The Palestinians are still clinging to the right of return and ready to make dear sacrifices to attain it. The wide popular Palestinian events supporting this right were launched on 15/5/2011 benefiting from the atmosphere of “Arab uprisings.” These Palestinian events worried the Israeli side and raised its concerns regarding its vision of the future peace settlement project which waivers the Palestinian right of return. However, internal considerations and international commitments made the Arab governments which are concerned with this file take certain positions or measures which did not help the Palestinian refugees develop their stance and turn the dream into reality. Based on this background, the popular events seem to head into one of the following scenarios:
1. Expressing a stance: Considering what happened a mere “historic event” which is worth of appreciation and remembrance.
2. Seasonal events: The Arab developments create a helping environment to repeat this event in national occasions yet without breaking the fences and returning to the homeland as a fait accompli.
3. Continuation and accumulation: This scenario might become real if the organizers and supporters of these events found the possible ways to urge the concerned Arab countries to allow such events or pressure the official Palestinian leadership to provide political cover and legal support for these events.
The right of return was always a concern for the Palestinian refugees over 63 years where they continuously renewed their commitment to this right. In addition, the Palestinians never stopped to teach their children and grandchildren to love Palestine and cling to the return to their land. On 15/5/2011, thousands of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon launched peaceful marches towards the borders with occupied Palestine and they all chanted, “The people want to return to Palestine.”
After 63 years of living as refugees, huge number of Palestinians marched towards the borders to confirm their right of return to their homeland. The road to Palestine was not an easy journey but rather fraught with threats and intimidation and sometimes with blood. Indeed, reports have counted around 15 dead and more than 572 wounded. Therefore, it can be said that refugees took action in all the capitals of host countries especially those surrounding Israel. The border scenes were different in each of these countries where the crowds were willing to return while rejecting displacement, naturalization and alternative homeland.
It is worth mentioning that these events had many characteristics, including:
1. They were organized under the impact of the “Arab uprisings” and motivated by the inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
2. They were coordinated and synchronized in different countries of diaspora, especially in those surrounding Palestine.
3. They included all four generations (grandfathers, fathers, sons and grandchildren), thus dismissing the Zionist strategy which believes that “The old will die and the young will forget.”
4. The marches were dominated by youth participation where the young had a key role in the events and breaking the fences on the borders with Palestine.
5. They included different political trends and Palestinian factions in addition to the NGOs and independent participants.
6. They maintained their peaceful nature except for the stones which the youth had to pick up and throw at the Israeli soldiers who launched fire at them.
7. They chanted one slogan “The people want to return to Palestine” and raised one flag signifying historic Palestine which witnessed the displacement of the Palestinians who reached in 2010 six million refugees.
8. They enjoyed broad support from around the world where rallies took place in the Arab Maghreb countries such as Tunisia and Mauritania, the Muslim world such as Turkey and Iran besides Western countries such as England.
These marches, though encountered by many obstacles and constraints, had significant implications, including:
1. They revealed how the masses, desperate with the “peace settlement process,” moved to restore their right with their own hands. Thus, they paved the way for more popular movements.
2. The people restored their self-confidence and the belief that they are able to achieve their mission without relying on politicians and negotiators.
3. They proved that the Palestinians, regardless where they live or what they believe, are still clinging to the right of return.
On another hand, these marches were subject to different measures which have directly affected their route and goal. These discrepancies appeared as follows:
1. The marches in Syria and Lebanon were able to make it to the border with Palestine and a number of participants could actually touch the fence and even go several meters beyond it. Only one man could reach his parents’ town of Jaffa.
2. In Egypt, the marches changed their direction after the government had asked the organizers to take into account “the critical situation of the country.” Hence, they headed to the Israeli embassy.
3. The marches in Jordan changed their route after the security forces prevented the participants from reaching the borders. They headed instead to the Israeli embassy in Amman.
4. In the West Bank, marches were organized in different towns and there were bloody confrontations with the Israeli forces especially at Qalandiya crossing.
5. The masses, which crowded on the eastern borders of the Gaza Strip, were subject to Israeli artillery shelling which killed and wounded many Palestinians.
The road to Palestine was not safe or passable and the pathways leading to the border separating the Palestinian refugees from their homeland and possessions were insecure and even bloody. Every side concerned with this event assumed a stance consistent with its considerations as will be shown in the following section.
First: The Israeli Side
Israel totally rejects any idea concerning the return of the refugees and it refuses to bear any material or moral responsibility for displacing the Palestinians. Further, it believes that the refugee problem should be solved within a regional and international context. This will lead to the naturalization of the refugees in their host countries or allowing them to return to the promised Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip within specific arrangements. In the light of this principle, the successive Israeli governments have formulated their stances on the “problem” of the return of the Palestinian refugees.
