Print this page

The Body Shop 2002 Human Rights Award Focuses Attention on Internally Displaced Palestinians

A human rights award given by an international cosmetics company has focused attention on an oft-ignored group of Palestinian refugees: those living as exiles inside the land occupied by Israel in 1948. The Body Shop selected the Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Internally Displaced (ADRID), as one of four recipients of its annual international award in recognition of the work of human rights campaigners.
The situation confronting the 250,000 refugees inside Israel, classified by the Israeli Absentee Property Law under the surreal oxymoron “Present Absentees,” demonstrates that there can be no just solution for Palestinians without recognition of the rights of those inside the Green Line. The work of ADRID, and individual village-based societies like the Saffuriyya Heritage Association featured here, must be supported internationally as an integral part of the work of campaigning for the right of return. Palestinian refugees inside the 1948 border began to take a more active role in campaigning for their rights following the 1991 Madrid conference. It became clear that official channels, both Palestinian and international negotiators, were not going to place the issue of 1948 Palestinians (refugees or not) on the agenda. ADRID was formed in the wake of this realization, and their efforts have recently received international recognition by The Body Shop. The award has given their campaign a welcome boost. In October, members of the committee flew to London to receive the award before an audience of over 350 guests from the British media, parliament and NGOs. The honour was shared with groups from Honduras, Kenya and Bulgaria, all of whom are campaigning for rights for indigenous peoples, demonstrating that this issue has the potential to reach an international audience. ADRID is a grassroots network supporting community-based organisations campaigning for the right of return for refugees inside the 1948 borders. Providing moral and practical support, the group works to restore destroyed communal property and religious sites (graveyards, churches, mosques) and undertakes documentation of history, demography, and properties of internally displaced Palestinians.

Saffuriyya

Suffuriya Heritage Association in the Galilee is an example of an independent village based group supported by ADRID. The work of this particular committee clearly demonstrates the increased level of political activity amongst the 1948 refugees at both a village-based level and amongst the younger generation.

In 1948, the Galilean village of Saffuriyya was larger than the nearest district town of Nazareth. Famous in Roman times as Sepphoris, with the remains of a coliseum still visible, Saffuriyya’s hilltop is today covered with a pine forest planted by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) to commemorate such random events as Guatemalan Independence Day. The somewhat dilapidated fortress of Zahir al-‘Umar al-Zaydani (ruler of northern Palestine for short period during the second half of the 18th century) still stands, but it is no longer surrounded by a Palestinian village. An Israeli moshav (farming settlement) named Tzippori now sits on the lands of Saffuriyya, its travel brochures welcome tourists to see its ancient Roman ruins, but never acknowledge the ethnic cleansing of an entire Palestinian village half a century ago. Israeli forces occupied Saffuriyya, a town with over 4,000 Palestinian residents and 55 000 dunums of land, on 15 July 1948. Many people fled to Lebanon or farther afield, but a large number found themselves living just a few kilometers away in the Nazareth neighbourhood of Saffafra, on the edge of what is today the largest all-Palestinian city inside the Jewish state. Ziad Awaisy points through the locked gate amongst the trees to the place where his family used to live. He describes himself as “pure Suffuri,” since all four of his grandparents were born in the village. As part of the Suffuriya Heritage Association, Ziad was on the organizing team in last October’s festival for the residents of Saffuriya, which was held in Saffafra. The organizers decided to make a film of the testimonies of those members of the older generation who can still remember the days prior to exile in 1948.
“We brought people back here to the site of the village to film their reactions, and people remembered every little shape and detail, irrespective of how the landscape had changed,” said ‘Awaisy. “We visited the convent still working in the village that used to serve our people as a clinic and a girl’s school.”
The Saffuriyya Heritage Association began to work in 1993, with the aim of keeping the memory of the village alive in the memories of the second and third generation. With this goal in mind, a whole variety of activities emerged. After a long struggle with the Israeli authorities, villagers succeeded in fencing off and cleaning up one of the cemeteries (al-maqbara al-ummumiyya) that had been neglected and partly destroyed by Zionist forces and subsequent settlement. The group organized a demonstration by another vandalized cemetery, the Ashraf cemetery, near the castle of Zahir al-‘Umar.
Visits for the refugees are not trouble-free, with Jewish residents calling police three times in the filming of the recent festival documentary. “One Romanian living here started accusing us of trying to set fire to his house. But when we talked further, I saw that it was not this that he was afraid of. Looking at us, he was afraid that we wanted to come and take back our homes,” ‘Awaisy noted. People have been arrested trying to enter land classified as private property, just because they wanted to see where they used to live, or visit a family grave.

The internally displaced from Suffuriyya have big plans for the future. “We are trying to establish a small museum with all the instruments and tools and artifacts we’ve collected from people over the years,” explained Awaisy. “We want to build a small information center to gather information about Suffuriya and the names of the people and places that they live in today. It would be ideal if we could hire a place in the neighbourhood in Nazareth where the majority of Saffuriyya people live, in order to continue our activities within the community. Not only would this be a base for activities (films, lectures, adult literacy classes), but this would enable us to strengthen our work with journalists and groups visiting Saffuriyya.” But of course such plans need money.

Despite having no official premises, the organization has coordinated many visits to the site of their destroyed village, and organized activities from people’s homes. Last year a team of woman ministers from the UK accompanied by Christian Aid visited Saffuriyya as part of a solidarity visit, and later in the year a BBC documentary team paid a visit. The group has already produced three books and magazines, and organized an annual festival. The Association is determined to keep the memory alive sending “to almost every house in the neighbourhood copies of old pictures and a small bag of sand from Saffuriyya.”
Israeli democracy?
Refugees inside the 1948 borders are part of the one million Palestinians living inside Israel that are labeled and classified by the Israeli state as ‘Israeli Arabs.’ The fact that many outside Israel do the same contributes to the perception that 1948 Palestinians are an Israeli ‘domestic issue’ – i.e. not worthy of international support. The 2003 Israeli elections focused more attention than usual on the potential role of ‘Arab-Israelis’. It seems that the only factor of interest about the community was which way they would vote, whether this 20% of the Israeli electorate would back the Labor Party and its new leader Amram Mitzna, Palestinian parties, or simply boycott the election.

For the 1948 Palestinian community inside Israel, the election brought little hope of change. “Some of us vote, some don’t, but we try to unite people of all parties to work on the untouchable issue of the right of return.” The furore over whether or not Israel would let Palestinian parliamentarians Azmi Bishara and Ahmed Tibi even stand for reelection, meant that there was little hope that any winners in the Israeli election would take a positive stand on the rights of any refugees, ‘internal’ or otherwise. Internally displaced refugees are struggling to keep their issue on the agenda as part of the wider campaign for the right of return. “Our issue symbolizes the core of ethnic discrimination and the violation of Palestinian national rights,” states ADRID. “Raising awareness of the issue of the internally displaced on the local and international levels will increase awareness of the historic international responsibility for one of the most critical issues which will never be outdated.”
To support or find more information about the Saffouriyya Heritage Association, please contact Ziad Awaisy, email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Isabelle Humphries is a freelance journalist working for the 1948 workers' rights NGO Sawt al-Amil, and is just embarking on PhD research focusing on the situation for 1948 Palestinians living in Nazareth.
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.