Interview: Planning the Nakba Day movement in Lebanon

The Lebanese army attempts to block Palestinian refugees from reaching the border.

Rami Zurayk

On 15 May, approximately 40,000 Palestinian refugees and their supporters traveled from the refugee camps of Lebanon to Maroun al-Ras, a town just one kilometer from the boundary with Israel, to commemorate Nakba Day. With the spirit of the Arab uprisings in the air, this commemoration would be different the many that preceded it. Instead of observing their dispossession with displays of sorrow, the refugees demonstrated their will to return to Palestine with a massive display of unarmed resistance, rushing the border fence by the hundreds and charging into a fusillade of Israeli bullets. By the end of the demonstration, Israeli troops had killed ten demonstrators and wounded dozens.

Four days later, I sat in a hotel lobby on New York City’s Upper West Side with Rami Zurayk, an agronomist at the American University of Beirut and Palestinian rights activist who witnessed the demonstration first-hand. With barely enough time to collect himself before landing in New York, Zurayk overflowed with excitement as he described to me the refugees’ embracing of mass unarmed resistance, and shook with horror while recounting the lethal Israeli reaction, which he called “the ‘Dahiya doctrine’ applied to the Arab Spring.” Named for a Beirut suburb that Israel flattened in the 2006 Lebanon war, the “Dahiya doctrine” is the Israeli army’s justification for the application of disproportionate force against a civilian population.

Zurayk, who is a Lebanese citizen, volunteers inside the impoverished refugee camps and maintains close contact with the Palestinian political grassroots. He described the scene at the planning meeting of the Nakba Day demonstration, where 150 representatives of Palestinian factions and refugee groups gathered to wrangle over the nascent movement’s language and long-term strategy. For the first time in recent memory, leaders of groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum agreed to unite under a single symbol, the Palestinian flag, and to place their factional rivalries aside. Almost as significant, according to Zurayk, was the involvement of Lebanese youth and civil society groups in the planning, as well as wealthy Palestinian students who risked bright futures overseas. “Every Arab wants to be involved in the Arab Spring,” he said.

Having watched revolution succeed in Tunisia and Egypt, Zurayk said the Palestinian refugees would seek to make Israel’s borders into their Tahrir Square, leveling their bodies against a regime that had confiscated their property and denied them the right of return.

Even after enduring what amounted to a massacre, the demonstrators of Maroun al-Ras remain unbowed. On 5 June, a day before the 44th anniversary of the Naksa, or “the setback” of 1967, thousands of refugees plan to return to the border with their homeland, hoping to demonstrate that 15 May was not an isolated, passing phenomenon. Organizers of the march from Lebanon to Israel cancelled the demonstration, opting instead for strikes and protests inside the refugee camps. However, Naksa Day protests are expected to swell at the Qalandia checkpoint and elsewhere throughout Palestine.

Zurayk, who has compiled his insights into a new book, Food, Farming and Freedom: Sowing the Arab Spring, says that repetition and relentlessness will determine the success of the new strategy unfolding in the camps of Lebanon.

Max Blumenthal: What made this year’s Nakba commemoration different than all the others?

Rami Zurayk: Every year the Nakba is commemorated and each year, the commemoration becomes more intense, not less. This year the demonstrations were inspired by the Arab Spring, a massive pacifistic resistance with no weapons and under only one flag — the Palestinian flag. So no factions, no PFLP, no Hamas, no Fatah, just everyone flying one flag and wearing white hats emblazoned with the flag. Like the demonstrations in Tahrir Square and throughout Tunisia, the Nakba Day demonstrators were audacious, tenacious and most of all, repetitive. Repetition is why Tahrir worked — you put your body on the line against repression. So that became our modality.

People arrived at the border in 1,000 buses. All in all, we counted 40,000 to 50,000 people. The Arab Spring is a revolution of the disenfranchised and desperate, and the Palestinians who live in Lebanon certainly fit that description. But what was remarkable about the Nakba Day demonstrations was that they also included rich Palestinians who were not from the camps — students from AUB (American University of Beirut) and Lebanese civil society.

MB: You were a witness to the demonstration where Israel deployed its most lethal violence. What happened?

