Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations in Beirut held a panel discussion under the title “The Palestinian Refugees’ Right of Return… 15/5/2011 as a Model.” The discussion tackled the recent Palestinian popular movements marking the anniversary of the Nakbah (the catastrophe) and which were organized in different countries simultaneously. The panel discussion was held on 25/5/2011 and brought together a select of intellectuals and academics specialized in the Palestinian and Arab Studies.
Participants in the discussion included
· Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, expert in the Palestinian issue and the general manager of Al-Zaytouna Centre.
· Lebanese MP Brig. Gen. Walid Sukkarieh.
· Dr. Hussein Abu al-Namel, researcher and specialist in Economics.
· Mr. Helmi Musa, journalist and expert in the Israeli affairs.
· Mr. Suhail al-Natour, Palestinian writer and expert in Palestinian refugees’ affairs.
· Mr. Saqr Abu Fakhr, researcher at the Institute of Palestine Studies, and editorial secretary of the refereed Journal of Palestine Studies (JPS).
· Mr. Ali Barakah, Hamas representative in Lebanon.
· Mr. Walid Muhammad Ali, general manager of Baheth Center for Strategic and Palestinian Studies.
· Mr. Mahmud Hanafi, director of Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (Shahed).
· Brig. Gen. Dr. Amin Hoteit, specialist in the military affairs and university lecturer.
· Mr. Salah Salah, member of the Palestinian National Council.
· Mr. Mahir Shawish, the managing editor of al-Awda magazine.
· Mr. Ahmad Khalifeh, a senior research fellow in Hebrew at the Institute for Palestine Studies (IPS) Beirut office and managing editor of Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyah.
· Mr. Ali Huweidi, director of Palestinian Organization for the Right of Return (Thabit) in Beirut.
· Mr. Mo‘een Manna’, researcher at Al-Zaytouna Centre.
· Yasser ‘Azzam and ‘Abdul Malek Sukkarieh, members of the organizing committee of the Return to Palestine March, which took place on May 15th in the Lebanese southern village of Maroun al-Ras.
The discussion extended over two sessions; the first of which was dedicated for discussing the dimensions of the recent events, their implications and motivations. It particularly focused on the rallies of Lebanon and Syria where more than ten were killed and hundreds injured. The session also tackled the different reactions on the Israeli, Arab and international levels.
The second session highlighted the future scenarios of the Palestinian popular actions demanding the right of return, the possibility to develop such actions and the needed mechanisms for their development.
First Session: Analyzing Facts
Al-Zaytouna General Manager Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh, opened the session by welcoming the participants and hoping for a fruitful discussion. He said that the activities commemorating the Nakbah this year were exceptionally unique. He added that the media coverage of events and the consequent reactions showed that it was a “turning point.” Dr. Saleh posed a question for discussion, where he asked whether this movement is a mere transient situation or one which represents a new spirit which could be built upon in the future.
Dr. Saleh drew attention to three indicators that should be kept in mind while discussing this issue:
1. The right of return can be changed from a theoretical framework to a practical program or from a nostalgic wish to a weapon used by the Palestinians in their homeland and diaspora. This transformation would impact the Palestinian refugees who consider themselves a burden in their host countries, while the countries would be reassured that refugees are guests seeking to go back home.
2. The refugees question has passed effectively from the first generation to the second and even to the third, while it was a major concern in the past.
3. The third indicator proves that no real interaction with the Palestinian issue exists unless the inside and outside interact together. Since the first Intifadah in 1987 and till now the epicenter of Palestinian interaction was located inside Palestine. The recent actions took place in more than one country including south Lebanon, Syria, Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan and even in Egypt. This expansion had its impact as it created major concern for Israel which finds itself after 63 years facing the same existential and fateful questions while realizing that the old may die but the young will never forget.
