Palestinian refugee children play in the Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, March 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)
When the first news came from Tunis and Tel Aviv in early September 1993 about the secret talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Israeli government, the people of Palestine inside and in the exile were torn between enthusiasm and optimism on the one hand, and doubt and skepticism on the other. “Let’s wait and see,” said many then.
The situation of uncertainty did not last long. A week later, the secret Oslo talks were revealed and we learned that the parties had concluded the talks with a Declaration of Principles that was to pave the way for final status negotiations on the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people, i.e. the agreement which became known as the Oslo Agreement or the Declaration of Principles.
Later on, when the text of the agreement was opened to the public, the Israeli press was the first to publish. I ran to the Israeli Press Office in West Jerusalem to get a copy — it was published then only in Hebrew and English. Reading the original English copy, I was not only shocked but also deeply alarmed and upset, because I had expected that the PLO leadership would not surrender and, at the minimum, uphold the fundamental national rights and base any agreement on UN resolutions and international law. Reading the agreement, I searched for references to the core issue of the conflict, i.e. the refugee issue, and found it mentioned only in a few words as an issue scheduled “for discussion in the final status negotiations.” I thus understood that there were no guarantees or principles recognized for dealing with this most central issue of the conflict, and that the future of the large majority of the Palestinian people who are refugees was uncertain.
The above immediately gave rise to troublesome questions: what to do about such deterioration? Who can do what? Is it possible to reinstate peoples’ rights as a solid basis for peace and coexistence in the region? These questions and hundreds more were ringing in the heads of activists, mainly those who had been heavily involved in the first intifada, not only in Palestine but also in communities in exile. In fact, those concerned initially were a very small number of people, while the scene in the streets was heartbreaking: people were dancing and celebrating the coming peace and a promising future on the eve of 13 September 1993; they had no idea what the Israeli government had in store for them. These public celebrations showed clearly that our people are keen for peace and justice; they were ready to place flowers on the jeeps of the Israeli occupation army which only a day before was killing them. The scene was amazing and a clear statement by the Palestinian people of forgiveness, tolerance and acceptance of the other.
Those were the conditions and circumstances in which early preparations for the grassroots right of return movement started in 1993-94. More organized action followed in 1995, based on the first large popular conference convened in the former al-Fara’a military detention center opposite the al-Fara’a refugee camp. Some 1,500 participants had come to this conference from all over historic Palestine, and it marked the beginning of the grassroots right of return movement. More initiatives, including specialized workshops and popular conferences, followed the al-Fara’a conference between 1996 and 2000, in places such as Nazareth, Bethlehem, Gaza, Beirut, Copenhagen, Berlin, Washington, Vancouver, London and many others.
Still, the obstacles and challenges for the activists who then led these initiatives were tremendous.
The majority of the Palestinian public still believed that their fundamental rights would now be implemented, because they had formed the minimum national program of the PLO for so long: the independent state with Jerusalem as its capital and the return of the refugees to their homes.
There was a lack of popular culture and experience with building lobbies or special interest groups, and with shaping programs for campaigns that aim to advance specific issues. Thus, for example, a campaign for the protection of Palestinian residency rights in Jerusalem in the early 1990s was accused of “fragmenting the national rights and the cause,” and similar criticism was raised when the campaign for refugee rights started in the mid-1990s. At the early stage, moreover, some people and many of the Palestinian political leadership thought that the popular right of return campaign would develop into a new political party or was intended as an alternative to the PLO, and the campaign was accused of being driven by “external forces” opposed to the PLO.
In Israel, the campaign was immediately branded as being a challenge to Israel’s “right to exist,” as “extremist” undermining the authority of then President Yasser Arafat, and as “fundamentally opposed to peace.” Israeli journalists argued that the campaign undermined Palestinian statehood, weakened the camp of moderate Palestinians, and shifted the public mood from conciliation to hostility. They did so, in order to put pressure on the Palestinian leadership and political activists and cause internal division and conflict.
The Palestine solidarity movement in the West did not understand the campaign initially. Many solidarity activists wondered what was the problem of these people, and why they were speaking about the refugees in times when the Palestinians were finally getting their state based on the Oslo Agreement. In short, the international community at large thought that everything was settled and that we should move on to something else.
Finally, the popular right of return campaign was faced with a serious lack of resources. Although hundreds, if not thousands of people were ready to contribute as volunteers, there was a shortage of professional skills and financial resources required for global networking, production of tools for public education and awareness-raising and effective media work
These obstacles and challenges, in particular those found in the internal, Palestinian arena, have played a major role in shaping the campaign. They taught its activists to work with and for the people, to be patient, tolerant and modest, and to build solid partnerships. Education and awareness-raising was undertaken in many different ways, through talking and writing, small meetings with selected cadre that could influence the political leadership, workshops with opinion leaders among their communities, as well as through public rallies and demonstrations.
Initially, all these efforts were focused on one main question: “how can we stop the demoralization among the refugees in Palestine and in the exile and bring back hope and strength?” The answer was found in the creation and broad dissemination of slogans which affirmed Palestinian refugee rights in a simple language, such as: “the right of return is sacred,” “the right of return is possible and realistic” and “my home is my dignity.” The next step was to give substance to these slogans by introducing refugee communities to relevant international law and a rights-based approach to the refugee issue through lectures, workshops and discussions conducted in the camps, and to ensure the widest-possible public outreach through the local media.
Nowadays, some 15 years later, we should be proud of the Palestine Return Movement’s achievements:
New community centers, committees and non-governmental organizations have been formed wherever Palestinians live, and Palestinian communities are more aware of their rights and better organized. Efforts at training the youth and building a new generation of community leaders have been started. Since 2000, individuals, groups and organizations have become more connected across borders; they have formed networks and coalitions, which jointly organize conferences and function as pressure groups.
Research and literature produced in this period have succeeded in closing gaps in information and knowledge, while new and diverse tools of struggle have been developed for stronger impact. Today, the repertoire of tools is no longer limited to right of return rallies and demonstrations; it rather includes fact-finding visits, petitions, advocacy and lobbying among policy makers, the use of elections as an opportunity for pressuring candidates for a clear and rights-based position on the refugee question, and the strategy global campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel which has gained considerable strength and momentum over the past few years.
The Palestine Return Movement has succeeded in revitalizing the Palestinian consensus about the centrality of the right to return for the future of the Palestinian people and peace in the region. This consensus is expressed in similar language by a large majority of the Palestinian public, organized civil society and the media, as well as in public statements of the Palestinian leadership. Understanding and support of this Palestinian consensus, as well as the need for a solution of the Palestinian refugee issue in accordance with international law, have increased considerably also among the global solidarity movement and a small but important minority of Jews in Israel.
Looking forward for ways this movement can be sustained and become even more effective, we see a need to move on, beyond the focus on the right of return per se, and towards building a Palestinian culture and struggle for actual return. Creative and practical plans and methods, as well as more direct action, will be required for this purpose.
Muhammad Jaradat is the Coordinator of the Campaign Unit of Badil. He can be contacted at camp A T badi D O T org. This essay was originally published by al-Majdal, Badil’s English-language quarterly. Al-Majdal’s special Nakba 60th anniversary issue is now available online (click here to download PDF).