The maximum extent of the Israeli “generosity” regarding the return of the Palestinians to the territories occupied in 1948 was the verbal non-binding discussion in 2000 concerning the possibility of the return of 100 thousand refugees over 10 years by an average of 10 thousand refugees per year. However, the talks between Mahmud ‘Abbas and Ehud Olmert following the Annapolis Conference in late 2007 mentioned the symbolic return of 5 or 10 thousand refugees over 10 years!
Consequently, the events and marches commemorating the Nakbah caused much anxiety and concern for the Israelis. They were unable to deal with such a scenario or with the huge masses heading towards the borders. The Palestinians, on the other hand, were capable of investing the event on the political and media levels and attracting world’s attention to the case.
Based on the above and on the events on the Nakbah day this year, the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu stated that there was no return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel and he threatened that the Israelis would prevent by force whoever tries to enter Israel.
Hence, the Israelis sought to prevent the return marches and to act decisively to spread despair among the demonstrators and stop them from proceeding with their marches. This explains the bloody repression practiced by the occupation forces in face of the crowds. They shot heavily and directly at the participants who were more than willing to return to their homeland.
Second: The Egyptian Stance
The Egyptian government interacted with the commemoration of Nakbah on 15/5/2011 and the accompanying events in two ways. On one hand, there were talks about an approaching date for permanently opening the Rafah crossing, which contributed to appeasing the demonstrators who felt that their efforts yielded a partial achievement of their set objective. On the other hand, the organizers were asked to take into consideration the “critical situation of the country.”
The Egyptian position could be exactly what the government has expressed; however, derailing the events of the Nakbah anniversary from their goal weakened their momentum. It also implied that Egypt does not want to be engaged in the popular pressure on Israel since Cairo knows that the US would not accept such a role for Egypt nor would Israel tolerate it. Additionally, for both sides it is a red line which Egypt would not want to trespass, at least for now.
Third: The Jordanian Stance
The Jordanian government always declares its support for the right of return and rejects the Israeli call to make Jordan the alternative homeland for the Palestinians. However, it resorted this time, in official and non-official ways, to force and violence to prevent the marches from reaching the borders. This was despite the fact that their calls met with the official Jordanian demands (the right of return and refusing naturalization and the alternative homeland) and despite the peaceful nature of the marches.
Jordan’s position could be interpreted as a discrepancy between what the government says and how it acts. The difference lies in particular in its rejection for naturalization through verbal and media statements while it is committed to preventing the practical expression of this rejection. The Jordanians, who are committed to the Wadi Araba Treaty of 1994, refuse such expression especially if it would lead to tensions in Jordanian-Israeli relations
Fourth: The Syrian Stance
Many observers have considered Syria’s decision allowing the return marches to head towards the borders with the occupied Golan Heights as a turning point related to the difficult internal situation in the country. It was viewed as an attempt to divert attention from the Syrian problems towards the Israeli enemy. This interpretation is based on the fact that the Syrian borders with the Israelis have been the quieter front during the last four decades. Regardless, the Syrians might have wanted to show the Americans and the Israelis that they still possess pressure cards. However, the Palestinian refugees themselves were not worried about the “political investment” of the issue as far as they were concerned about the legitimate, legal and political expression of their right of return.
Perhaps, the ability of the refugees to march towards the borders is subject to the Syrian considerations and conditions both on the domestic and external levels. Yet, they did not hesitate about expressing their right with all available means.
Fifth: The Lebanese Position
Palestinian official sources said that the factions have vowed to the Lebanese security forces to control the events commemorating the Nakbah on 15/5/2011. It was said that the Lebanese authorities have allowed these marches to head towards the borders based on these promises. Despite the state of emotional agitation among the crowds, none of the refugees infringed on the security of the Lebanese Army or the security forces that were on the ground. The protestors were committed to respecting the security forces that were a guarantee for the safety of the demonstrators. On this basis, the relation rested between the Lebanese security services and the Palestinian refugees and because of this commitment the crowds were controlled. This practically means that the emotional reactions of the masses posed no danger for the Lebanese internal security or the security apparatuses.
The number of the participants was estimated at 50 thousand and people showed immense reaction when the youths broke the border fence. The Americans have urged the Lebanese authorities to stop the marches and prevent their recurrence. On the other hand, some Lebanese officials affiliated with a certain political party condemned the Palestinians’ march to the south and considered it a threat to the Lebanese security. They demanded the security services to assume control and take the necessary measures to prevent the repetition of such events, and this is what happened indeed.
