Mohsen Saleh
Al-Ahram (Opinion)
June 23, 2011 - 12:00am

When 12-year-old Imad saw his mother preparing some sandwiches for the 15 May march to the southern Lebanese borders with Palestine, he wondered what the food was for. "Will we have the time to eat it," he asked. "Aren't we going to the borders of Palestine to fight the Israelis?"

The message this child and his peers conveyed gave the event another dimension, for these marches of return to the borders with Palestine, occupied in 1948 and becoming Israel, have turned into landmarks in the Palestinian approach to the right of the Palestinians to return to their homeland.

The crowds that participated in the marches in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, in addition to those killed while trying to penetrate the borders, have given rise to three important considerations.

First, there has been the transformation of the right of return from a theoretical framework or a nostalgic wish into a practical programme. This indicates that the Palestinian refugees remain attached to their homeland and that their stay in their host countries depends on their ability to return. It sends a reassuring message to those host countries that are concerned about the naturalisation of Palestinians on their territories.

Second, there has been the strong adoption of the issue of the right of return by the third generation, proving that the bearers of this right have not forgotten it, but are rather all the more ready to die for it. They are ready to use new methods not used by their fathers or grandfathers. The vast majority of participants in the marches were young people, and almost all of those who were killed or wounded were also young.

This conveys an important message and proves that the old Israeli hope that "the old will die and the young will forget" has not come true. As a result, the hopes of those concerned about the right of return have been boosted as much as the Israeli side has been frustrated.

Third, vital efforts related to the Palestinian national cause have moved since the start of the Intifada in 1987 into the Palestinian interior after having been mainly focussed outside Palestine. Indeed, the recent marches have provided new indications of the possibility of enhancing an effective Palestinian role abroad, one that could lie in the adoption of programmes outside the scope of what has been prohibited over the last 25 years.

Reinforcing such considerations has been the current state of transformation witnessed in the Arab world, which might open new horizons for the support of the resistance or the reactivation of programmes concerned with the Palestinian right of return. In addition, countries bordering Israel might also have to ease their grip, whether willingly or not, because of their own new policies or internal problems.

It goes without saying that the right of an individual to live in his or her own home and on his or her own land, enjoying freedom and dignity, is a self-evident right guaranteed by international law and covenant and exercised without debate elsewhere on the globe. Depriving the Palestinians of their right of return to their homes and lands is an exception to this rule.

The problem of the Palestinian refugees is the oldest refugee problem in the world, and it has not been solved since it began in 1948. While the Rwandans, Armenians and Bosnians have been able to return to their homes after prolonged refugee crises, the Palestinian refugees are still unable to return to their homeland even after a lapse of 63 years following their displacement.

In addition, the problem of the Palestinian refugees is the largest in the world regarding the number of refugees as compared to the total population. Around 5.75 million Palestinian refugees live outside historic Palestine, whereas 1.8 million Palestinian refugees from the land occupied in 1948 today live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus amounting to 7.55 million refugees out of 11.1 million Palestinians, according to 2011 estimates. Hence, more than two-thirds of the Palestinian people are refugees.

Thirdly, the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees has attracted the largest number of UN Resolutions confirming their right of return. Since the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 194 until today, around 120 resolutions have been issued stressing the Palestinians' right of return to their homeland. This right includes the right of return to land occupied in 1948 and not only to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Despite its clarity, this right has been disabled because of Israeli arrogance and the American and Western support for Israel. It has also been disabled because Israel has been treated as a state above the law. Thus, the US did not blink when Zionist gangs carried out 34 massacres and deported more than 800,000 Palestinians from a total of 1.39 million in 1948. The US and its allies have also not applied any of their slogans relating to the rights of refugees to the Palestinian case. They have not even been concerned about solving the problem of the Palestinian refugees, instead being concerned to back Israel in thwarting the implementation of the right of return.

The Israeli logic considers that the application of the right of return would bring the Zionist project to an end and would strip Israel of its Jewish character. This logic asserts that there can be no peaceful settlement if the Palestinians insist on this right. Yet, was there any better logic when Jewish immigrants came from around the world under the protection of British guns to live in Palestine against the will of its people, their number increasing 13 fold from 50,000 in 1918 to 650,000 in 1948?