RZ: After some speeches and music a group of youth moved towards the border. The Lebanese army tried to stop them but there were simply too many demonstrators. One kid rushed towards the fence and draped a Palestinian flag on it. And that was when we lost our first one — the Israeli army shot him. But then, a hundred more people rushed to the fence. This was their reaction! And every five minutes we watched as the Israelis executed another, then another. Nobody was breaking through the fence but they kept shooting. I couldn’t believe my eyes that despite this, people kept moving toward the fence. Old men, women, children — everyone wanted to just catch a glimpse of Palestine even knowing that they would be shot. The thirst for Palestine is so strong. The thirst for return is so strong.

MB: How was the protest planned?

RZ: There was a meeting of 150 people from all walks of life in Beirut that took place weeks before the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. All factions from Palestine, Lebanese youth factions and civil society participated and everyone battled over every word that would appear in our manifesto. Every single word was voted on. It was unbelievable to see the Hamas guy who represents 100,000 people have the same power as an independent person from the camps. In this setting, the lines began to blur and you could not tell who was from what faction any more. In the past, it was impossible to get people from the camps to agree on rallying under one flag and one symbol. But in this meeting everything changed.

MB: The scenes of the protest reminded me of the popular resistance that has taken hold in villages around the West Bank. Has this strategy caught on in the refugee camps and how does it relate to the tactics we saw on display in Tunisia and Egypt?

RZ: What we saw at Maroun al-Ras is the dawn of a completely new strategy that asserts the right to resistance of a pacifist nature. Instead of using the occasion of Nakba Day to cry about the past, the demonstration was dedicated to the future, to the right to return. And so people chanted, “The people want to return to Palestine,” which was a variation on the chants familiar to Tunisia and Egypt: “The people want to overthrow the regime.” And “the people” was not intended to represent the Palestinians in particular; it referred to all free people of the world. The intention was to link the cause of the Palestinian refugee to other ongoing liberation struggles.

MB: The Israelis were clearly unprepared for unarmed resistance at the border. Does this account for their lethal response?

RZ: The Israeli reaction is very revealing. The Israelis have noticed that our modality of resistance is new, at least in terms of refugees, and they have said that they don’t know how to deal with it. They overreacted, killing people who posed no threat, and for what goal? Even if people could have broken through the fence, what could they do? So what we saw with the Israeli reaction was the Dahiya Doctrine applied to the Arab Spring.

Unfortunately for the Israelis, this sort of demonstration will occur again on 5 June. It is intended to be repetitive and relentless, just like Tahrir Square. If they are given the opportunity, the people will keep coming back to the border. The Egyptian army may stop them, and it also depends on the Lebanese army and Lebanon’s foreign policy considerations. But if they can make it to the border, more and more people will join in. Every Arab wants to be part of the Arab Spring. This is not to say that activism is a fad or a fashion, but that people are being gradually drawn into it.

MB: The Israeli army and pro-Israel commentators in the US have claimed that the demonstration in Majdal Shams, when refugees jumped the fence between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, was orchestrated by the Syrian government to distract from the anti-regime uprising, and that it bore “Iranian fingerprints.” To what degree was the Syrian regime or any other government involved in the Nakba Day protests?

RZ: No amount of Syrian money can make people run to a border knowing they will be shot at. If the Syrians are being clever, that is their consideration. But do you really think Palestinians need Syrians to make them want to return to Palestine? They are living in camps with sewage running openly, with no jobs and no opportunities. So the Syrian regime may be under pressure, but even if they do seek to use the protests to their advantage, does it excuse Israeli behavior? Beyond that, it’s so racist to think that the Palestinians do not have agency, that they have to attain their agency from Syria. It’s like they are below human. This is really the Israeli view of Palestinians: that they are sub-humans who can be manipulated by anyone.

At Maroun al-Ras the [demonstrators] could not have arrived to this border without Lebanese army permission, of course. Lebanese security forces couldn’t shoot anyone on this day, whether they wanted to or not. Forty thousand people surrounded them. This showed a shift in the general attitude that developed because the demonstration was organized in collaboration with Lebanese youth and civil society groups. This is a first. And in Lebanese society, this new relationship is of huge significance.

There was an agreement with the army to remain 500 meters away from the fence but that immediately was broken as soon as the people saw Palestine on the other side. This is their promised land. So the army could not stop them from getting closer. Once they saw Palestine, nobody wanted to stay in Lebanon any more!

Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author working in Israel-Palestine. His articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Huffington Post,, Al-Jazeera English and many other publications. He is a writing fellow for the Nation Institute. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.