Sixth: The Palestinian Stance in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip
Despite the inter-Palestinian reconciliation celebrated on 3/5/2011, the position of the PA in Ramallah and the PLO leadership remains different from that of the resistance factions on the issue of return. This, consequently, was reflected on the “return marches” and the provision of logistic and political support in addition to the legal and diplomatic cover.
The PA does not show seriousness in dealing with the right of return, especially in the light of rumors concerning its readiness to forgo this right as long as this helps to “establish a Palestinian State” within the ’67 lines. The PA’s efforts at this stage to mobilize for the declaration of the Palestinian State in September, makes its stance on the return marches ambiguous. On one hand, it is concerned about investing the political value of going to the UN General Assembly and engage in negotiations for the “establishment of the State,” which means its unwillingness to support the Nakbah activities. On another hand, the PA cannot prevent these events because such a stance would lead to a confrontation with the popular tide which is not satisfied with the Palestinian-Israeli peace.
The above makes us understand why the PA showed a cold reaction towards the events, though it did not oppose them.
On another level, the resistance factions’ position seemed committed to protect the right of return and support the return marches on the logistic and political level. However, their support was limited whether through the community-based organizations or the logistic facilitations which accompanied the events. In other words, it is possible to say that despite their backing for the Nakbah events, the resistance factions did not provide the necessary support either because of lack of capacities or lack of the required efforts.
For its part, the Palestinian government and the Palestinian factions in Gaza Strip declared their support for the right of the Palestinian people to express their adherence to the right of return with all possible means. This was actually implemented on the ground where ministers, deputies in the Palestinian Legislative Council and leaders of all factions in the Gaza Strip were at the forefront of the marches which headed to the borders with Palestine occupied in 1948.
This position is based on these forces’ belief in the need to build on the popular movements and the “Arab uprisings” to launch Palestinian popular events. These events would be a way for the Palestinians’ right to take control, declare their adherence to the right of return and insist on achieving it.
Between the different agendas of the Palestinian leaderships and the multiplicity of considerations on the side of the Arab host countries on one hand, and the position of the Israel on another hand, there are three possible scenarios for the Palestinian return marches:
1. Expressing a stance: What happened on 15/5/2011 generally, and in Syria and Lebanon particularly, is worth being called a “historic event.” The Palestinian people were able to convey a strong message to those concerned with the peace process that no one has the right to waive the right of return. Further, this right is an individual and collective right which cannot be cancelled or replaced even for the establishment of the “Palestinian State” within the ’67 lines. Consequently, all the agreements signed within the peace process are almost void and have no real value. However, in this case, and because of repression, prevention or restriction, this “honorable” event will remain a national symbol which the Palestinians celebrate every year on the Nakbah anniversary.
Then, any Arab country hosting refugees would support this commemoration and even send official delegates to represent it in the “great national” occasion, as long as the events remain within the limits of national folklore.
2. Seasonal events: This scenario benefits from the state of uprising and the continuity of the “Arab revolutions.” In this case, the organizers and supporters of these events will benefit from the Arab situation to repeat these events and improve them, yet without breaking the fences, trespassing the borders or facing the occupation forces. The main obstacle to this scenario would be the Arab policies which would erect solid security barriers to keep the events within certain limits.
3. Continuation and accumulation: The organizers and supporters of such events need, in this scenario, to move within the political and legal margins and considerations of this or that country. They need to exercise pressure on the concerned governments in order to facilitate the continuity and accumulation of these events. In addition, they should have the necessary financial means to provide logistic support besides the ability to exercise pressure on the official Palestinian leadership in order to secure political, diplomatic and legal cover for these marches.
Within this scenario, the refugees might try to defy the Arab official and security restrictions and take the initiative and penetrate the borders. Thus, they’ll impose the return as a fait accompli even if they had to present great sacrifices.
1. Expanding the activities related to the support of the right of return in Diaspora, especially Western countries including Europe, Scandinavia, the US and Latin America.
2. Preparing programs or a calendar of national events which would guarantee the continuation of the events and in a way that ensures accumulation and effectiveness.
3. Exercising pressure on the official Palestinian leadership to cling to the right of return and provide political and diplomatic support to these events in the Arab and international arenas.
4. Reaching points of agreement and confluence with concerned official sides which have borders with Israel to ensure the continuation of these events and their progress.
5. Deepening the spirit of national unity and cooperation among all factions and trends and focusing on the young generation to benefit from its potentials and capacities.
6. Documenting the events and using them to mobilize the masses of refugees who are keen on perseverance and sacrifice to achieve the right of return.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Moueen Manna’ for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 24/06/2011