Tel Aviv conference organizes around the right of return

Wakim Wakim, secretary of the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced speaks at Zochrot conference. (Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Late last month a conference on the Implementation of the Palestinian right of return was organized by the Israeli human rights organization Zochrot (Hebrew for “The Remembering”). Zochrot is an anti-Zionist, pro-justice group that works diligently to raise awareness within Israeli Jewish society about the Palestinian Nakba or forced displacement that began in 1948 and continues to this day. Zochrot defines the Nakba as “ground zero of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” from which all discussions on justice, equality and security for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians should be centered.

(Nora Barrows-Friedman)

Ironically, the conference was held at the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) House, the only conference center in Tel Aviv that Zochrot claimed would agree to host the program. Apparently, capitalism trumped ideology as ZOA is a private organization that doesn’t receive money — or directives — from the Tel Aviv municipality, which was “concerned” about the context of the conference and therefore made it hard for Zochrot to find a venue. The lecture halls were filled with attendees ranging across different generations of Israeli society — from anti-Zionist elderly survivors of the Nazi Holocaust to young Tel Aviv hipster activists in Che Guevara t-shirts.

In her opening address, Norma Musih, Assistant Director of Zochrot, outlined the context in which this conference was to be structured. “Israel has to acknowledge what happened in 1948. The right of return for Palestinians will happen — and Israel and its people will be changed radically,” Musih said. “The Zionist movement will eventually become irrelevant in the future as a minority in Palestine.”

Wakim Wakim, born in 1958 to refugee parents expelled from al-Bassa (near Akka in the north of historic Palestine), is one of thousands of internally displaced Palestinian refugees with Israeli citizenship. Secretary of ADRID, the Association for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced, Wakim’s presentation was clear on the role that Israeli society must play during the return of Palestinians to their homeland. “Of course there are fears and anxieties within Jewish Israeli society [of the Palestinian right of return] … but the negative implications of the non-realization of the right of return are far greater a threat to Israeli society.”

He added that:

“The ongoing Nakba has turned Palestine into one big ghetto that no one can protect. Palestinians will never give up their rights — and there is enough evidence to prove that it is impossible to defeat Palestinian resistance — therefore, we need a revolution of thinking within the 1948 borders, to ensure the rights of all of us based on legal arrangements, mutual citizenship, a constitution, a separation of religion and state, a new legal system to adapt to the new reality, et cetera. An entirely new definition of a collective identity is all of our responsibility.”

Ingrid Jaradat of BADIL, the Bethlehem-based Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights, talked about strategic steps to implement the right of return on the ground. Jaradat explained why the so-called “two-state solution” framework is problematic. “This ‘realistic solution’ to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is totally unrealistic,” she explained. “The only solution is one based on the right of return and the dignity of justice. No solution is tenable with the denial of justice for Palestinians … A main focus of the last twenty years in Israeli politics and in Israeli media has been to target the dream of Palestinians — to destroy the dream of return, to make it seem like a persistent and irrational idea. Israelis have never been challenged on this — yet Palestinians are consistently challenged and are expected to reject their dream and their rights. We should be ready to fight.”

Jaradat gave several suggestions on implementing the right of return, prefacing her comments by stating that “all of the steps have to be uniformly implemented by Israeli Jews, Palestinians in the occupied territories, those inside 1948, and in the global diaspora.”

She added that:

“There are three main simultaneous steps. Number one is vision-building. We have to know why we are doing this and look toward the end theme. We want one state with constitutional principles to make the right of return practically possible. Two, we need to educate others and teach ourselves about the strategic ways people could return, where they will live. This could be done with external support, by international bodies, who can dedicate budgets and resources to study this. And three, there should be an ongoing effort to weaken and isolate the discriminatory political regime that prevents the Palestinian right of return. This can be done by ‘spontaneous return,’ when individuals organize themselves to return back to their land.”

Jaradat also urged the continued campaigns of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. “BDS is an important component of holding war criminals accountable for current and historical violations of Palestinian people’s rights. This is a holistic approach toward realizing Palestinian refugee rights — every one of us working on small parts of one big plan,” she concluded.

Yael Lerer, political activist with the Balad Party in the Israeli Knesset (the party of exiled Member of the Knesset, Azmi Bishara), outlined several important points in the context of implementing the Palestinian right of return within Israeli society. “The only possible life we can live is one of co-existence,” she implored. “There is no room for barriers, fences, the further division of this land … we cannot have any reservations toward the right of return.” Lerer expressed disdain for the current US policies toward Israel. “We have to challenge AIPAC. With their influence, we’re seeing US presidential candidates fighting over who can be more Zionist than the other.”

Lerer was asked by an audience member how to envision the practical aspects of Palestinian refugees exercising their right of return back to land that is now settled by Jewish Israelis, in towns, cities, villages and kibbutzes. “These are discussions that need to happen,” Lerer responded. “We should have think-tanks inside every kibbutz. Start planning within our own communities, with other communities. This is exactly the activity that needs to start happening, with or without the approval of the government.”

The second panel of the conference, entitled “Planning Projects for the Return,” focused on several villages that were depopulated by Zionist militias during 1948 and through the last several decades. Israeli and Palestinian architects and urban planners documented strategic projects that could incorporate Palestinian refugees back into the land of their villages. Buthania Dabit, a charismatic architect from Ramle, talked about resurrecting the old cities in existing but threatened towns such as Ramle and Lydd. Those two Palestinian-Jewish communities inside present-day Israel have seen active demolition of Palestinian homes, racist persecution of Palestinian residents by Israeli police forces, and intensive “ghettoization” by the state, along with a massive gentrification process, now easily seen in the city of Jaffa as well.

