Thousands of Palestinians in Israel march to return

Palestinian citizens of Israel participate in the annual March of Return, 10 May 2011.

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours

As nationalist parties and festivals were held throughout Israel to mark the country’s Independence Day on 10 May, several thousand Palestinians and their supporters held a commemoration of their own in the Galilee, demanding the right to return to their ancestral villages and homes.

“This day is the Independence Day of the country, but it is also the day of the Nakba of the Palestinian people,” explained Wakim Wakim, the General Secretary of the Committee for the Rights of the Internally Displaced in Israel, the group that organized the march.

Participants in the March of Return, now in its 14th year, walked between two former Palestinian villages, al-Damun and al-Ruways, located not far from Acre (Akka) in northern Israel. Both villages were destroyed during the Nakba.

The Palestinian Nakba, Arabic for catastrophe, refers to the forced exodus of approximately 750,000 Palestinians from their homes during and before the time that Israel was founded in 1947-48.

Raising awareness of refugees’ rights

Wakim explained that the march was meant to draw attention to the continued plight of Palestinian refugees and internally displaced persons, and as a way to demand that their right of return be implemented.

“It’s impossible to have real peace in the area without the return of all the Palestinian refugees and displaced people to their original villages and lands. [The Israelis] must return the right to the Palestinians to return to their houses and lands that they were displaced from,” Wakim said.

Badil, the resource center for Palestinian residency and refugee rights, finds that “Palestinian refugees and [internally displaced persons] continue to constitute the largest and longest-standing unresolved case of refugees and displaced persons in the world today.”

In its 2008-09 Survey of Palestinian Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, Badil writes that at the end of 2008, there were approximately 7.1 million displaced Palestinians. This number accounts for 67 percent of the entire Palestinian population worldwide and includes 6.6 million refugees and 427,000 internally displaced Palestinians, the report finds (“Survey of Palestinian Refugees and IDPs (2008-2009)” [PDF]).

The right of return of all refugees and internally displaced persons is enshrined in international law. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

United Nations General Assembly resolution 194, which was passed in December 1948, also states that, in the specific case of Palestinian refugees, “the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property.”

According to Wakim, the increasingly discriminatory way the Israeli government is treating its Palestinian citizens — who make up roughly 20 percent of the population — and the passing of a variety of racist Israeli laws in recent months, has fueled this year’s Nakba commemoration ceremonies.

“There is a policy of discrimination and state oppression, and racial discrimination continues in all of its forms. It’s increasing recently and its goal is to squeeze the Palestinians and describe them as strangers and dangerous for the country,” he said.

“But we will not break and we will continue to increase the message and the flag for all the people and leaders that effect local politics, to remind them that without taking [on] the issue of the refugees, [there] never will be permanent and just peace in the area.”

“Nakba Law” fails to dissuade commemoration

The March of Return was the first of many activities planned this year to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba inside Israel. This is despite the fact that the Israeli parliament (Knesset) recently passed the controversial, so-called “Nakba Law,” which aims to criminalize any commemoration of the Palestinian Nakba.

More specifically, the bill would cut state funding from any body or institution that the Israeli government determines is working against the “Jewish and democratic” nature of Israel, commemorates Israeli Independence Day as a day of mourning, or violates the symbols of the state, such as the Israeli flag.

The Israeli government would also be allowed to fine these organizations if they violate any of the above provisions.

“It is an unconstitutional law since it violates our constitutional rights. Basically and most importantly, [it violates] freedom of speech, because it limits any institution that is funded by the state from doing any activity that relates or commemorates the Nakba,” explained Sawsan Zaher, an Attorney with Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel.

Adalah — along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, five parents of children studying at a bilingual, Palestinian-Jewish school in Israel, an nongovernmental organization of alumni from the Arab Orthodox school in Haifa and Israeli university professor Oren Yiftachel — submitted a petition to the Israeli high court on 4 May demanding that the law be overturned.

Zaher explained that the most troubling aspect of the law is how it specifically targets Palestinian citizens of Israel by targeting “their legitimacy, their status in the state of Israel” and “the collective memory and the collective history of what happened in 1948.”

“We do perceive this law as a racist law, but unfortunately it is not the first racist law against the Arab minority [in Israel]. It is part of a chain of discriminatory and racist laws that has been targeting the Palestinians in Israel for the past few years,” she said.

Still, according to Razi Nabulse, a 22-year-old economics student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and one of the March of Return organizers, the Nakba Law has had little to no real impact on the ground for organizers or participants in Nakba commemoration ceremonies in Israel.

“Judging by what we saw yesterday in the march [of return], the good presence of people, we can say that even after the Nakba Law you have more people who actually wanted to participate in the commemoration,” Nabulse said.

“So this shows that no matter how many laws they issue, the Palestinian struggle will always continue.”

Palestinian youth leading the way

Palestinian children held signs during the March of Return displaying the names of the more than 400 Palestinian villages that were destroyed in 1947-48. Indeed, the vast majority of participants in the march were young people.

Nadim Nashif, the director of Baladna, a Palestinian youth empowerment organization in Haifa, says this can be attributed to the uprisings taking place throughout the Arab world.

“I think it was a reflection of what’s happening in the Arab world. Young people feel more powerful and able to influence,” Nashif, who participated in the March of Return, said. “Of course it’s important because we want the future generation to remember and understand what happened and keep asking for the rights of the people who were deported and became refugees.”

Nashif explained that educating young Palestinians about the history of the Nakba is crucial since the Israeli state is actively attempting to silence the Palestinian narrative.

“It’s very important because we are facing punishment by the state, and a policy of making young Palestinians in [Israel] ignorant by the Ministry of Education. All the issues of refugees and the Nakba are not accepted inside the school system. Most grow up without knowing the facts,” he said.

Razi Nabulse agreed.

“At the educational level, I remember as a school kid, we never spoke about the Nakba,” Nabulse, who is originally from the Palestinian town of Ibillin in northern Israel, told The Electronic Intifada. “Through education and anything Israel has, they attempt to eliminate the memory of the Nakba because [Israel] tries to destroy everything that is Palestinian, which includes history.”

Nabulse said that teaching younger generations about Palestinian history, and about the Nakba specifically, could be used as a tool to fight against Israel’s violent and discriminatory policies towards Palestinians.

“It’s very important for our generation and the future generations to learn about the Nakba because it forms an integral part of our history. Teaching the new generations about the Nakba in fact constitutes an instrument of struggle against forgetfulness and Israeli colonization,” he said.

He added that the large number of participants at the march on 10 May signals that people haven’t forgotten about Palestinian refugees and their right of return.

“It shows that the people have not forgotten about the Nakba of ‘48 and that the refugees will return. It encourages you to continue working because it shows you that the people have not forgotten the Nakba.”

Jillian Kestler-D’Amours is a reporter and documentary filmmaker based in Jerusalem. More of her work can be found at