Undermining the Palestinian Right to Return


Last Sunday, the demonstrations in Lebanon and Syria highlighted the issue of Palestinian refugee rights and garnered much international attention. However, the dismissal of the al-Nakba protests by U.S. and Israeli officials and media, as a form of foreign incitement, works to undermine the significance of these protests and the importance of the right to return to the Palestinian people.

On Sunday, thousands of Palestinians, living as refugees in Syria and Lebanon, commemorated al-Nakba by marching towards their respective countries’ borders and attempting to cross into Israel.

The Palestinian right to return to their homes in former Palestine was recognized in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194. Israel does not recognize the legitimacy of this resolution, which commands the Jewish state to allow for the return of Palestinian refugees expelled during the 1947-48 Arab-Israeli war. The Israeli military fired shells at the unarmed demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of at least 15 civilians and injuries of hundreds of others.

Since Sunday, the bulk of the discussion in the U.S. and Israeli media has essentially centered around the responsibility for these demonstrations. Instead of recognizing the Nakba day protests as a legitimate expression of Palestinian frustration at the lack of an effective peace process, and the continued Israeli neglect of Palestinian rights — in particular the right of refugees — U.S. and Israeli politicians have began pointing fingers elsewhere.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel pinned the responsibility for the protests on extremists “among Israeli Arabs and in neighboring countries who have turned the day on which the State of Israel was established, the day on which the Israeli democracy was established, into a day of incitement, violence and rage.” He intends to use the protests as proof that there is no real partner for peace amongst the Palestinians.

Allegations of politicians that foreign influences, namely President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, is responsible for inciting the Palestinian unrest, have consumed both the Israeli and U.S. media. Israel has filed a complaint with the UN against Syria and Lebanon, accusing both countries of breaching international law by not preventing Palestinian refugees from crossing into Israeli territory.

The media’s focus on who organized the movement is misguided. It is irrelevant to the issue at hand — that is the plight of Palestinian refugees. This is simply because the Palestinian struggle for the implementation of the right to return did not begin on May 15.  Nor has the struggle only taken the form of attempting to infiltrate into Israeli territory.

In the aftermath of the 1947-48 war, Palestinians attempted to invoke their right to return, through showing up at the borders, carrying their land deeds and keys to their homes, only to find that their homes had been confiscated under Israel’s Emergency Laws, and most specifically, the Absentee Property Law. Since then, hundreds of thousands of individuals have marched and demonstrated in commemoration of the Nakba, and filed complaints with both the Israeli government and United Nations.

This non-violent activism has been met with hostility by Israeli forces and U.S. politicians, and largely ignored in the mainstream media. There are currently 9 million Palestinians refugees all over the world, most of whom are still living in intolerable conditions, like in refugee camps all over the Middle East. Over the past 27 years, Israel has revoked residency rights for an additional 140,000 Palestinians in the West Bank, effectively placing them in permanent exile.      

By ignoring the struggle of Palestinian refugees, and by dismissing the Nakba protests as nothing more than a “cynical ploy” by the Syrian government, Israeli and U.S. officials have only one intention: to undermine the growing Palestinian movement for implementation of the right to return.

Photo Credit: Anna Newman