This weekend a group of area students including myself will be hosting a groundbreaking conference at Boston University addressing the complex realities of the implementation of the Palestinian refugees’ Right of Return. The goal of this conference is to shape a new narrative that is focused on how to bring about return from a practical standpoint.
“I do not accept the version that [we] should encourage their [the Palestinians’] return … we should prevent their return … we must settle Jaffa, Jaffa will become a Jewish city… we must prevent at all costs their return” is what David Ben Gurion, first Prime Minister of Israel, proclaimed after the establishment of the state on Palestinian land in May 1948.
Israel was in fact born after a deliberate Zionist campaign to clear the area of its native inhabitants which resulted in the expulsion of approximately 700,000 Palestinians from their homes and land that they had nurtured, farmed and lived on for hundreds of years. These events are now known by Palestinians the world over as the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” of 1948, and for them, Ben Gurion’s words carry a tragic meaning.
Legacy and pride
My grandparents personally experienced the suffering caused by the Nakba as they hail from Yazur, a village that was located approximately four miles east of the ancient coastal city of Jaffa, now part of of Tel Aviv. Yazur was one of the many villages that were systematically depopulated of their native Palestinian inhabitants during the Zionist forces’ onslaught on the area in 1947 and 1948.
My grandfather had owned and farmed several plots of land in his village and traded citrus fruits. Since Palestine at the time was a predominantly agrarian society, the loss of land entailed more than a loss of territory for him, but also a weakened sense of identity, legacy and pride.
My grandparents were forced to flee Yazur and sought refuge first in the relatively calmer town of Hebron in the West Bank. They were initially under the impression that they would return after a short period of two or three weeks, but later learned that after the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinian refugees were denied the right to return to their homes. My grandparents eventually settled in Jericho, a West Bank town with a warm climate similar to that of the coast and, like Yazur, famous for its citrus fruits.
My grandfather and his family returned only one time to Yazur — after the 1967 War during which Israel completed its conquest of historic Palestine by occupying the West Bank and Gaza Strip. My family were able to travel their village only as visitors, as all claims to their land and property were not recognized by the Israeli authorities. They found that their homes had been destroyed and replaced by new structures owned by Israelis.
My grandfather fell ill after this trip due to the sorrow and disappointment experienced by witnessing the state of his village. Despite their longing for return, the restrictions on even visiting their home increased immensely after the first and second intifada, and both my grandparents passed away in Jericho never to have lived in Yazur again.
For my grandparents, Ben Gurion’s utterance rang true. Their generation of refugees never returned, and Jaffa and Yazur became a part of Israel. Yet Palestinian steadfastness and attachment to the land from which they were expelled was never conquered despite deliberate Israeli efforts to extinguish them.
Millions of Palestinians in increasing numbers across the world commemorate the Nakba every year on the anniversary of the State of Israel’s founding and hold dearly the Right of Return. Yazur and every other village that was depopulated or demolished is remembered and celebrated.
The campaign of ethnic cleansing that accompanied Israel’s founding made more than half of the total Palestinian population refugees, and the Right of Return thus materialized into an integral and inseparable component of the struggle for liberation and equality.
In fact until justice is achieved, the Right of Return is a central and unshakable component of contemporary Palestinian identity. This inalienable right will thus never be forgotten despite repeated attempts on the part of Israel to obstruct its implementation and prevent its discussion by promoting falsehoods about the origins of the refugee issue.
The Right of Return however, requires a transition from imagination and remembrance — which has generally characterized the discourse so far — towards action. With growing recognition and awareness of the injustices perpetrated against Palestinians, the academic/institutional conversation and examination of the Right must begin to move beyond pointing out the numerous legal and moral justifications for the Return, and instead build plans for practical implementation.
Despite claims to the contrary there are no insurmountable demographic, cultural or spatial obstacles to materializing a Return. This point must be highlighted and used against views that only focus on the obstacles.
Tthe Right of Return Conference will provide a platform for these ideas. The goal is to expand the discourse relating to the Palestinian plight for justice by incorporating the practical methods and implications of Return.
By bringing together leading voices from across the Palestinian Diaspora as well as numerous academics and activists who are instrumental in the global movement for Palestinian rights, we hope to spur new ideas from around the world and create a space for developing the mechanics of the Right of Return’s implementation. We hope the Conference’s output will be an important step in the creation and development of a new narrative that can be used to overcome the political obstacles to Palestinian return, restitution, justice and liberation.
Raed Habayeb is a member of the Right of Return Conference Organizing Committee. He is a MBA student at Boston University and also holds a master’s degree in government and a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering.