Exiles within: Palestinian internal refugees get organized

“As part of the entire Arab-Palestinian people, we wish to declare: The refugee issue is the heart of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Palestinian refugees’ right to return to their homeland and homes is a sacred right whose implementation must be based on UN Resolution 194. We warn of the consequences of conspiracies against Palestinian refugee rights, whether conducted openly or behind closed doors. We state with a loud voice that there will be no just solution without a solution of the issue of the refugees and the internally displaced.”

(The National Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced Palestinians in Israel — February 2000)

The promotion of a resolution foregoing refugees’ right of return by the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem minister Sari Nusseibeh and his interlocutor, former Shabak head Ami Ayalon, has infuriated Palestinians worldwide. A recent human rights award given by an international cosmetics company, The Body Shop, has focused attention on an oft-ignored group of Palestinian refugees struggling against such initiatives: those living as exiles inside Israel.

When I tell activists abroad or in the West Bank and Gaza that I work for a Palestinian NGO in Nazareth I often get a similar reaction: a half-disappointed look crosses their faces as they say “Oh, in Israel, you mean.” The one million Palestinians living inside Israel are labeled and classified in a box by the Israeli state as “Israeli Arabs.” The disturbing fact is that many people who claim to support Palestinian rights, both foreigners and Palestinians, do precisely the same thing.

Palestinian researcher Nadim Rouhana conducted a survey in 1989 (during the first intifada) asking Palestinian university students in Israel how they wished to be defined. 43.5% chose Palestinian in Israel, 25.7% Palestinian Arab, 10.6% Israeli Palestinian, 5.5% Palestinian Arab in Israel, 4.5% Palestinian, 4.1% Arab, 2.7% Israeli, 2.1% other and only 1.4% Israeli Arab (Rouhana, Palestinian Citizens in an Ethnic Jewish State 1997, New Haven: Yale University Press). And this was over a decade ago, before the killing of 13 unarmed Palestinian citizens of Israel at the beginning of the current Intifada. Professor Rouhana’s survey demonstrates that Palestinians inside Israel are hardly denying their Palestinian identity.

Palestinians inside Israel are, of course, not facing the same militarily imposed curfew and dangers faced by their compatriots in the West Bank and Gaza. Yet the exclusion and second-class status that the 1948 Palestinians experience daily is a direct result of the same Zionist ideology and practices, resulting in the consolidation of a state for one cultural/religious group at the expense of all others.

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 a recognition of the rights of those inside the Green Line.


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 to commemorate such random events as Guatemalan Independence Day. Daher al-Umar’s somewhat dilapidated fortress 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 acknowlede the ethnic cleansing of an entire Palestinian village half a century ago.

Israeli forces occupied Saffuriyya, a town with over 4000 Palestinian residents and 55 000 dunams 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 what is today the largest all-Palestinian city inside the state of Israel.

The Nazareth neighbourhood of Saffafra houses refugees from Saffuriyya who initially believed that they were only taking up temporary residence. These people are part of the 300,000 strong community of Palestinian refugees given Israeli citizenship, their existence recognized but their rights to their ancestral lands denied.

“I was born under that tree”

Umm Ahmad points across the field to the tree marking the spot where she was born. The tree is the marker because the building no longer stands. Umm Ahmad spends everyday sitting and watching her husband in the fields of Saffuriya as he tends the crops. Both are from the village, but Abu Ahmad is paid as a wage laborer by Tzippori’s Jewish farmers. Every night they must return to Nazareth.

For decades the couple have come to work on the land, sheltering from the hot midday sun under a small nylon awning. Last month, Israeli antiquities police tore down their shelter, as it was judged to be “too close” to the ancient well of Saffuriyya, apparently a matter of great import to the historical narrative and national defence of the State of Israel.

Ziad ‘Awaisy pointed 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. He, along with other refugees, recently organized a festival for the residents of Saffuriya, which was held in Nazareth’s Saffafra neighborhood. 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.

Visits for the refugees are not trouble-free. “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.

Refugees 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.

“Internal” 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 the National Committee. “Raising awareness of the issue of the internally displaced on the local and international levels will increase awareness of the historical international responsibility for one of the most critical issues which will never be be outdated.”

Activism rewarded

Palestinian refugees inside the 1948 border started to take a more active role in campaigning for their rights following the 1991 Madrid conference. It became clear to them that official channels, both those of Palestinian and international negotiators, were not going to place the issue of 1948 Palestinians (refugees or not) on the agenda. The National Committee for the Defence of the Rights of Internally Displaced was formed in the wake of this realization, and recently they received a reward for their efforts from The Body Shop.

This has given their campaign a welcome and much-needed boost. Last week 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 award was shared with groups from Honduras, Kenya and Bulgaria, all of whom are campaigning for rights for indigenous peoples, and shows that this issue has the potential to reach an international audience.

The group was nominated for the award by Badil, the refugee rights NGO based in Bethlehem, which considers the issue of refugee rights to be universal, regardless of whether refugees are situated in Lebanon, Gaza or the Galilee. With increasing talk of transfer and with the revelation of compromise initiatives such as the Nusseibeh-Ayalon proposal, it is essential that NGOs and the activist community committed to seeing the right of return’s realization take up the case of the 1948 Palestinians.

There may be no tanks in Nazareth, but it may yet prove to be a grave mistake to consider transfer a matter of no concern for 1948 Palestinians.

Isabelle Humphries works for the Palestinian workers’ rights NGO Sawt al-Amil in Nazareth and writes for the Cairo Times.