Time will Never Heal this Wound
By Joharah Baker for MIFTAH
April 25, 2007
For Israeli Jews, this week was all about celebrations, barbecues and oversized
blue and white flags fluttering in the spring breeze as their country celebrated
the 59th anniversary of its independence. For Palestinians, this was one
more year enduring an open wound, one more year to remember the catastrophe
that befell the Palestinian people almost 60 years ago and the enormity of
the problem it created.
To Palestinians, Israel’s Independence Day is called Al Nakba, the “Catastrophe”,
which represents the displacement of some 800,000 Palestinians from their
homes during the 1948 War, who were never to return and would soon comprise
one of the Palestinian leadership’s most pressing and most complicated predicaments
– the refugee problem.
According to the United Nations Works and Relief Agency, UNRWA, there are
more than 4.3 million registered Palestinian refugees throughout the world,
many of them still living in the squalid and sprawling refugee camps originally
set up for them in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian sources put this number at 6.5 million, taking into consideration
that a percentage of these refugees are not registered with UNRWA.
The story of how the Palestinian refugee problem was created has been told,
interpreted and recounted many times over, of course with significant discrepancies
between the Palestinian and Israeli narratives. However, solid facts remain
the best proof of what actually happened over half a century ago. Hundreds
of thousands of Palestinians were forced from their homes in a wave of massacres
and killings carried out by Jewish gangs and later the Israeli army. Others
fled in fear for their lives, believing they would return in a matter of
days to their homes.
Obviously, this did not happen, and scores of Palestinians found themselves
homeless, stateless and penniless, with only their children and a few precious
belongings left as reminders of a home they would never again set eyes on.
In the months and years that followed, approximately 400 Palestinian villages
in the area that would become the state of Israel were annihilated, their
inhabitants ethnically cleansed and new Jewish immigrants brought in to take
their place. In stark contrast to the low, grey stone homes hundreds of years
old, newly built and polished settlements were built atop what were once
vegetable fields, fruit orchards, schools and mosques. In many places today,
the only indication that a Palestinian village once existed are the tenacious
cactus plants that would designate the village borders.
All Palestinians, refugee or otherwise, were born and raised on the story
of Palestine and have been nurtured with the nostalgia of days gone by. So,
while the Palestinian refugee cause has certainly been kept alive and well
in the hearts of all Palestinians, young and old, an actual solution to this
problem remains severely lacking.
There have been several reasons attributed to this ongoing predicament. First
and foremost is the Israeli mentality towards the refugee right of return.
Israel, from the get-go has vehemently rejected any return of Palestinian
refugees to their original homes, or at least to those that still remain
standing, under the pretext that such a large influx of Palestinians would
harm the Jewish demographic makeup and would thus undermine the Jewish character
of the state.
Given this obstinacy, which also stems from Israel’s denial of any historical
injustice done to the Palestinians during the 1948 War, the Palestinians’
demand that refugees be granted the right of return has mostly fallen on
deaf ears. Even the United Nations, which issued Resolution 194 in December
1948, has been disregarded. The resolution stipulates, “…that the refugees
wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should
be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation
should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss
of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or
in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible.”
The international community has followed suit, shoving the right of return
demand aside in all international forums debating a final peace settlement
for the Palestinians. While the UN, the United States and the world have
thrown themselves into the refugee situation in Darfur, and earlier in Bosnia,
the Palestinians have yet to have the spotlight shown on them in the international
Even UNRWA, which was originally set up as a temporary agency to offer basic
humanitarian services to the displaced Palestinians, has become a permanent
facility in Palestine and neighboring countries where refugees continue to
This is not to say the Palestinian leadership has not made its fair share
of blunders where the refugees are concerned. When peace negotiations were
officially launched in Madrid in 1991, the refugee community was excluded
from representation. Then, a few years later, when the Oslo Accords were
signed and the Palestinian Authority established in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip, the refugees were snubbed once again. None of the Palestinians in
the Diaspora were given a say in the legislative or presidential elections
or in the actual running of the PA. Of course, the leadership at the time
did and still does pay lip-service to the cause, insisting that a “just solution”
be found to the refugee problem. But, to use a common cliché, action
speaks louder than words.
Still, what is done is done, and the leadership is again at a crossroads.
While it will always be bound by the restrictions imposed on it by the Oslo
Accords, it is never too late to set priorities straight. If the government
is truly representative of its people, it must embrace its entire people
The refugees have been dealt a bad hand for far too long, but not long enough
for us all to forget. Whether or not refugees or their descendants choose
to return to their prior homes, to the West Bank or Gaza Strip or make their
homes someplace else, it is their inherent right to make this choice.
If the right of return is not addressed properly by the leadership and the
international community, no truncated peace agreement, settlement or solution
will ever stand. Just as injustices in the past have been righted, with universal
vows of “never again,” so must the horrendous injustice done to the Palestinians.
Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the
Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy
(MIFTAH). She can be contacted at email@example.com.