agreement based on power relations rather than justice. In a deal based on power, Palestinian internally displaced and refugees could lose their inalienable right of return, and the ethnic Jewish character of Israel and its institutional racism would be reinforced. In fact, the negotiation process gave rise to new awareness among Palestinians in Israel of two parallel needs: the need to build new tools of struggle and the need to reinforce their own national institutions.
The establishment of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel (ADRID) in 1995 represents an example from that period of time. Built by and for the displaced in Israel, its charter is very clear. Their approach does not address the status of Palestinian citizens of Israel, but rather the core demands of the Palestinian movement, such as
the right of return as enshrined in UN Resolution 194 and Palestinian national rights, including the internally displaced as part of the overall Palestinian refugee question. In fact, the internally displaced in Palestine and the refugees in exile do not have separate identities.
They are part of the same communities, the same culture, and the same families, and both were forcibly displaced during the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. In addition, towns, villages and properties affected by the displacement do not belong to the internally displaced alone, but rather to all the refugees. They are in fact the property of the Palestinian people as a whole.
Palestinian negotiators who supported the Oslo process, originally for their own ambitions, were amongst those opposed to transforming the dream of return into a political or national demand.
Because it stands for the darkest side of the Palestinian dispossession, the right of return is a core component of the Palestinian cause, and the basis of a just solution. However, these negotiators and persons of influence in the Palestinian Authority wanted to address the issue of the internally displaced in Israel in a “practical” way and in line with the Israeli position that it was a purely humanitarian issue. They aimed to separate the internally displaced from the right of return and the Palestinian political projectHence, the perception was that linking the issue of the Palestinians in Israel with the Palestinian national liberation would obstruct the negotiations and the “dream of Oslo”. The dream of liberation through Oslo, however, was quickly destroyed by Israel, irrespective of the fact that the Osloaffiliated Palestinian leadership continues holding on to it. Indeed, this Palestinian leadership still regards the Oslo Accords as the basis for negotiations with Israel, while the occupying power has long stripped itself from all obligations under these agreements.
According to Israel, the current balance of powers require that positions of the Palestinian leadership must be approved by the United States in order to be recognized by Israel. The Israeli formula requires that the Palestinians change their positions for the sake of advancing the peace process, irrespective of continued occupation, aggression, forced displacement, racism and destruction of the Palestinian identity by Israel. Of course, this situation did not begin with the Palestinian Authority but is rather a product of the vulnerability of the PLO. According to Shimon Peres, the reason why Israel recognized the PLO was because the organization was in a fragile position and could be easily manipulated by Israel in the negotiations.
The integration of the cause of Palestinian citizens of Israel and those in the 1967 occupied Palestinian territory contradicts the Israeli-U.S. vision of partition that guided the Oslo Accords. Israel and the United States wanted to limit the role of the PLO and prevented it from raising the question of Palestinians inside 1948 Palestine (i.e. Israel) as part of the Palestinian national movement.
Palestinian negotiators, moreover, underestimated the importance of Israeli public opinion. They perceived the attitudes of Israeli citizens as being fixed and static, rather than dependent upon political and social developments. They also failed to consider changes in Israeli public opinion, especially opinions which expressed a sense of “danger”, i.e. the danger of granting Palestinians some rights. The Palestinian leadership assumed that if they separated the issue of the internally displaced in Israel from the issue of the refugees, they would be portrayed in a positive light in Israeli public opinion which allegedly supported a just solution. Howe ver, the overwhelming majority of the Israeli public is strongly opposed to granting rights to Palestinians, such as the right of return, whenever they feel that such rights challenge their own status. Israel was built on the destruction of the Palestinian people.
This does not necessarily mean that the same strong opposition exists with regard to rights and solutions that do not challenge the notion of Israel as a Jewish state, and it may not be equally strong if one tries to find a solution for both, Jews in Israel and Palestinians, based on one of the various models of a one-state solution.
The transformation of the struggle of the Palestinian-Arab popular movement from an issue-based into an organized political struggle for the national agenda is a matter of great importance and complexity. The transformation of the issue of the internally displaced in Israel into a project of national struggle requires certain conditions, such as the creation of a community-based ovement of institutions capable of taking on a strategic national project as part of the Palestinian vision. For this aim, the popular movement must be transformed so that it relates to the core of the political and national aspirations of the Palestinians in Israel. While in the past it was the role of the political parties to serve as the guardians of the issue of the refugees and internally displaced and the issue of Islamic property, organizations and committees for the rights of refugees and the internally displaced have recently emerged.
They have organized annual “Right of Return” marches on the day of Al- Nakba; memorials on the day of the establishment of the state of Israel under the slogan, “Their Independence - Our Catastrophe;” and, since 2003, “Right of Return” conferences in Israel. All these activities aim to put the issue of the internally displaced on the public agenda, build popular consciousness, and make it an integral part of the Palestinian national project.
The last ponit deserving mention is the relationship between Palestinians in Israel and those in exile. The roots of this relationship go back to the common experience of forced issue of refugees and internally displaced must be developed based on these roots. This is the task of all Palestinian people, not of the refugees and displaced alone, and any attempt to break up or separate the components of the Palestinian cause will weaken and dilute the Palestinian national struggle as a whole.
In order to move forward, we need to transform our work for the right of return by representing both Palestinian refugees and the internally displaced within a unified Palestinian leadership encompassing the needs of all Palestinians, irrespective of their geographic location or status. In addition, we need to rebuild the Palestinian national liberation movement with a vision based on the principles of justice and reparations and aiming towards a future based on our collective rights, memories and history as a nation.
In 2008 we will commemorate 60 years of Nakba. Events will be organized across Palestine, and this is an opportunity for a reassessment of the long journey and the power of the right of return. Amir Makhoul is a Palestinian writer and analyst, and general director of Ittijah, the Union of Palestinian Associations and Community-based Organizations based in Haifa. This article was first published by BADIL in its Arabic-language magazine Haq al-Awda.