“In all of the negotiations and peace agreements, there is no voice of the refugees,” Dabit said. “We’re not even on the map … We have to create a vision of mixed cities once again, the way it was before 1948.”

The third panel, “After the Return,” was a chance to hear about ideas for the framework that must be incorporated into the social fabric of a new society once Palestinian refugees come back home. Sami Abu Shehadeh, a citizen of Jaffa and member of the Zochrot Board of Directors, told the conference attendees that he “finds it difficult to think about the return.”

“The return can only take place either after a civil war, in which the Jewish Israelis are defeated by Palestinians, or if there’s a massive change in the mindset of Jewish culture,” Abu Shehadeh explained. He added that “Before the return even happens, Palestinians must rebuild the national struggle, with groups similar to what the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] used to be, to have a representative body for all refugees.”

Abu Shehadeh stated that “Palestinians have to rationalize that a lot has changed since 1948. For refugees, the memory has stopped at 1948.” He added that “there are so many people who wouldn’t know where to return to. The landscape has changed dramatically. There has to be quantification and education — and a real rationalization — that the land of Jaffa, for example, will never look the way it used to.”

Ariella Azoulay, lecturer and theorist, cut to the heart of the barriers that are preventing the right of return from being discussed inside the Israeli political body.

She explained that:

“We are talking about a colonialist-Zionist narrative in a power context … The original people of this country were never considered by the colonizers. And now, the regime wages war against those who remain [after 1948] — and calls their struggle against occupation and military violence ‘terrorism.’ [The state] does everything possible to deter organization within the indigenous population, including attempts to erase the memory of the Nakba.”

Azoulay added that “there is a threat to Israel by its citizens who demand responsibility of the regime — those who stand beside the people who have suffered under this regime … Israel is an illegitimate regime created to control people, the original inhabitants, with participation of its citizens — making [Israeli Jewish society] agents of the regime. The state has managed to create an identification within the political scope that merges citizenship with crimes of the state on a daily basis. It is therefore essential to negate and oppose this regime on a fundamental basis as long as Israel refuses to recognize Palestinian refugees’ rights.”

In the final and fourth panel of the conference, entitled “Spheres of Action: What Can be Done Today?” panelists spoke eloquently about various tactics and measures that can be taken starting now. Some suggested learning a third language, separate from Arabic and Hebrew, to incorporate multiculturalism and equality into a new society. Others used examples of current measures of land reclamation, such as the project in Kfar Bir’im, as a model of change and strategic implementation of Palestinian refugees’ rights.

Other panelists, such as Israeli anarchist Dr. Uri Gordon, expressed concern that once Palestinian refugees are incorporated into an egalitarian, singular democratic state, there could be political arrangements that would accompany capitalist free trade and its fallout, the exploitation of the poor. Gordon asserted that “we can’t see Palestinians absorbed into a weak leadership structure. There will be pressure to place impoverished Palestinians alongside disenfranchised foreign workers while the establishment continues as usual.”

After the conference, Norma Musih explained that she was pleased at the outcome and attendance. “We were surprised that there were so many people who attended, specifically coming to discuss the reality of the right of return,” she said. “We had virtually no publicity other than sending out emails to our mailing list. Word spread. It gives me a clue about how many people are willing to speak about the right of return.”

“Something is changing in Israeli society,” Musih continued. “We saw [this change] mostly around ‘Independence Day’ [15 May, what Palestinians call al-Nakba day] when more and more newspapers are talking about the Nakba. This is a success. On the other hand, of course, we received a lot of responses that were not very supportive.”

She added with a laugh that by holding the conference at the Zionist Organization of America House “there was a feeling of celebration — that there is a start of something new. We were saying that this land is not just for Zionists, it’s ours too. We are therefore changing the paradigm of this culture. We are here also.”

The right of return is a guaranteed human right, and one that can be and will be realized. In a paper co-written by Musih and Zochrot’s Executive Director Eitan Bronstein, and disseminated at the conference, the right of return will mean the disintegration of Zionist Jewish supremacy and a Jewish demographic majority, and in its place will grow a “new political order.” Yet, Musih and Bronstein note that:

“A new political order is not all that is necessary to renew our lives here. New forms of relationships must be established, based on mutual trust among people — those who now live here as well as those who will arrive in the future. To create a healthy society, wounds that have opened and festered during the past 60 years must be healed. Public space must be provided for speaking about injustice and for listening to the stories of victims and of perpetrators … One possible model that might be applicable is that of the South African ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commissions,’ which may have been the first attempt to distinguish among truth, responsibility and punishment for injustice.”

Muslih and Bronstein conclude that “only when Jews come to see the Palestinians who live here, and those who were expelled, as people worth living with can we hope to live here fairly and equitably.” Or, as Benny Zipper, culture and literature editor for the Israeli daily Haaretz stated during the conference’s last panel, “Redemption starts here.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is the Senior Producer and co-host of Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio and travels several times a year to occupied Palestine to document the situation. She is also a freelance reporter for Inter Press Service. She can be reached at norabf AT gmail DOT com. Her website is

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