Advice to the Palestinian Leadership

Raja Shehadeh

The Palestinians who were forced out of their homes in 1948 were not regarded by Israel as refugees. That would have implied that Palestine was their country, to which they would have the right to return. This was not the way the Israeli authorities saw it, and they did their best to make sure the return would never happen. It was therefore in some sense logical, or at least consistent, that they were not given the same legal status as other international refugees when the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established in 1951. Palestinian refugees remained under the charge of the makeshift UN entity created in 1949 to take care of them, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency). The arrangement meant that their needs were recognised but not their rights. Today 4.9 million Palestinian refugees – the largest number of refugees anywhere by country of origin – fail to appear in any UNHCR statistics.

Arab Jews who were being absorbed into the new country at the same time were not called refugees either. They came through maabarot (transits), as though by reaching Israel they were passing through the gates of heaven; in Hebrew they were said to be ‘making aliya’, ‘ascending’. Nor were they seen as mere ‘immigrants’: they were returning home after two thousand years of longing. A few months ago, the Israeli High Court rejected the appeal of 21 residents who wanted their nationality to be listed as ‘Israeli’ rather than ‘Jewish’ in the Population Registry. Palestinians, who are often accused of denying the existence of Israel, found an unlikely ally here in the High Court.

Then there were the ‘present absentees’ and ‘internal infiltrators’: Palestinians who never left Palestine but who had left their villages temporarily to stay in another part of Palestine. When they tried to return to their homes in what was now Israel they were prevented from doing so – a prohibition that continues to this day. Among them was the poet Taha Muhammad Ali from the village of Saffuriyya. He hadn’t left Palestine but he wasn’t allowed to return to his village and ended up living in nearby Nazareth. In spring and summer he and his fellow villagers would steal onto their land to pick wild herbs. ‘This land denies,/cheats, and betrays us,’ he wrote:

its dust can’t bear us
and grumbles about us –
resents and detests us.
Its newcomers,
sailors, and usurpers,
uproot the backyard gardens,
burying the trees.

They keep us from looking too long
at the anemone blossom and cyclamen,
and won’t allow us to touch the herbs,
the wild artichoke and chicory.

By 1948 there were three distinct groups of Palestinians: those who were now Israeli citizens; those in Jordan who were Jordanian citizens; and those who were stateless UNRWA-registered refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, neighbouring Arab countries or scattered elsewhere in the world. More fragmentation and differentiation was to come, making a mosaic of the Palestinian people. Sometimes, the Palestinians of 1948 and those, like me, of 1967 are together in a single portmanteau definition – for example, when Naftali Bennett, a member of the Israeli cabinet, called us shrapnel in Israel’s backside.

My father refused to register my family with UNRWA. Reluctantly, we became citizens of Jordan, which was trying its best to make us forget we were Palestinians. But the hope of dividing Palestine between Israel and Jordan, with each absorbing as citizens some of these refugees without rights, was foiled by Israel in 1967 when it took over the West Bank from Jordan. We were now under occupation.

Until 1967 we lived with a simple tale. From my family I heard about the heavenly city of Jaffa, which they’d been forced to leave in 1948. At school I learned the geography of historic Palestine: no account was taken of Israel’s presence. My geography teacher, Abu El Awad, who wore traditional Arab dress, would draw the map of Palestine on the blackboard: the Dead Sea in the south, further north Lake Tiberias, and above it another small lake, Huleh. We had to memorise all this, unaware that Huleh was no longer there, having been drained in the early 1950s. We also sang (as we do to this day) of labanel-jamouseh, the milk of the water buffalo that once lived in Huleh and has now become extinct, just like Huleh itself.

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