Then Mr. Yasser talked about the organization of the Return to Palestine March which took place in Maroun al-Ras on 15/5/2011 and about the organizing committees. ‘Azzam pointed out that the call for the march started on Facebook then developed into an event which was adopted and coordinated by factions and institutions. ‘Azzam revealed that there were members from the Lebanese Army and gendarmerie but their numbers were not enough to control the crowds. He added that 20 thousand was the anticipated number of participants, yet the number of those who reached south Lebanon was approximately 55 thousand while 15 thousand stayed in the refugee camps as there was no room for them. This means that around 25% of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon headed to the borders while the Lebanese participants constituted around 10% of the participants. ‘Azzam compared the scene of the thousands of the participants who had to go on foot from Bint Jbeil to Maroun al-Ras because of the traffic and in continuous lines to the “scenes of Nakba in 1948 but this time in the opposite direction.”
Mr. ‘Abdul Malek Sukkarieh talked about the march stressing that the organizers were determined that it would be a Lebanese Palestinian event. He noted that the Lebanese Army and the gendarmerie besides the organizers’ team responsible for discipline and order worked to limit clashes; however, the number of participants increased and the youth insisted till matters went out of control. Sukkarieh concluded that this incident opened a new door for struggle against the enemy which is popular marches.
For his part, Ali Barakah, who participated in the march, said that the main reason which motivated the youths to rush to the border fence was the news coming from the Golan Heights about the Palestinians who passed the borders. No confrontations took place before that. He added that he was sorry that the Lebanese officials did not react to the events as expected. For Israel has violated Lebanese sovereignty by killing Palestinian civilians on Lebanese soil and by violating the 1701 resolution. He also wondered about the role of the UNIFIL in protecting civilians.
On the other hand, Barakah asserted that the May 15th events showed that the Palestinian youths were able to assume the role of the Palestinian factions and leaderships, for all who were killed were youth. It also showed the whole world that the right of return is sacred and non-negotiable, that the Palestinians absolutely reject naturalization, and that their demand for civil rights in Lebanon does not fall in this context.
Helmi Musa considered it wrong to restrict the issue to Lebanon as the commemoration of the Nakbah was international for the first time but the most important factor was what happened in the ring of countries around Israel, including Lebanon. Musa added that what has happened confirms that the right of return is the core issue of the Palestinian cause, for it is about the right to regain all Palestine and not only the ’67 land. It shows also that the Palestinian refugees living in Diaspora are regaining their role in the struggle, after two decades of deterioration. In addition, the Israelis have found themselves defeated as they could do nothing when people spontaneously resorted to action. Musa further asserted that Israel feels that any popular movement could take it back to 1948.
For his part, Saqr Abu Fakhr perceived the event as a reaction of the marginalized youth in this country and as a foundational rather than a marginal event. Abu Fakhr added that in any future activities, a meticulous phrasing of communiqué is needed in order to reach the international public opinion and to reach maximum benefit.
Ali Huweidi said that the confrontations in Maroun al-Ras and the Golan Heights might summarize 40 years of work to resolve the refugees issue and the right of return. He also considered the last movements “a golden chance to activate such form of work and mobility.” He added that the first message the event conveyed was through the strategic killing at the border, warning the Palestinians that in case they continue to claim the right of return they would be killed and targeted. Huweidi wrapped that the issue is that of the Palestinian individual without whom there is no land or state.
Regarding the Israeli aggression against the peaceful demonstrators in Lebanon, Mahmud Hanafi expressed his surprise over the Lebanese and Palestinian cold diplomatic reaction. He added that the UNIFIL did not interfere when it was its duty to protect civilians. He noted that a group from Shahed has met with the UNIFIL forces and many Lebanese parties, including officials in the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, to discuss what has happened.
Salah Salah called on the Palestinian factions to support the peaceful youth movements yet without trying to control them. He also called the Palestinian leaderships to reduce their media appearances. They must facilitate for the young Palestinians the means to address the public and the media, in order to explain their motives and message. Salah added that it is not normal that the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon remain besieged where only the Palestinians live under such conditions with “barbed wires, restricted entrance and army checkpoints.” He suggested the organization of a weekly sit-in, every Friday, at all Lebanese army checkpoints demanding lifting the siege of the refugee camps.
