Rami Almeghari: As a politician in charge of the Palestinian Center for National Studies and the Palestinian Popular Committee for the Defense of the Right to Return, how do you view the refugee question after 61 years?
Dr. Abdullah al-Hourani: First of all, I am a refugee and I was forced out of Masmaiya town which is between Gaza and Jerusalem. I was 12 and I still remember everything in my village — the school, everything. When I pass by the village en route to Ramallah in the West Bank, I cry, remembering its soil, remembering my school.
My village, my land, my right of return are still there. My house is destroyed, but I am ready to rebuild it if I am allowed to return. I never forgot my village, and nor have my three sons and my grandson.
Throughout our struggle, we kept telling the younger generations to remember their hometowns. If you ask a six-year-old boy, he will answer quickly the name and place of his [family’s] hometown, prior to 1948.
Along with the refugees in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and some Arab countries, there are about one million Palestinians living under the rule of the Israeli state. They are now in the Galilee, the Naqab [Negev] and all these inhabitants insist that those who were displaced should return to their homes.
For instance, Mohammad Baraka, who is a member of Israeli parliament, is originally from the Safuria village, but he is not allowed to live in Safuria. All these refugees including those inside and outside, are still suffering and their main aim is to return to Palestine.
In 1965, the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] stared its work in the refugee camps of Syria and Lebanon, with the main aim of regaining the right of return. So up to now we still insist on this right.
RA: There have been many peace initiatives to resolve the problem of Palestinian refugees, including the 2002 Arab peace initiative, which is based on peace with Israel in exchange for land. Israel has so far turned down all such initiatives. What do you say to this?
AH: Look, whatever Israel refuses or accepts, there will not be any peace in the region unless the right to return is achieved. Also, the Palestinians will not recognize or accept any Palestinian leadership that renounces the right to return.
The Arabs used to take a strong interest in the Palestine problem. In the ’50s and ’60s it was the main cause. Nowadays, however, we find a retreat in the positions of the Arab regimes towards the Palestinian issue.
This has affected the Palestinian leadership and struggle, and we know now that the majority of the Arab regimes are very close in their policies to the American administration. These regimes supported the American war on Iraq, so they are weak in terms of the Palestinian issue. Because of such subordination to American policy, these regimes have sought solutions that go with the American and Israeli interests.
The Arab peace initiative was formulated during the 2002 Arab Summit in Beirut. To the best of my knowledge, this initiative was written by the well-known American journalist Thomas Friedman.
At first the Arab initiative did not include any clause regarding the Palestinian refugee problem. But during the 2002 summit meeting, the Lebanese president insisted on including that part. There was a sentence that read “a solution can be worked out during talks, based on UN resolution 194.”
Now there is a tendency by the Arab regimes to give more concessions. The Jordanian king, for example, returned recently from Washington with a new proposal that is based on removing that clause and on Arab countries taking steps towards normalization with Israel, such as recognizing Israel, before any peace talks.
I would like to assure you that no Palestinian leadership should accept that, otherwise it would be punished by the Palestinian people.
RA: Recently, the Israeli government has hinted at the possibility of creating economic prosperity in the occupied territories, sidelining the two-state solution proposed by Washington as well as the Arab peace initiative.
AH: In general, all Israeli governments are against the right of return, not only Netanyahu’s government, but all his predecessors. But the current government comes with the support of racist Israeli parties. This will complicate more and more the possibility for return to Palestine. This government does not want to be in conflict with the current American administration, which supports peace.
The Israelis try to show they are interested in peace but they didn’t yet recognize a two-state solution, and they insist that Palestinians should recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This means that Israel is obliterating the right of Palestinians to live on the soil of Palestine. Such a policy indicates that the conflict is a conflict about existence.
RA: US president Barack Obama recently indicated that Washington wants the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations to end in a final agreement.
AH: Bush also always reiterated his vision to realize a successful end to peace negotiations but he did not succeed. So this speech by Obama doesn’t mean he will succeed. Maybe Obama himself has new views or new policies, maybe because of his origins, culture or charisma.
But the question is, will he be able to change American policies in just two or three years? These policies are based on American institutions for hundreds of years with definite guidelines. Also, there is a great influence by the Zionist movement on American policies, therefore it will not be easy for Obama to enforce a change.
I think Obama would rather pressure the Arab regimes, towards recognizing Israel before coming to a result regarding peace. And if Israel gains that, Israel will not consider real peace.
If the Arab regimes modify their peace initiative by dropping the demand for the right of return, Israel won’t consider peace with Arabs and there won’t be peace in the region or a Palestinian state. Israel is now considering getting rid of Gaza to Egypt and finding a solution for the West Bank in connection with Jordan.
RA: How do current Palestinian division between Hamas and Fatah overshadow the right of return in particular and the Palestinian question in general? I mean here the separate political platforms proclaimed by both parties.
AH: This division is further complicating the situation, including the right of return, establishing an independent Palestinian state and everything. Such a split is even giving a chance to Israel and the Arab regimes to neglect the Palestinian question.That’s why the Palestinians must try to find a solution to unite themselves as a people, a government or a land. Only this would strengthen the Palestinian situation vis a vis Israel, the Arabs and the United States.
RA: As a veteran Palestinian politician and a refugee, what do you say to upcoming refugee generations?
AH: I would like to apologize to these generations because we failed to achieve any results after these prolonged years of the Nakba [catastrophe], but I would like to emphasize that we have succeeded to keep our people steadfast on their lands and persistent in seeking their inalienable rights. Also, we have succeeded in maintaining the Palestinian identity and convincing the international community that there is a Palestinian people and there are rights for this people, and we succeeded in gaining the recognition of more than 100 countries for our rights. Even though we have not achieved those rights we kept those rights alive. The next generations should continue the struggle and achieve what we have failed to realize.
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.