Was there any logic in uprooting the Palestinians from their homeland where they had lived for more than 4,500 years so that the Jews could achieve a manipulated majority by shedding Palestinian blood? Is there any logic now for the Palestinians to be deprived of the right of return, as civilians trying to go back to their homes after the end of conflict, because the Zionist enterprise has failed to secure a Jewish majority, even assuming that the argument that these Jews have the right to immigrate and live in Palestine is accepted?

The marches that took place on 15 May this year were characterised not only by the wide participation of young people, but also by the participation of all age groups and refugees from a number of countries simultaneously. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the marches was the unplanned penetration of the border fence and the raising of the Palestinian flag.

In Lebanon, the number of participants exceeded 30,000, according to estimates by the march organisers 50,000, and many thousands more were unable to be present due to a lack of transportation. The participants had high morale before, during and after the march, even though they had had to walk between five and 16km, including the elderly and women and children.

Did the border collapse? Did the sanctity of the fences surrounding Palestine fade? Did the Palestinians put their hands on a weapon they have been afraid to use for many years because of the cruelty of the Arab regimes, demanding the right of return and scared of naturalisation, and fearful of the Israeli reaction?

The Palestinians have broken a barrier, and with it the barrier of fear that Israel and the Arab regimes have built has also crumbled. A moral victory was achieved, but the question is whether this can now crystallise into an effective programme. Will it now be possible to mobilise the crowds that showed themselves ready to cross the borders and implement the right of return? Can the issue of the Palestinian refugees be put at the top of the international agenda?

To what extent will Israel shed blood to thwart Palestinian persistence about the right of return? Will it be possible to benefit from the experience of the 415 deportees in Marj Al-Zohour, whom Israel displaced in late 1992? These returned a year after their deportation because of their steadfastness and keenness to return.

None of this is wishful thinking or daydreaming. It is a matter of the right of the refugees to return, something that has been ignored for more than 60 years. It is a matter of thinking outside of the box, breaking traditional positions that have shown themselves not to lead to genuine solutions.

Meanwhile, the Israeli side has expressed its concern about other marches similar to those held on 15 May. It has acknowledged the high costs it might have to pay if it insists on using force to prevent the Palestinians from breaking the border fence, these costs also having political, legal and other repercussions.

Palestinians keen to return and having documents proving their ownership of land ( koshan documents) bring the conflict with Israel back to its essentials. Their position shows that the matter is not merely about a difference over the 1967 lines, but is rather about uprooting the Palestinians and depriving them of their basic rights. Further, it shows the ugly face of an occupying entity based on the misery of the Palestinians and their pain.

Moshe Yaalon, Israeli minister of strategic affairs, was not wrong when he said that the Nakba incidents were proof that the struggle was for the existence of the state of Israel and not just over borders. The Israeli commander of the northern region was also right when he said that what had happened was a prelude to future incidents and that the time remaining to draw the proper lessons was indeed very short.

Today, the Palestinians face many opportunities. They should feel satisfaction about what happened in May, considering it as an example to be added to the history of the Palestinian people and their history of steadfastness and struggle. Moreover, young people and the various Palestinian groups could now build on the event, seeing how it could be developed as part of a programmed political process. There is a need to find innovative new political and legal means when seeking the right of return.

There is also an opportunity to mobilise the public in their host countries outside conventional calculations, imposing a new situation through the breaking of the fence and forcing the return issue onto the world agenda.

This is not the place to examine the controversy surrounding the political calculations of those who allowed the refugees to proceed with their marches, especially in Syria and Lebanon. Even if there are political gains to be made for some, this does not mean that the marches should be suppressed, since the gains achieved by the refugees are greater than those achieved by any other party.

In addition, common Palestinian interests with other forces should act as a catalyst to enhance efforts in this context rather than thwart them. Therefore, the authorities on the borders with Israel should allow the Palestinians refugees to advance with their programme, letting them enjoy the political gains as long as the issue is a part of the refugee struggle and not only a part of the regimes' agenda.

What matters is the highlighting of the right of return. In order to preserve the mission of these marches and programmes related to the right of return, it is essential that they be institutionalised and implemented with a mixture of caution and boldness. Young people must be given space to take the initiative and change the tried-and-tested programmes.

Let an answer to young Imad's opening question be, "we are going to Palestine not only to fight the Israelis but also to achieve victory."


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