Syria’s official spokesperson recently went on television to blame the Palestinian refugees resident in her country as the “foreign elements” directly responsible for the current protests for freedom and the rule of law. These pronouncements have encouraged Arab regimes’ secret police, the mukhabarat, to crack down on Palestinian rights activists everywhere, heightening the atmosphere of violent intimidation and fear within refugee communities. Of the millions of Palestinian refugees residing in countries such as Jordan and Syria, the majority are young people born in refugee camps, since Palestinians still wait, after 62 years, for the United Nations to compel Israel to adopt that key UN resolution (whose implementation was a condition of Israel’s acceptance into the UN as a member state) which would allow them and their families to return to their farms, villages and cities.
This constant harassment of Palestinian refugees occurs from the Gulf to North Africa. For those idly wondering why Palestinians have so much difficulty unifying in their struggle for justice, the type of existence lived by most Palestinians outside historic Palestine comes as something of an unpleasant shock. People’s attention is usually directed (if they look at all) at the sickening siege still enforced in Gaza (another international convoy of humanitarian ships will be on its way next month); the daily expulsions of old Jerusalemite families from their homes; the increasingly racist laws discriminating against Palestinians inside Israel. For example, the Knesset recently passed new legislation that has the effect of banning any state support to those seeking to commemorate the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in 1948
Some argue that anything detracting from this focus on the occupied West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem and Gaza is counterproductive to “the peace process” and that the refugees’ predicament and their rights should not even be raised. This is the argument Israelis use and it is one that European and American diplomats and their friends loyally repeat. No one, it seems, dare pause for a moment to worry about those millions of distracting Palestinian refugees and exactly what their uncomfortable presence means: it is too dangerous for peace. One example among thousands: at this very moment, innumerable Palestinian refugees sit in Egypt’s prisons for the simple crime of not possessing the correct identity papers or, worse, for not having any papers at all.
Where precisely are they meant to obtain these identity documents from, in any case? Not from the British, presumably, under whose colonial mandate Palestine was destroyed. Not the Palestinian Authority, whose full civil authority does not extend beyond so-called Area A, comprised of some West Bank towns and cities, and which has absolutely no control over its water, land, borders, domestic or foreign relations, or any sovereign capacity to protect either Palestinians under military occupation or those refugees in host countries.
Not so long ago, Muhammad Abu Sakr, a young Palestinian refugee born in Cairo, entered into temporary safe haven in Sweden, after living for over a year in the transit hall of Russia’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Prevented from either returning to Egypt or entering Russia for just over 14 months, he lived in the transit corridor. Nor was his extended predicament an isolated example for Palestinians, but rather one of a connected series of implausible experiences shared daily by an entire people. Most Palestinians today are without passports, or have duff travel papers or the wrong refugee papers: families are split up at borders and airports.
In the beginning
It is essential to know when this story began, as we Palestinians need to know exactly when this story will end. Throughout 1948, Jewish military forces expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their villages, towns and cities; hundreds of thousands of others fled in fear. They were driven and fled down into Gaza (and to understand Gaza one must appreciate that most live in refugee camps); across into the (now militarily occupied) West Bank; north from Galilee into Lebanon and Syria; east into Jordan; further north-east into Iraq; south into Egypt.
The purpose of this expulsion was to create a purely Jewish state, ethnically cleansed of the original inhabitants. This horrific event – the mass forced expulsion of a people; the more than 50 massacres carried out over the summer of 1948 by various armed Jewish forces to induce both fear and flight; the demolition of over 500 precious, well-loved and well-remembered villages in subsequent years to ensure the refugees could not return home – this is the Palestinian Naqba, the “catastrophe”.
The absolute nature of that dispossession means that a refugee’s right of return to their home, enshrined in international law, is the heart of Palestinians’ identity and struggle for justice. Yet this universal right is the very one we are being pressured to surrender: right now, the US administration is seeking European support to advance just such a position at the next meeting of the Quartet (comprised of the US, the UN, the EU and Russia). Instead of demanding Palestinians abandon their rights for a fictitious peace not even on offer, this is the precise moment Europeans – if they hope to have any role in the region – must place the dignity and protection of Palestinian refugees, the victims of the conflict, at the centre of their policy towards the Arab world and the Palestinian people.