As for Ahmad Khalifeh, he warned that despite the importance of popular actions against the Israeli occupation, it is important to study this option carefully and explore its expected outcome and the possibilities for its success. He added that the role of researches and academicians is to study and analyze these popular movements and uprisings, find the solutions to the obstacles and suggest to the youth the steps required to achieve the objectives of these activities.
The researcher Suhail al-Natour attested that one single action is not enough or sufficient to urge the international public opinion or the western media to focus on the refugees issue. He called for intensifying these movements and warned that Western media did not focus on May 15th on the refugees issue and their right to return but on the security matters and the demographic danger of the refugees’ return on Israel’s existence. Al-Natour shed light on some opinions trying to dwarf what happened while criticizing the Palestinian political exploitation of the event.
For his part, Brig. Gen. Walid Sukkarieh said that these actions stressed the Palestinians’ adherence to the right of return and their clinging to the lands occupied in 1948. He reiterated that these actions will not return the Palestinians to their homeland, only military force and defeating Israel will do that.
In his turn, Hussein Abu al-Namel warned against the danger of “sanctifying spontaneity” or depending on spontaneous actions as a course of action. He further stressed that rational thinking must determine these moves in order to have substantial results with minimum killings, for the Palestinian blood is very precious. Abu al-Namel expressed his concerns about the spread of the “martyrdom culture” that should not replace the “victory culture” which the enemy used to defeat us.
Walid Muhammad Ali considered that the recent movement restored the essence of the Palestinian issue. It corrected the misconception prevailing in recent years that the issue will be solved by establishing a Palestinian state within the ’67 lines.
Mo‘een Manna’ expected that these movements face the destiny of the Arab uprisings. Some, according to him, deviated from their goals, others are exploited and some were contained.
Recommendations and Future Scenarios
The second session focused on the possible future scenarios of these popular actions demanding the right of return. Some suggestions and recommendations were made in this respect.
Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh introduced three scenarios:
1. These events might turn into a shining star in the history of “the Palestinian right of return.” It could be a manifestation of the Palestinian conscience that will force the Arabs and Israeli to learn how to deal with it.
2. The factions might build on the event and study how to develop it in order to escalate the return issue.
3. Mobilizing the wide public in host countries, outside conventional calculations, will force the return issue worldwide. This possibility is linked to relaxing the grip on the security of borders while the refugees impose certain conditions on their host countries.
Regarding the future of the Palestinian popular activities, particularly in Lebanon, Dr. Hoteit noted that the last visit of the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, was mainly dedicated to blaming some Lebanese officials for allowing the Palestinian refugees to reach the borders. Hoteit assured that pressures were exercised on the Lebanese authorities to prevent any similar events in the future and on the Lebanese Army to assume responsibility for preventing any Palestinian to go beyond the south of Litani River, a procedure applied in the past as Hoteit said.
Hoteit presented four possible scenarios for these movements in the future: the first is to ban these movements with a Palestinian acceptance of this prohibition; the second the prohibition would be imposed but without Palestinian willingness to cooperate thus leading to security confrontation between the Lebanese authorities and the Palestinian popular movements; the third is for the Lebanese sides to urge the government not to succumb to the American pressures while containing the popular movements so that they would be reduced to symbolic movements with limited number of participants; and the fourth scenario is pushing for the intensification of these movements on the borders which will trigger Israeli fears and lead to major repercussions in the region.
At the end of the discussion, the following recommendations were made:
1. Proceeding with these movements and institutionalizing them, by unifying and coordinating the efforts of concerned parties.
2. Directing the youths’ enthusiasm and encouraging them to harmonize their work and invest these movements in a proper way.
3. Considering and conducting these movements as a part of the whole Palestinian-Israeli conflict, whether they were done inside or outside Palestine.
4. Making the Arab and foreign media focus on the right of return, that must also be made a hot issue in the eyes of the public opinion.
5. Educating youth about the right of return, to enforce the concept.
6. Documenting all events, facts and data to benefit from them legally afterwards.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, Beirut, 4/6/2011